Thursday, January 27, 2011

"With You My Johnny Lad"

I can well remember fifty years ago being intrigued by an anomaly that I noted in many of the folk records that I was listening to regarding a Scots song (one that was often covered by Irish groups) called "My Johnny Lad." It's a fun little song about dancing and courtship and a whole bunch of other things. What was odd, though, was that there were two rather radically different versions of the song that I was hearing. By itself, perhaps, that was not such a big thing - after all, it's hard to imagine how a song like "The Raggle Taggle Gypsies/Black Jack Davy" morphed into a variant like "The Gypsy Rover" - but the different and associated "Johnny Lad" songs were at the same time very different in tone and pace while sharing many of the same words.

The first version that I heard was from the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem's first album on Columbia Records in 1961 (they had three full albums on their own Tradition Records prior to this release). Here is a live performance virtually identical to the album cut from a 1962 Chicago PBS broadcast:

This is one of the all-too-few CB&TM numbers that features eldest brother Paddy on lead vocal. I remember a comment made on this site when I wrote about "The Jug of Punch" two years ago that Paddy had a distinctly aggressive way of presenting a lyric, one that was refreshingly manly. The same could also be said for the Clancys' general approach to Celtic songs, one that generated for them the same kind of criticism in Ireland that the pop folk groups here in the U.S. were getting at the same time. This is not surprising, because as Liam Clancy related in his autobiographical The Mountain of the Women a few years back, the group patterned themselves after the Kingston Trio, even including the decision to wear nearly matching versions of those impossibly warm, cable-knit Aran Island sweaters (or "jumpers" as they called them). Many of the Clancys songs - their trademark opener "Brennan on the Moor," for example - were originally medium to slow reflective tunes that the group powered into high energy numbers, replete with shouts and barks and whistles. And that approach to the music, as we'll see below, became standard for Scots and Irish folk groups that followed them.

A couple of years before the Clancy release, the Kingston Trio had recorded a song called "With You My Johnny" on Sold Out, one of their musically most satisfying albums. This version has distinct lyrical similarities to the Clancy version but with a radically different melody:

This is vintage popularized folk music. The Guard-Reynolds-Shane lyric is simply an anglicized rendering of the traditional Scots dialect version done a couple of years before by the great Ewan MacColl and his lady Peggy Seeger, which you can see on HERE. The group's musical setting - somewhat slower and in a minor key compared to the Clancy rendition - is a clear attempt rhythmically to catch the feeling of the drone of bagpipes, with its heavy, punctuated emphasis on every fourth beat - listen to Bob Shane's guitar intro to hear it.

To muddy the waters further, the Kingstons two years later recorded a number with a Clancy-type melody and chorus and verses that evoke the same feeling as the traditional number - but that they called "Genny Glenn" (with a June 2013 thanks to Capitol/EMI as noted at right for permitting playback of KT videos on YouTube:

The reconciliation between the two versions, it turns out, was not at all that complex. Ewan MacColl, a folklorist as well as performer (and radical and actor and 20 other things as well) wrote that the "Johnny Lad" song was "originally a very beautiful pastoral song in the tempo of a slow (minor) strathspey. Johnny Lad moved to Glasgow during the late 19th century and was transformed into a children's street song. The lyrics became urbanized and the original air was abandoned in favor of a catchy but much plainer tune." A strathspey is a Scots dance that featured a moderate tempo, named after a region - as can be heard in the Kingstons' "Johnny" above. That's the original rural version, with its slyly naughty lyric. The Clancys are doing the second, later, urbanized version with the slightly more sophisticated and satiric lyrics. Note that the "with you my Johnny chorus" of the KT version fits with the lyric sung by a girl - but that the "urban" Clancy version is a man's song except for the chorus. As for "Genny Glenn" - a Kingston re-write, probably by John Stewart, to reap the copyright rewards, just as the group had done with other traditional songs like "A Worried Man."

Now for some other versions. First, the rural girl's number sung by a lady, from a house concert by the charming Sarah McQuaid, whom I previously featured as a lady doing a lady's song in my post about "The Wagoner's Lad":

McQuaid, who has an Irish mother and spent her formative years in Eire, is doing the KT modern English rendering of MacColl's Scots lyric. The jazz-based chords of the guitar setting make an interestingly original if not wholly successful presentation.

One of the great Folk Revival Scots groups was The Corries, here from 1976:

You can hear traces of the old strathspey here, I think.

Finally, from the Canadian-Irish trio Ryan's Fancy:

This was a great group, performing here on Tommy Makem's TV show and with, I think, a clear bow of the head to the pioneering musical style of the Clancys with Tommy.

I have to say that this has been one of the most enjoyable of these posts for me to write, not only because I've always loved both versions of the song but also because of the number of actual live performance videos here. I'd also add that however "popularized" these may be, they sound a hell of a lot more authentic that the punked out stuff of the Killigans or the Pogues on one extreme and the sugary and sentimental Celtic Thunder-type groups on the other end of the contemporary "Celtic" spectrum.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Remembering John Stewart #2 - "Chilly Winds"

For a look back at last year's article on "July, You're A Woman," click HERE.
John Stewart (Sept. 5, 1939 - Jan. 19, 2008) spent more than fifty years writing his own epitaph, and he did so in about 600 different segments - because what remains of him as legacy nearly three years after his death are the songs that he wrote and his performances of them, both in recordings and in the living memories of those of us lucky enough to have seen him with the Kingston Trio, or solo, or luckiest of all, both.

Stewart was possessed of an idiosyncratic creativity throughout his life, a creativity that manifested itself in sometimes surprising and new ways. He discovered at some point in middle age that he had real talent in drawing and painting, and he developed that talent with the same kind of unique vision that characterizes his songs. He was a gifted mimic and could imitate voices with uncanny accuracy when he was telling tales in concerts or conversations. He loved computers and technology and what you could do with them fully as much as he loved a well-made acoustic guitar.

Yet it is as a songwriter with a unique vision of America and the individual's place in it that is probably his single most important legacy. Some of his songs are still heard widely, even by people who have no idea that Stewart wrote them. "Daydream Believer" possesses an independent life of its own - it keeps coming back in different forms, year after year, most recently in TV commercials for eBay and on the recent CD by Susan Boyle. Work out in a gym often enough and long enough and you will eventually hear his top 5 hit "Gold" piped in over the muzak at some point or other. "Survivors" and "Mother Country" seem to pop up from time to time on satellite radio and elsewhere. Performers like Dave Alvin and Bill Staines continue to perform his compositions.

More importantly to his fans - there are forty plus CDs/albums with several hundred originals on them, a veritable treasure trove of gems undiscovered by the public at large but regarded as precious by those who know them. I recall a post on a message board recently that wondered at the fulsome praise heaped on Stewart's songwriting - the poster remarked that he thought that Stewart may have written about ten or fifteen good songs and that was about it.

Well, you can't disagree with a personal opinion, so I won't. But I will relate an interesting little tidbit. The 17th century English poet John Donne - he of "for whom the bell tolls" and "no man is an island" and "death, be not proud" fame - was almost completely forgotten for three hundred years after his death because his style fell out of fashion and because his work was more subtle and intricate than most poetry fans could apprehend. Then in the 1920s, T.S. Eliot used his considerable weight as a poet and a critic to rescue Donne in a single essay in which Eliot clearly and simply elucidated those qualities of Donne that we so easily recognize today - and today, Donne is universally recognized as the poet of his age, behind only Shakespeare himself and John Milton.

So may it be with Stewart, though I hope it doesn't take three hundred years. But as a lifelong aficionado of both poetry and songwriting, I would assert that those 40 CDs include dozens, perhaps scores, of absolute treasures of songwriting - the very genesis of Americana music and the singer/songwriter movement, and the real successor to Woody Guthrie's vision of America. John Stewart was writing songs about common people that were recorded and selling hundreds of thousands of copies while Bob Dylan was still in high school dreaming of being Little Richard.

Even given the quality of his work with his first professional group, the Cumberland Three, it is with his ascension into the Kingston Trio fifty years ago in 1961 - at a point when the KT was the top pop music group in the country - that Stewart's real impact begins, and immediately so with a number of fine arrangements and compositions on the first Trio album on which he appeared that year, Close Up. But it was on the next album, I believe, where Stewart's songwriting began to take its ultimate Americana direction with one of his greatest songwriting efforts (with John Phillips, later of The Mamas and the Papas), "Chilly Winds."

Stewart had a close association with Phillips, even being one of a select few musicians invited to perform at Phillips' 2001 memorial service - and of course he sang "Chilly Winds." There were rumors, never either confirmed nor completely squelched, that Stewart considered leaving the KT to join Phillips in "The New Journeymen," the second iteration of Phillips' own folk trio, perhaps because of Stewart's status as an employee of the Kingston Trio rather than as a partner in it and because of slights from manager Frank Werber when Stewart made suggestions about song selection and arrangements.

Part of the story of the composition of "Chilly Winds" is fairly well-known. Stewart and Phillips supposedly visited KT member Nick Reynolds at his houseboat in Sausalito, CA on San Francisco Bay and took a dinghy out onto the bay for a couple of hours. They came back with the first draft of "Chilly Winds" that according to Stewart had scores of verses that they narrowed down to five. Stewart and Phillips played it for Reynolds, who was as immediately enthusiastic about the number as was third KTer Bob Shane, and the group recorded the song at their UCLA concert in late '61 and included the tune on the live album that grew out of the show. It became a Trio staple and in one informal poll in the 1990s was voted the #1 all-time favorite Kingston song by several hundred participating fans.

The other part of the story, the one less familiar, is where Stewart and Phillips got the ideas for the song. In the best folk tradition, the Stewart/Phillips composition could fairly be described as "assembled" from earlier folk songs as much as it was "written." The very title and the signature line - "I'm goin' where those chilly winds don't blow" - originated in a 19th century Appalachian clawhammer banjo number that later morphed into both a blues number and then a jazz standard. One whole verse - the favorite one of many fans, including me, about the "headlight on a westbound train" - was lifted in toto from a 1930s Jimmy Noone recording called "Blues Jumped The Rabbit" - and from several old published versions of "I Know You Rider." (I'm guessing that some of the lifting was courtesy of Phillips, who seemed to have a fair knowledge of country blues and mountain music.) And the "Leavin' in the springtime/Won't be back til fall" trope also appears in a number of older folk songs.

No matter, though - that's how folk music works, and "Chilly Winds" stands on its own as one of the best of the art-folk original songs of the revival period. Its roots in older songs are actually one of its strengths, and few if any other songs of the era articulate the melancholy of a dying romance so well. Stewart recorded the song at least a dozen times in different arrangements, though likely the two most familiar are combined in this video medley created by Tom Salter of Stonewall Studios in Niagara, ONT. The first half of the video is the original Kingston Trio College Concert recording (the concert was in December of '61 with the album released in 1962 - thanks to Tom Lamb!), and the second version (my own favorite) is Stewart's 1973 re-imagined performance from the wonderful Cannons in the Rain album:

Stewart dedicates the number in the liner notes to Shane and Reynolds. I might add that this video was a personal gift to me from Tom Salter, which is why the second part is replete with pictures of my own group, named in honor of this song.

I always loved the ways that John Stewart re-thought his performances of "Chilly Winds," and here is one of his better later performances, captured by friend and partner Paul Rybolt in Dalry, Scotland in 2003:

My favorite re-imagined version of the tune comes from 1984, when Stewart recorded an EP with his former Kingston Trio bandmate Nick Reynolds, who sang on the original 1962 recording:

One critic described Stewart's style here as "reminiscent of [1980s band] A Flock Of Seagulls, but infinitely more subtle and tuneful."

Several other professional groups also recorded the song, including Jay and the Americans:

It works nicely with the soft pop/folk/rock treatment and Jay Black's really sweet vocals here.

The Cumberland Trio (from the University of Tennessee and Hootenanny! and not to be confused with Stewart's original group) does a bang-up version of the song, here from their 2001 reunion concert:

The CT is using the basic KT arrangement but with the addition of a Cannons in the Rain-like slide guitar - a near-perfect hybrid, I'd say.

The different vocal tonalities of today's Kingston Trio lends a rather different sound to the song as well:

This is one of hundreds of Trio Fantasy Camp videos shot by our dear friend Bo Wennstam of Mallorca, who is battling cancer now - and whom we miss and love.

There are scores of amateur performances of the song on YouTube, many of them quite fine. I wanted to close with this one from Kevin Dorsey, who recorded his own multi-tracked version with a video dedicated to his late father on what would have been his dad's 60th birthday (my age....) last November:

Dorsey's video is for me the perfect evocation of the profoundly bittersweet melancholy of this wonderful song. It deserves to be sung and sung again and again, both for its own merits and for the way it expresses this most universal of human emotions. And by singing it, we both memorialize John Stewart and renew the continued existence of his songwriting legacy.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Edric Connor And "The Virgin Mary Had A Baby Boy"

When I was deciding which song to profile for my Christmas post two weeks ago, my final decision came down to either "The Last Month Of The Year" or "The Virgin Mary Had A Baby Boy." I chose the former because I thought that the blues/gospel approach of that song was an arrestingly different take on Nativity music than we are normally used to. For all that, though, I could have chosen "Virgin Mary" because it is equally unique as what its collector Edric Connor termed "the only West Indian negro carol I found" in his 1945 collection The Edric Connor Collection of West Indian Folk Songs and Tunes.

With a few different breaks, Trinidad-born Edric Connor (1913-1968) might well have been what Harry Belafonte became. Connor was both a collector (as above) and a performer in Jamaica and for the greater part of his life in Britain. A decade before Belafonte's landmark Calypso album (the first LP to be certified as having sold a million units), Connor was popularizing the genre with a series of recordings including a December 1955 album (praised in a brief review in Billboard HERE) with the same title as Harry B's but pre-dating it by half a year - and underselling it by several hundred thousand copies. Connor was also the first artist to record in 1952 the song that Bob Gibson heard in 1954 and that both he and the Tarriers recorded later in the decade, the song that became the signature hit for Harry Belafonte and that is still heard ad infinitum in ball parks across the land today - "Day-O." Here is Connor performing the song that he collected on the docks in Jamaica:

Fans of contemporary African music cannot help but notice the similarity of Connor's back-up chorus here to Ladysmith Black Mambazo's harmonies. And Kingston Trio fans clearly owe a kind of distant debt to Connor as well, since it was the calypso craze initiated by Belafonte's popularity (and Harry B. acknowledged some influence from Connor) that initially brought the group together.

"The Virgin Mary" might well have languished in Connor's fairly obscure 1945 book had it not been picked up by a group called The DePaur Chorus, who released an album called Calypso Christmas in 1956:

Following the DePaur group, both Belafonte and the second troupe of the Weavers with Erik Darling waxed the number in 1958. Harry B. gave the song his familiar "gentle calypso" treatment that you hear in "Jamaica Farewell", and the Weavers went a capella with percussion supplied by Fred Hellerman thumping the body of his guitar like a conga drum. Belafonte mutes the syncopation a bit in this excellent version:

With the mega-stars Belafonte and the Weavers recording the tune, it was not long before other purveyors of popular folk music also began recording "Virgin Mary." Each retained some elements of the song's calypso origins, but to very different effect. The loveliest melodic version belongs hands down to the Chad Mitchell Trio, who included it in their 1964 Reflecting album:

Seldom in this group's recording history are the trained voices of Mitchell, Kobluk and Frazier showcased to better effect, and note that the instrumental syncopation alternates between John Frigo's bass lines and Paul Prestopino's guitar bridges into the chorus.

The Kingston Trio did not include the song on its Last Month Of The Year Christmas album - strangely so, I would venture, because as a calypso carol this number would have fit beautifully into the aggregation of unusual folk tunes included in that wonderful record. Instead, titled "Glorious Kingdom," it appears in an unusual and definitely non-calypso arrangement in the group's first album with John Stewart:

The line-by-line of addition of each voice in the verses is a nice touch, as is the use of a 12-string guitar for instrumental breaks. Again, the bass (here played by David Wheat on his last recording with the KT) provides the rhythm that connects this rendition however distantly with calypso music. It is definitely an odd take on the tune, especially for a group that cut its teeth on calypso, and I have often wondered if this was an experimental arrangement by the recently-resigned Dave Guard, who had always had a taste for the innovative and unusual.

"The Virgin Mary" has also been a staple since the 50s of choruses and "serious" performers - like New Zealand's Maori-descent opera star Kiri Te Kanawa:

Note: The copyright cops have removed Ms. Te Kanawa; if she returns, I will re-post her version.

Te Kanawa does a creditable job here with a song outside of her normal performing perimeter. She is a real diva - and by this I do not mean the vulgarized pop definition of the word. I mean what the term actually means - a female opera star of surpassing ability and accomplishment.

Gospel groups have also quite naturally gravitated to the song - here, a sprightly and joyous rendition by the Bill and Gloria Gaither group:

An interesting mix of Southern white gospel with a healthy dose of Caribbean-inflected soul.

Finally - because I like to believe that folk music may yet survive the onslaught of the truly bastardized and vulgar pop culture that has overrun our land in this day and age (and tongue is ever so slightly in cheek here), here is a fine performance from three weeks ago by Basket Landing, a real honest-to-God folk group out of the East Ridge School, in New York, I believe:

Praise the Lord! - there may be hope yet for These United States!