Thursday, December 27, 2012

Rise Again! Stan Rogers & "The Mary Ellen Carter"

It is hard to believe that as of next June, thirty years will have passed since an all-too-young Stan Rogers departed this earth at the age of 33 in the inferno of Air Canada 797 on the tarmac at the Greater Cincinnati Airport. Flight 797 reported smoke in the cabin mid-air and made an emergency landing, and during the evacuation of the passengers a flash fire erupted, trapping and killing the 23 souls still on board, of which Rogers was one. He was on his way home to Ontario at the time of his death, returning from a triumphant appearance at the famed Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, with the consequent promise of wider exposure in the U.S. to supplement his phenomenal popularity in his native Canada. As with any other death of one so young, even decades later there remains a lingering melancholy over all that promise unfulfilled, all those tales and tunes that Rogers might have produced had he had the chance to do so. The composer who left behind him wonderful creations like "Barrett's Privateers" and "Northwest Passage," which were written around the time he was 30, was growing visibly in his songwriting craft album by album, and where that growth might have taken him over the next three decades is something that we can never know. Some of Rogers' more enthusiastic followers have declared him to be Canada's greatest songwriter - sadly, not likely in the nation that has produced Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Ian Tyson, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn and more. That is not to denigrate Rogers, really, as much as to underscore the aforementioned sense of loss that his death engendered.

It may at first seem odd to make so apparently tragic a story the topic of a post that celebrates the end of one calendar year and looks hopefully toward the next. Not so at all, I would say, because even in his short life and career, Rogers had developed an ability that one finds rarely and only in the most sensitive of artists, the capacity to see and express the dignity and resilience of the human spirit, even or perhaps especially in times of difficulty and travail. The hardscrabble life of the small farmer, for example, seldom finds as noble an expression as it does here in Rogers' "The Field Behind The Plow" - not even in John Steinbeck or James Agee:

All the attributes of a great folk artist are apparent here - the superior vocals of Rogers' rounded baritone, the impeccably supportive instrumental arrangement, the simplicity of story and lyric that makes it sound as though the age of "The Field Behind The Plow" could be measured in centuries rather than decades. And what stands at the center of this wonderful composition is a recognition of the essential and enduring heroism at the core of the what it means to be human. Or as Don McClean put it in another fine contemporary folk song, "Weathered faces lined in pain/Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand" - which is precisely what Rogers has accomplished here.

I had been dimly aware of Rogers at the time of his death, mainly from hearing the occasional random cut from one of his early albums on FM radio. I thought his voice was pleasant, sort of a more refined and richer version of Tommy Clancy's, but little else about his work leaped out and grabbed me until about fifteen years later. I have always been possessed of a restless and wandering spirit, and from the late 70s through the late 90s, I had seized every possible opportunity to go wandering around the vast stretches of North America's Big Empty, from the Great Basin to the northern Plains to Alaska and to the crown jewel of it all, western Canada from Saskatchewan on the east and south to the Pacific and Arctic coasts, along the few and mostly gravel highways that traverse Alberta and BC and the Yukon and the old Northwest Territories. I have spent months and months and months of my life in the Canadian sub-Arctic and Arctic regions, mostly alone.

Knowing this and having seen a PBS special on Canada that used Rogers' songs as the soundtrack, my brother John bought several of Rogers' albums, copied some songs from them that he thought I would like, and sent the tape to me as a Christmas present. I was transfixed by the first song in the collection, "Northwest Passage," because it seemed almost written for me:

This was something special - the testament of a solitary wanderer who discovers himself in the process of trying to discover his land and its history. It was something I myself had tried to do, both in my own country and in Rogers', but which I think we all have tried to do in our own ways, even if we have traveled widely only in our own imaginations and have spent our lives working the fields behind our own plows.

Which brings us to "The Mary Ellen Carter," which may well prove to be Stan Rogers' most enduring song. The incident described in the lyric is as fictitious as are the events of "Barrett's Privateers," but like the latter number, there is in it a truth that transcends mere facts. The story of a small group of men trying to accomplish a virtually impossible task and succeeding by dint of "arm and heart and brain" though adversity seems to have gotten the best of them - this is Rogers at his uplifting and optimistic best:

Probably nothing else that Rogers has written, nor likely any other lyric written in Canada in the last three decades or so, has become as famous as that wonderful conclusion:

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

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

And that is precisely what makes "The Mary Ellen Carter" the perfect song with which to look forward to a new year as we try to move past the darkness of the passing one.

After Rogers' own version, I think I like best the effort of the late Dave Guard, co-founder of the Kingston Trio, recorded for his 1988 solo album Up and In, nearly thirty years after he left the group he organized:

Guard had had a rough go of it at times in the decades after he left the Trio, and he was less than three years away from his own terribly premature death at 56 in 1991. I have always thought I heard a special kind of affirmation in the way Guard sings this song, especially in the last verse.

Stan Rogers' singing was clearly influenced by the gusto and energy of the vocal style of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, so it is no wonder at all that Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem, a successful duo for many years after the original group had broken up, would interpret Rogers' composition with - signature gusto and energy:

I would think that Rogers must have been thrilled to have heard his creation so well interpreted by the progenitors of his own musical style.

Maine's Schooner Fare, originally a trio at the time of this recording before the death of member Tom Rowe, presents the tune a bit more reflectively...

...but hitting the appropriate crescendo at the final verse and chorus.

The last word for this week and year will belong to Stan Rogers himself. There is a story famous among Rogers aficionados about this song and the sinking of the Marine Electric - I was going to summarize it until I found that in this clip from a CBC special on Rogers, the actual sailor involved tells the story himself, immediately before a live performance with a shortened lyric by Rogers. It is a good and inspiring way to end this year, and may we all Rise Again in the coming twelvemonth.

Friday, December 21, 2012

For The Season #5: "Noël Nouvelet/Sing We Here Noël"

The fifth Christmas post on this site (the other four are linked at the bottom of the page) presents one of the more haunting and mysterious of traditional Christmas songs, known in France before the time of Columbus as "Noël Nouvelet" (meaning something akin to "new Christmas" or perhaps more at "the coming Christmas") and in England more than a century later as "Sing We Here Noël," a literal translation of the French chorus "Noël chantons ici." Some sources suggest that since the root of the French "Noël" is the same as "nouvelle" (new) from which "nouvelet" is derived that the original song must have been a New Year's carol (see last year's "Gloucerstershire Wassail Song" for more on carols) - but I think not. First, the oldest lyrics extant in French include 13 short verses that relate every element of the Christmas story as we know it today - Mary and Joseph, the stable, angels and shepherds, and - this is important - the Three Kings. In pre-modern times, oral tradition was the only way that the illiterate masses of people throughout the world could learn of their histories and their mythologies and their religions. In medieval Christianity, it was both songs and plays that were the primary vehicles for religious instruction; virtually nobody except the clergy and some of the nobility could read at all, and it would not have done the common folk much good even if they could have because the Bible existed only in Latin, a language that nobody spoke and only the educated could understand. "Noël Nouvelet" was said originally to have been taught to children, which fits in with the idea of its educative value. The other element of this composition that makes me suspect the New Year's theory is the sound of the song itself. It is written in a minor key - in the Dorian mode, it seems, where two of the notes of our modern normal "do-re-mi" scale are dropped a half step to give it a minor coloring. And songs written in minor keys have a haunting or melancholy tone to them, hardly what anyone's ancestors would have used to wassail in a new year, even the often contrarian French.

That brings us back to "les Trois Roys" or Three Kings of the original medieval French lyric. Yes, we all know that the gospel account in Matthew identifies them as "magi," the plural of "magus," which requires a bit of a stretch to become "wise men." Magus is the root of the word "magic," and these gentlemen would probably be more properly identified as astrologers (the Star, right?), who though scholarly were students of the mysterious and arcane. They become "kings" in the middle ages through the conflation of a biblical prophecy that the monarchs of the world would bow before the messiah with the actual story in Matthew about the magi bowing down before the infant in worship. So by the 1400s our wizards have transformed themselves into royalty, bearing we all remember gifts of gold for kingship, frankincense for divinity - and myrrh for death, that last being a jarring and discordant oddity unless you remember that in Christianity the very purpose of the Incarnation, of the believers' God becoming human, was to die a sacrificial death as atonement for humanity's sins. As folk/dulcimer legend John Jacob Niles wrote in his often-performed Christmas composition, also hauntingly minor-keyed:
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die
For poor on'ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

Thus the undertone of a kind of sorrow even in this, the most joyous of religious festivals - and the reason that the minor key of "Noël Nouvelet"/"Sing We Here Noël" is entirely fitting.

The lyrics are charmingly simple, as would befit a song designed to teach little children the Nativity story. 

Noël nouvelet, Noël chantons ici, 
Dévotes gens, crions à Dieu merci ! 

(The coming Christmas, we sing it here! 

Devout people, cry your thanks to God!)

 Chantons Noël pour le Roi nouvelet ! 
Noël nouvelet, Noël chantons ici ! 

(Sing we Noël for the new King - 
The coming Christmas, we sing it here!)

After verses about the cow and the ass and the manger and so on, we get the Star and our royal visitors:

Bientôt, les trois Rois, par l'étoile éclaircis, 

A Bethléem vinrent une matinée. 

(Soon, the three Kings, by the bright star 
To Bethlehem came one morning.) 

 L'un portait l'or et l'autre myrrhe aussi 
Et l'autre encens que faisait bon senty 
Le Paradis semblait, le jardinet 

(One brought gold, and another myrhh 
And another priceless incense; 
The stable thus seemed like Heaven, or the Garden.) 

There are several interesting versions of the medieval French carol out there. This first is from Anúna, an Irish franchise-type a capella group that changes some of its twelve to fourteen members regularly while retaining founder Michael McGlynn's arrangements:

While this "Celtic Woman" style of singing can become cloying or annoying (take your pick) in large doses, it seems to work just fine for a single song like this.

Loreena McKennitt is a Canadian/Celtic singer whose videos I have included in earlier posts. She has an original approach to many of her traditional efforts, including here with "Noël Nouvelet":

The instrumental arrangement is clearly inflected with Eastern music rhythms and percussion. It works somehow, and there was a strong Arabic influence on Europe in the middle ages anyway, so McKennitt isn't committing an act of musical heresy.

The Kingston Trio references that as well in its arrangement of "Sing We Here Noel!":

The instrumental intro is Dave Guard playing a bouzouki, an instrument that we associate today largely with Greek music, though its origin was in Turkey or further east, making this arrangement complementary to McKennitt's. The Trio takes the tune a bit more uptempo than you usually hear it, but that works as well: the mournful undertone of the minor key is just that, an undertone. The song is still joyful and celebratory.

The Atlanta Adventist Academy Ringers handbell choir performs the tune with similar pace and verve:

I love handbells and I love good high school musical groups, so this video is a double delight for me.
Summarizing it all is this unidentified children's choir doing an uptempo Celtic/rock/Arabic rendition:

The melody of "Noël Nouvelet" was also used for a more modern English Easter hymn titled "Now The Green Blade Rises," but Easter is another matter altogether. Let me use this lovely French carol to keep us all squarely in a Christmas state of mind, and allow me to wish you all "Joyeux Noël!"


*The first four 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"; #3 - When Was Jesus Born/The Last Month Of The Year, and #4 - "Gloucestershire Wassail Song". 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".

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Shane and Drake's "The White Snows Of Winter"

I am not among those for whom the Christmas holidays commence before the scent of the Thanksgiving turkey has left the home, and though I never really have been, I find myself in these my latter years becoming more and more adamant in my resistance to what something deep within tells me is a wrongly-timed and premature effort at celebration. The holiday lights and displays do not cheer me at all, and though two weeks from now hearing "The First Noël" will bring tears to my eyes and move me to the depths of my soul - were I to hear it this evening, it would have no more effect on me than some vaguely-remembered doo-wop hit of the 50s.
(Photo L. by Kate Snow)
There are many reasons for this - my dismay at the crass commercialism of it all today, when in early October red and green displays start sprouting in stores like rank mushrooms in a damp field, and my conviction that the penchant in our republic to extend holidays, even silly and meaningless ones like Halloween, to illogical extremes is what seems to me to be a desperate attempt to find a reason to be happy, or convince ourselves that we are so -  but I think that chief among them is that internal sense of time that we all have ingrained in us from childhood. It is not the right time yet. It is not Christmastide. It is Advent.

In my Midwestern Catholic childhood, Advent was a period of dark and somber beauty - of the Advent calendar in the kitchen with a little door to be opened on each of the 28 days leading to Christmas Eve, and of the Advent wreath in church, crowned with three violet candles and a single rose-tinted one for Gaudete Sunday, with purple hangings and purple vestments and the haunting strains of the almost-mournful Gregorian chant of the Mass and of the Advent hymns like "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." The bitterly cold and early nightfall, the slanting, low, and piercingly chill rays of the winter sun - these coincided perfectly with the quietly repentant and anticipatory nature of the season. The reflective quality of Advent simply made more wondrous and beautiful the bursts of gold and red and white and carols and hymns of Midnight Mass on earliest Christmas morn as Advent came to an end.

All of which makes "The White Snows Of Winter" the perfect song for me at this time of year. It is a not-quite-Christmas composition, tinged with the melancholy of loss but hopeful in anticipation of celebration to come - and thus, perfect for Advent, whose mythic meaning grows out of the Christian belief in a fall from grace that separated humanity from its God but with the promise of an eventual reconciliation through the birth of the Christ child after a period of mournful waiting.

Now I am absolutely certain that little of this crossed the minds of composers Bob Shane of the Kingston Trio and his good friend Tom Drake, a couple of frat-boy types not too far past college and beaches and parties, when they set out to write a romantic ballad worthy of Shane's considerable vocal skills for inclusion in the Kingston Trio's highly unusual but now-classic Christmas album, The Last Month of the Year. Both had heard a 65 second thematic bridge in Johannes' Brahms' First Symphony and had thought it might make a good song with appropriate lyrics, and as Drake explained it years later: 

 Actually, this was not a particularly original concept [using classical  music as a melody for a pop song]. "Stranger in Paradise" for example is from a classical piece and it was a big hit before. And there was a jazz vocal trio around at the time ....who put lyrics to the famous instrumentals of their genre. I had a choirboy background and a small taste for serious music and thought hey, if you can hum it, it's a song...We wrote the lyrics on a hot day at Bob's house in Tiburon -- putting it aside and coming back to it. Everybody else was in the pool. Bobby's idea was a Christmas love song. Mine was the aspect of Reunion... and the tune. We tried to put Brahms' name on the credit line but the record label and the publishers freaked. Brahms might have heirs

Shane added that "Tom Drake and I were good friends at that time...He was living in Sausalito....and we wrote several songs together. And we just happened to hear that particular Brahms song. And we thought 'gee, that would make a nice one to put some music to.' And we were doing some Christmas stuff at the time, so we just sat down and started writing lyrics."

The result was a gem of pop folk-styled music far less known than it should be and remarkably seldom covered for a song so lovely. The "reunion" theme to which Drake alludes occurs appropriately on Christmas Eve, the close of Advent, and the singer has traveled far and wide ("and many's the hill I've crowned" - there's as fine a bit of poetry written to fit a rhyme as you're ever likely to find in a pop song)  and finds himself in a bar, which as my late friend and fellow barfly Joe Richards used to remark was the best place in America to find truly lost souls the night before Christ's mass. But then magically - redemptively, if you will - our singer is drawn to the place where his "love lies a-sleeping" and all is well as the dawn approaches.

The source for the tune is certainly one of Brahms' best-known pieces. The First Symphony is a complex study in Romantic-era music, with wide emotional swings within each segment. You can hear that in this 4th movement, eminently worth the full sixteen minutes but for reference's sake, the musical theme occurs between 5:12 and 6:17:

Wolfgang Michel is conducting, from a 2009 concert. What strikes me as odd is that Brahms does not return to this lovely melody and embellish it with multiple variations, as Beethoven does with the famous "Ode to Joy" in the fourth movement of his ninth and final (and say many, his greatest) symphony. But then, the mature Ludwig von B. was the master of a genre that JB was just starting to explore.

First-class material, I'd say, and the pop lyrics that Shane and Drake provide do no injustice to the original composition. This is the 1960 recording from Last Month of the Year:

You just can't say enough for both the power and controlled modulation of Shane's vocal here, and it took a certain degree of bravado for the current Kingston Trio to add it to their own repertoire - a bravado well-justified by the result:

Bill Zorn takes the lead vocal here, and the tastefully understated lead guitar is by George Grove, a rather more sophisticated underlay than on the original recording. You can also hear both the vocal power of today's KT, as well as 50 years' worth of improved recording technology as masterfully engineered, recorded, and mixed by long time Trio friend and collaborator and all-around good guy Rob Reider.

The only cover by a recognizable major group was by REO Speedwagon in 2009 from their controversial Not So Silent Night, which was regarded as either a joke or a sell-out by many of the fans of this hardest rocking band, much as Bob Dylan's holiday album was as well. In any event, this version seems entirely palatable to me:

The keyboard work here is professional and tasteful, and the use of strings hearkens back to the melody's orchestral roots. I believe that long-term band member Kevin Cronin sings lead.

"The White Snows Of Winter" is as fine a contemporary holiday ballad as I know, far superior to plenty of better-known pop-Christmas numbers. But then again, how could it not be given the pedigree of the guy who wrote the melody? And as much as Tom Drake was making light fun of Capitol Records' suits worrying about a possibility of a lawsuit by and royalties split with Brahms' possible heirs - I've always wondered...

Upcoming in a week or so - my fifth installment of "For The Season" with an article on a real Christmas folk song.
Addendum - December, 2017 
Since this article was posted five years ago, a number of other good interpretations of the song have appeared on YouTube. Here are two of the best. First, The Derry Aires from Anchorage, Alaska - an all-female usually a capella group that has been performing together since 1994. As often happens and as I have noted in other essays on this site, sometimes the change of the presumed sex of the singer yields lovely results with a new understanding of the song - as here:

In another vein entirely, the duo of John Piljer and Matt Taddei performing as Starch To Sugar create an interesting effect by imagining the song as a kind of mid-1960s folk-rock number. It works well, I would say.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Capitol T996 - The Kingston Trio

The origin of my Comparative Video 101 blog and all that it has led to, including my co-host spot on  KPFK radio's Roots Music And Beyond show, performances with the Chad Mitchell Trio's Joe Frazier, George Grove of the Kingston Trio and Art Podell of Art and Paul and the New Christy Minstrels, a "professorship" at the KT at Fantasy Camp, and much much more, was in a couple of innocent postings I made on the KT message board in May and June of 2008. I'd found in the still fairly early days of YouTube that there were several interesting and different versions of "Scotch and Soda" and "Tom Dooley" on the video site, so I embedded them in separate posts with a few comments. Well, a lot of readers seemed to enjoy the idea and the KT board didn't archive, so I saved them on this blog and began to do more and more of them, hitting a stretch of 28 consecutive weeks at one point in 2009 - no mean feat considering that I was working both daytime and evening teaching jobs and was usually writing the damn things after I got home at 10pm on Thursday nights.

Nearly 4 1/2 years later and with 173 articles/posts - after battling through copyright issues with Capitol and profiting from the exponential growth of YouTube with thousands of people uploading videos of songs and performances - I reached a milestone of sorts a couple of weeks back. With the publication of the September 15th piece on "Fast Freight,"  the CompVid101 blog now has a separate article on each of the 12 songs on the original Kingston Trio's self-titled first album, the legendary Capitol T996 - a record that reached #1 on Billboard's album charts in late 1958 and stayed in the Top 100 for 195 weeks, unheard of in those early days of LPs.

This wouldn't have been possible in 2008 when this blog began - given the approach I've taken of picking a KT song, writing about it, and then presenting a number of alternate versions. My recent "Banua" post wouldn't have been possible until about a month ago, when within five days two cover versions of the KT arrangement appeared, giving me the four alternates I've regarded as the minimum. And I doubt that it will be possible for any other single album by the group - there will always be a song or two on each of the rest that only the Trio ever recorded. I've had 10 song articles from the At Large album for over a year but despair of finding cover versions of two worthy songs, "The Seine" and the silly but fun "I Bawled."

Some of these posts are pretty pedestrian, and some of the songs on this, my favorite KT album 1A with Here We Go Again, deserve better treatment than I was able to give them in the early years (and I may get back to them and give them an upgrade). Some, on the other hand, I think are really good - I'd nominate "Bay of Mexico," "Saro Jane," and "Coplas" as the best of this lot.

It's been quite a bit of really enjoyable work, and I hope it's been an equally enjoyable ride for the few hundred people who click and read here on CompVid101 and on Kingston Crossroads. As always, I thank all for the attention and for sharing my enthusiasm for this great music.

The Kingston Trio
Capitol T996
Recorded February 2-4, 1958
Released June 2, 1958

Side A

Three Jolly Coachmen

Bay of Mexico


Tom Dooley

Fast Freight

Hard, Ain't It Hard

Side B

Saro Jane

Sloop John B

Santy Anno

Scotch and Soda


Little Maggie

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Terry Gilkyson And "Fast Freight"

Timing is everything, they say, especially as it concerns success in any number of fields, music and the arts perhaps being chief among these. Vincent van Gogh sold only a handful of paintings in his short and unhappy lifetime; his style was just too radical, too assertive, too dramatic for the tastes of his contemporaries who, as Don MacLean told us in his song, "did not listen - they did not know how." They damn well might be listening now - to the tune of the $145 million paid a few years back for just one of his paintings, as VVG has become just about the personification of the suffering creative genius and one of the most beloved painters in the entire world. Had poet Emily Dickinson been born, say, a generation or so after her 1830 birth, she might well have enjoyed a career as a writer marked by financial success and the public adulation that came to her quietly sublime lyrics only in the 20th century, long, long after her death; she sold and published but seven poems in her 56 years.

The alternative to pining away as a misunderstood and under-appreciated artist, of course, is to take your talent or craft, work on it ceaselessly, be flexible about the uses to which you put it, and make the most of whatever opportunities come your way - to be Terry Gilkyson, in a word. Gilkyson (1916-1999) was a first-rate baritone in the pop vein and a more than competent songwriter of folk-styled music. But he wasn't a crooner like his contemporaries Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, and the "style" of his folk was more pop than that of Pete Seeger, three years younger than Gilkyson - and the songs that he wrote in the folk vein that were covered by or became hits for the likes of Frankie Laine, Dean Martin, Harry Belafonte, the Kingston Trio, and the Brothers Four were performed largely by singers almost a generation younger than he was. Gilkyson was 42 when "Tom Dooley" became a hit and ushered in the commercial side of the folk revival - too old in most respects to become an idol to the college-age and teen crowds whose record-buying habits were fueling the popularity of the genre. He wrote a number of songs that became hits for various pop singers and released several respected if light-selling folk albums of his own.

TG was no stranger to pop success, though - he sang on a couple of million-selling records released by the Weavers, and his composition with fellow Easy Riders Richard Dehr and Frank Miller of "Memories Are Made Of This" became a hit for Martin in part because of the elegantly simple vocal and instrumental back-up provided by TG and the Riders. Gilkyson's folk-ish trio also scored one of the few acoustic hits prior to "Tom Dooley" with its delightful "Marianne."

After the Brothers Four had a major singles hit with his "Greenfields," though, Gilkyson could see the writing on the wall and realized that folk was as much of a pop fad as the calypso that had boosted "Marianne" proved to be. In his mid-40s Gilkyson became something of a contract in-house songwriter for the Disney studios, penning songs and incidental music for such ventures as The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (one of my favorites as a boy), The Swiss Family Robinson, The Jungle Book (for which TG received an Academy Award nomination), and Savage Sam. By refusing to sign a personal services contract with Uncle Walt and become a salaried employee of the studio, Gilkyson was able to retain the highly lucrative rights to those projects and his songs, and he enjoyed an early, comfortable, and very long retirement before his 1999 death. The music and fine arts history books may not have much to say about Terry Gilkyson, but he surely deserves to be remembered as an artist undaunted by shifts in time and tides and one who cheerfully made the most of the talents he had - and passed those talents on to his prominent musician children, roots singer Eliza and rock guitarist Tony.

Listen to Gilkyson take the lead on this recording of "Across The Wide Missouri" backed by The Weavers - this from the group's 1950 sessions for Decca supervised by Gordon Jenkins:

Clearly, TG was a talented vocalist - but as was said of Cisco Houston, with a voice rather too trained for folk but not quite bravura enough for full-on pop music.

One of Gilkyson's songs that has been covered by the likes of Tim Hardin, the Serendipity Singers, and the Kingston Trio - and more recently by James Lee Stanley, Ron Lloyd among many others - is the darkly atmospheric "Fast Freight." The song seems to have been the product of TG's imagination rather than from any real life experience, combining as it does the restless yearning to travel common across all forms of American folk music with the hobo motif thrown in for good measure. The Kingston Trio made probably the highest profile recording of the number - it was included in the group's debut album that sold more than half a million copies and charted for an at the time unprecedented 195 weeks:

The soloist on this rendition is cerebral Trio leading arranger Dave Guard. It speaks volumes, I think, that the most accomplished musician in the early years of the group chose this song as his solo on the band's first album. The hand-strummed guitars and pounding bass replicate musically the rhythm of a locomotive's drive wheels. A comment under the YouTube upload of the song says it all - "A wonderful blend, and what gorgeous dynamics!"

The influence of the early KT permeated much of the early pop-folk field, and that influence manifests itself clearly in this 1962 offering by a very young Gordon Lightfoot, with partner Terry Whelan as The Two Tones:

It's a fine performance, even if the arrangement is pretty much derived from the KT.

The Leesiders were a duo from the North of England in the early 60s who enjoyed a degree of local success and included "Fast Freight" both on an LP and in performance:

It's a different take on the song that works very well, I think.

For something a bit unusual - a 3D version by Fritz Capell. Or so I'm told - I don't have the glasses so I can't tell for sure:

It's a competent rendition, though I remain in the dark about the advantage of extra dimensions.

Finally and even more unusually, Spain's "John Paperback" turns the tune into an almost ethereal new-age blues-flavored meditation:

I'm not sure that this is completely successful, but Paperback gets an A for craft and originality in my book.

And Terry Gilkyson likewise gets high marks for doing the best he could, in his career and with "Fast Freight" - and in the words of a John Stewart song, doing it pretty up-and-walking good.


Addendum, March 2017

And here, far too tardily, is the recent version by Terry Gilkyson's famous daughter Eliza - as suggested below by her son and Terry's grandson Cisco Gilliland, who is also co-producer of the video. The performance is every bit as great as we fans knew it would be.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Lost Somewhere In Translation: "Banuwa"

Before the passing of Neil Armstrong and my resulting article last week on the John Stewart song about him intervened, I had originally intended this week's piece as a direct follow-up to the article on "Canastas y mas canastas/Coplas" from two weeks ago because of several interesting parallels between that Mexican tune and our present selection from Africa, "Banuwa." Both songs appeared in U.S. folksingers' repertoires about the same time in the mid-1950s; both are in languages other than English; both were interpreted by a number of high-profile artists - and both may well have been contextually misunderstood by the American performers who sang them - or who still do.

In that last respect, "Banuwa" may share more in common than you might at first guess with two other traditional numbers that originated in Africa, "Mangwani Mpulele" and "Wimoweh." If you glance at the piece on "Wimoweh" and pay especial attention to the remarks by Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo - and listen to that group's sublime rendition - it becomes immediately apparent that the "hunting chant" approach to the song presented by The Weavers, the Kingston Trio, and The Tokens is far off base in terms of the song's actual meaning. Likewise, "Mangwani" may well be a wedding song as Theo Bikel and Laura Brannigan present it, but if so it is closer to the naughty "Canastas/Coplas" than it is to Noel Stookey's wonderfully religious and romantic composition also called "The Wedding Song."

American folksingers' occasional inability to appreciate cultural contexts is hardly surprising, especially if we remember that the songs cited above found their way into our pop/folk music song bag well before the era of broadened legal immigration policies of the 1970s and of the economic globalization that began to take serious shape in the 1990s, both of which have begun to chip away at the parochialism that has afflicted our country fully as much as it has most others. The usually stately grandeur of our wedding ceremonies, for example, makes it hard for us to understand places where that event is a raucous and highly eroticized celebration of fertility - where, for example, as in some Mediterranean nations, the sheets from a bridal bed would be paraded around town the morning after as "proof" of the bride's virginity, or as in a traditional wedding in India where at one point the bride performs an extremely suggestive dance while singing a song whose lyrics couldn't even make their way into a rap number in our country.

Though such cultural disconnects may sometimes result in unintentional offense (discussed in this blog, for example, in a song like the rewrite of "Si Me Quieres Escribir" into "Coast of California"), more often than not no harm is done by a folk process that converts one song into another, often very different in topic or intent from the original.

The Liberian song "Banuwa" exemplifies both a misunderstood original intent in some versions but a delightful transformation into a very different tune in others. The traditional number is tribal in origin and is said to be either a lullaby or a processional. Possibly so; take a look at the brief, simple lyric:

Banuwa, Banuwa, Banuwa yo
A la no, nehnio la no
Nehnia la no
Banuwa, Banuwa, Banuwa yo

which is generally translated as something like

Don't cry, don't cry, pretty little girl don't cry.
Don't cry, don't cry, pretty little girl don't cry.
Your father off at the village
Your mother's out for a while
Your brother's down by the river.
Don't cry little girl, don't cry.

This may be what it appears literally to be, a lullaby comforting a fussy and discontented little child. Compare it to, for example, "Rock-a-bye, Baby" - which, when you think about it, is really a pretty terrifying lyric, what with the breaking branch and falling baby. The soothing singing voice of the mother (traditionally) takes the terror out of it, we hope.

But consider the "Banuwa" lyric again - why would it comfort a child to know that father, mother, and brother are away from home? It sounds like cause for sadness or anxiety rather more than relief. That leaves open the possibility that the song functions on two levels, like most fairy tales and nursery rhymes do. There is an entire critical literature on that subject - on the dual meanings of, say, the many Red Riding Hood stories (in the original, she is killed and not rescued in what author Charles Perrault in 1698 strongly implies is a rape by a handsome young "wolf") or Mother Goose ditties like "Ring around the rosey" ("bring out your dead!" from the black plague and so on) or "Georgie Porgie pudding and pie/Kissed the girls and made them cry" because the George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham who is the proven model for the rhyme seduced and abandoned many a young lass (and a lad or two, if the stories are to believed). A five-year-old need not know these underlying themes (though Freud argued that children did get them at a subconscious level) to enjoy the parent's voice reciting or reading them, but the parent might well be aware of the second level of meaning - and in some cultures earthier than our own might well enjoy a small chuckle at the child's innocence. Considered in that light, the "Banuwa" lyric used to lull a child to sleep could well become the ever-so-slightly naughty suggestion of one adolescent to another - no reason to cry or fear 'cause no one's home, baby, but you and me.

Though there are one or two YouTube videos of African groups performing "Banuwa," they are church groups from central and east Africa, more than a thousand miles distant in geography, language, and culture from the west African coastal origin in Liberia of the song. This first version is by a German choral group called SingLust, and except for a slight mispronunciation, they are doing the lyrics as noted above:

SingLust (which would be accurately translated here as "LoveToSing") also preserves both the vocal round and gentle rhythm of the Liberian proto-song. Ditto this version by an unnamed Brazilian choral group:

And of course, Brazil traces much of its own musical culture to the west African slaves brought over by the Portuguese in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Next, a children's choir from the Philippines syncopates and accelerates the tune a bit, which will figure in another version below:

This is pretty far afield from anything remotely resembling a lullaby, and I strongly doubt that the children know what the words mean.

Similarly, the westerners who found the melody and harmony pleasing in the 1950s did not seem to know much about "Banuwa" except for its African pedigree. My friend Art Podell of the early New Christy Minstrels told me this morning that the song swept through Greenwich Village like wildfire mid-decade, and he had heard performers do it at college folk festivals as well. Pete Seeger seems not surprisingly to be the source of the tune in the U.S., as he was for dozens of songs from around the world. One of the first American recordings, if not the earliest, was by on a 1955 LP by a Village pick-up group directed by Seeger called The Song Swappers that included Erik Darling (soon to replace Seeger in the Weavers), Alan Arkin, and a chorus of teens from the Little Red Schoolhouse including a 17-year-old Mary Travers, later of Peter, Paul and Mary. This page from Smithsonian Folkways Records includes a sample of this version, and you can clearly hear Mary's not-yet-mature voice at the top of the vocal blend.

I would be willing to bet the farm that this record was in the possession of Kingston Trio founding member Dave Guard, who has the solo copyright for the next three versions and that he listed as "adapted by" for the KT's debut album. Most Trio fans will recognize from that Folkways page that the Song Swappers also include two more songs - "Bimini Gal" and "Oleanna" - that were later rewritten by other lyricists and that appeared on two other very early KT albums. Guard took his cue from the Swappers' more uptempo rendition of the African chant and turned it into a brief but entertaining calypso tune, reflecting his interest in that latter genre. No YouTube video exists of the KT version from their first LP, and I do not wish further to antagonize Capitol/EMI by posting yet another copyrighted song to the web. Not to fear, though - we have a near-perfect rendition of DG's arrangement as performed by Dave's son Tom and Tom's son Pascal McGilvray-Guard:

Tom is an accomplished musician and music teacher,* and this video was not intended for general release but rather as a gift to family and friends - so I am greatly in Tom's debt because he re-edited the piece and allowed me to use it here. In addition to having the same energy of the original Kingston Trio arrangement, Tom and Pascal are both using Martin 0021DG guitars, Martin's commemorative model in memory of Dave Guard.

Also employing Dave Guard's calypso arrangement is a delightful North Carolina roots group called Both:

The group's website is lots of fun and well worth a visit. Luckily for me and this article, Both posted this to YT just about 2 weeks ago...

...and exactly one week ago, this next rendition was posted by COD, which stands for "Cool Old Dudes":

The Dudes are Art Bivins on guitar, Eric Jones on bass, and Harvey E. Kaufman on banjo. They have several other equally entertaining videos as well.

"Banuwa" has "legs" as they used to say on Broadway in all of its many versions. It is widely performed by choral groups worldwide, especially in the arrangement by Mike Brewer, who included it in his Three African Songs collection. Lullaby or flirting song or calypso, its essential simplicity and tunefulness guarantee that it will be around a lot longer than any of us will.
Addendum March 2013 - For the moment at least, Capitol has not blocked a recent upload of the original Kingston Trio version -


*Tom Guard has a great website as well here:


with a link to his own CD of mostly original songs:

Tom Guard: Shy River

one of which, "Aloha Mr. Guard," is on YouTube HERE.

Thanks again to Tom - good on ya, mate!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

John Stewart 's American Vision Once More - "Armstrong"

In the last few days, I have noticed an unusual amount of traffic on Comparative Video 101 from a group website called "Our Mechanical Brain", an eclectic and interesting blog with articles covering a wide range of topics. One post was called "Infrequent Bloggers - Part 2" in which blogger Peter Lewis listed some of his favorite non-daily blogs, one of which just happens to be CompVid101. Peter wrote "At Comparative Video 101, each entry focuses on a single popular folk song and explores its history through embedded Youtube videos of the various versions recorded by different artists. Even if folk isn’t your favorite genre, it’s fascinating reading for anyone who likes to see how songs evolve across different cover versions — something that used to be a lot more common in pop music than it is today."

I am of course more than pleased by the notice and the compliment, although I cannot help but feel a little melancholy at one phrase that Peter nailed with absolute accuracy - that intelligent and interesting cover versions of songs are by far the exception rather than the rule in U.S. pop music today. Pure commercialism and the quest for the sure-fire profit shapes American music today as surely as they shape the output of Hollywood, and those media today stand in stark contrast to the wild experimentalism of the 1960s and 1970s in film and music when both artists and corporations often seemed hell-bent to outdo each other in originality and innovation - which is one very good reason why that era is often regarded beyond simple nostalgia as a kind of golden age in American popular culture. You could make a ton of money back then with a radical and shocking movie like Midnight Cowboy or a concept musical album like Pink Floyd's The Wall, satisfying both the artists' need for expression and the companies' need for a substantial return on investment. Everybody won.

What has also all but disappeared from high-profile pop music today is the topical song, those compositions that reacted to significant events at a particular point in time and that hearkened back to the old folk tradition of the "broadside" ballad, so named because the songs' lyrics were often disseminated on large sheets of newsprint that were posted on public walls - hence broadsides. A goodly number of songs profiled on this site ("The Escape Of Old John Webb" or "Jesse James", for example) could fairly be described as broadsides, and while you really couldn't call American topical songs of the 60s by the same term because of format and intent, the offerings of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs and Buffy Ste. Marie and others stand squarely in the same tradition.

The death a few days ago of Neil Armstrong, who had always known and acknowledged that he was simply the public face of a massive endeavor that involved thousands of people, reminded me that long after today's elections and social issues and bitter, divisive politics are but footnotes in dusty (likely digital) history books, the transcendent significance of Armstrong's stroll across the lunar surface on July 20, 1969 will be remembered as one of humanity's greatest moments, the one in which we all in the personage of Armstrong "slipped the surly bonds of earth" and took our first baby steps out into the cosmos whence we came.

I would guess that had Armstrong taken his walk in 1769 or 1869, a flood of broadsides would have followed hard upon, and people a century later might well be humming "The Ballad of Neil Armstrong" or some such, as historical memory would have been nurtured by songs and storytelling instead of by dry recitation in print or fanciful recreation in film. In the eras before mass media, popular culture was more often a phenomenon that bubbled up from the people rather than as now a phenomenon often created by trend-meisters and faddists who foist the products from their focus-group and market research departments down to the masses for consumption. It is an economic landscape that would more likely create a Neil Armstrong bobble-head than an enduring song about him.

So I think it fortunate that Armstrong and the rest of the rocket boys had a few poetically-minded bards to try to celebrate their achievements, and if Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff and Norman Mailer's Of A Fire On The Moon are lengthy books in prose and not broadsides, they at least tried to fill the void, the need for a public expression of wonder at what our eyes had seen during those years of lightning when the nation watched each space launch, each moment of life-and-death drama, transfixed by the audacity and the sheer gutsiness of it all.

Fortunate too that John Stewart was young enough to feel the same wonder that those of us a bit younger than he was felt- but mature enough in his craft and chosen profession to have become by then an accomplished songwriter. Seven years earlier, Stewart had written in the liner notes for his Kingston Trio's New Frontier album that "A phrase like that needs to be sung," alluding to the JFK administration's self-characterization cited in the LP's name. And in the title song on the album, as well as several others in the early part of his career, Stewart invoked the space program and its astronauts as the primary symbols of the restless questing of the human spirit that so appealed to him about both Kennedy's rhetoric and the general idealism of the time that the rhetoric helped to create.

So it was no surprise that the 29-year-old Stewart would be so moved by the epic nature of the achievement represented by Armstrong's walk that he would try to express the complexity of his emotional response to it in a topical song, and a fine one at that, a song that stands up through the decades precisely because it expresses that complexity. Stewart's "Armstrong" is not the ringing anthem that his earlier "New Frontier" and "Road To Freedom" were. He is, after all, writing in 1969, at the close of a decade that had begun in such promise but by its end had seemed to descend into a dark and uncertain chaos. That darkness made Armstrong's jaunt stand out the more brightly, providing a counterpoint of hope to the near despair of the black boy in Chicago and the young girl in Calcutta of his lyric. It is a theme that Stewart would revisit again and again in the subsequent decades in songs like "Survivors" and "Botswana" and "Heart of a Kid" - that despite suffering and loss, there is always hope if we only know where to look for it - in the case of "Armstrong," upward toward the stars and toward our highest aspirations as a nation and as people.

Stewart first waxed "Armstrong" while he was still with Capitol, for an album that the label never released. However, it was released as a single and did well in selected markets:

(Well, the CopyVio people got to this version; I'll restore it if it ever reappears. Instead - a very much later JS rendition from the 1990s, one in which Stewart's aging voice conveys a very different perspective than the one from 1973 immediately below.)

February, 2016: Stewart's original single recording is back up on YouTube, at least for now, so here it is, an interesting contrast to the album version that follows:

Stewart is said to have preferred this recording to the one that was eventually included on his first album on RCA, 1973's Cannons In The Rain, in the minds of many his best overall LP. And certainly it was this single version that was taken up by the other artists below. But Stewart's Cannons is a genuinely great album, not least because of the superior recording techniques that RCA was using for Stewart's kind of music - and lest we forget, RCA did practically invent the phonograph record and was the industry standard in sound reproduction for decades. The aural quality here more than makes up for the unnecessary orchestral flourishes - take at least a brief listen and compare to the Capitol single:

The much-beloved Australian country singer Reg Lindsay, one of that nation's most successful "Western" artists, picked up the song in 1971, exactly halfway between Stewart's Capitol and RCA recordings:

Lindsay had a major hit with this countrified "Armstrong," and at his death at 79 in 2008 it was the tune mentioned most prominently in the obituaries.

American Kent LaVoie went by the stage name of Lobo and is likely best remembered by the general audience for his single hit "Me And You And A Dog Named Boo." But LaVoie was a capable if somewhat gentle songwriter in his own right, rather Donovan-esque in his approach, and those qualities are in evidence in his 1974 rendition of Stewart's song:

Finally, Geoff Robertson is a younger folk/roots/songwriter performer who uses all that modern technology affords to put together a tribute video to the moon landing using his rendition of Stewart's composition as the soundtrack:

It's a fine and creative performance released in July of 2009 on the 40th anniversary of the event. The moving and from my point of view entirely appropriate change that Robertson makes to the very ending of the song was done with the permission of the publisher, Stewart himself having died a year and a half earlier.

Neil Armstrong's passing brought back a flood of memories of a time and a place and an optimism now all long gone. But the magnitude of the event itself was captured best, I think, by Lisa Cornwell and Seth Borenstein in their outstanding and moving Associated Press obituary from last Saturday:

An estimated 600 million people — a fifth of the world's population — watched and listened to the landing, the largest audience for any single event in history...Parents huddled with their children in front of the family television, mesmerized by what they were witnessing. Farmers abandoned their nightly milking duties, and motorists pulled off the highway and checked into motels just to see the moonwalk...Television-less campers in California ran to their cars to catch the word on the radio. Boy Scouts at a camp in Michigan watched on a generator-powered television supplied by a parent...Afterward, people walked out of their homes and gazed at the moon, in awe of what they had just seen.

John Stewart's "Armstrong" expresses that significance as well, albeit in a different medium and to a different effect. In Stewart's imagination, the moon landing is symbol of all that we can achieve, despite our repeated failures to satisfy the boy's hunger or rid the marketplace of the flies that will cut the girl's life short. For him, it is the capacity to feel awe that gives us the hope that someday - someday - we may be able to do exactly those other things as well.

And In Addition...

Courtesy of Jan Hauenstein of the German chapter of Bloodlines, the John Stewart message group - a guitar arrangement of his for those who would like to learn the song. Jan's key reflects the comfort level of his bass/baritone voice; a capo will do nicely for those who sing in higher registers.

"Armstrong" by John Stewart

(G) Black boy in Chi(Am)cago, (Am7)
Playing in the (G)street,
Not enough to (Am)wear, (Am7)
Not near enough to (G)eat.
(Am7) But don't you know he (D7)saw it
(Am7) On a July after(G)noon,
He saw a man named (Am)Armstrong (Am7)
Walk upon the (G)moon.

And a young girl in Cal(Am)cutta, (Am7)
Barely eight years (G)old,
The flies that swarm the (Am)market place (Am7)
Will see she don't get (G)old.
(Am7) But don't you know she (D)heard it
(Am7) On that July after(G)noon,
She heard a man named (Am)Armstrong (Am7)
Had walked upon the (G)moon.
She heard a man named (Am)Armstrong (Am7)
Had walked upon the (G)moon.(Gj7)(G6)(G5)(G4)(G)
(Am) (D)(D7)(G)

The rivers are getting (Am)dirty, (Am7)
The wind is getting (G)bad.
War and hate is (Am)killing off (Am7)
The only earth we (G)have.
(Am7) But the world all (D)stopped to watch it
(Am7) On that July after(G)noon,
To watch a man named (Am)Armstrong (Am7)
Walk upon the (G)moon,
To watch a man named (Am)Armstrong (Am7)
Walk upon the (G)moon.

Oh I (Am7)wonder if a long (D7)time ago,
(Am7) Somewhere in the uni(G)verse,
They watched a man named (Am)Adam (Am7)
Walk upon the (G)earth.(Gj7)(G6)(G5)(G4)(G) (Am) (D) (G)

© John Stewart, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, August 23, 2012

"Coplas/Canastas Y Mas Canastas"

For rather more than fifty years now, American folk fans have generally believed incorrectly that "Coplas" was the name of a song, recorded with the widest notoriety (and that is, as we shall see, the correct term) by first Cynthia Gooding in a duet with Theodore Bikel and a bit later in a still-controversial arrangement by the Kingston Trio. But coplas is a generic term in Spanish. Usually translated as "verses," it can in certain circumstances also mean "song" or refer to a cuplé, an often suggestive Spanish music hall number popular more than 80 years ago in Mexico and other parts of Latin America and Spain itself. All three definitions are necessary elements in understanding today's song, whose origin is in a Mexican tune called "Canastas y más canastas," or "Baskets And More Baskets." The literary Freudians among you may already have guessed from that title the direction in which this post is headed.

The word "coplas" itself in the first and most common definition above actually has an almost innocent charm to it. Romance-minded poets could write "Coplas de amor" or "Las coplas de la Luna" - verses of love or stanzas about the moon. The word is usually used in the plural, but it descends from the earlier singular term copla, referring to a Spanish poem or folk song with four lines per verse - which also characterizes the always-naughty cuplé. Our "Canastas" song today could fairly be described by that last term since in every version still current there are a number of very suggestive double entendres, the most common one being the image of a cat in a sombrero and pantaloons interrupting the singer's wedding night. More on that below.

"Canastas y más canastas" is probably based on a traditional song, but the most commonly-sung version today was copyrighted by Humberto Betancourt Espinoza (1909-83), a popular singer, actor and songwriter originally from Veracruz. The tune was initially a hit for Irma Vila (1916-1993), often called the queen of falsetto, that high-pitched intoning of a melody through the nose and not the mouth, giving the singer greatly enhanced upper ranges. Think of most of what Frankie Valli did or the leads on most Bee Gees songs - that's falsetto. Vila was indeed very skillful with this, as she shows on her recording of "Canastas":

The lyrics are mostly double-entendres about flower baskets and roosters and an oddly dressed "cat" trying to enter a bridal chamber from a balcony. This track is from 1947, and if you know no Spanish but what you've heard in the Gooding/Bikel or KT versions of "Coplas," you can clearly hear Vila referencing the cat with a hat and long pants (un gato prieto con sombrero y pantalon) at the 1:10-1:13 mark in the song, followed by the male singers alluding to the interrupted wedding night. What puts this squarely in the cuplé tradition is that those improper tunes were originally sung on the stage by slinky Mae West-type chanteuses - or by men in drag. The last verse in this version sung by Vila means roughly "Fortune made me lucky/I'm poor but happy/I'm like a cactus spine/Bare but tasty" to which the male chorus replies "I would like to have the good fortune/the joy that the Rooster has/that has many hens...but I can no longer" - presumably because the male singer is trying to enjoy his first night of monogamous wedded bliss, only to be interrupted by one of his bride's former lovers trying to sneak in over the balcony.

The best-known latter day rendition of the song is probably by El Trío Los Panchos, a popular mariachi-oriented group that started in 1944, though this version is from 1962:

The first verses of "Canastas" are in colloquial or nearly slang Spanish and thus hard to translate correctly, but they go something like this:

Baskets and more baskets
María Andrea has a nice basket
It doesn't lump the bed
So nothing flowers

María Antonia also has a good basket
It doesn't lump the bed
So no flowers sprout.
That's very rough, but you get the idea. If you happen to be a cat with a snazzy hat and some fine pants who likes to jump from basket to basket, you surely don't want any flowers to sprout as a result.

All of which makes Gooding's liner notes for the equally racy version of
"Canastas" that she and Bikel named "Coplas" either disingenuously pretending to an innocence about the song's meaning or really just missing the point entirely. Gooding suggests that the tune is "a courting song from southern Mexico which.....has an almost blues form...." Not hardly, I would say, on both counts. First, a song this suggestive would not be appropriate for any kind of courting ritual, as anyone who has ever had a daughter would probably attest. You want that young man who comes calling to be un caballero, a gentleman, serenading your little girl with songs of love and the moon - not tunes about a randy cat. No, this is far more likely a wedding song, one used rather later in the reception when everyone has had plenty to drink and wants to dance and appreciates a bit of blue humor - or at least won't make a fuss about it when the men begin with it. Second, the chord structure of most of the verse and all of the chorus sounds nothing like blues at all - unless Gooding mistook that structure here (a very standard Em-D-C-B7 progression heard in hundreds if not thousands of Spanish language songs) for something like Mexican blues, which it is not - it is in flamenco style, and that is the musical language of erotic passion and seduction, of desire and fulfillment and loss and need. Fine for the wedding, friends, but not when you're trying to take my baby out for a ride in your carriage.

I tend to think that Gooding and Bikel knew exactly what the song meant, based on the verve with which they sang it, and a pity it is that we don't have a YouTube video of their version to demonstrate that fact.* There is little question, however, that the Kingston Trio lifted the Bikel/Gooding Spanish lyric completely, hammed up the presentation a bit, and provided the droll and usually fairly accurate translation into English that Cynthia and Theo avoided. This is the studio cut from the group's first album in 1958, in which the translation of the last verse - a cat wearing the familiar sombrero and long pants - was bowdlerized away from the Spanish original lyric, as discussed below:

This song by the original KT was always a popular concert number for them, and the group performed it in its 12 song set at the first Newport Folk Festival in July of 1959. Three and a half decades later, however, when Vanguard Records finally released a CD of that show, "Coplas" was missing from it despite the fact that there was a clean recording of it available (as attested to by its inclusion in the Bear Family's huge and comprehensive boxed set of Trio recordings). As far as I know, there was no public announcement of why it was omitted, but it's pretty clear that standards of humor had changed by the 1994 release date of the Newport recording. My friend Mary Katherine Aldin of radio and folk collection fame produced that album for Vanguard, and she fought tooth and nail to keep "Coplas" on the CD for purposes of historical accuracy. She even offered to write an explanatory note about the difference in eras and values and the evolution of our national culture - but the powers that be at Vanguard were either themselves too offended by the cut or too afraid of public outcry to permit it, so off it stayed.

I would guess that it was the mocking of Spanish and Japanese accents in English that disturbed them the most, but that in itself is a bit ironic. Dave Guard's "U C R A" quip during the second-to-last verse is actually covering up a lyric that is arguably rather more offensive. The Spanish for that verse is

La mula que yo mente la monto hoy mi compadre.
Eso a mi no me importa pues yo la mon te primero

which means

The mule that I used to ride
Is now ridden by my friend
Makes no matter to me
Because I mounted her first.

I'm not completely sure that they could get away with singing that today, much less in 1958. On second thought, though, network and air wave censors might well let that bit of humor onto a broadcast. The verse doesn't use any of George Carlin's famous forbidden words, and the only interest group being demeaned here is women - a long-standing tradition in world cultures anyway, and demonstrated one way or another on American television nightly. And lest one wishes to take me to task for saying that, I would simply ask if anyone would like his mother, wife, daughter, friend, girlfriend, or any other female significant to him referred to as a mule fit mainly for mounting.

And that really is the same problem with the Trio's overall rendition of the song. I may not have been offended at first decades ago by the mocking accents, but then I am neither Mexican nor Japanese. The Trio got in some fairly hot water less than a year after "Coplas" with the release of their second single, "The Tijuana Jail," which was banned from radio stations not only in TJ but throughout Mexico - again, for the satire of Mexican pronunciation of English and the consequent perceived disrespect for the country and its people. It's not as if that song and "Coplas" and Bill Dana as José Jiménez weren't offensive to a lot of people fifty plus years ago; we who aren't of Mexican heritage just didn't hear about it.

It's been said over the years by well-intentioned people that we should get over "political correctness" and all enjoy a good laugh over songs like this and have the KT reintroduce "Coplas" to its stage show. I'm all for the first part of that - p.c. run amok is a poison, an enemy to free speech and all things democratic. But insensitivity is equally pernicious. The measure of it all is in the Good Book and has been for rather more than two millenia - "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Take what is most precious to you - your religion, for example, or the flag of the country, or your children, anything with which your own identity is bound up - give it to some college smart alecks and have them mock the living daylights out of it with a meanness of spirit that comes from their failure to understand how and why that thing is so important to you - and walk away laughing with them. Some people can do that to a certain degree, but it's not common. Maybe if we had a Mexican theater troupe making fun of the American flag the point would be clearer. If we could all laugh at that, then perhaps it would be ok to rescue "Coplas" from the shelf of humor that has passed its expiration date where it now rests. 


*Addendum, September 2015
A few months ago, YouTube itself posted a copyright-permitted video of the Bikel/Gooding rendition. I'm happy to be able to include it here in memory of the recently-departed Theodore Bikel, whose contributions to American folk music, film, and theater are unparalleled for their breadth and depth.

Monday, August 20, 2012

"Seasons In The Sun"

This is a re-posting to rectify an error I made in May of 2009 when I conflated two very different posts into one - this look at Rod McKuen's "Seasons In The Sun" and a video presentation of all the songs from the 1962 album The Best of the Kingston Trio. I did so because first, until that time all of the posts here had been on individual songs, and second, because I was a bit embarrassed to be publishing posts of all Kingston Trio songs or even one McKuen creation - not because I don't like both of them to different degrees but rather because such posts seemed out of step with the whole approach of this blog. Since then, however, I've posted maybe 14 articles that were not about single songs, and ol' Rod has appeared in the song posts several times, especially this year. So it seemed natural to split the two posts as I should have done originally. The Best of the Kingston Trio post can still be found on May 9, 2009.

I have to say at the outset that it took me more years than I'd care to admit to appreciate the Kingston Trio's version of "Seasons In The Sun." I wasn't at first a huge fan of the Time To Think, the album on which it appeared, because I felt that the Kingston Trio for once was trying to catch somebody else's coattails - in this case, Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary - rather than be the step ahead of everyone else that they always had been. Additionally, if the Trio actually had a "dark" album, it was this one and not Make Way, especially when it is contrasted with the thematic and aural brightness of New Frontier (which remains probably my personal favorite album of the Shane-Reynolds-Stewart years of the KT from '61 to '67- it still just sounds so good).

Further, by the career point of Time To Think, the Trio was in full retreat from what folk music had been both traditionally and in terms of what they themselves had shaped it into. What TTT gives us is a mix of the trenchant ("If You Don't Look Around," "Coal Tattoo"), the wistful (Hobo's Lullaby," "No One To Talk My Troubles To"), and the sentimental ("Turn Around," "These Seven Men"). But nowhere on the album is a song that even remotely would have been termed "folk" a half dozen years earlier, and this is absolutely the first Trio album of which that was true.

What emerges from the record - and what "Seasons In The Sun" most effectively represents - is the group turning toward a broadening of its repertoire and an attempt not to be pigeonholed as a kind of feel-good, banjo-ringing frat party act that was fiddling while Rome burned. As an album whose entire playlist was original songs penned by professional singer-songwriters, it put an emphatic punctuation mark at the end of the group's continual rejection of the label "folksingers."

"Seasons In The Sun" is an Americanized attempt to tap into the rich vein of music that came out of French cabarets and [the real and original] Paris coffee houses of most of the last century and that gave rise to legendary singers like Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour (the French Sinatra and a tremendous vocalist) - and Jacques Brel himself.

Introduce into this milieu (and I feel a lot of French working its way into this post) San Francisco dilettante and Beat poet wannabe Rod McKuen, a hanger-on to the fringes of genuine iconoclasts (sorry - Greek)like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and more - who, like them or not, are the major American poetic voices of their era. McKuen didn't fit in with them - his verse was too light, too transparent, too simple in thought and composition, and he seemed to lack some of the Beats' self-destructiveness. So like any good lost artist, McKuen went to France around 1959 and ran into the cafe society, Brel's songs, and eventually Brel himself. The two became collaborators and fast friends; Brel seems to have approved even of McKuen's extremely free-hand and Americanized translations of Brel's very Gallic compositions, like "Seasons."

I believe it was the Kingstons' roots in San Francisco that acquainted them with McKuen, and the Trio's recording of "Seasons" is the first English language version of the song after McKuen's himself. The excellent production values of this cut are self-evident - the wonderful and subtle nylon guitar lead (John Steuber?), the likely John Stewart 12 string main accompaniment - and a superb lead vocal by Bob Shane, whose husky baritone is fully mature and in peak form:

The song is actually titled "Le Moribond" - "The Dying Man" - and though McKuen sticks to that general theme, Brel's actual sentiments are radically different. But whatever McKuen's shortcomings as a poet may be, he is an innovative and sensitive lyricist, and his live performance of this song is as close as you'll get in English to an authentic French cabaret effect:

This is real French cabaret stuff - the savoir faire, the je ne sais quoi, the inimitable French shrug of the shoulders in the face of catastrophe. I think McKuen's words capture some of that effectively, but - well, the French are the French.

I'm sure that we were all chagrined when an amiable musical lightweight named Terry Jacks took the Trio's recording in 1974 and turned it into a monster hit -

Overlooking for a moment the really thin and affect-less nature of the vocal - much of the musical accompaniment seems to be a riff off of the Steuber-Stewart-Shane-Reynolds work of the first recording.

After Jacks, a host of other artists tried their hand at imitating him instead of the Trio (as they should have):

The Beach Boys (Jacks should just have let them do it)

Nirvana (possibly a joke, and Cobain sounds stoned)

Westlife (really pleasant)

I like Westlife's version myself, the rest....

The studio recording by Brel gives us the song in its original production concept. In the best cafe tradition, Brel pulls a fast one here - the drumming background rhythm is similar to a bolero (think Ravel and Dudley Moore's movie 10), a truly erotic style used here to underscore a song about death. Sex and death - you don't get much more French than that:

We are at the very least a very long way from "Tom Dooley" here, on unfamiliar ground, breaking away from the roots that sustained the group's original and unprecedented popularity.

Appendix, 6/11

I just ran across a fine version of the song from Arizona's Joe Bethancourt, one of the leading performers and musicians in that folk-rich state (Dolan Ellis, Bill Zorn, the late Travis Edmonson at whose memorial this clip was recorded). Joe is both a traditionalist musician and a songwriter with an iconoclastic bent to his politics - and one of the most brilliant banjoists I've ever heard. I spent a pleasant hour with him and Greg Deering (of Deering Banjos) in August of 2010 in Scottsdale, AZ and had previously included his rendition of "South Coast" in my 2010 article on that song. Joe does a very authentic cabaret approach to the song here: