Thursday, April 5, 2012

"Over The Hills And Far Away"

I had initially thought to title this post something like "The Second Life Of A Song," but I quickly realized that that would be disingenuous at best - because "Over The Hills And Far Away" has never been out of print or performance since published versions began appearing in 1706 in Thomas D'Urfey's Pills to Purge Melancholy. The air for "Hills" has been used as a lullaby, a satire, songs in musicals and operas, regimental marches in the British army, and recruitment music - not bad for a humble folk tune whose obscure origin in the 17th century was most likely as a love ballad, probably from Scotland.

But inasmuch as "Over The Hills" has, like the poor, been always with us, its inspired selection nearly 20 years ago as the theme song for the popular BBC series Sharpe has nonetheless raised its public profile to a visibility it has likely not enjoyed since the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s depicted in the dramas, which were based on the character of Richard Sharpe created by English author Bernard Cornwell in a series of 24 novels and stories. In casting the films, with Sean Bean (above, center) in the title role as the able but volatile commoner Sharpe who rises into the officer corps of Wellington's army, the producers made the fateful decision of naming John Tams (above, right) in the pivotal role of the roguish sharpshooter Hagman. They knew Tams to be an accomplished stage actor; what they were not initially aware of was that his main occupation was as a folk artist - and he happened to have a unique arrangement of "Hills" in his repertoire, an arrangement that he tweaked in both lyrics and instrumentation with his co-composer of the series' music, Dominic Muldowney, to fit the demands of the show. Though not wholly traditional in lyrics, Tams' verses are derived from actual 19th century broadsides of the song and his chorus is a variant of what was actually sung by the soldiers of the time. It's a wonderful "modernized folk" arrangement performed by Tams himself:

What the British soldiers of the day would have heard in the field, though, likely would have sounded more like this version by the Imperial Corps of Drums - fifes and percussion only. This video really hits its stride at 1:17, so a bit of patience is in order:

But the aforementioned earliest printed version was a lost love song that quickly morphed into a quiet lullaby or children's song, here performed in a lovely duet of mandolin and flute played and sung by Hilary James and Simon Mayer:

Within two years, though, D'Urfey had republished the song as "an excellent new copy of verses upon raising recruits. To the foregoing tune" right in the middle of Queen Anne's War of 1702-1713 - and we have the first use of the air in a military context. Here in this video (performed possibly by a contemporary group called The Druids) you can hear the chorus singing "Queen Anne commands and we obey" instead of the 100-years-later "King George" of Tams' rendition:

One of D'Urfey's friends and collaborators was a younger man, John Gay, author of a classic of British and world literature, The Beggar's Opera (1728), the still-funny satire on class pretensions and opera whose main character, MacHeath, is an icon of dramatic literature, so much so that Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill took Gay's 18th century classic and turned it into a 20th century one, The Threepenny Opera. Brecht and Weill rewrote the music, turning highwaymen/cutthroat MacHeath into "Mack the Knife"(and yes, that's the song that Bobby Darin sang). For his original, though, Gay took ten songs from D'Urfey, including "Hills" converted into a lovers' duet - "Were I laid on Greenland's coast..." with Sir Laurence Olivier doing an unexpectedly fine job singing:

Regular readers of these pages know that I have a soft spot for amateur performers, especially young ones who are keeping folk songs alive. The two unnamed very young ladies here do a commendable and creditable job with Gay's Greenland lyric:

To close, we return to professional Tams, who has made "Over The Hills" his closing number for many years now. Here he performs only with his longtime collaborator Barry Coope on keyboard - and the audience singing along quietly in this slower, quieter, almost mournful arrangement:

The many variations here of "Over The Hills And Far Away" point to what I think are many of the strengths of folk music. The melody in all its forms is beautiful, by turns stirring and martial, and romantic, and melancholy. Except for Gay and his conversion of the folk song into a theater piece, the lyricists of the very different versions above are unknown - but genuine poets, each one. And to whatever uses our composers put the common line of the chorus - the song's title - have we not all dreamed and wondered, and do we still not dream and wonder, if we will some day ourselves go over the hills and far away?

"Red River Shore" and "Hanna Lee"

This is a half post, really. I'm working on something rather more involved for this week, but these two songs are ones I loved as a youth many a decade ago, and though there aren't many different takes on the tunes, I thought it might be fun to take a brief look at each.

The inception of this page was, as noted at left, in posts that I had made for the wonderful Kingston Crossroads message board, a great site for discussing all topics folk and roots related, though of course the prime focus is on the Kingston Trio, its 55 year history and recordings, and the doings of its current incarnation, which has just released the first CD in decades of all-new material by the group, Born At The Right Time - more on this to come. Most of the more than 140 songs discussed on this site have been recorded at one time or another by the KT, including many now very familiar tunes first waxed by the Trio years before the later hit versions.

A fair number of the more than 250 songs that the group has put on albums, though, are unique to them, as I had thought that both "Red River Shore" and "Hanna Lee" might have been. Not true, as it turns out - and both numbers have an excellent pedigree as folk-flavored pop tunes.

The copyright for "Red River Shore" is assigned as "Adapted by Jack Splittard and Randy Cierley." The former is the pseudonym that the KT adopted for copyrights that the three musicians wanted to claim jointly, much as "Paul Campbell" had been for The Weavers - albeit with the KT-ish humor of splitting the jack, a now nearly archaic term for money. Cierley, however, is a very real person who figured in the late stages of the Trio's first decade; he has had a fascinating and somewhat harrowing life and musical career that he chronicles in a great website HERE. It's certainly worth a look: Cierly has worked with some of the greats and has endured more than most of us ever will. In his youth, though, he worked as a musician and arranger on some of the cuts on the Kingstons' failed attempt at folk-rock, Something Else - though this arrangement of a traditional song works somehow mysteriously for me:

The organ and military-styled snare drum are rather less obtrusive than the rock instrumentation is on most of the album's other cuts. John Stewart has the lead spoken vocal, as he did on a number of other KT songs.

Cierley's and the Trio's changes to the original song are apparent when you listen to a version from five years prior by the Norman Luboff Choir, a wonderful chorale that I remember most for supporting Harry Belafonte on a number of his 1950s and 60s albums:

Aside from the alterations to the tune and some creative shifts in the chordal accompaniment, the biggest difference is clearly in which of the doomed couple dies, and why. It's an easy inference that Cierly and the Trio were adapting the song under the long shadows of Marty Robbins' "El Paso" (though Randy remarked recently that he was "pretty sure that 'El Paso' had nothing to do with it" directly) and the Trio's own last Top 10 singles hit, "The Rev. Mr. Black", a number also with verses spoken by Stewart. Thus, we get a shoot-out and some dying words instead of a suicide and accompanying note. Except for its clearly derivative nature (and its clear inferiority to Robbins' classic), I prefer the KT arrangement here.

"Hanna Lee" was co-written by Richard Mills, about whom I can't find anything, and the rather higher profile Stan Jones, who wrote "Ghost Riders In The Sky" and the theme song for the old Warner Brothers western Cheyenne, both of which are enough to endear Jones to any child of the 50s. In case you've forgotten -

Jones is a member of the Western Music Hall of Fame, and his page there is, like Cierly's, a fascinating look at the man's life in and out of music.

"Hanna Lee" is a bit of western fluff, reminiscent of the much superior Wilkins/Dill "Long Black Veil" though HL preceded LBV by several years. The Kingstons had had great success with earlier recordings of hanging-after-murder-for-love songs; though this is a decent cut, the band may have gone to the well once too often:

Other versions were recorded by major 50s pop star Guy Mitchell:

I like the "reckless lovers/pretty devil" line - and Johnny Western is also in the Western Music Hall of Fame as both a performer and as a radio personality:

Next up - something more traditional.