Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Best Of Comparative Video 101 - 2010

In 2010, Comparative Video 101 has appeared 46 times, one fewer than in 2009. We had a larger number of special posts this year - tributes to Bob Shane, Dave Guard and Bob Gibson, a retrospective on Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp, a celebration of my 100th article, and more.
There were still profiles of 38 individual songs, and each profile included about six video performances on the average - so CompVid 101 included more than 220 videos in toto. The ones below (listed with the song name as a hyperlink to the articles about them) are the eight performances that I enjoyed the most but had not heard before of songs that most all of us know and love. They are listed in chronological order of their appearance this past year.

I am certainly looking forward to the new year, and my best wishes for a peaceful and prosperous one to all who have been good enough to stop by and read my weekly ramblings on folk music - which will continue, God help us, through 2011.

1. "Riu Riu Chiu" by Flauto Dolce

"South Coast by Horse Sense

"To Morrow" by The Muppets

"Away, Rio" by The Revel Players

"The Escape of Old John Webb" by E.L. Kurtz

"The Streets of Laredo" by Johnny Cash

"My Lord What A Morning" by The Seekers

"The Mary Ellen Carter" by Dave Guard

Thursday, December 23, 2010

For The Season #3 : "When Was Jesus Born/The Last Month Of The Year"

For those inclined to nostalgia, you can find the CompVid101 post #1 of this group from 2008 on "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" HERE and #2 2009's piece on "All Through The Night" HERE.

Christmas music is as diverse as are the celebrations of the holiday itself. Every country and region where the holiday is celebrated has birthed its own set of traditions and songs, from the villancicos and las posadas of Spanish-speaking countries to the wooden shoes and St. Nicholas traditions of northwestern Europe to the January 6th Epiphany observances of Orthodox Christianity.

In the U.S., the nineteenth century English-speaking Americans conflated Anglo-Saxon with Teutonic and Celtic traditions to create the repertoire of stately and moving carols that most of us know today - to which we have added, of course, a healthy amount of good old commercial American pop music as purveyed by Bing Crosby and Mel Torme and Nat "King" Cole and Andy Williams...and anyone else popular for long enough to make a holiday album.

When folk music became popular enough to be called commercial, its three earliest superstars - the Weavers, Harry Belafonte, and the Kingston Trio - each helped to broaden the national understanding of Christmas music. The Weavers predictably covered the globe with their selections, whereas Belafonte understandably focused on Caribbean and African-American slave era tunes. Both influenced the KT's landmark album The Last Month of the Year, each having recorded three songs that appeared on it prior to the Trio.

I heard Belafonte perform "When Was Jesus Born" live in about 1965, though I am not sure that he ever recorded it, and the Weavers may have done so as well (I seem to remember a medley with "Go Where I Send Thee"). In any event, the song comes to us through the work of musicologist father John A. and son Alan Lomax. John A. discovered the song's putative composer Vera Hall in Alabama in 1937, and he was so struck with the quality of her singing of both blues and spirituals that he began to record her immediately, assisted by Alabama folklorist Ruby Tartt. Alan Lomax and Tartt even brought domestic servant Hall to New York in 1948 for recording and live radio broadcasts, and Hall returned several more times to record for Folkways Records through about 1950 - at which point she disappeared from view until her death at age 62 in 1964. The copyright for "When Was Jesus Born" is assigned to Hall, Tartt, and Lomax. But a Rita Mae Brown also claimed authorship, and the truth is likely that both singers were building on a real slavery-era spiritual that had been passed down orally but never published.

One of the first things that strikes you about this song is its minor key, rather unusual for a song celebrating one of the most joyous of Christian holidays. As the melody unfolds, the minor chords are joined by 7ths and dissonances and sliding vocal notes and voila! - we realize that we are hearing a Christmas song that is a combination of both spirituals and blues. The Blind Boys of Alabama perform the number exactly like that, with a touch of meetin' house gospel as well:

Though the Blind Boys are a contemporary group, they do this one in a 1940s-50s style that reminds us of exactly where early rock music came from.

An older gospel version next, from the 1930s and one of the best vocal groups of the era, Heavenly Gospel Singers:

The Kingston group demonstrates a respect for the song's origins without trying to imitate the style of black musicians. This is a blues-spiritual as interpreted by three California college boys:

It's an effective reading with one nice arrangement touch - the three voices harmonize to a positive-sounding major chord on the last note of the song.

It was in looking for different versions of this song that I stumbled on the sad story of Jackson C. Frank, a talented folk artist who recorded but one album before mental illness and drug addiction rendered him incapable of functioning in society. He died an indigent in 1999 at the age of 56. He had a wonderful voice, and like the KT is translating the song into his own idiom:

In contrast, bluegrass/gospel artist Doyle Lawson with Quicksilver give a more restrained, even relaxed Appalachian country blues sound to the tune:

American rocker Chris Isaak goes a pretty straightforward blues route, here in 2009 - rather well, I'd say:

Finally, an uncommonly accurate rendering of American folk blues from Soulspirit - from Belgium, of all places - doing Lawson's arrangement:

Next week - my annual retrospective of the best videos I have found from the 45 posts from this blog in 2010. For now - "a merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"
Addendum - December, 2013
 It turns out that a few days after I published this in 2010, an excellent version by Don McLean of "American Pie" fame was posted to YouTube:

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Remembering Dave Guard

For the last two and a half years as I've been writing these posts, I've noted that there has been a ghost hovering in my office over my right shoulder, gazing at me intently as I write, with an ironic half-smile on his face. I've done my best to ignore him, even when I've mentioned him in these 100+ articles, because he has been haunting me in one incarnation or another for more than fifty years now, just as his long but nearly invisible shadow colors nearly all of the extant threads of American popular music. He is not a threatening spirit at all, though I often think I can hear him insisting in that inimitable voice - "Get it right!" It is the ghost of Donald David Guard, who left this earth 20 years ago next March, a few weeks short of 30 years after he left the group that had started its existence as "Dave Guard and the Calypsonians" and had evolved into the Kingston Trio.

In the small and obscure corners of the internet where you find Guard mentioned at all, it is almost invariably as the founder of the KT, and this is a kind of minor injustice on several counts - to Guard because he quit the group with three decades left in a life that was one of productive if lower profile (and less remunerative) achievements, and to his bandmates Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds because it was a three part synergy that made the group work and not the contributions, however significant, of any single one of them.

I would guess that the Kingston connection is the cornerstone of discussions about Guard not only because of its self-evident historical importance, but also because of the elusive, even ephemeral, nature of what Guard did with his life post-Trio. There was the Australian adventure with the Dave's Place TV show; the Color Guitar music instructional method that he invented; involvement with The Whole Earth Catalog; solo musical performances and shows in combinations with his KT replacement John Stewart and at times with original Trio member Reynolds; several books that he wrote and published and an album that he produced of the music of Hawai'ian slack key guitar legend Gabby Pahinui; an arrestingly original CD/album of his own in 1988 decades after he left the Kingstons and just three years before he died; and a lifelong spiritual odyssey that took him as far away as India and as close to home as San Francisco and New Hampshire. You just can't fit a life like that into a 30 second soundbite or the two sentence lead for a wire service obituary. It has always been easier just to say "founder of the Kingston Trio."

I often wonder how Guard would have felt about that. I met him but once, for about five minutes in 1976 after he had shared the bill with the Modern Folk Quartet at the Ice House in Pasadena, California, and it was just a brief "hello" at a fan meet-and-greet following the performance. I know only the Dave Guard that he intended me and all the other fans to know - the musician, the writer, the ironic onstage intellectual, the iconoclastic restless spirit - the public person whose work is all that he really wanted to share or needed to share in an era before the public's interest in its heroes turned voyeuristic and tawdry.

So it is the public work of Dave Guard with the KT that I want to talk about here, but how to do so is a bit of a challenge. Six months ago when I did a retrospective on Bob Shane, the post was easy to write because Shane's whole professional life has been the Kingston Trio, and his chiefest contributions to it as both a singer and guitarist have been to act as the bedrock voice and rhythm of the group. But Guard's roles were more diverse and harder to express - so it takes more than my share of moxie to divide what Guard did into three aspects - arranger, banjoist, and singer.


Though the Trio's repertoire evolved from songs brought to the group by each of the three original members (a process described by Bob Shane in the liner notes for the recently-released Above The Purple Onion CD that chronicles the band's earliest rehearsals and performances), the task of arranging singable (and not incidentally copyrightable) versions of those songs fell to Guard. When he was asked in an interview from the mid-1980s that appeared in The Kingston Trio On Record (much of which is published HERE on Kingston Crossroads courtesy of sitemaster Ken Laing) why this was so, Guard quipped, "Let's see -- the original set-up was that Nick handled transportation, Bobby handled costumes and laundry, and I handled the music." I don't believe that Guard meant that literally, not least because I cannot for the life of me imagine Bob Shane hiking the hills of San Francisco with a pocketful of change and a laundry bag full of soiled striped shirts. It may be accurate in some symbolic way, like the myth about the group signing a contract with manager Frank Werber on a paper napkin at the Cracked Pot beer garden, a tale debunked by Werber as "nonsense" except as a metaphor. I think that this was a bit of Guard's dry humor, mostly because he says more earnestly in the same interview that "I was the guy who was willing to sit down and write the music down and talk to people who did know music about doing it the right way." That sounds right to me.

Of all of the group's early arrangements, there are two that I find especially revealing of Guard's talents as an arranger. First, take a listen again to "Bay of Mexico":

I wrote extensively about this arrangement in my article about the song, last March; suffice it to say here that this version, copyrighted by Dave and Gretchen Guard, combines elements of what the Weavers had done with the song and what Irving Burgie was doing with it for Harry Belafonte with a Guard-esque syncopation, three-part harmony, trademark energy, and key changes. It is simply brilliant.

Bob Shane's Purple Onion CD also gives us the chance to take an even closer look at what Guard was doing with "Across The Wide Missouri/Shenandoah". Trio members always acknowledged the influence of the Weavers on their repertoire, and this heavily orchestrated Gordon Jenkins arrangement from the Weavers' Decca sessions in 1950 (lead sung by non-Weaver Terry Gilkyson) seems to have have been the one that sixteen year old Guard and Shane heard first while they were high school students at Punahou in Hawai'i.:

Guard turned that into this far more respectful and traditional-sounding rendition in the group's earliest days before fame and fortune:

Nice, and better than what the Weavers did, but ultimately fairly pedestrian. However, a mere two years later and with then about twenty five recorded arrangements to his credit, Dave Guard came up with this stunner:

As it seems was the case with everything Guard put his hand to, the quality of what he did grew exponentially as he learned as he went along. The KT "Across The Wide Missouri" is not merely one of the best of the more than 250 songs that the KT waxed - it is one of the absolute best recordings of the entire pop folk boom. And note one detail critical to the success of this version - where Dave took the vocal lead on the Purple Onion recording, this arrangement puts Bob Shane front and center, with the best voice in the group on lead in one of its best songs. Wherever else Guard's ego may have intruded into the group's history, it surely does not do so here.


A generation of banjo players have acknowledged that their romance with the instrument began when they first heard Dave Guard playing it on Kingston Trio recordings (especially Guard's banjo break on "MTA"), among them Tony Trischka, Steve Martin, and Bela Fleck. Given the fact that Guard never even tried the instrument until mid-1956, his progress on it transcends the remarkable and makes a close brush with the miraculous. Here he is in 1959 doing an inspired adaptation of Pete Seeger's banjo arrangement for "Darlin' Corey":

As fine as that is, nearly everyone familiar with KT music acknowledges that Guard's masterpiece of both skill and innovation appears on Goin' Places, the last album he made with the group, on a cut called "Coast of California":

Guard is again clearly influenced by Seeger's banjo work on the root song "Si Mi Quieres Escribir" (you can hear Seeger HERE) - but self-taught banjoist Guard is combining three distinctively different styles of playing folk banjo in a way that literally no one ever thought to do before and that to my knowledge no one has attempted since.


Guard's voice was a kind of utility infielder in the Kingston Trio - he would go high, middle, or low range depending on what the song called for. That and the fact that Bob Shane had one of the best voices in pop music at the time has often obscured just what a fine singer Dave Guard was, if not necessarily in timbre or tone. Guard's gift was interpretive, especially (though as below not exclusively) on quieter numbers, like the "San Miguel" song he is credited with co-composing with Jane Bowers:

It's hard to describe that voice and why it is so affecting. Time Magazine's Richard Corliss called it "careful"; I prefer "tentative," not because I believe that Guard was especially reticent but because he walked the walk - he always said that it was the music that mattered, and in light of that I think he considered his voice to be one of the instruments in the ensemble rather than necessarily the main focus. You can hear that as well in this cut from Guard's 1988 solo album Up And In, 29 years after "San Miguel":

I don't need to point out that this is also an outstanding arrangement of Stan Rogers' powerful modern folk classic. It has all the elements of what Guard had been doing for thirty years by then - gradual build, the sequential introduction of instruments into the mix, a good sense of syncopation, and the unmatchable energy of the early KT recordings. No matter that Guard's voice gets rough at points: the passion of the lyric emerges from the vocal, you believe the singer means what he is singing - and all the elements serve the composition and allows its essential nature to shine forth. It demonstrates what Pete Curry implied in the inspired title for his book on Guard's banjo style, derived from Guard's own book on guitarist Pahinui - it's "Pure Dave."

There is so much more to be said about Dave Guard. His departure from the group deserves deeper exploration (especially in light of some things I've run across in primary source documents over the last year), his innovations in music post-KT, his relationship with Bob Shane, more.... For now, though, I like to believe that this last song somehow characterizes a good portion of Dave Guard's public legacy. I find Guard's interpretation most convincing at the end of the lyric:

And you, to whom adversity has dealt the final blow.
With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go.
Turn to, and put out all your strength of arm and heart and brain
And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again!

Rise again, rise again!
Though your heart it be broken and life about to end
No matter what you've lost, be it a home, a love, a friend,
Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again!

I will hazard the guess that this lyric had some personal meaning for Guard as the end of his life loomed. No matter, though, if it did not - you can't tell because as always Dave Guard is putting all of himself in service to the song, as he always did.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Hell Hath No Fury - "You're Gonna Miss Me/Leaving Home/Frankie & Johnny"

Two weeks ago, we looked at a song about a poor girl murdered by her lover; last week, we met two young women unfazed by men. This week, the logical progression proceeds to a lady who just will not be trifled with..."he was her man, but he done her wrong."

Both of my grandmothers played piano and sang, reflecting what was considered a proper social education for girls born as they were in 1892 and 1900. While most of their repertoires consisted of often long-forgotten popular songs from their childhoods, both occasionally drifted into performing what might be called a kind of derivative folk music, often Irish airs with rewritten American lyrics. Occasionally these ladies were capable of some surprises. My maternal grandma - a rather prim and conservative woman - would occasionally slip into a bit of honky-tonk or ragtime, and it was from her that I first remember hearing "Frankie and Johnny," a honky-tonk/ragtime classic if the genres ever produced one.

Most of the major folklorists like John A. Lomax and Carl Sandburg believe that F&J is very old for an American folk tune, probably pre-dating the Civil War, though others maintain that the spate of published versions in the first decade of the 20th century points to a later origin. It seems like a good bet, though, that the 1831 murder of Charlie Silver by his wife Frankie Stewart Silver (with an axe - ouch! - and in North Carolina again!) might well be the song's inspiration, since in the folkways of the region Mrs. Silver did in her husband in a jealous rage. In actual fact, Mrs. Silver (all of 17 at the time of the killing) pleaded self-defense in the face of an imminent threat from her drunken husband. While the jury initially refused to believe her, eventually seven of the members signed a petition to commute her death sentence on the grounds that she had in fact been abused. It didn't work, and Frankie Silver was hanged for the crime. A good brief summary of the case appears HERE.

An early version from 1927 of what has become the standard songbook version of the song is done here by Frank Crumit:

Now Crumit's lyrics are for the most part the old honky-tonk song, but fans of the "You're Gonna Miss Me/Leaving Home" version will recognize that Crumit interpolated some of those lines into the middle of his arrangement.

A chronological digression here. Around 1962, the great Bob Gibson rearranged F&J on his Where I'm Bound album that I profiled a few weeks back. Now the Bob Gibson Legacy site has uploaded a fine performance video of Bob doing the number HERE, but it can't be put on this page - so here is a trio called Dirty Dishes doing Gibson's arrangement:

In 1908, Frank Leighton and Boyd Bunch copyrighted a F&J version whose lyrics (some in Crumit's record) are very close to what banjo legend Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers came up with, again in the 20s:

I ran across of video of Fiddlin' John Carson doing this version at about the same time but lost it. If I find it again, I'll re-post it.

In turn, John Cohen, Mike Seeger, and Tom Paley of the New Lost City Ramblers adapted (and copyrighted) Poole's lyrics with a respectful vocal and instrumentally skillful version in about 1959:

Mike Seeger of the group next introduces (1980s vintage, I'd say) The Stillhouse Reelers doing a rendition that they adapted directly from Charlie Poole* with one difference that I believe to be significant and will deal with below - they do it a lot faster:

It was the NLCR version of the song that was the clear and direct inspiration for the Kingston Trio's re-named "You're Gonna Miss Me." We know this because Dave Guard copyrighted the song, including the names of Cohen, Seeger, and Paley. There is a YouTube video of a fragment of the KT rendition (again, non-embeddable) HERE; the full studio version sounds like this:

The KT gives the number its trademark full-speed, hell-bent-for-leather treatment (with an able assist from producer Voyle Gilmore, who brings up the musicians' instruments at the precise moment of their vocal solos before nicely re-blending on the choruses). Perhaps it was this that excited some of the distaste that NLCR John Cohen expressed for the group. In fact, Cohen once remarked (on the Woodsongs radio program, I believe) something to the effect that the only tradition that the KT seemed to have any respect for was that of a frat party. That leaves open the question, for me at least, of why a similar adaptation of the song by The Stillhouse Reelers above does not come in for similar censure - or why all these versions are using unattributed material that clearly came from Poole (who in turn seems to have heard and used the Leighton version). It's not really important because all of these versions are enjoyable. Just wondering.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Of Bad Girls And Banjos: "Little Maggie"

If there is a sort of folk Valhalla somewhere - a place where, say, Burl Ives is still taking the Rock Island Line to the Big Rock Candy Mountain and the Weavers are on top of Old Smokey wishing Irene yet another goodnight - then I'm sure that first cousins Darlin' Corey and Little Maggie are still up in some misty mountain hollows pursuing their conniving and very independent paths through (after)life. Thinking of the two as cousins is a neat little trope because a) their respective songs are certainly closely related mountain banjo classics, and b) both young ladies show quite a bit of the same kind of moxie that Ellen Smith et al. regrettably seemed to have lacked. Corey and Maggie dance only to their own tunes, and ain't no man gonna get the better of either of them.

The songs seem to be part of a family of "banjo blues" that are derived in part from genuine African-American blues in the wonderful melange of styles and sources that American folk music is. But the accompaniment structure - just two chords, typically a G to an F and then back again - is Euro all the way, closely resembling the rather mournful sounding mixolydian mode. That means essentially just that the songs use fewer notes than tunes written in our "normal" twelve note scale. And that's really easy to hear - both songs are even more repetitive than most other folk songs, eight bars repeated over and over, verse and chorus both.

Wherever it was that Corey and Maggie went their separate ways as songs, their recording histories continue to parallel each other. As noted in my "Corey" article linked above, that song was first waxed by Clarence Gill and later Buel Kazee in 1927 - the same year that Grayson and Whitter (of "Tom Dooley"fame) on October 1 laid down the initial "Little Maggie" recording, to be followed in 1937 by Wade Mainer, still with us at the age of 103. In the late 1940s, the Stanley Brothers covered the song, for the first time in the new bluegrass genre of which Ralph Stanley was one of the originators (more on this below).

Grayson and Whitter were a fiddle-guitar group, but "Maggie" has always been a favorite of banjo players because the very simplicity of its chord structure allows for a some genuine tour-de-force instrumental innovation. Classic Kentucky mountain banjoist Lee Sexton here plays the tune in a kind of pre-bluegrass picking mode:

Sexton seems to be playing here in some kind of modal tuning - again, a variation from what we normally hear. It's a kind of minor sound, and that changes the melody as well as the accompaniment.

Ralph Stanley plays the song in a straightforward bluegrass style - here he is interviewed by the late Mike Seeger of the New Lost City Ramblers:

Stanley's arrangement has become the template from which most subsequent recordings have been derived. I find it interesting in this video that Stanley is quietly trying to establish an independent origin for his banjo style, since by 1946 Earl Scruggs had established himself as the putative godfather of three-fingered banjo picking while he was a member of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. But the "forward roll" that Stanley demonstrates in the video is in fact markedly different from the standard Scruggs style of picking.

Now Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio was certainly no Stanley or Scruggs during the first week of February in 1958 when the KT recorded its first album and decided to close it with "Little Maggie" (last song on the B side for those who remember LPs) - and he knew it. Guard had been bitten by the banjo bug in 1956 while a graduate student at Stanford after he attended a concert by Pete Seeger (at which a fifteen-year-old Joan Baez was also in attendance). Prior to that, Guard was a guitarist all the way, quietly evolving his own style after having been taught the rudiments of the instrument by his high school pal and eventual KT partner Bob Shane. According to third Trio member Nick Reynolds, Shane and Guard searched the music stores of San Francisco in vain looking for a 5 string banjo - all they could find were 4 string tenor banjos used more commonly in Dixieland jazz and Big Bands rather than in folk-styled music. In stepped Reynolds' father, a captain in the U.S. Navy and a lover of all kinds of music, including old time mountain songs, and he gave Guard his own 1920s-era S.S. Stewart standard neck 5 string. Guard reportedly bought Seeger's How To Play The Five String Banjo and taught himself Seeger's primary style - the more traditional "frailing" or "clawhammer" approach to the instrument in which the strings are brushed in rhythmic combinations of different fingers rather than plucked as they are in bluegrass style. Here's what Davey came up with:

It's not a bad effort at all for a guy who's been playing the instrument for less than two years (if you can get past the gentle mockery of the "hilbilly" origins of the song that the group also employed that same year in their "Shady Grove" recording and blessedly omitted in subsequent arrangements of Appalachian tunes). The positively plunky sound of Guard's/Capt. Reynolds' banjo almost certainly comes from its having a calfskin head, a delightfully traditional sound when the air is dry but murder when it's humid, because the pressure from the strings forces the pliant calfskin to sink and consequently dulls the vibration and sound of the strings. I'm guessing there was rain in Los Angeles on that February day when the KT recorded this one at Capitol Records.

Ricky Skaggs has been outspoken in his dislike of the "commercial" turn that country music has taken, and he has built the second half of his career around both preservation and innovation of older mountain and country styles of music. Here he is performing "Maggie" in 1999 with Kentucky Thunder:

According to the album credits, the blazing banjo solo is by Marc Pruett - and the instrumentation overall is a good indication of why many country and bluegrass artists expressed such disdain for the (by comparison) primitive playing of most of the pop folk groups.

Contemporary bluegrass favorites The Grascals give us something in the same mode, though with a bit more emphasis on the instrumentals, if not at quite as breakneck a pace:

Maggie and Corey are clearly pursuing different paths. Corey is, after all, a moonshining entrepreneur, decidedly unromantic and apparently interested in men only for their money:

Don't care if you are living, don't care if you are dead
If you want a taste of my product, then I'm gonna take your bread.

We can assume the product is moonshine only, though you never know. But Maggie is clearly a good time girl, fun to be around but deadly to lose your heart over. In this regard, she has a lot in common with Woody Guthrie's nameless beloved in "Hard, Ain't It Hard, who continually

...sits down upon another's knee,
And tells him what she never will tell me.

Another cousin, perhaps? Little Maggie is, after all, continually "fooling another man" as well. In any event, all three ladies are clearly and in their separate ways thumbing their noses at convention and turning the tables on the menfolk. They all seem also to have a talent for self-preservation, and it's positively refreshing to have some folk songs where young ladies who refuse to conform to boys' rules don't end up shot through the heart lying dead on the ground. Maybe there is justice in the world after all.