Friday, April 30, 2010

"Good News, Chariot's A-Comin' "

Last week's post about Bob Gibson reminded me of another fascinating but largely forgotten character from the folk revival era, Dr. Lou Gottlieb (left, on bass) - musicologist, comedian, scholar, hippie, bon vivant, eclectic genius, and the the heart of the pop folk group The Limeliters, of whom Time Magazine wrote, "“If the Kingston Trio are the undergraduates of big-time folk singing, the Limeliters are the faculty.”

Gottlieb was clearly a unique figure in a whole variety of ways. He was the only person I know of in the entire folk movement who had a doctorate in musicology. He was a founding member of the Gateway Singers, a group that he and his friend (and ours) the late Travis Edmonson proudly proclaimed was the first integrated vocal group in the U.S. He was a comedian turned folksinger a decade before Noel Paul Stookey did the same as a member of Peter, Paul and Mary. And Dr. Lou was the first external vocal arranger employed by a young and unknown at the time Bay Area act that would become the Kingston Trio.

Gottlieb worked the North Beach night clubs in San Francisco in the early and mid 1950s already a grown man - he was born in 1923 - and combined his own cutting edge comedy (he was said to be an influence on Mort Sahl, who is happily still with us) with outstanding musicianship on piano, clarinet, and upright bass, all of which he used to comedic effect. He was paying his way through grad school at UC Berkeley and in fact left the Gateway Singers to finish the doctoral degree in 1958. What happened next that year Gottlieb described to Ronald Cohen for his wonderful folk history, Rainbow Quest:

I had a wife and children and no money so I started working as a stand up comic and got a job at the Purple Onion. There were three guys there who used to hang around the Hungry i all the time. In fact, they'd be in the dressing room half the time. But they were cute....They were the opening act at the Purple Onion...Well, sir, these kids really had something different. There was a magic about that act that was hard to explain. When they made their first record...they needed a tune. I had a couple of old charts from the Gateway Singers that I quickly re-scored for three voices. They sang a song I stole from Uncle Dave Macon called "Rock About My Saro Jane" and put it on their first album. And they let me publish it. The royalties ultimately came out to thirty grand.

[Note: that comes out to about $200 Gs in today's dollars and meant at songwriter's rates that the album sold about half a million copies]

Lou also did some uncredited arrangements for the Kingston group but earned full copyright for two spirituals, "Round About The Mountain" and "Good News" from the Trio's third real album, At Large. You can hear the touch of a real pro in that latter arrangement, where Gottlieb creates simple but tasteful harmonies, rhythms, and a slight key change that are well within the limited musicianship of the still-young Trio:

Note that once again, producer Voyle Gilmore is working his studio magic with the able assistance of engineer Pete Abbott and remixing engineer Rex Uptegraft (thanks to PC Fields for pointing that out). David Wheat's bass is given a prominence in the mix that reflects the "swing" that Gilmore liked so much and that emphasized the professionalism of the most accomplished musician in the quartet that's playing here.

Lou Gottlieb's good friend Bob Gibson was, like Lou, a pop folk artist who had a successful if modest career before the Kingston wave raised all the folk boats. Gibson's role model early on was clearly Pete Seeger, from Gibson's use of the extra long neck banjo to the fact that on early albums that was Bob's only accompaniment (see his Carnegie Concert - no guitar or bass) to Gibson's success at lining out songs and getting audiences to sing along - just like Seeger. Here Bob does "Good News" on TV's Hootenanny with the exact sing-along arrangement he used on the 1957 Carnegie album:

Good News (Live) - Bob Gibson

That's legendary banjo player Eric Weissberg behind Bob with the mandolin, with the Gateway's second generation Elmerlee Thomas on the other side.

The next two versions of today's song are from gospel groups. The King's Heralds are a kind of corporate endeavor, having been founded in 1927 and continuing today. A total of thirty singers have graced the group using the same original arrangements over the eighty plus years of the group's history:

The Heralds have Gibson's verve and just a bit of that Gottlieb key shift (which I'm betting Lou got from these guys).

More in the tradition of the African-American roots of the song, The Raymond Raspberry Singers rock out a classic gospel version - from the early '50s,I believe:

A choral version next from the Jubilate! Chamber Choir from the University of British Columbia - nice creative rhythm shifts here:

And who better to close with this week than arguably the greatest spiritual singer of them all, Mahalia Jackson:

As with many good and real folk songs, "Good News" lends itself to a wide variety of very effective interpretations.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bob Gibson And "To Morrow"

Over the years of these posts, I've tried at times to present song profiles by artists who have been even more neglected than has the Kingston Trio - artists like Ed McCurdy and Ewan MacColl and John Stewart. Tonight is especially melancholy for me in that regard, because I have a few words to say about the granddaddy of all the forgotten heroes of my childhood and youth - a figure little known among even the younger generation of Trio fans who read here (meaning those under 70) - the late and great and genuinely gifted Bob Gibson.

[Parenthesis: Imagine being a celebrated folk singer who hit the skids in the 60s carrying that name while a Hall of Fame pitcher with the same name is making his mark in America - not unlike the recognition problem that John Stewart had when comedian Jon came along, or CMT baritone Joe Frazier did after the boxer of the same name gained fame.]

Gibson was the bridge between the solo pop folk artists of the 1940s and early 1950s (really, just Burl Ives and Terry Gilkyson, though Glenn Yarborough had the beginnings of a nice career going as well) and the Dylans and Paxtons and Ochs and Patrick Skyes and others who followed in the 60s. He may well have been the most influential soloist of his generation, after only Pete Seeger. A passel of 12-string guitar players, including Leo Kottke and Gordon Lightfoot, acknowledged an admiration for and influence from the way Bob handled that instrument.

It was Gibson who gave the 18-year-old Joan Baez national exposure, and he was instrumental in helping the young Judy Collins along as well - for both of which lovers of folk music owe him an enormous debt. Though he flamed brightly across the pop folk sky for only about seven years, between about 1957 and 1964 before being undone by his own mad addictive personality, Gibson left behind some of the best polished and commercial folk music of the era in four albums especially - his 1957 Carnegie Concert, the 1961 Yes I See, the 1964 Where I'm Bound - and most especially, the album on which what little remains of his memory rests, Gibson and Camp at the Gate of Horn (1961). (pictured above) Gibson was also the first to record "Day-O/Banana Boat Song," which Alan Arkin and Erik Darling heard him play with his banjo in Washington Square one summer - they formed the Tarriers with Bob Carey, recorded Gibson's arrangement, and had a minor hit with it - a hit heard and recorded by Harry Belafonte, who had a blockbuster hit with it.

The Camp is Bob, who later resumed his birth name of Hamilton and made a career as a comedian and actor. Gibson had introduced Camp at the 1960 Newport Folk Festival, and they co-wrote a number of what became standard folk group numbers (including "You Can Tell The World" and "Well, Well, Well") before the legendary gig at Chicago's first and arguably greatest folk club, owned by Albert Grossman, who later assembled and managed PP&M as well as co-founding the Newport Folk Festival and guiding the careers of Odetta and Ian and Sylvia and Gordon Lightfoot. The Gate of Horn album is regarded by many as the musical high point of the pop folk era.

Though Gibson had been born in Brooklyn, he will forever be associated with the Chicago folk scene that also produced Steve Goodman and John Prine and Frank Hamilton and Bernie Krause (Seeger's last replacements in The Weavers) and all Gibson admirers - and of course Jim McGuinn, who came to folk music because Gibson played a solo banjo gig at McG's high school. The eventual founder of the Byrds and folk rock came to this kind of music because of Bob Gibson - who I hope I've shown was about the most important figure in folk music that nearly no one remembers. He was big and doing Carnegie Hall while Dave Guard was still in grad school.

Oddly, for a performer who wrote and arranged some splendid folk music ("Foghorn," "Yes I See," the spirituals mentioned above,"Blues Around My Head"), the one song that the Kingstons chose to do by Gibson was one that he copyrighted but freely admitted he didn't write (shades of "Scotch and Soda"). Gibson learned "To Morrow" from a Bob Black of Indiana University, but the basic tune and words were copyrighted in 1898 by humorist Lew Sully with music by Geoffery O'Hara. According to a Dayton, Ohio newspaper, not far from the very real Morrow, OH:

The railroad also provided humorist Lew Sully with the material he needed to compose the famous poem "I Want To Go To Morrow." According to legend, Mr. Sully overheard a conversation between a Kentucky farmer and a Cincinnati railroad ticket agent. The agent decided to have some fun at the farmer's expense, and thus the basis for the poem was born.

The earliest known recording of the song - and one of the oldest surviving recordings in the world - is by Dan W. Quinn, recorded July 11, 1902:

This recording is from the Library of Congress National Jukebox.

Gibson re-worked the words and came up with this in 1991: (unfortunately removed for copyright and will be added again if it becomes available)

The Kingston Trio put Capitol Studio B and Dave Guard's still-new Vega Pete Seeger long neck banjo (the legend is that Gibson had bought the first production model of that instrument) to excellent use in their delightful version, with Bob Shane doing his jaunty bit and Guard almost visible in the imagination as a bespectacled railroad agent:

The number is clearly better suited to two voices in counter point, but the influence of Gibson on this, especially Dave's instrumental, is clear.

And now, some more fun versions of a fun song. First, one good re-write deserves another, and Scots folksinger Iain Mackintosh rewrote both the words and the melody in this early 1950s radio broadcast:

Just a few weeks back in February, the Slomski Brothers of Virginia go for the full-on comedy version. Their self-evident youth is somehow encouraging:

Let's close, however, with some real folk music pros - the Muppets, with these puppets created as images of the real (l-r) Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and Jerry Nelson, who reportedly are actually playing the instruments:

Bob Gibson died in 1996 at the age of 64 of supranuclear palsy, a week after a farewell concert performed for him in Chicago by many of those artists listed above and many more as well, including Tom Paxton. I hope he's out there some place smiling at even this little memorial to one of my all-time favorite performers.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

"What Do We Do With A Drunken Sailor?"/"Early In The Morning"

"The folk process" is a term that has been bandied about a lot over the years and was the root of a great deal of now-forgotten controversy back a few decades ago. I say "forgotten" because nowadays nearly anyone who strums a guitar (it need no longer even be acoustic) and writes a few soul-searching/suffering/political lyrics gets plopped into the category of "folk" by the recording companies without any regard whatsoever for whether or not the performer/writer has any roots in or even knowledge of what had been called "folk" for centuries before the 1970s - traditional music peculiar to a particular regional or ethnic group, often but not always of uncertain authorship, and passed down through generations orally. The "process" of that original definition of folk was the diversifying of a single root song into a family of related ones, with melodies and lyrics morphing into often very different variants. "Greensleeves" may have started as a Renaissance lament for lost love, but it was easily adapted into the Christmas carol "What Child Is This?" and the American frontier song "I'll Build You A Home In The Meadow." Thus it was with hundreds if not thousands of English-language folk songs, the families of which were traced and categorized by folklore giants like Francis James Child, Cecil Sharp, and John A. Lomax.

Those original musical archeologists seldom questioned the legitimacy or "authenticity" of those transformations, largely because they seemed to have evolved in a mythical ether of "purity" - meaning an apparently natural process of adaptation that was unsullied by the "commercialism" of the desire for filthy lucre. Yet someone made those changes and adaptations, sometimes for money and at other times for equally ulterior motives. Someone transformed the Irish drinking song "Rosin The Bow" into "Lincoln and Liberty" for the 1860 campaign; a religious revival song from 1800 became "John Brown's Body" until Julia Ward Howe re-wrote it as "The Battle Hymn Of The Republic." No one was on record as protesting these uses of melody as inauthentic; the music was just there and handy to use to one's own purposes.

Then came the so-called folk revival of the 1930s through the 1960s, and the process became a bone of contention (brilliantly and comprehensively discussed in Richard Weissman's [of The Journeymen fame] 2005 book Which Side Are You On?). Who had the "right" to adapt a traditional melody? When, and to what purpose? Dominic Behan took an old and little-known Appalachian air and used it for "The Patriot Game" - and then reportedly was put out when Bob Dylan took the same public domain tune for his "With God On Our Side" (and even some of the lyric as well) - which Dylan also did with "The Parting Glass" (becoming his "Restless Farewell"), "The Leaving of Liverpool" (becoming "Fare Thee Well"), and even one of the most venerable of all British ballads "Lord Randall" (becoming "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall"). While there were many of the folk purists who disapproved of what they regarded as Dylan's kind of high-handedness with sacred "folk music," most of the Greenwich Village stripe of folkies seemed to accept it and celebrate it because Dylan's politics were of the right shading. The same was true of the Weavers, who played very fast and very loose (and often very lucratively) with the folk material that they freely adapted.

But let those commercial exploiters like the Kingston Trio do the same, and what you get is, in the words of a 2006 review of a Trio reissue by traditional banjo master and major force in the revival Billy Faier, ""a mishmash of twisted arrangements that not only obscure the true beauty of the folk songs from which they derive, but give them a meaning they never had." Forget the fact that as fine a song as it may be, "A Hard Rain" has absolutely nothing to do with the tale of love and murder that "Lord Randall" is; it's Dylan and he's authentic, even when he plugs in and rocks. The Kingston Trio? Profit-driven "tinselly showmen" (thank you, Mark Morris in 1959 for that description).

Which brings us to this week's song, the chantey "What Do We Do With A Drunken Sailor?" that Randy Starr and Dick Wolf - Tin Pan Alley types whose commercial songs were recorded by Elvis Presley and Chet Atkins among many others - turned into a kind of faux-folk traveling/pop love song with a syncopated jazzy beat called "Early In The Morning":

This is a piece of pleasant fluff with just enough folk overtones to fit thematically on a Trio album, especially one like At Large whose song selection with "The Seine" and "All My Sorrows" has more of a pop bent to it than the first two albums anyway. David Wheat's bass provides a nice beat, and the final chorus features two tenor harmonies by Dave Guard and Nick Reynolds above the melody by Bob Shane.

Now for a good version of an Irish sailor tune, who better to listen to than the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem:

Makem, of course, is the lead voice here. Tommy M. was the pennywhistle player in the group, so someone else is playing the banjo here, possibly Pete Seeger.

The first version I ever heard, and probably still my favorite, is from that great album of sea chanteys by the Robert Shaw Chorale from about 1959:

This is no more "authentic" than "Early In The Morning" - the song is after all a capstan chantey sung rhythmically and fairly slowly to mark time while raising anchor or hoisting sail. But damned if it isn't a great version of the song - a fine use to put a folk tune to.

I always thought of the Irish Rovers (of "Unicorn" fame) as a kind of poor man's Clancy Brothers. The Rovers do justice to this song, though, and the concertina gives it a genuine Irish sailor's feeling:

You get a clear sense here of the unpleasant things that the crew wants to do to a sailor derelict in his duty - and I'm sure that most know by now that "the captain's daughter" was a mordantly humorous seafaring reference to the cat-o'-nine-tails, a few lashes from which would certainly put a sailor in his hammock for a few days.

And finally - optional - what passes as Celtic and folk today - if you know the Dropkick Murphys ("Skinhead on the MBTA") and their ilk, you'll recognize the approach of the popular Blaggards:

I don't know exactly what this is - but I'll tell you what it's not. Folk. Or authentic anything other than loud and raunchy. Thanks anyway, guys - I'll take Robert Shaw and the Kingston Trio any day. Are the latter two traditional? - no, certainly. But musical and talented? Most definitely.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

From South Africa: "Mangawani Mpulele"

One of the delights of the 1950s-1960s popular folk explosion was the attention drawn to folk songs from around the world. This started with the Weavers, who despite the general take on them that they were somehow "more authentic" than the "collegiate" pop folk groups who followed them, were popularizers who set the pattern that everyone else followed of a) finding, rearranging, and copyrighting public domain English language songs, and b) seeking out songs from other countries to include in their albums. Two of the Weavers' hits in their first run of popularity in 1949 and 1950, in fact, were "Tzena, Tzena" (Hebrew from Israel) and Pete Seeger's own discovery, Soloman Linda's "Wimoweh", which Seeger had transliterated from the Zulu "M'Bube." And one of the Weaver's most popular numbers included in their Carnegie Hall concert album was "Around The World," which had snippets of folk songs in five different languages.
Since the Weavers were the template for all who followed, it's no surprise that other groups also chose to do foreign language songs, most notably Bud and Travis with their extensive knowledge of and feeling for Mexican songs (though B&T also did other languages as well) and the Kingston Trio, which covered the globe but is likely most notable for bringing the Polynesian songs (both Hawaiian and Tahitian) of Guard's and Shane's background to the mainland. [Parenthesis: I'm reading Richard Noble's book on the Highwaymen called Number #1; he's ascribing the foreign language bit to that group. Sorry, Richard: the KT has you beaten by several years.] Soloists like Theodore Bikel and Joan Baez also included international songs in their repertoires.
It is from Bikel (the original Capt. von Trapp on Broadway's Sound of Music - remember?) that the Trio got "Mangwani Mpulele," a South African song that even Bikel misidentifies (see HERE) as Zulu when it is in fact a Sotho song - Sotho being a language and group of people related to the Bantu (not Zulu) and living in Botswana and (suprise) Lesotho in addition to South Africa.
Bikel does not suggest that the lyrics are exactly nonsense - he mentions that it means something like "auntie open the door" and "come in from the rain." Well, sort of. Here's what a native speaker of Sotho named Sibusiso Mbokazi posted to a Sotho website (yes, there are such things):

Mmangwane mpulele, ke nelwa ke pula
Mmangwane mpulele, ke nelwa ke pula
Ha di le pedi le ha dile tharo ke nyala mosadi
Mmangwane=your mother's younger sister
mpulele=open for me
nelwa= (raining)pouring on me

Ha di le pedi le ha dile tharo ke nyala mosadi
dile pedi=they are two
le ha=even if
dile tharo=they are three

This makes for a very different meaning. Remember that the Irish "Foggy Dew" originally had an explicitly sexual meaning, and as this is a celebration song, note - YOUR mother's younger sister is not my auntie; rain is something like the foggy dew; "open for me" is likely not the door; the robust intent of the speaker to "marry" (if that's correct) two or three women is clear at the end.

So I'm guessing that the Kingston Trio would have been fine with the slightly blue implications of the song, if they knew - but their vocal arrangement treats it somewhat like nonsense:

They actually make it sound fun and just a tad naughty - good round effect here, and much different as we'll see from the choral groups' renditions.

With his flair for foreign language songs and his especial feeling for the music of Africa, Harry Belafonte here works off of a fabulous instrumental arrangement, which not surprisingly has strong elements of Jamaican music overlying the African rhythm:

Laura Brannigan (who I was shocked to see had died at 47 of a brain aneurysm in 2004) of "Gloria" and "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You" fame gives the song a more serious treatment:

Brannigan sub-titles this "The Wedding Song."

If I'm right about the slightly naughty implication of the lyrics, I wonder how many of the vocal groups following were aware of that? First, here is the Vorarlberger Landesjugendchors (national youth choir) of Germany:

Listen to the end - there's a swinging clarinet solo - lots of fun.

And for the fun of it (dig the hairstyles) from 1988 the Woodbury School chorus from Salem, NH:

And the Champlin Park High School chorus from Minneapolis:

So - whatever "Mangwani" may be, nonsense it is not. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio.....

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Dylan's "One Too Many Mornings"

Bob Dylan will turn sixty-nine in May of this year, not a significant milestone like a decade birthday - except, perhaps, to those of us who remember the scruffy look and baby face of the cover photo on his first record album on Columbia in 1962, closing in on fifty years ago. It's just as hard imagining the enfant terrible of the Greenwich Village folk sub-culture as a senior citizen as it is finding oneself knock knock knocking on the same door. It's also sobering to realize that Robert Zimmerman, Little Richard wannabe, began his personal reinvention and by many accounts self-iconization as Bob Dylan, folksong poet and reluctant prophet, nearly half a century ago.

He has over the course of the decades developed a core following of rabid Dylanistas, fans from several generations who believe him to be the greatest (fill in the blank with your favorite category) of the 20th century. Uttering a word of criticism of Bobby Z. will draw the ire of maddened legions of those fans, which makes a proper assessment of what he actually has accomplished difficult.

But time will eventually take care of that, and may well have done so already. I'm reminded of a comment made by Irish actor Peter O'Toole on the Charlie Rose Show a few years back, I believe around the time of his last Academy Award nomination. O'Toole has been a frequent and often prickly guest on Rose's program, so I winced a bit when Charlie waded right in with his first provocative question - which was to the effect, "You know, Peter, when they finally publish your obituary - you know what the lead is going to be - it'll be Lawrence of Arabia. How does that strike you?" To his everlasting credit, O'Toole replied without so much as a blink and with consummate graciousness, "That will be just fine with me. I was lucky once in a lifetime to have such a role."

Rose's point, of course, was that Lawrence was very early in O'Toole's career, and all of his subsequent work has been measured by and in the shadow of that great performance in what many regard as one of the best films ever made. Thus may it be with Dylan. He continues to write and perform songs of what the Pulitzer Committee described in its citation of his work (again, not an actual Pulitzer Prize) as "lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power." But when they finally publish Bob's obit, you know what the lead is going to be - it'll be "Blowin' In The Wind," or "folk poet of the 1960s."

And why not? Despite the revisionist critics who would have us believe otherwise, those early albums and songs retain a sublime relevance and impact. Dylan's best political songs, like "In The Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'," are not specific to a single time or cause but are universal - and that is a hallmark of legitimate art, art that transcends simple and temporary pop culture, which is what much of Dylan's output has been since the 60s. And Dylan is rivaled only by the early Paul Simon as the folk songwriter of urban alienation - songs like "Positively 4th Street" and "Like A Rolling Stone" and what may be the song whose lyrics give him the best shot at being regarded by serious critics as a real poet, "Desolation Row."

"One Too Many Mornings" from his The Times They Are A-Changin' album is Dylan at his urbanly alienated best, and a song that he himself has reinterpreted in countless ways over the years. The first version from that 1963 album is quiet and reflective, with a nice finger-style guitar accompanimen. Changes in YouTube's stance vis-a-vis copyrighted material  have recently allowed previously-blocked versions of literally millions of popular tracks to appear with permission of the rightsholders, as is the case with this original recording:

Those Dylanistas sometimes forget that Bob got tremendous career boosts from musical stars much bigger than he was at the time, Peter, Paul and Mary at the head of the list. But superstar Johnny Cash took an especial interest in Dylan, as here in a duet from February 1969:

Dylan shows a fine rockabilly sensibility here, and a spot-on-pitch singing style. No question though in this video as to who the superstar is, and it ain't Bob, babe.

The Kingston Trio caught the Dylan train a bit late, recording a number of his songs very well after an initial misfire with a tepid "Blowin' In The Wind." But their version here of "Mornings", like their version of Tyson's "Someday Soon," demonstrates their innovative ability to adapt a song to their own style - and they had a corner on powerful, uptempo banjo-based songs:

Those of us who saw the Trio on their 1966 farewell tour well remember this as the second half opener - a thrilling moment and a great performance in my memory.

The other superstar who lifted Dylan out of smoky coffee house obscurity was Joan Baez, the deity of urban folksingers, queen of Greenwich Village, Time Magazine covergirl - and thrilling performer:

A countrified version from Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings - 'nuff said:

And just for fun - teen idol Bobby Sherman (remember him?) and actor Rex Harrison's son Noel, who had a brief career as a cabaret-style singer in the 60s.

I hope that Bob Dylan's obit won't be published for decades yet. But I also hope that he could respond to a question about it with O'Toole's grace - that if in fact he is best remembered for something he achieved when very young - that he too will be able to respond, "That will be just fine with me."