Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Best Of Comparative Video 101 - 2011

Comparative Video 101 appeared 30 times during 2011, significantly less frequently than the 46 and 47 times of the two previous years. Still, those thirty posts included some stellar performances of the songs profiled in the articles, and once again, we end the year with a completely subjective selection of the videos and arrangements that I found most compelling from the last calendar year. Some of these are wonderfully original takes of songs that I have long known and loved; others are just very fine videos or live performances.

As in my earlier "Best Of" posts, the song titles are hyperlinks back to the articles in which the arrangements appeared. We will, God willing, return to weekly posts in 2012 - and my heartfelt best wishes for a wonderful year to all who do me the great favor of stopping by this site to share my enthusiasm for this wonderful music.

1. Steve Goodman, "The Dutchman" - 2/3/11

2. Chet Atkins,
"Old Joe Clark" - 2/18/11

3. Johnny Cash,
"The City Of New Orleans" - 2/24/11

4. Tom Roush,
"Tenting Tonight On The Old Campground" - 5/29/11

5. The Weavers,
"The Battle Cry Of Freedom" - 5/29/11

6. Gordon Hudson,
"The Keeper/The Hunter" - 6/17/11

7. Van Dyke Parks,
"Greenland Whale Fisheries" - 7/17/11

8. The Short Mountain String Band,
"Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss" - 8/5/11

9. James Taylor,
"Go, Tell It On The Mountain" - 9/8/11

10. Audra McDonald,
"Children, Go Where I Send Thee" - 12/16/11

Friday, December 23, 2011

For The Season #4*: "The Gloucestershire Wassail Song"

Among the most delightful of Christmas customs for centuries have been caroling and taking a nip of good cheer of one sort or another, and in recent times - oh, the last two hundred years or so - the two have been conflated into our modern definition of "wassail." No matter that the origins of both the carol and the drink predate Christianity and that both were trotted out at different times of the year by northern European ancients. Thanks to the powerful impressions of the winter holidays created by the 19th century stories of Washington Irving in America and Charles Dickens in England, wassailing has come to mean pretty much an exclusively December tradition of door-to-door carol singing, the reward for which would be a cup from a Christmas bowl of mulled wine or cider or ale.

Carols, in fact, started as seasonal dances; the word "carol" itself probably comes from the Celtic "coroli," meaning a kind of circular reel, and there were spring and summer carols as well as winter ones. And "wassail" clearly derives from an Anglo-Saxon or Old English phrase "Waes hael," meaning "good health" - the "hael" being the root of both our words "health" and "hale" as in "hale and hearty." One use of the word - "waes hael drinc" - explains why Googling "wassail" will take you to several hundred recipes for an alcoholic concoction.

The medieval English, appreciating as they did the fine qualities of strong drink, "wassailed" their crops and orchards in the spring by pouring some liquor on to the ground and wishing good health to the spirits that even in the Christian era they believed animated their trees and other growing things. In Wessex, the old kingdom of the West Saxons and the place of origin of many of Britain's most famous Christmas songs (including "We Wish You A Merry Christmas"), the custom was to sprinkle apple trees with hard cider from the previous year's distillation, hoping to insure a bountiful crop of still-ready fruit. It was probably the church that redirected this pagan custom into a single Christmas-themed practice, as also happened with holly and ivy and candlelit evergreens (similar to the transformation of Samhain into All Hallows Eve).

The Gloucestershire wassail song may have its roots in pre-Christian times, which would make it very old indeed, but the oldest published version goes back to the 17th century - which is plenty old enough. There appear to have been two complementary customs as part of the Gloucestershire wassail. The wandering group of celebrants would visit homes bearing food and drink, which they would offer to share with the residents - hence the part of the lyric that goes:

Wassail, Wassail, all over the town
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree
With the wassailing bowl we'll drink to thee

In turn, the hosts would re-fill the bowl with their own mulled drink -

Come Butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all

All in all, it looks like quite a good way to celebrate Christmas. When I was a child, a handful of my neighbors used to get themselves a bit mulled, to use an old Sinatra phrase, and wander around the neighborhood, knocking on doors and singing carols, including this one. My parents generally offered them only coffee, but that didn't seem to dampen their spirits in the least.

The song lends itself to enthusiastic singing, so we start this week's selections with a "hael" version by the Kingston Trio:

The opening instrumental here is played on a bouzouki by Trio member Dave Guard, who liked the sound of the instrument so much that he learned to play it for this recording.

Modern choral groups tend to show a bit more restraint with the lyric, as here by the "early music" consort Chanticleer (not to be confused with the excellent gay men's choir of the same name):

Really pleasant if a bit stiff, which often happens when folk songs are tackled by artists whose training is elsewhere.

Traveler's Dream is a contemporary Indiana folk group with Denise Wilson and Michael Lewis taking the lead on this rendition:

The rhythm and instrumentation are rather more contemporary Celtic-sounding than Anglo-Saxon (and Celts and Saxons do not, let's say, get along - even at Christmas), but in the amalgam of styles that characterizes the modern American folk scene, this works wonderfully. Folk process, you know.

Canada's Loreena McKennet taps into both traditions effectively. Her a capella version here goes straight back to Gloucestershire:

Another contemporary style is "electric folk," one of whose pioneering members is Ashley Hutchings, also a force in Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention. Here Hutchings leads his Albion Band:

American instrumental group Mannheim Steamroller, founded by producer Chip Davis, has utilized all kinds of modern synthesized and electrified instruments in their many Christmas albums, which they use to great effect here:

Finally - I seldom slip into overt sentiment in these articles, and though at first glance it may seem as if I am doing so here - I'm not. Listen to this outstanding performance from a middle school production of A Christmas Carol from Edmonton, Alberta:

That's 11-year-old Anni Yu making those very grown-up sounds on the violin - she has performed with the Edmonton Symphony and elsewhere in Canada. These children perform the song with just the right amount of gusto, and it delights me that they demonstrate such feeling for so old and traditional a number. Maybe there is hope for folk music yet. Christmas is, after all, a season of hope.

And writing this lengthy post has given me a prodigious thirst for some form of wassail or other - so I hope to close with a drink, a health, and best wishes to all for the merriest of Christmases.

*The first three songs in this series of holiday-related folk tunes included #1 - "We Wish You A Merry Christmas"; #2 - "All Through The Night/Ar Hyd Y Nos"; and #3 - When Was Jesus Born/The Last Month Of The Year. Other Christmas-themed articles on CompVid101 include "Children, Go Where I Send Thee", "The Virgin Mary Had A Baby Boy" , "Riu Riu Chiu/Guardo Del Lobo", and "Go Tell It On The Mountain".

Friday, December 16, 2011

"Children, Go Where I Send Thee"

Comparative Video 101 returns this week after a long and unplanned hiatus with the first of two holiday-themed articles. The blog will resume on a weekly basis in 2012.

The holidays are upon us again, bringing with them their usual odd mixture of inclement weather, celebratory joy, retrospective melancholy, happy reunions with those whom we love, and pangs of sorrow for those whom we have lost. The winter solstice is days away; the early darkness in the northern hemisphere amazes us with the rapidity with which it falls and the utter blackness of December nights - no matter for how many decades we have known them prior. It would seem to be a strange time for festivities did we not, like our ancient forbears, recognize that the days will soon begin to lengthen into warmth and spring. That, in fact, is the real "reason for the season," as any student of anthropology and church history can tell you. Solstice celebrations are nearly universal across human culture, a fact recognized and utilized by second century Christian churchmen, some of whom also had the wit to graft Teutonic observances like decorated conifers, holly and ivy, and gift-giving into their version of the mid-winter festival. The symbolism was a perfect fit - firs and holly flourishing in the blank landscape of leafless trees, steel-gray skies, and limitless and seemingly eternal snow and ice, those evergreens appropriated by the church as the symbols of all the hope personified by the "little bitty baby who was born in Bethlehem," as the chorus of today's song goes.

Somehow the spirit thus expressed has survived and manages still to survive the onslaught of the ever-earlier commercial, tawdry, and vulgar manifestations of what we call Christmas today in these United States. What was once a largely religious observance of a single day in late December preceded by perhaps a week or ten days of preparation has been expropriated by the Scrooge-like moneychangers in the temple and perverted into a two-month orgy of frenetic buying and selling. Red and green and holiday music on the radio begin appearing now in early November, blithely ignoring the fact that the religious season is that of Advent, a time of quiet reflection, of anticipation of the joyful celebration that is yet to come, of somber purple vestments in church and purple candles on the Advent wreath.

It is in the music of the season that the spiritual essence of it all remains most deeply embedded and alive - and I mean spiritual in its broadest sense, rooted in Christian faith but extending far beyond it. God knows that we are all in need of both hope and redemption, regardless of what we do or do not believe in. The best music of the season captures and expresses that.

And "Children, Go Where I Send Thee" exemplifies that hope beautifully because it was originally an African-American slave song - and no group in U.S. history has ever had less to celebrate than pre-emancipation slaves. Many of their spirituals express the suffering and pain of that hopeless existence, yet many more are anticipatory of a better day and a glorious future, in the next world if not in this one. The source of that hope was the Christian faith initially forced upon the kidnapped Africans but in a generation or two embraced as their own with a fervor scarcely matched by their masters and captors. In those spirituals, often an amalgam of African rhythms matched with European tonalities, we have the roots of much of later American music - ragtime, blues, jazz, and rock.

The origins of "Go Where I Send Thee" are lost somewhere in the 19th century, and unlike many of the spirituals popular today whose resurrections are associated with particular artists (Mahalia Jackson with "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands," for example, or Louis Armstrong with "When The Saints Go Marching In"), this song has just always been around. While some scholars attribute the popularity of the song to Kentucky's great folk singer, dulcimer player, and song collector Jean Ritchie (who is said to have heard a group of school children singing it), recordings of the song in the U.S go back to 1936 when Dennis Crampton and Robert Summers waxed it as "Go I'll Send Thee," followed in 1940 by the Alphabetical Four and in 1947 by the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet as "Go Where I Send Thee" (the latter on the legendary Bluebird label).

Not quite completely a Christmas song, "Go Where I Send Thee" bears a clear similarity that everyone notes to Britain's "The Twelve Days Of Christmas." Other scholars believe the song may have been influenced by "Green Grow The Rushes-O," a song that many of us of a certain age learned in grade school as "I'll sing you one-o/Every day we grow hi-ho." Maybe yes, maybe no in both cases. What is clear is that the lyric of "Go Where I Send Thee" is instructional, a kind of walk through biblical stories for the pre-literate slaves. Each number has a mystical significance beyond itself, much as the gifts do in "Twelve Days" - though in both cases, no one is completely sure about what the original significance of each number and each gift was.

We begin our musical selections with the sadly nearly forgotten folk duo of Joe and Eddie, here from the Danny Kaye show in the early '60s.

Joe Gilbert (left in the video) and Eddie Brown enjoyed several years of recording and television success until Gilbert was killed in a car accident in 1966. His early death may well be why generally only the hardest core of folk aficionados remembers this great due today.

Contrast that with the spare a capella version of legendary bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley:

Stanley's haunting vocal reminds us of the cross-pollination that existed between the music of the slaves and the music of the masters in antebellum America. "Go Where I Send Thee" is like countless other religious songs that had versions in both camps.

The Kingston Trio included the tune on their landmark 1960 album titled The Last Month Of The Year, which eschewed the usual Christmas standards in favor of an arrestingly original collection of folk and folk-flavored Christmas tunes from the U.S. and Europe.

As with many of the group's early recordings, the driving and jazz-tinted bass accompaniment here by David "Buck" Wheat provides all of the syncopation and much of the drive in this version.

One great folk trio deserves another - so here is Peter, Paul and Mary, who created a medley of several spirituals with "Go Where I Send Thee" as the root song:

Yet another outstanding vocal group from the pop-folk explosion of the '60s, Australia's Seekers featuring the sublime Judith Durham - this recording is from a reunion tour about ten years ago:

Johnny and June Carter Cash closed their Christmas Show in 1977 with this version, backed by an all-star chorus including The Statler Brothers, Roy Orbison, Helen & Anita Carter, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and others:

Gordon Lightfoot recorded "Go Where I Send Thee" at the very beginning of his career, when he was still a member of the Two Tones with Terry Whelan:

And finally - a contemporary version by the Crimson River Quartet:

The Quartet gives the song a distinctive modern gospel swing to the old number.

The Weavers, Cliff Richard, Hall and Oates, Natalie Merchant - a whole passel of other artists have worthy renditions of the song as well.

Next week - our fourth edition of "For The Season" with a bona fide folk Christmas classic, and links back to the first three of the series.


A Late Addition - September 2017

The Kingston Trio has consisted from 2005 until two weeks from today on 10/1/17 of (L-R in the video) George Grove (41 years with the group), Bill Zorn, and Rick Dougherty. This is the longest-running iteration of a group that just celebrated its 60th anniversary, and this threesome is by common consent acknowledged as the musically strongest of all of the nine configurations to date. On October 1st, these three are being replaced as the KT by three other folks who have family ties to the original group but who are not to this point experienced as professional musicians. This decision was made by sole surviving founding member Bob Shane, who is also the sole owner of the group. The question of why this has been done will come into sharper focus when you hear what the Grove, Zorn, and Dougherty trio do with this song. The video is a rough cut from another upcoming PBS special produced by Chip Miller, who organized, produced, and released the outstanding 2016 The Kingston Trio Celebration as a fundraiser for the network. Chip's finished products are superlative, and when this song is released I know that it will be even better. Chip notes in his remarks with the posted video that "This traditional holiday song is an advance excerpt rough cut edit using footage from only 4 of the 8 cameras, and all footage is untouched, not yet color corrected, and the sound is not the final mix, just sound from a camera mic for this excerpt." I sure am glad that he posted this version and I can't wait to see the finished product.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

"Go Tell It On The Mountain"

I was watching a screening of Murray Lerner's 1967 film Festival this morning, that widely-praised documentary of some of the performances at the Newport Folk Festival between 1963 and 1967. I have always been lukewarm toward the film; it presents some outstanding artists and renditions, but it slants away from festival founder George Wein's "big tent" approach to folk music and toward the political and the electric, as if Lerner's only understanding of the term "folk" had been derived from some smokey basement clubs in Greenwich Village and not out in the real world where dulcimer and banjo players from the Appalachians, cowboys from the Rocky Mountain and southern plains regions, whalers and sailors, and clean collegiate professionals were making very different brands of folk music than those represented in the movie.

The film still had its moments, of course. Though I have seen it many times, I had never really noticed until this morning that on the 1963 festival-closing number in which many of the performers had linked arms while singing "We Shall Overcome" that Liam and Paddy Clancy of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were among the singers. And I had likewise forgotten what a stirring snippet was included of the Staples Singers, led by Roebuck "Pops" Staples himself, doing "Go Tell It On The Mountain."

Though now performed most often by gospel groups, "Go Tell It On The Mountain" is actually a spiritual that dates from the days of slavery, and there is a difference. "Mountain" first appears in print and performance in the hands of the legendary John Wesley Work, Jr. (1871-1925 - pictured above), an African-American teacher and scholar who wanted to preserve the oral culture of his parents (who had been born in slavery) and consequently started the Fisk Jubilee Singers (named after Work's alma mater, Fisk University), arguably America's first great professional "folk" group and a healthy antidote to the demeaning and racist black-face minstrel shows that were also popular in the late 19th century. "Go Tell It On The Mountain" appeared in print in a 1907 Jubliee Singers songbook, though the group had been performing it for decades before. Work had the copyright but freely acknowledged that he had arranged and re-imagined a traditional slave song.

The "Jesus Christ is born" part of the traditional refrain seems to mark this song as a Christmas composition - but it ain't necessarily so. Despite the still-raging controversy over "coded messages" that some scholars believe are embedded in the lyrics of spirituals, it is most certainly a cornerstone of Christian theology across the entire range and breadth of orthodoxies within the religion that the birth, life, and death of Jesus leads to a profound spiritual liberation from sin and damnation. Hence - "Go Tell It On The Mountain" is a song for all seasons in its optimistic celebration of the coming salvation from sin - and it has been performed and recorded in all seasons of the year.

The Golden Gospel Pearls perform the song in a version that seems closest to what Work published in 1907:

This is likely my favorite of the versions presented here in its clean, unadorned, and deeply-felt performance.

Most white Americans born after 1930 or so owe a good deal of their knowledge of this music to the popular crossover appeal of Mahalia Jackson, arguably the greatest singer of spirituals that this country has yet produced:

Though there is currently no recording on YouTube of the Staples Singers' performance*(but there is now, courtesy of Eva - look below), the Blind Boys of Alabama are doing something very close to Roebuck Staples' arrangement. This is three of the longest-performing five Blind Boys, from 2017 with Ruthie Foster and the Preservation Hall Legacy Horns:


The Boys here use the Staples' mainly minor chord accompaniment that lends the song an almost grim seriousness, very different from Work's original.

Our next versions likewise demonstrate a transliteration of the song away from its roots and into the peculiar artistic visions of the singers. First - that unique combination of jazz, blues, and funk that Al Jarreau has been delivering for several decades:


It could be argued that the large numbers of white singers and groups who have done "Go Tell It On The Mountain" are an indication of the universality of its message of celebration and hope. Yet each version creates a different spin. Peter, Paul and Mary are likely best remembered for their political songs, and at the suggestion of and with the help of their musical director Milt Okun they re-wrote the lyric with different biblical references to turn the spiritual into a civil rights anthem:

James Taylor works an alternative lyric as well into a satisfyingly JT-esque performance, as thoroughly stamped with his own brand as Jarreau's version is with his.

Likewise - three bars into the vocal here, you cannot mistake the distinctively mellow sound of the Brothers Four:

And as much as the B4 were known for their relaxed-sounding vocals, the Kingston Trio built a reputation for super high-energy, almost out of control vocals, as they do here in this version for their orchestrated Something Special album:

There are also many other wonderful versions on YouTube: country-inflected by Dolly Parton, reggae by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, blue-eyed soul by Michael McDonald, many more - truly a song for all seasons.

*Appendix, 12/23/11

Courtesy of Eva (below), YouTube now is graced with a 1962 performance by The Staple Singers - maybe the definitive version:


And Further - 4/21/12

It is wonderful to find an upload of the Weavers' studio recording of the song with Ronnie Gilbert on lead:


...and yet further, an interesting instrumental from Christian gospel pianist Brian Howlett and his regular partner, fiddler Andy Leftwich:


And Further Yet - August 2013

....a fantastic performance by Odetta from 1989, one that wasn't showing up in my searches because it is from a YouTube channel in Germany. Absolutely sublime:

Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Parchman Farm," Mose Allison, And The Real Blues

It seems a bit odd (to me at least) that I am nearly three and a half years into this blog and haven't yet even begun to plumb the depths of the great American catalogue of blues songs. That isn't because I don't have an appreciation for that tradition; it is rather more that I have very particular tastes in it, and those tastes seldom find much play in the recording industry, having been washed away by the red tide of electrified pseudo-blues purveyed by everyone from British Invasion rockers to contemporary "roots" groups.

Are my prejudices showing a bit here? Allow me to explain. My first childhood exposure to anything like the blues came from my parents' love of blues-infused jazz, especially Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. While both are always more particularly and properly identified as jazz artists, you're going to hear a lot more of the roots of real Delta blues in their work than you will in much of what is marketed as blues today. Armstrong especially seems to capture the essence of it all and often slyly underpins his jazz riffs with some trumpet lines that Robert Johnson would have appreciated.

My young adult interest in folk music led me (through my oft-cited in this blog love of Vanguard's Newport Folk Festival, 1960 records) to the great John Lee Hooker - who with Robert Johnson epitomizes for me the real sound of American blues. One of the songs that Hooker performed at Newport was his classic "Tupelo," presented here in a TV performance from roughly the same era. Watch his left hand:

Segovia or Carlos Montoya could appreciate that left hand work.

One good Hooker cut deserves another - "Serves Me Right To Suffer":

The harder edge of the Delta blues is personified in the great Robert Johnson, dead at 27, largely unknown in his lifetime, and resurrected with a series of 1961 reissues of the few recordings he made in 1936-37. As a point of comparison - the original blues as opposed to the popped-up, modified contemporary version, here is Johnson's often-adapted "Crossroad":

Now, modern audiences tend to think of blues as sounding something rather more like this - Eric Clapton and Cream's 1960s rockification of Johnson's classic:

That is a great, great cut - worth another listen just to hear what Clapton is doing on guitar and Jack Bruce's amazing bass line.

But it's not what I'd call blues. It's white-guy blues as imagined by British Invasion musicians - meaning, finally, that it's rock. Nothing at all wrong with that - my own propensity to like commercial folk groups suggests that I have a high degree of tolerance for adaptation - but it has morphed far afield from what it originally was.

There has been a kind of intermediate group of musicians whose adaptations have been perhaps truer to the music's roots, white musicians like Elvis Presley and today's composer Mose Allison, who grew up with the music, imbibed it with their mothers' milk, and learned to play it naturally and not as a respectful study of someone else's music. Presley grew up in Hooker's Tupelo and Allison in Tippo, Mississippi where both heard black musicians everywhere except perhaps in church. Their free-hand adaptations of the music originated because they were trying to sound like the singers whom they had actually heard growing up - singers virtually unknown to the larger mass white audience because of the segregation that existed in radio station programming and in the records carried in music stores. The earliest Presley recordings show perhaps the greatest influence - for Allison, the blues burst out of him after he had made a name for himself as a jazz musician, playing with greats like Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan. When Allison began recording with his own trio in 1957, he began to write in blues style and sing what he had written. Here is his '57 original recording of his "Parchman Farm":

Don't know about you, but I hear a lot of Hooker's vocal style in what Allison is doing here, and a lot of Hooker's uptempo guitar work in the piano accompaniment to the verses (but with a full-on jazz instrumental break).

Parchman Farm was the correctional facility that evolved into the Mississippi State Penitentiary - and temporary home to great bluesmen-to-be Bukka White (who wrote the original but different song "Parchman Farm Blues") and Son House. There is a bit more on prison farms and the music that came out of them in my article on "Ain't No More Cane On This Brazos".

Probably the best-known version of Allison's tune was waxed by British Invasion blues legend John Mayall in 1966:

Mayall may not be imitating Allison here, but he isn't going all Clapton on us either. I hate to sound like a broken record (ask your parents if you don't know what that means) - but this has strong elements of Hooker's style in it too.

Another great white blues-rock performer also gave "Parchman Farm" his own distinctive treatment, the Texas Tornado himself, Johnny Winter:

Winter and his contemporary John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival were clearly listening to the same records when they were growing up.

Popped-up blues were the specialty of Baton Rouge's Johnny Rivers, who presents the song with that distinctive cool Whisky-A-Go-Go Sunset Strip mid-60s sound:

Rivers does an entirely creditable job here, keeping the vocals well within the range of his own style - which brings us to our final and most curious cut, that of the Kingston Trio. By 1965 the KT, which had for a time in the late 50s and early 60s been the top record sellers and most popular act in U.S. music, had been pushed aside in sales and popularity by the British Invasion, folk-rock, and more politically-oriented folk performers. In an unsuccessful attempt to stay relevant, the group recorded a folk-rock styled album called "Somethin' Else" for Decca Records, the group's third on that label and 24th original LP overall. The record was a dismal failure commercially, becoming the first KT album not to hit the "Billboard Magazine" charts, and a serious misstep according to critics as well - the group's upbeat, clean-cut image and sound just did not morph easily into the newer styles. Judge for yourself:

Taken by itself, it's not a bad cut at all, and as a single it reached #30 on Billboard's easy listening charts. The Trio's Nick Reynolds often observed that the group had made the conscious decision, like Rivers maybe, to sound like who they were - suburban white college guys, not sharecroppers or sailors or convicts. So far, so good - the Trio isn't trying to be John Lee Hooker here. What they sound as if they are trying to be, though, is Bob Dylan - and they ain't he, babe.

I have always absolutely loved Clapton and Rivers and the KT, which may seem contradictory to the thesis of this article presented at the outset. Not so. I love them - but I wouldn't call what any of them are doing the blues. Maybe because of politics and mass media and a hundred other factors we have failed to realize just how debased our use of language has become, where things are what we say they are because we say them (a form of solipsism for you philosophy majors). But again - not so. Words have meanings - meanings that always morph and change but that also have an original and primal integrity. Or as Hooker was once quoted as saying - "The blues is just the blues. Ain't nothing else."

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot?"

"The fastest train I ever did ride,
Was a hundred coaches long,
And the only woman I ever did love,
Was on that train and gone."

"Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot?" is a typical American lost love folk ballad, generally similar to and possibly derived from its sister songs, the rather older "I Never Will Marry" and "The Butcher Boy/In Tarrytown I Did Dwell," both of which boast pedigrees that go back to the British Isles. "Pretty Little Foot," though, is in its present form attributed to and copyrighted by Woody Guthrie, who typically and honestly notes in the copyright "Words and Music Adaptation by Woody Guthrie."

Both lyrics and melody indicate why Guthrie did so. The "who's gonna shoe your foot/hold your hand/be your man" sequence appears in several Appalachian ballads and reels; "the only girl/boy I ever loved is gone" on some train or other likewise keeps popping up, most prominently in the first verse of the closely-related "I Never Will Marry," whose melody has the same structure as Guthrie's. No one better to present that one than a very young Joan Baez, from early in her career when her repertoire consisted primarily of traditional songs:

Baez is still learning to play guitar at this stage, and she is having some difficulty making her modified Travis-style picking fit with the 3/4 time that "Marry" and "Shoe Your Foot" share. That's a "waltz" tempo, a 1-2-3 1-2-3 rhythm that is clearer and audible in Guthrie's own recording of "Shoe Your Foot":

Guthrie is likely drawing on the older "There's More Pretty Girls Than One," a 19th century song recorded early in the 20th by both the duos Alton Delmore and Fiddlin' Arthur Smith and Rutherford & Foster, whose version is here:

A more contemporary take on "Pretty Girls" by Lyle Lovett with Alison Krause:

Both "Marry" and "Shoe Your Foot" have evolved into gender-neutral songs, performed with slight lyric alterations by performers of both sexes - though if I were a betting man, I'd wager that the root song of "Foot" was from a masculine perspective and feminine for "Marry" even though early published versions of both were male-oriented.

The Browns had a number of folk-oriented hits in the 1950s, one of which is this combined m/f vocal:

Largely Guthrie's arrangement, with that clear 3/4 time.

The Weavers also combine the male/female voices to good effect, and the instrumental skills of Pete Seeger and Fred Hellerman are on display as well:

Great harmonies here, and note that the Weavers are combining "Pretty Girls" with Guthrie's "Shoe Your Foot" to come up with a new song - and a new copyright.

One good theft deserves another, which is pretty much what the Kingston Trio's Bob Shane and his friend and songwriting partner Tom Drake did to create "Who's Gonna Hold Her Hand?". The Kingstons always acknowledged the primary influence of the Weavers, and note that this KT number follows the Weavers tune almost exactly, significant because the latter group clearly made minor changes in the line length from the older songs:

Musically interesting for the seventh chord that the group adds to the end of the fourth line of each verse and chorus, the cut also represents what enraged traditionalists about KT adaptations. The new lyric explores pretty much the same emotional geography of the original songs, but the "oooh" background vocals violate traditional standards and identify this effort as the 1950s pop ballad that it really is.

Interestingly, pop vocal harmonizers extraordinaire Phil and Don Everly present a version much closer to the traditional, accompanied by a single guitar:

Of course, the Everly's alteration of the last line to "I'm gonna kiss your ruby red lips" takes the melancholy out of the song and stands it next to the KT in the 1950s ballad folder of the American musical archives.

One more pop version to close with - Guthrie's fellow Oklahoman and 50s superstar singer Patti Page:

This would seem to be the inspiration for the Everlys. The arrangement Page is using here combines a touch of the old-timey with the harmonica but otherwise goes for the full-on 50s pop orchestra and chorus - nice version nonetheless from 1965.

"Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot?" and its associated songs represent much of what I like about folk music and explains why this blog just keeps going and going. The variations are all interesting musically entertaining, even the 50s pop versions. I could wish that more of today's acoustic songwriters would more frequently mine the rich and largely untouched veins of American folk gold for some of their melodies and themes.

Friday, August 5, 2011

"Blue-Eyed Gal/Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss"

The ascendancy of the now-ubiquitous guitar in its many incarnations as the primary instrument of American folk music is actually a rather recent phenomenon. It wasn't until 1960 (likely thanks to the combined popularity of Elvis Presley and the Kingston Trio) that guitars actually outsold pianos in the U.S. Think about that one - relative cost, size, and difficulty to master. The mass media of recordings and radio pushed the guitar past the piano, and it has never looked back, the former now outselling the latter by factors of ten.

So what did our eighteenth and nineteenth century forbears use to make music while the guitar was still in the childhood of its development and played largely by refined urban young ladies in parlors? Harmonicas, of course, and the ever-present concertina - even the banjo was beginning to break out of its segregation as a slave instrument by the 1830s. But the granddaddy of all American folk instruments is the humble fiddle, simply a slightly smaller and cruder version of its more august sibling, the violin. Compact, light, and portable - but capable of producing a great volume of sweet sound when played well - the fiddle was perfect for accompanying either voice or dance, as a solo instrument or in tandem with just about anything else that could make music. "Turkey In The Straw," "Flop-Eared Mule," "Old Dan Tucker," "Devil's Dream" - there is an entire repertoire of American folk songs, many that we now think of as banjo tunes, that first saw the light of day two centuries ago in rural American hoedowns and square dances and camp meetings, played on the fiddle.

This week's song, which has dozens of names and variants, generally starts with a short fiddle riff, with a clawhammered banjo coming in at the second bar. It is a very old song, learned by legendary country-folk performer Bascom Lamar Lunsford from one Fletch Rymer in 1898 - and Rymer was a really old man at the time. Lunsford was one of the first to record it, along with Sarah Bumgarner as "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss" in 1924, the same title used in the same year by Frank Blevins and his group. In this remarkably well-remastered 1931 recording with yet again the same name, The Skillet Lickers gave the tune genuine national exposure on radio:

I am not sure of the personnel of the group here - Britain's folk site identifies the lead singer as Riley Puckett - but I'm going to hope that Chicago musician and old-time music devotee Jeremy Raven will fill us in a bit on this. It is to Jeremy that many of us owe any knowledge of this group at all, whose bang-up version here certainly sounds like a 1930 edition of the Kingston Trio in their energy and the fun they are clearly having with the tune. I am also reminded here of Lindsay Buckingham's remark to John Stewart that a good recording should be "simple, repetitive, and hypnotic." I think Buckingham may have meant "simple-sounding," because the sophistication of the instrumentation on this recording is amazing.

The Kingston Trio in 1960 didn't have a fiddle player handy - but their version of the song as "Blue-Eyed Gal" gave them an opportunity to showcase the impressive development of Dave Guard as a banjoist and vocal arranger of the lyrics adapted by KT's Bob Shane with Tom Drake and Miriam Stafford:

Guard is blending different banjo styles here, much as he would do a year later in his tour-de-force "Coast of California." It is not exactly a traditional rendering of the song - but definitely one that respects the origins and roots of the piece.

The New Lost City Ramblers" made a career out of presenting authentic readings of old mountain tunes, as they do here:

I always get a kick out of talented non-professionals, especially when they are young. Here is the Short Mountain String Band in Frostburg MD two years ago - a fine toe-tapping instrumental once they get going:

Another great instrumental, this one by Julie Duggan on clawhammer banjo:

Duggan's right hand work here is mind-blowing.

For a more contemporary reading - indie rock group Built to Spill (now almost 20 years old) updated the lyric and electrified the accompaniment on an album appropriately named Ancient Melodies of the Future:

I actually rather like this, though it clearly uses the root song as a starting point only, as for instance the Kingston Trio did with "A Worried Man." But for sheer repetitive and hypnotic exuberance, I'll take the Skillet Lickers any day - or the Kingston Trio.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Stand And Deliver! - "Brennan On The Moor"

The album pictured here is one of the treasures of my youth and to this day one of my favorite of all collections of traditional songs, the first recording to be released under the group name of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Recorded largely on a reel-to-reel recorder in the kitchen of eldest brother Paddy Clancy's Greenwich Village apartment (good acoustics, but not great), the recording possesses the raw energy and arrestingly different sound that many other groups' first albums also demonstrate. Hard as it may be to imagine today as the airwaves and music vendors are awash in Celtic-flavored groups and soloists - this 1959 release on the Clancy-owned Tradition Records was the first that many Americans had ever heard of something akin to real Irish folk music. And the song that they chose to lead off this landmark recording - the song that subsequently and consequently became their opening number in concerts for decades to come - was "Brennan on the Moor."

Like many another highwayman and robber who came to be immortalized in a folk song, Willie Brennan was a very real person who was hanged for his crimes in 1804 in Clonmel, County Tipperary. In those days, following close upon the heels of the Great Rising of 1798, many extra-legal activities were punishable by death, worth mentioning perhaps because young Willie apparently never "sullied himself with blood," according to some of his contemporary admirers - however bold Brennan may be in the song, he is not a sociopathic and murderous thief of the stripe of Jesse James and other American bad guy killers. The mere act of theft, however, was itself a capital crime until well into the 19th century in Europe in general an England in particular. There are indications that there were hangings of children as young as eight for stealing loaves of bread in the 1730s, and the dark underpinning of the narrative of Dickens' Oliver Twist (and hence the musical Oliver!) is that a noose awaits those delightful pickpocketing boys should they be caught - the fate that finally befalls their handler Fagin. So Willie Brennan's apparently non-violent career of Robin-Hood-like plundering of the wealthy for the support of his dear old ma and her friends was destined to end in a painful strangulation in any event, murderer or not and rebel or not.

The song was likely penned as a broadside ballad very soon after Willie's gallows dance. But broadsides were printed on cheap newsprint and sold for a penny; few originals survive. The first printed versions of Willie Brennan's tune that we have today appeared in both Ireland and England in 1859 - long after the song had entered the folk tradition because, as we shall see, it was popular with immigrant Irish soldiers in the American Civil War. In Ireland, there are a couple of major variants and all of the versions feature eight or nine verses (with a subplot encounter with a peddler) as opposed to the five or six verse version we usually hear in the U.S.

The Clancy version has become the template for nearly every other group's adaptations and performances of the song. There is a bit of irony there because, as Liam Clancy noted in his memoir The Mountain of the Women and elsewhere, the "Brennan" song that they had first heard as youngsters was a moderately slow, mournful fiddle tune. The brothers and Makem felt that the lyric demanded more energy, and that is what they gave it. The beauty of that very first recording, however (unavailable as yet on YouTube) is that they started the song very quietly and built to a rousing climax; most live performances were largely climax with little build-up (and you may blame the banjo for that, which was not part of the original instrumentation that consisted only of Liam whacking away on a 00028 Martin guitar with nylon strings).

Our first version here is as close in time as we can get to that 1959 recording,* a live performance of the CB&TM from a 1962 Chicago PBS video:

The fully-realized performance by the group, complete with a last verse from one of the variant versions, is here from the group's 1984 reunion concert from Belfast:

Now for something a little different. I have learned of and come to admire the work of the 97th Regimental String Band while doing these articles. It's a group that specializes in authentic replications of Civil War-era tunes - I have included their version of "Goober Peas" in my piece on the song. Here is how "Brennan" might have sounded in a camp somewhere in Virginia in 1862:

Quite a resemblance here in the modified tune to a number of other Civil War melodies, notably "The Bonnie Blue Flag."

Most of the contemporary award-wining Celtic bands sound little like the Clancys, moving the acoustic folk sound more toward what we called folk-rock in the 60s. The Killigans, for example, identify themselves as "folk-punk," and the Dropkick Murphys and Pogues also go generally for the loud and electric. The band of the moment in this field is the Sligo Rags, a southern California group that has been making waves nationally. This is definitely a fresh interpretation of "Brennan":

Sort of a blues/reggae take on it - not sure exactly what I think of this. Interesting at the very least.

Courtesy of Folkways Records, we have a really interesting alternate version from Canadian-Irish folksinger and folklorist Tom Kines (1922-1994):

Lastly - Bob Dylan has been open about his admiration for the Clancys (Liam especially) since he first arrived in New York in 1961. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, of course, young Mr. Zimmerman appropriated perhaps half a dozen of the Clancys tunes for his own songs, including this "Brennan" rewrite that he titled "Ramblin' Gamblin' Willie" and that the Clancys called "Ride Willie Ride" - the circle completes itself as the inspirers sing the composition of the inspiree:

This is from one of the last albums by the group from the 90s. Tom Clancy has died, replaced by Bobbie Clancy on banjo; Tommy Makem has gone solo to be replaced by cousin Robbie O'Connell.

For a final thought, I turn to my brother Rick, whose Rightwing Nuthouse blog is a delightfully literate and provocative site whose politics rile me even as I'm smiling. No disagreement between us four years ago, though, when Rick published a marvelous essay called "Death, Be Not Proud" following the passing of Tommy Makem. He wrote in part:

For me, their music inspired a far more personal journey than the great issues being illuminated by the Pete Seegers or Peter, Paul, and Mary’s of the folk music scene. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem’s music opened the door to discovering my family’s Irish heritage and helped us all take enormous pride in who we were and where we came from....For the Moran family, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem opened up an entirely new world, a means of discovering our past. Their music was not at all like the melodramatic “American” Irish music we were all familiar with. Their songs were of the real Ireland – a place of pain and suffering, of oppression, and a kind of fatalism that seems to me unique to the Irish people.

...and of "Brennan on the Moor," the song that started that journey for all of us.


Addendum, March 2017 Due to arrangements that YouTube has made with thousands of content providers over the last few years, hundreds of thousands of original recordings are now available on the site - so here it is, the opening track from the 1959 album pictured above, the first version of "Brennan that I ever heard - and for my money never surpassed.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

When The Whale Gets Strike: "Greenland Whale Fisheries"

Hard to believe that it has taken me more than three years to get around to discussing "Greenland Whale Fisheries," since for more than fifty years it has been likely my favorite of all folk songs, in large part because of the memories that hearing it stirs - more on that at the end. But it's just a damned fine song any way you look at it, and a very old one at that - which of course means, as we'll see shortly, that it has lent itself to a greater-than-usual variety of interpretations.

Almost two years ago, I did a piece here on "Blow Ye Winds In The Morning" - another fine 19th century whaling song, but one that differs fundamentally in its intent and affect from "Greenland." "Blow ye Winds" is a commercial, a recruiting poster - "they say you'll take five hundred whales/Before you're six months out..." and hence make quite a bit of money from the shares of the profit, all while having a very good time, if you look at the rest of the lyric. But "Greenland" is a song that is much older, harder, and tougher - more of a commentary on what kind of adventures actually faced the whalemen out there (and there is more about that in the "Blow Ye Winds" article linked above). The portrait of the whaling life in this song is grim at best, and the minor chords in the accompaniment serve to underscore the melancholy tale being told.

"Greenland Whale Fisheries" has, as noted, many variant versions, but there are several common motifs that go back to the very earliest published arrangement of the song from about 1725. Oxford University's Bodelian Library has a later copy from about 1840 here:

Every version features a month, day and year specified early in the song, a whaling ship bound for the "Greenland ground," a brave captain and an eagle-eyed lookout, a chase, the whale's "flunder" capsizing a boat and killing several men, the captain's regret (though over what varies interestingly), the seamen's bitter desire to leave the "dreadful place" forever. It is a compelling narrative, one derived from the terrible conditions and dangerous circumstances in which the men lived and worked.

As usual, The Weavers and Burl Ives are most responsible for giving this song a second life in the mid-20th century, and The Weavers arrangement is the first one that I heard, around 1961. I'd love to present it here, but YouTube has been getting a bit hinky with me over all of my uploads for this series - so with a great deal of temerity, a bit of hesitation, and a gulp, I will present my own version first. It is almost word-for-word and chord-for-chord replication of what The Weavers did with the song, though needless to say without the superb professionalism that characterized their work. What I have especially emphasized is a) the moderate pace of the Weavers version, and b) the Seeger/Hellerman idea of framing the basic song with a part of a slower lament that they learned from collector Alan Lomax, who found it in Barbados (not a great whaling area, oddly). This is an analog recording done on a Korg 4 track tape machine, recorded in one take per track with no digital ability to fix the mistakes - it's not The Weavers, but who is?

Now, The Weavers had the captain mourning the loss of the men more than the whale - I changed it because I liked the way that Theo Bikel did the song, with the heartless captain grieving over his lost profits. Heartless captains are rather more the rule than the exception in sea folk songs anyway. Here is Bikel with Judy Collins at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival:

Note that Collins and Bikel are following the Seeger/Hellerman arrangement but presenting the first go around of the Barbadian fragment as an instrumental.

Paul Clayton, profiled here a couple of weeks ago, also maintains a fairly moderate pace in his simple but effective treatment of the tune:

But "Greenland Whale Fisheries" has also been performed over the years as a very quick, high-energy, rollicking chantey, and for me the prototype of that version is this recording from the Chad Mitchell Trio:

Canadian-Irish Ryan's Fancy tried something similar but with two distinct disadvantages - they didn't have the trained vocalists Mitchell, Kobluk, and Frazier of the CMT, and they didn't have the Mitchell group's Paul Prestopino on banjo. They gave it a good go, though:

"Greenland" is still covered widely today, though unfortunately IMHO in the ragged and rocking version popularized by the Pogues, here from 1984:

There is an absolute tribe of other so-called Celtic groups who riff off of this arrangement for reasons beyond me. The raggedness doesn't make it more authentic; traditional English ballads like this were nearly always performed at a very moderate pace.

For me, other artists have far more interesting approaches - like eclectic genius Van Dyke Parks, who did an album of sea chanteys in 2006 and provides instruction in how you can update and rockify a trad folk song with sensitivity and skill:

Or AnnaLee Rockinsquirrel on harp:

Or Scotland's legendary Corries, who sound like three Tommy Clancys with a burr instead of a brogue:

"Greenland Whale Fisheries" was one of the first songs I learned to play on the guitar - I could add that it was one of the songs that influenced me to want to play guitar. It became a standard part of spontaneous family singalongs going back to the early '60s - singalongs that originated out of necessity. My family rented a place in a remote area of northern Michigan for a few weeks each summer. We were beyond the reach there of anything that had to be transmitted over radio and microwaves, and in that pre-digital epoch before cable and satellite we had to create whatever entertainment we wanted to enjoy. All ten of the Moran children were musical to some degree or other - but it was in the heart of the folk boom, and even in my early adolescent desire To Be Alone, I could not start playing songs for myself anywhere inside or outside without attracting a sibling or two - and eventually the whole passel of them with the parents to boot. We always seemed to close those sessions with the melancholy version of "Greenland" at the head of this essay - very Irish of us, I suppose. Fast forward to 2001, forty years down the road. Our mother has died, leaving us finally in middle age, orphans. The ten of us are assembled in the library of the house most of us had grown up in, a house to be put on the market the next day. We spend a long evening of drinks and laughs and songs and reflection - and as two o'clock hour approaches, with most of the "younger" ones ready to go to bed, the four or five oldest of us spontaneously begin to sing "Greenland Whale Fisheries." It is our last act as a family in the family home. That, after all, is the kind of thing folk songs are all about - and "Greenland Whale Fisheries" served the purpose handsomely. _________________________________________________________________

Addendum, September 2013

A couple of months ago, YouTuber AuntNessie posted a version of "Greenland" by The Weavers. This is not the studio recording from their album Traveling On, which as I note above is the first one I heard and my favorite. Rather, it is a live performance from the group's 1963 reunion concert that featured all eight of the musicians who had constituted the quartet at one time or another. The personnel on this track - Pete Seeger, Fred Hellerman, Ronnie Gilbert, and Lee Hays, the originals - are the same as on the earlier album, and the rendition is very close, if not quite exactly the same.


And further.....December 2014

I recently ran across this excellent live performance by Peter, Paul and Mary from their 25th anniversary concert. They are following the general drift of The Weavers' version, complete with the intro and conclusion of the Barbadian fragment.

And finally, May 2017....

...Thanks to the deals struck by Google/YouTube with many of the "content providers," we finally have a decent and copy-right approved upload of The Weavers 1959 rendition, the one that largely inspired many of the other versions on this page.