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!