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.