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.