Friday, July 30, 2010

The Byrds + Hot Tuna + The Dead + More - "I Know You Rider"

This is a song about which I knew relatively little except for the facts that a) a lot of folk revival singers covered it, and b) it was at least vaguely related to the folk/blues/country/rock "C.C. Rider." But when I Googled the song and was directed to the Wikipedia article, I discovered that I had the book in which a published version of the song first appeared, John A. and Alan Lomax's American Ballads and Folk Songs, published in the 1930s. Father John A. had collected part of the song from a young woman prison inmate and had fleshed out the rest of the lyric with standard blues tropes that appear in many other songs (like "the sun's gonna shine" line). He named it "Woman Blues" or "Woman Blue," the title under which Joan Baez and some others recorded it. (James Taylor recorded a version that he named "Circle Round The Sun" - I have no idea why.)

That the song is originally a plaint from a lady is clear from the suggestive terminology in the words. I remember that my mother objected to the title of the 1969 counterculture classic film Easy Rider because of the implication of the title, an "easy rider" as she knew from jazz songs referring to a man who pimps out his wife or girlfriend so he won't have to work. "Rider" itself was synonymous with the 1960s police slang "john" for a hooker's customer - for what I'm going to guess are reasons obvious to anyone who reads here.

But the "you're gonna miss me" tag line has proven just too appealing to be restricted to one sex - recall that Charlie Poole's song of that title is derived from "Frankie and Johnie," in which Frankie takes the initiative and tells Johnnie that he's a-gonna pay. Both "Rider" and its cousin "C.C. Rider" have been interpreted by singers of both sexes, to very different effect - much as listening to the song the Kingston Trio called "Pullin' Away" from the masculine point of view puts a completely different slant on the words than in the original song, a lament by a young woman named "The Wagoner's Lad."

Our first version from 1986 is a fairly trad-sounding country blues version from Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady (Hot Tuna) joined by David Bromberg, whom I used to see around Chicago:

This trio has a really traditional acoustic blues sound, rather like Mississippi John Hurt and Robert Johnson - down to Bromberg eschewing electrified slide guitar in favor of acoustic bottlenecking, the original blues sound (anyone else remember trying that from Jerry Silverman's Folksinger's Guitar Guide?)

Next, the folk-rockers - the Byrds from 1965 -

This group seems to refer back to the blues roots of the song a bit more than the Kingston Trio.....

..whose high-octane banjo-based arrangement actually seems almost to anticipate the eventual transformation of the song into a bluegrass number - here as done in 1979 by the legendary Seldom Scene:

Easy to see here why this group is so highly regarded. And apropos of an earlier discussion on the John Stewart message board - "Rider" is one of the songs that provided Stewart and John Phillips with part of the lyrics for "Chilly Winds."

Far and away the most famous version of "Rider" post-1960 belongs to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, here from 1972:

Garcia always listed the Kingston Trio among his influences - he was such a protean musician that he could (and did) borrow from multiple sources and come up with something completely his own.

The multiplicity of different approaches to "Rider" here demonstrates why I love the traditional music so much - as John Duffey notes in the intro to the Seldom Scene version - it's a folk song, so you can "steal" it and do whatever you want with it, just like everybody else has.

Friday, July 23, 2010

"Come All You Fair And Tender Ladies"

"Come All You Fair And Tender Ladies," whose cautionary words to young women about young men is a standard folk motif, seems to be one of those fairly rare American Appalachian originals - I say rare because so many other ballads from the southern mountains have clear antecedents in Britain or Ireland. "Ladies" may as well, and some experts think so, but no clear bloodline exists to any one song from the British Isles, or even from one family of songs. My usual sources for consultation - mainly John A. Lomax and Lesley Nelson-Burns (from The Contemplator site) both identify the song as American, as does British expert on Appalachian songs Cecil Sharp. That should be good enough for anyone - though in some of the lyrics there are distant echoes of UK songs like "The Water Is Wide," among others.

But Lomax has more to say pertinent here in his 1947 Folk Songs of North America. In fact, he uses a musical setting for "Ladies" in his introduction as an example of how folk music should not be arranged - with sixth and augmented chords of the kind that we hear in several of the pop folk versions below but not in the traditional ones. He especially disliked "chromatic upholstery, overrichness of harmonic texture, [and] modulations." Whew.

First, a couple of almost-traditional versions. Maybelle Carter of the legendary original Carter family (and as a guitarist, the inventor of the "Carter lick" that most of us use in some form) performs our first version:

The autoharp adds a nice touch, I suppose - but it's not a traditional mountain instrument, having been patented in the 1880s in Germany and in the 1920s in the U.S. What is authentic here, though, is a simple accompaniment of major chords with an occasional minor thrown in.

The Abbott Family also hails from the mountains - the Coast Ranges of Santa Cruz, CA. But they have been born again into mountain music, and though using the Carter Family melody, they go fuller-on trad in their instrumentation:

Now for the versions that John Lomax wouldn't like - first, the Kingston Trio:

Very smooth, soft, and thoughtful - but the syncopated rhythm of the guitar line and occasional sixth note in the harmony makes this version anathema to purists. Pleasant listening, though, if you don't mind a bit of sophistication in your folk music...

...which you can also hear in this version from Ireland's Lumiere, consisting of Eilis Kennedy and Pauline Scanlon:

The guitar part sounds as if it had been arranged by Paul Simon in his heyday. Really lovely.

Gene Clark of the Byrds (with Carla Olson) in his last recording before his death in the 1980s gives the song a signature folk-rock setting:

Jackson Browne from 1975 shows his folkie-country roots here:
(Ed. Note: Jackson B. is down for Copyright - so here is the stunning soprano of the early Joan Baez recording.)

And finally, the classically-trained and oriented Ishtar from Belgium with a lovely take on the song:

Not surprisingly, I find this last and the Lumiere versions to be the most affecting, likely in part to the plaintive feminine voices in these videos. They are also (with the Kingstons) the most musically complex. The debates about what constitutes folk music are long past - it seems to be today whatever you want to make it. While I truly enjoy Mother Maybelle and the Abbotts, I also feel that a good song like this one benefits from creative license. A good part of the ultimate value of the Folk Revival, I think, will prove to be that it both rediscovered and popularized traditional music but at the same time made it available for thoughtful re-creation.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

"Everybody Loves Saturday Night"

The Red Scare demolished the Weavers as a commercial entity in 1952 following a two year period in which the group sold over four million records - records of folk songs like "Irene, Goodnight" and "Tzena, Tzena" and "On Top Of Old Smokey" and "Wimoweh," albeit in heavily over-orchestrated versions by producer/arranger/A&R man Gordon Jenkins. And when for political reasons the Weavers became persona non grata to the record companies, the concert promoters, and the radio station programmers, they seemed to take "folk" as a branch of popular music with them into almost complete oblivion until six years later with the sudden and explosive re-emergence of the form with the Kingston Trio's multi-million selling single "Tom Dooley."

Almost complete oblivion, but not quite. Harry Belafonte, who became the dominant male vocalist in the country in terms of record sales for a couple of years mid-decade, had his roots in American folk music - to which he returned after the calypso craze he started died out. The period between the Weavers and the Kingston Trio also saw the beginning of the career of Bob Gibson, the Gateway Singers (including Travis Edmonson), and two groups who had calypso-flavored "folk" hits - Terry Gilkyson (who wrote "Fast Freight") and the Easy Riders with "Marianne" and the Tarriers with "Day-O" and "Everybody Loves Saturday Night."

The Tarriers may be the hardest luck group in U.S. entertainment history. In addition to this song, they were the first group to record what were arguably the two biggest hit songs that whetted the American public's appetite for folk music - "Day-O," which they had learned from Bob Gibson, and "Tom Dooley," which they had picked up in Greenwich Village from Roger Sprung, the banjo star who added the little hitch in the chorus ("Hang down your head Tom...Dooley") that is not in the original song and that the KT employed. The Tarriers had a respectable career, but nothing on the order of Belafonte's or the Kingston Trio's success.

The original group included Alan Arkin (who went on to great fame as a character actor in NY and Hollywood), Erik Darling (master banjoist and folksinger who later joined the Weavers and started the Rooftop Singers), and Bob Carey (who became a successful record producer). Carey was African-American, and the Tarriers became the first racially integrated vocal group in America.

The "Saturday Night" song originated in Nigeria, and a number of stories have grown up around it - that it was a Weavers song (it wasn't, though Pete Seeger included it in one of his solo songbooks) and that it was composed as a protest against military government-imposed curfews (lifted on Saturday night only) in Lagos in either the 1950s or 1970s, depending on the source of your rumor. While I'm sure that folks everywhere have sung the song with gusto on all sorts of occasions, it existed well before the 1950s and 70s curfews that urban/internet legends suggest created the song. The original Nigerian song apparently was only a fragment of a forgotten older piece. It was Trinidadian calypso singer Aldwyn Roberts "Lord Kitchener" who popularized it in Britain in the late 1940s by repeating the song's one line over and over in different languages - hence the association of this African song with Caribbean rhythms and styles.

So first, we have the Tarriers with the original U.S. recording from 1957 on their self-titled album:

It's interesting to me how muted Darling's parts are here - he emerged from the group as the most accomplished musician, with a distinctive high tenor voice (barely discernible here) and as one of the best and most versatile folk banjoists of the whole revival - here he's just strumming.

Another version of the song appeared in a fascinating and odd 1958 film called Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich, a documentary made in Norway about a group of teenaged recruits to the Norwegian navy and their training cruise aboard the vessel. When they stop in the Caribbean, they have to of course sing a calypso or two, so...

I'm not sure who is performing it, though IMDB gives credit for this and most of the (familiar) songs in the movie to the aforementioned Terry Gilkyson - doesn't sound like him, though - he had a rich, round, musical-comedy style baritone.

Bud and Travis also did an outstanding version of "Saturday Night," with that frenetic high-speed Spanish guitar strumming for which they were famous, but there is no video available of it at the moment. Travis (who died in May a year ago) was described by both Bob Shane and John Stewart of the Kingston Trio as a hero to them - he was an established local star in San Francisco when Shane and the original group started, and Stewart was effusive to the end of his life in the gratitude he expressed for Travis's many kindnesses shown him when Stewart was starting out in his pre-Trio days. Travis was a regular guest performer at Stewart's Trio Fantasy Camp in Arizona every year, and in 2004 he was joined for a rendition of the song by his old friend Bob Shane (recently retired due to a heart condition) and the KT of George Grove, Bill Zorn, and Bob Haworth:

The numerically impressive New Christy Minstrels and Serendipity Singers both took a stab at the song, with the Christys having some radio airplay success with it. I always enjoyed their version, but this studio recording is a bit more cluttered than their live performances of it:

I originally misidentified this cut as the Serendipities, which is why their album cover appears in the video. Both groups in any event branched out from the simple acoustic folk sound that they had started with, and this cut demonstrates the distinctively "pop" direction record companies wanted folk to take - one of the reasons why the whole popular folk era is so disregarded critically and lampooned a la A Mighty Wind.

So it's not a great leap from the Serendipitys to a full-on, mainstream pop version by Percy Faith and his orchestra:

The song has also been a staple of jazz groups as well, especially as popularized by Denmark's Papa Bue and his Viking Jazz band in Dixieland style. No Papa on YouTube*, but the Carlings are doing something close to his arrangement:

And that, my friends, is as far off the reservation as I'm going in this series. I love pop, I love love Dixieland - but I love folk music most of all. I feel the need next week for a real Anglo or Irish ballad to write about (hint)....

*Addendum, 9/1/11

Whilst trolling around YouTube, looking (successfully) for an alternate version of the Percy Faith version that had been removed, I found that Papa Bue's Viking Jazz Band performance has been uploaded in the 1967 studio version:

...and in an extended recent live performance: