Thursday, February 24, 2011

Goodbye, America - How Were You? Steve Goodman's "City Of New Orleans"

It is "the best damn train song ever written," according to (depending on your source) Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson (who discovered it and composer Steve Goodman), or John Prine - or all three, though my money is on Goodman's close friend and collaborator Prine. Whoever originated it, he was making a sweepingly significant statement, given the centrality of the train to the history of the U.S. and the plethora of great songs engendered by it, songs like "The Wreck of Old 97" and its nephew "Charlie on the MTA," and like "The Ballad of Casey Jones," and "Pat Works on the Railway" and "Drill Ye Tarriers" and "John Henry" and "The Wabash Cannonball" and "Freight Train" and scores, even hundreds more. It may have been the automobile industry that turned America from a middling power to the industrial giant of the world through most of the 20th century - but that would never have happened had there not first been what we today call an infrastructure of steel rails that made large scale - gigantic scale, really, - manufacturing in this country possible, even inevitable.

It was the train that superseded the barge and the paddle-wheel steamer as the primary vehicle of American commerce because the latter were limited to where there were navigable waterways but the former could and did go anywhere and everywhere. The railroads did not simply connect places where people were; they led the way to places for people to go. And go they did, by the millions, especially at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. That's why every one of us learned about the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869 completing the transcontinental railroad, an epic achievement that marked the first time in human history that a fast, reliable, and safe means of transport breached a continental expanse and linked the two largest oceans in the world.

Freight was always at the core of the railroad business, but the great rail companies of the day took such pride in the quality of their passenger service that they dared to name their trains in much the same way as ocean liners were named - and those names conjured up the romance of far places in the minds of American children for more than a century. The Empire Builder. The Super Chief. The Sunset Limited. The Zephyr. The Silver Meteor. The Twentieth Century Limited. Who of us did not have a model train set, likely with an engine that recreated one of those fabled trains?

And for nearly a hundred years, the very center of rail service in the U.S. was my home town of Chicago. It was also Steve Goodman's birthplace in 1948 (2 years before me), and you just couldn't live in the Second City in the '50s without your life defined by trains of all sorts, from freight and long-haul passenger trains to the electric inter-urbans to the subways to the commuter trains to the legendary El (for those non-Chicagoans, the elevated electric commuter trains whose track configuration created the Loop, which is downtown Chicago.) Trains were in our DNA as surely as autos were for '50s and '60s teens in LA.

So it is no surprise to me at all that the best damn train song ever written was brought into being by a Chicagoan, and that is what Steve Goodman was, dyed in the wool and to the marrow of his bones. Who else but an unreconstructed Chicagoan could have written such wonderful songs as "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request" or "Lincoln Park Pirates' or "Daley's Gone, One More Round" - or "The City of New Orleans"?

Goodman penned CONY likely in early 1970, when plans were announced to end independent passenger rail service in the U.S. and amalgamate the most profitable routes into AMTRAK - which at first de-commissioned many of the named trains in an effort to establish its own "brand." The success of Arlo Guthrie's version of Goodman's song, however, changed some corporate minds, and AMTRAK in 1974 resurrected the name a mere three years after it had dropped it. The names were good for business, and a number of the other classic monnikers were resurrected as well.

Goodman's song is a poetic eulogy to the passing of an era, and bringing back the name did not bring back that era. My guess is that Goodman knew that more than a name was evanescing into the mists of history; it was a way of life, or perhaps more properly stated, an attitude toward life. Travel by train seemed lightning-quick in 1910, but air travel supplanted it over the next fifty years for speed and initially for convenience. Rail travel became leisurely, relaxed, and at times elegant in a country and era that had little use for any of those. And as passenger patronage dropped, the old grand dames of the named trains fell into deep disrepair. I took the CONY any number of times in the mid- and late 60's to visit friends at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, a stop on the route, and the cars had gone to seed: torn upholstery, dirty decks, stinking restrooms, third-rate and over-priced food.

But Goodman's artistic eye saw past all that and into the heart of the romance that the train and its name engendered: his City of New Orleans is still the proud queen of the heartland, at least in his imagination. While I know that most people respond most enthusiastically to Arlo Guthrie's hit version, for my money no one else ever did the song as well as Goodman himself - here from England in 1972:

I wish every cover artist had heeded Goodman's original concept. Listen. It's Kank -akee, folks, not Kan - kakee. The rhythm of the song is that of drive wheels pounding at full speed through the open countryside. In his original lyric (and clearly he is amending it as he goes along here) it was "passing trains that have no names" - those less regal and distinguished than CONY.

But what is, is - and Arlo Guthrie's arrangement is the one that most people know. And a fine arrangement it is - but it's not the way Goodman imagined it. Arlo in 1978:

Guthrie gives the tune a bit of country swing, and he sings it movingly - but it doesn't sound or feel much like a train at all.

John Denver stayed closer to the song's roots and Goodman's musical concept, though like much of JD's early stuff, this is maybe a bit over-produced:

You undoubtedly noticed that Denver substantially rewrote the melody and lyric in verses two and three - one of the more disreputable things he ever did musically, partly because he claimed partial copyright for a song not of his own making. I wonder why Goodman let him get away with this. I'd guess that it was because Goodman was struggling still and Denver had already had a Top 10 hit and was beginning his stratospheric ascent into superstardom. But I also wonder if Denver ever realized how badly he compromised the tune and how completely he missed the inherent melancholy of the song.

Willie Nelson won a country Grammy for his 1984 recording (at which ceremony a Grammy was also awarded posthumously to Goodman, who had died earlier that year at age 36 from leukemia):

Nelson is a great singer and interpreter, but this quasi-country blues approach leaves me unmoved, at least to the extent that I can ever listen to this song and not be moved.

I think that New Orleans R&B legend Alan Toussaint is more successful at translating Guthrie's musical setting into his own idiom:

There's a catch in Toussaint's voice on the chorus that gives his rendition just enough of an edge of sadness to keep it in Goodman's conceptual ballpark.

Country legend Hank Snow goes full-on cheery here:

I like the way Snow preserves the speed and something of the rhythm of a passenger train rumbling through the night that Goodman invested into the song. He still sounds too happy for my taste.

The song was tailor-made for a pop-folk group like the Kingston Trio, who gave us a tightly-harmonized and thoroughly professional take on the song in their 1976 Live In Reno album:

Lead vocal here is by the late Roger Gambill, and the banjo is by Bill Zorn, who rejoined the group in 2004 after a 28-year hiatus. This version has the right rhythm, even if the gusto of the vocal overwhelms the lyric a bit at points. It's still a fine performance.

I might be less inclined to find fault with the versions above did I not have a superior interpretation to close with...but I do. Johnny Cash, solo acoustic, the only accompaniment being Cash on rhythm guitar, from 1984:

That would be my favorite version after Goodman's himself. Cash knows what to do with the lyric, and if he is simplifying the chords somewhat, he is simultaneously making the song his own while recognizing what the composer's intent was.

Steve Goodman wrote a song that lamented, as noted, the passing of an era. But the era of the song's composition has also passed, a distant memory like the America that you could greet in the morning that now is no more. I am reminded by this song of the opening scenes of the movie Rudy, which I love not simply because I went to Notre Dame but even more because it evokes the gritty, snowy, industrial Midwest of my boyhood - the same industrial Midwest that nurtured Steve Goodman and the great trains that rolled out of the great stations, many of which are today abandoned and silent. All is changed, changed utterly, as Yeats wrote. While I have little doubt that something golden and wonderful will ultimately arise from the ashes of the fires we lit that destroyed our industries and our cities of what is now most accurately termed the Rust Belt, it is too much to expect that some of us will not mourn what has been lost. Steve Goodman did, though he didn't live to see how the disappearance of this train simply presaged the disappearance of so much more. He has, however, left us with a great and evocative song that reminds us of that loss.

Friday, February 18, 2011

"Old Joe Clark": Then And Now

Old fashions please me best; I am not so nice
To change true rules for odd inventions. - Shakespeare

Ah, the Bard! As almost always, the perfect phrase for every mood and thought. I was reminded of this line (culled from a funny scene about a music lesson, of all things, in The Taming of the Shrew) as I watched parts of last Sunday's Grammy ceremonies - and subsequently after an exchange of posts on the John Stewart message board regarding whether or not popular music has descended to a lower level today even than heretofore. For me, the main show was secondary to the internet-broadcast Special Awards ceremony at which the Kingston Trio, Julie Andrews, drummer Roy Haynes and several others were honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards. The Sunday broadcast of the 53rd awards left me with the impression that there is still a tremendous amount of genuine talent in American popular music, but that much of it is wasted in over-glitzed, over-produced, pyrotechnics-riddled refuse, vulgar at best and ridiculous at worst - or roughly the same as it has always been. Take the opening - Lady Gaga has written a genuinely fine pop-rock number in "I Was Born This Way," and she has the genuine vocal chops of a real singer. But the egg thing from which she emerged (intended to be symbolism of the kind that would be thought cool and deep by a 12-year-old) and the hyper-sexual costumes, dance, and overall visuals actually worked to obscure the quality of the number rather than clarify or enhance it.

Which is not to say that old things are always better than new, but rather as Shakespeare's Bianca notes above, the "true rules" of the better parts of the traditional are always under assault from those "odd inventions" of pop culture, which has an insatiable appetite not for the truly innovative as much as it does for the short-term novelty. Were this not so, we would have seen long before now some genuine innovation in rock music away from a pattern like the four or five instrument-based band that has been the ironclad rule since the Stones and the Who nearly fifty years ago. Instead - just more of the same, never done as well now as when it was new. Punk, hip-hop, glam - all the same - a burst of innovation followed by endless, unimaginative replication. Most years the Grammys simply add an exclamation point to that, as they did this year.

At its best, American folk music has been able to find a kind of middle ground between a slavish imitation of the old and a careless disregard for it. I fear that in last week's post I didn't clarify how much I appreciate what the so-called traditionalists of folk have done. What they have tried to preserve is worth preserving, and its near-invisibility now simply underscores the validity of their efforts. But it's too bad that the "big tent" idea of George Wein at the original Newport Folk Festival never actually took hold (even at that festival, which today tends to include nearly no traditional music at all). About all that you find on the American music scene today that resembles what used to be called folk are bluegrass bands (and that is a genre which can hardly be called traditional, dating as it does and as we've discussed here really only to the 1940s) and a large number of "Celtic" bands, many of which from Celtic Woman to Celtic Thunder to Celtic-What-Have-You are simply pop groups that affect an Irish accent and go in for the heavily-orchestrated and visually over-produced settings of their rock and "country" cousins. But folk in its original sense? It's AWOL.

Or almost. Here and there, scattered around the English-speaking world, there are bands and soloists who owe their musical aesthetic rather more to the New Lost City Ramblers than they do to Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio. And this week's song, "Old Joe Clark," gives us ample evidence of where folk music has been and the crossroads at which it finds itself. Again.

"Old Joe Clark" has been a popular number for more than 90 years, and there seems to have been a real character by that name who inspired the song. Most folklorists believe that the real Clark was born in 1839 in either eastern Kentucky (probably) or western Virginia (maybe) and was eventually murdered, date and circumstances subject to dispute. The real Clark (and the picture above is allegedly a statue of him) made moonshine, possibly under a government license. He may have been married twice, or three times. He may have been murdered by his first wife's second lover - or by his own son. What is certain is that a lot of mountaineer doughboys in WWI sang the song quite a bit, and a lot of Yankee doughboys and Rocky Mountain doughboys and Midwest farmer doughboys took a liking to it and brought it home with them after the war, which accounts for the explosion of published and later recorded versions following the initial printed versions from 1918. You can find several versions of the song's history on the excellent website of our first artists for this week, the UK's Rosinators:

Lisa Clark On Ancestor Joe

The Rosinators On Song History

The Rosinators deliver a fairly straightforward fiddle- and banjo-inflected interpretation, though I personally could do without the Seeger-Sessions-Springsteen-infected-not-inflected drums. A kindly word here - in traditional music, both the banjo and guitar ARE the rhythm setting for the song. Oh well.

Many of our contemporary recordings are derived from the one of the first waxed versions, the 1927 recording of Fiddlin' John Carson:

Carson sets as a pattern one of the more interesting aspects of the song - he opens with an instrumental, which you'll see is common to all all the versions below. An acknowledgment is due here from me to Chicago-area musician and folklorist Jeremy Raven, who knows more than I ever will about folk roots and whose writings introduced me first to Carson several years ago on the KT message board.

There were plenty of other old-timey recordings of the song, but Ol' Joe takes a major step into Big Time Show Biz when Pete Seeger in 1946 not only records a version of the song but films it as well. "OJC" is the third tune:

That opening banjo riff is amazing - and it sounds to me like Uncle Dave Macon's "Keep My Skillet Good And Greasy". Seeger and the Almanac Singers re-wrote the lyrics for "Round and Round Hitler's Grave":

The videographer made one clear mistake - Burl Ives was never in the Almanacs and was not on this recording - which should have been more controversial than it was, taking a traditional tune and appending topical lyrics to it. Tsk, tsk, Peter.

The Callahan Brothers in 1945 also played a bit fast and loose with instrumentation to create this sort of proto-country take on the tune:

And on to the crass popularizers of the 1960s - first the Kingston Trio from their 1962 album Something Special:

Traditional? Not quite, though you can hear the roots in it. Fun? I'd say so.

And speaking of fun - the great Chet Atkins:

Atkins had bona fide country/folk roots, but he is really breaking the versatility bank here - you can hear classic pop, a touch of blues, genuine rockabilly, and a bit of rock all in this one cut.

Finally to the contemporary. The Avett Brothers of North Carolina are an up-and-coming band who were featured last Sunday on the Grammy broadcast. They have been including their unique arrangement of "OJC" in their concerts for several years:

Folk-rock, I'd call this, and more legitimately so than bands like the Byrds or Mamas and Papas, who were singer/songwriter rock rather more than folk.

Yet in hidden and distant corners of our benighted land (smiley), the traditional continues, here by mountain autoharpist Kenneth Bennefield on Folkways Records in 2006:

The production and recording here were done by the late Mike Seeger of the NLCR, one of the last of his decades of contributions to American folk music.

Finally - maybe my favorite of all of these recordings, two guys at home making some good old time music and recording themselves. That's Casey Abair on fiddle and Hunter Robinson on clawhammer banjo:

George Wein had it right, I think - American folk music is a big tent, probably with room enough for all of these markedly different styles.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The First Grammy For Folk - And Why It Matters Today

Bob Dylan will be bringing his acoustic guitar to perform this weekend [at the 53rd Grammy Awards] on the same stage as Justin Bieber, Drake and Katy Perry.
- Geoff Boucher, The Los Angeles Times, February 10, 2011

What connection these frenetic tinselly showmen [The Kingston Trio] have with a folk festival eludes me...except that it is mainly folk songs that they choose to vulgarize.
- Mark Morris, Sing Out Magazine, 1959

To call the Kingston Trio folksingers was kind of stupid in the first place. We never called ourselves folksingers... We did folk-oriented material, but we did it amid all kinds of other stuff. But they didn't know what to call us with our instruments, so Capitol Records called us folksingers and gave us credit for starting this whole boom.
- Bob Shane, in Washburn and Johnson's Martin Guitars, 1997

A bit more than 50 years ago, a (metaphorically) bloody civil war was raging in the outer provinces of American popular music, and the passages above represent both the flashpoint of the conflict and the residual effects of it. And in an odd harmonic convergence, this year's Grammy Awards will bring the strife to a definitive close, and a winner will emerge from the smoke and blood. Here's a hint: he'll be wearing a striped shirt.

But let us return first to those dark times half a century ago. Popular music's center homeland was safe and stable, ruled by Sinatra and Cole and Garland and company and administered by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and Tin Pan Alley. Order was insured by the cabal of the six or seven largest recording companies in a dark and sometimes payola-ridden relationship with the radio stations and programmers. All seemed well.

The outlanders were restless, however. Unruly musicians around the country were creating a subterranean and subversive counterculture, and a truck driver from Mississippi and his friends were daring to infect the mainstream of the country with their take on the wilder, syncopated, and sensuous music of Black America. But after an initial burst of lawless creative energy, the rebellion against conformity had been sidetracked by a series of disasters that had robbed the incipient movement of its leaders - draft (Elvis Presley), death (Buddy Holly), and disgrace (Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry). In their place appeared a bland and homogenized version of their music, purveyed by the likes of Fabian and Dion and Pat Boone. A yawning void had appeared.

It was this void that allowed to come to prominence an element from even further out on the fringe, performers of a music so obscure that it didn't even have a proper record company/radio format name. In Cambridge, Mass. and Greenwich Village and Chicago's Old Town, rural singers with acoustic instruments and their urban peers who sought to emulate them began to record and release music on tiny labels like Vanguard and Folkways and Elektra. They were serious musicians, committed to the preservation of the great cultural inheritance of folk music, of traditions that they thought were threatened by the modern world. They were often political as well, tending as their musical antecedents had been to the progressivist/socialist end of the spectrum. They were also not very popular, a mere step or two away from complete invisibility, inhabiting their open-air squares and underground coffee houses without much regard for popular attention or acclaim.

This all changed in a heartbeat in 1958 when a well-scrubbed, fresh-faced trio of West Coast nightclub performers sold several million records of an old Appalachian folk ballad called "Tom Dooley." A series of monster hit albums followed over the next two and a half years, generating record sales of what would be $180 million in today's dollars for that group, the Kingston Trio, and its label, Capitol Records. Suddenly, "folk music" was a hot commodity, and all the other major labels went scurrying about to college campuses and upscale nightclubs looking for acts to help them mine their share of the new-found folk gold.

What the record companies were initially looking for, however, was not the earnest and old-timey sound of the genuine traditional folks or the politically-hued repertoires of the urban traditionalists. They wanted the polished, accessible, commercial sound of the corporate groups, who were making millions selling music that the older-line folkies felt that they neither respected nor understood. A combination of genuine distress at the bowdlerization of their music and a resentment at the amount of money being made by the commercial groups led to a vitriolic campaign in print against the popularizers by the traditionalists, the comment above by Mark Morris being one of the milder critiques published at the time.

The fissure between the adherents of something like traditionalism on the one hand and the commercial popularizers on the other became painfully and visibly public in a series of events from mid-1959 through 1960. The first of these (in addition to the articles in Sing Out and other folk publications) was the controversy at the first Newport Folk Festival in July of 1959. Jazz promoter George Wein, who owned the Storyville clubs around Boston and who had in 1954 started the Newport Jazz Festival, had experimented in the late summer and fall of 1958 with featuring the "folk" acts Odetta and the Kingston Trio in his clubs, and their amazing popularity had prompted him to include a "folk afternoon" at his jazz festival in April of 1959 including the same two performers and a handful of others. When that proved to be a runaway success as well, Wein decided to act immediately on a proposal being kicked around by folk icons Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand, and Theodore Bikel (all including Wein remarkably still alive and active) to sponsor a full-fledged folk gathering in Newport that summer. Wein's idea was to have a "big tent" festival, one in which all shades of folk-styled music would be showcased in joyful harmony.

Wein also realized that he needed the Kingstons to make the festival a commercial if not artistic success - because the Trio was riding a wave of popularity that year unprecedented in American music history up til that time. They had in May been awarded a Grammy at the NARAS first presentation ceremony for "Tom Dooley" for "Best Performance - Country and Western, 1958" (there was no folk category that first year) much to the chagrin of many long-laboring real C&W performers. Their first three albums to that time - all released between June of 1958 and late May of 1959 - had gone gold and were charting, and a fourth was in the works for release later that year (and all four would crack Billboard's top ten selling albums chart for five consecutive weeks in November and December that year, a feat unmatched before or since).

But the Trio's appearance at Newport, intended to be the festival finale on Sunday night, created both near-riot conditions from an unruly and largely young (and alcohol-fueled) crowd estimated at 5,000 or more (especially when Wein tried to bring banjo legend Earl Scruggs on after the Trio - that is a separate story) and a tidal wave of ill feeling from some of the trad performers who had not enjoyed the same adulation lavished on the KT and other pop-folkies like Bob Gibson. The presence at Newport of legendary photographer Alfred Eisenstadt to do a photo shoot of the Trio for the cover of Life Magazine didn't soothe any bruised egos either. Wein's festival made some money but left in its wake a good deal of ill will as well between the now openly warring camps.

The number one album in the country during that first Newport show was the trio's second studio album and third real record overall, At Large. (A concert from a Texas show that had been recorded by locals and not Capitol's people had been bought and rushed out by the label because it was in stereo, and the group's first two albums were not - but the album did not sell especially well and was barely noticed by the public.) At Large was deemed by founding member Dave Guard to be the best of the nine albums that he was part of, the point at which the group's original musical vision was most fully realized. The record held the number one spot on the charts for an astounding fifteen weeks, still among the top 20 albums of all time for longevity at #1. In May of 1960 at the second Grammy awards ceremony, At Large won the first folk statuette for "Best Recording - Ethnic or Traditional" - neither of which, of course, the album was.

What At Large was, in fact, was the harbinger of a new era and the precursor of all that came to be called folk in later decades to the present day. It was a superbly-crafted collage of re-imagined traditional songs, a pop ballad or two, a dash of calypso, and some modern songwriter art-folk that in a later epoch would be called roots or Americana. It even had just the slightest whiff of a political protest song, the opening cut on the album, the now much-beloved "MTA":

The song had begun its life as a humorous protest/campaign song for Progressive Party candidate for mayor of Boston Walter F. O'Brien. Seeking to avoid political controversy and blacklisting, the KT had tried to de-fang the song's politics by altering the candidate's name. The whole story is HERE. Doing so, of course, drove and even deeper wedge between the Trio and the traditionalists.

The inclusion on the record of several pop ballads didn't help, either. One of these, "Scarlet Ribbons," had been written by Tin Pan Alley composers Jack Segal and Evelyn Danzig and had already been a pop hit for both Jo Stafford and Harry Belafonte:

The tight harmonies and incidental use of a celeste sounded to many nothing like folk was supposed to sound. And though "All My Sorrows" was derived from an actual folk song, the re-write by pop folkie Glenn Yarbrough had turned a plaintive slave song into a 50's love ballad:

But as with Wein's Newport big tent, At Large was part of the process of redefining what the term "folk" meant, at least in the music business - and it was that re-definition that in large part opened the door for artists like Bob Dylan, whose tenuous connection to folk music was made possible only be the expanded definition of what the term meant. That as above Dylan could ever have been called "folk" simply because he wielded an acoustic guitar (and will do so again this Sunday) comes from all that At Large represents - and part of that is the way that the Kingstons handled genuine traditional music, with more fidelity and respect for it than Bobby D and the first group of protest singer-songwriters ever managed to show. Consider "Darlin' Corey":

This is a pretty straightforward homage to the Weavers, with fledgling banjoist Guard doing his best to replicate Pete Seeger's thrilling banjo part. On another trad number though, the group transcends Burl Ives' signature arrangement of "Blow Ye Winds"with a respectful but original take on the chantey:

The harmonies and energy became the group's trademark, and they manage here to present them with sophistication while maintaining respect for the song's origins.

The album's final cut, Jane Bowers' "Remember the Alamo" that had originally been recorded by Tex Ritter in 1955 and that would be covered numerous times later by artists of the stature of Donovan and Johnny Cash, anticipates the folk songwriter and Americana music that has today replaced any earlier definition of the word "folk" in the music biz. Again, the signature energy and harmonies -

- with the patriotic pride and theme that would color much of the country and Americana compositions of the Sixties, Seventies, and later.

The Kingston Trio's Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented this Saturday afternoon by the NARAS at a special ceremony, and some mention of it is likely on the actual Grammy broadcast on Sunday. It will be the first Grammy for the KT since the one for At Large fifty-one years ago, and since the whole Grammy thing is, like the Oscars, fundamentally a promotion vehicle for the industry overall as much as it is an attempt at genuine recognition of artists, I suspect that the half of the nation and a larger proportion of the music business that is under 40 years of age is probably looking at the income that the KT generated in its heyday more than they are at its singular musical accomplishments. I will be very interested to see what emerges from the ceremony. But I know already that you need a magnifying glass to find anything genuinely traditional in today's Grammy nominees for folk, and I know that even staunch traditionalists like Doc Watson and the Chieftans and others have recorded Trio-discovered art-folk and pop-folk songs like "Long Black Veil," "South Coast," and dozens more. The outlanders have moved into the capital, and whatever else folk is, it is now mainstream. And it looks a lot more like what Dave Guard, Bob Shane, Nick Reynolds and their Kingston associates imagined it to be than their dyspeptic traditionalist critics did. Frenetic tinselly showmen indeed.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Michael Peter Smith, Steve Goodman And More - "The Dutchman"

As last week's article on "My Johnny Lad" indicates once again, my personal taste in folk music tends much more strongly to traditional tunes, often polished and re-imagined, than it does to the singer-songwriter material that overwhelmingly constitutes what people today seem to think of as folk. One reason for this is reflected in the nature of probably 85% of the 120 posts archived on this blog. Traditional songs usually exist in a wide range of variants, lending themselves to often radically different interpretations that make (for me at least) interesting listening and I hope interesting reading. Singer-songwriter compositions, on the other hand, are usually copyrighted, words and music both, and consequently tend to have less diversity in presentation.

There are, of course, many exceptions to that rule of mine. I've always thought that the all-time champ for singer-songwriter numbers that have spawned some truly original arrangements is Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Mornin' Rain", but of course there are many more. And it isn't as if I'm not a wild aficionado of singer-songwriters like GL and Tom Paxton and Paul Simon and Ian Tyson and John Denver and dozens more. It's just that something in the traditional speaks to me at a deeper and more lasting place in my being than do most contemporary numbers, regardless of how well they are written or how artistically performed.

Of the several exceptions to that point for me - at the head of the list is Michael Peter Smith's "The Dutchman." The song is a veritable miracle - because out of the awfulness of senility and dementia Smith is able astoundingly to create one of the most beautiful testaments ever set down to the enduring power of love. And he does so in the deceptively simple framework of a song that includes many of the qualities that I have frequently cited in these posts as the hallmarks of a legitimately folk-type modern composition - simplicity of melody and lyric, an easily-mastered and remembered chorus, and an instantly identifiable trope or lyric passage - here, perhaps, "And dear Margaret remembers that for me."

Smith wrote the song at the very beginning of his long and honored (if under-appreciated) career in 1968. After his own recording of it, Smith's classic-to-be was first covered about a year later by Steve Goodman and added to "Chicago Shorty's" concert repertoire immediately - which I know because in my senior year at Notre Dame in 1970, the student union invited Goodman to perform a solo concert, one at which he performed "The Dutchman" and "The City of New Orleans," though he didn't record the former until his second album on Buddha Records (Somebody Else's Troubles) in 1972.

Goodman's version of "The Dutchman" became an instant FM radio hit back when that meant something - when FM with its shorter broadcast range and outstanding sound quality was a hotbed of originality and innovation - when you could hear extended music sets without interruption of commercials and jabbering DJs. How well I remember and miss those days...listening late into the night with a very special young lady to LA's KNX-FM and hearing early cuts from many of the great acoustic artists of the day, Goodman foremost among them. When I heard his recorded version, I was immediately reminded of his live performance, and for me and I suspect a whole lot of other people, "The Dutchman" will always be a Steve Goodman song:

One of the highlights of this version for me is the fact that it is entirely acoustic - Goodman demonstrates how resoundingly beautiful two expertly-played and impeccably arranged complementary guitar parts can sound, in addition to his great vocal.

Smith has often been questioned about what basis in actual life experience his song had, if any...did he know someone with Alzheimer's disease? was there a Dutch uncle in his background? is he close to someone named Margaret? (For the record: answers are no-no-yes.) In April 2010, Smith provided a well-considered answer to the question of his composition in response to questions from a Dutch music writer HERE. Click and you'll see how fine a writer of prose Smith is (and you'll find links to lots of his other songs as well). For those who want a precis - Smith's sister is named Margaret; she had a Dutch boyfriend decades ago; he has never been to the Netherlands; he tried to jam every cliche about Holland (canals, windmills, wooden shoes, tulips, Hans Brinker's grandpa) that Americans cherish into the song's lyric...and emerged with a masterpiece despite it all. And while the artist is never the last or best word on the meaning of his/her work, and while composers may not always be the best interpreters of their own music - there is still something magical about hearing a song the way the composer imagined it - Smith, here from 1997:

There is a quiet, reflective gentleness to Smith's rendering of his song that I find profoundly moving.

Smith has credited Goodman's performance of "The Dutchman" with propelling his songs to a higher degree of visibility than prior, emboldening Michael to ask Liam Clancy ("the greatest ballad singer of all time" according to Bob Dylan) to record it, which Liam did, here with Tommy Makem in 1983:

As you can tell from contrasting Liam's intro with Smith's comments - Clancy is imagining his own story for the song, as all great interpretive artists do.

Some Clancy fanatics attribute a kind of "ownership" of the tune to LC, and I recall comments on the Clancy message board disparaging the fact that Bob Shane of the Kingston Trio was including a version of "The Dutchman" on his first solo album. Too bad - because as Smith makes clear in this post from his blog from 2008, his first musical dream as a boy was to write a Kingston Trio song - Smith on the KT  - scroll down to May 2008. Smith comments -

Bob Shane of the Kingston Trio has recorded "The Dutchman" on his very first ever solo CD and it's coming out momentarily and I've heard it and he does it so good, it makes me cry. It is the definitive recording of "The Dutchman" as far as I'm concerned, and "The Dutchman" is a Kingston Trio song at last, fifty years after I first heard the Trio... :

The banjo here is played by current Kingston Trio member Bill Zorn, who was also a member of Shane's New Kingston Trio from 1973-76 with the late Roger Gambill, whose voice I believe I hear at the top of the blend. If so, then this is a NKT number from the mid-70s unreleased until Shane's solo effort.

Jerry Jeff Walker gave "The Dutchman" just a touch of country in this excellent 1992 performance:

Finally - I wonder how many remember that original Starsky and Hutch actor David Soul had a sweet tenor voice and a monster hit in 1977 with "Don't Give Up On Us Baby." He does justice to Smith's song here from the mid-80s:

Part of the magic of "The Dutchman," I believe, lies in the fact that it marries a chilling fear to a profound and beautiful hope - that if, God forbid, we should lose our selves in the mists and then darkness of old age, there might be someone there whose love is so complete that he or she can see past the wreckage of what we have become to the beauty of what we once were. Smith's song makes us believe that it is possible that the dark realities of aging can be held at bay to a degree at least by the miraculous reality of a transcendent love.

Late Additions

This post has elicited some wonderful suggestions from friends of mine in the John Stewart/Kingston Trio internet world. Tim Riley, proprietor of Bloodlines (the very long-running John Stewart message board) related his admiration for the version by the protean pop-rock-folk rock group Cashman and West, and my fellow subscriber to Tim's board and Trio fantasy camp buddy and fine performer in her own right Kate Snow did the same for Steve Cottrell's take on the song, Steve being a mutual friend. I'm delighted to present those two versions here as well:

Cashman and West

Steve Cottrell

And courtesy of my NorCal friend and general folk expert PC Fields, here is the We Five (of "You Were On My Mind" fame) from 2009:

A fine version from the Shaw Brothers of New Hampshire, formerly of the Brandywine Singers:

And from 2010, Tony Poole:

Addendum - January 2013

About a month after this post appeared, a video was posted to YouTube in which composer Michael Peter Smith discusses at length how the song came to be: