Monday, December 23, 2013

For The Season #6* :"The Bitter Withy/Mary Mild"

The picture to the left is a detail from a 14th century mural found in an abandoned Orthodox Christian  monastery in Ethopia. The scene depicted is perhaps just a bit startling to those of us raised in conventional Western  religious traditions because it clearly shows the Virgin Mary (identifiable, of course, from her blue garb and the orange halo) armed with a doubled-up rope with which she is walloping little Jesus, distinguishable as well by that oddly-colored holy diadem. The good monks  wanted viewers to understand that this is a real and painful whipping: note the consternation on the face of the non-holy child to the left as he witnesses the severe chastisement of his chum for transgressions unknown. Little Jesus seems to be taking it all pretty well - there is an almost nirvanic calm in his facial expression that stands in stark contrast to Mary's cross look, which seems to be a combination of sorrow and anger. The point of this mural - its theme, if you will - is that little Jesus was a boy like any other boy, one who needed severe discipline at times as all normal boys do. The net effect of the work is to emphasize the humanity of Jesus, which was a hotly-contested point of faith in the early Christian centuries, as some of the so-called heresies of the times asserted that God the Creator could not truly become one of his own creations and that therefore the "true God, true man" passage in the Nicene creed was false and the humanity of Jesus an illusion.

There is clearly no passage in the canonical books of The Bible describing anything remotely like this charming little domestic scene - but there are many such in several of the Gnostic and Apocryphal writings going back as far as the second century. And more to our concern here - one of the oldest Christmas carols extant in the English language climaxes with an incident very much like this. That carol is "The Bitter Withy," the significance of whose title will be clarified a bit later below. In the original carol, Jesus does receive a whipping from his mother for what I think most of us will agree was a pretty ugly little trick. But "The Bitter Withy" is as little-known in the U.S. as it is widely-known in the British Isles, and consequently I had never heard any version of it until an expurgated editing of the lyric ("bowdlerized" would probably be more accurate) was sung by the Kingston Trio on its wonderful and unique 1960 Christmas album, The Last Month Of The Year. Trio member Bob Shane and his friend Tom Drake - the pair who crafted the beautiful "White Snows Of Winter" profiled last December - re-wrote the "Withy" song into a softer and less assaultive ballad that they titled "Mary Mild" from references in the lyrics:

This is a lovely arrangement with excellent harmonies and an appealing slight swing to the rhythm. It also highlights what the Trio members did best - the strong lead vocal by Shane, the beautiful and impassioned high harmony by Nick Reynolds, and the baritone vocal underpinning and tasteful banjo work by Dave Guard.

But it also highlighted what according to the group's critics they did worst - which was to take a real folk song that had been sung for literally hundreds of years and utterly ruin it by perverting the song away from its original intent. To understand the extent to which that accusation might be true, you would need to hear the original carol - and see the connection to the picture at the head of this post. Here with "The Bitter Withy" is a beloved Scots folk group that took its name from this very song - their 1981 version of the original melody and lyric:

Just to make sure that we all heard that correctly - we have the same skipping little Jesus wanting to play at ball as in "Mary Mild." We also have the same disdainful rich boys ("born in a baron's hall," in some versions) and the bridge of sunbeams. But then the tragedy as divine little JC merrily prances over the bridge, enticing the other lads to follow. Without miraculous powers such as could create that bridge, though, our nasty little preppie One Percenters plunge to their deaths in the river or lake below. Their mothers complain, and in response Mary becomes anything but mild as she makes a switch from a willow branch (an alternate name for the tree being the "withy") and cracks the little Savior three times across the butt, presumably once for each of the little scamps whose lives he has just ended. In mortified response, Jesus curses the withy tree from which the branch "that causes me to smart" has come, commanding that henceforth it "shall be very first tree/To perish at the heart," or rot from within, as the common belief is that willows do.

Another more contemporary rendition might be in order before we get to the fascinating origins of this highly unusual song. Here is UK folk music royalty Maddy Prior with her arrangement from 2008**:

Prior's performance here accentuates the medieval origins of the tune, and her upbeat tempo and little circular dance moves during the instrumentals remind us of a point I have made in my earlier Christmas pieces linked below - that the word "carol" derives from the Celtic term coroli, which meant a celebratory circle chain dance around a central object, like a Maypole, for instance. Prior is a knowledgeable folklorist as well, and her gleeful vocals evoke what we must assume was the delight that the peasantry of the middle ages would have taken in a story in which the contemptuous and self-assured upper class boys get their comeuppance at the hands of the humble, unrecognized divinity among them. Those brats chose the wrong kid to mess with.

An equally authentic-sounding middle ages rendition comes from Kerfuffle, an English roots band that flourished in the first decade of this century and still gets together to play old music during the holidays:

Many of the late medieval and early modern English folk songs were written in the dark and melancholy sound of a minor key, and Kerfuffle's arrangement here in just such a mode emphasizes the dark themes of the song.

None of the known apocryphal gospels - of which The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of James, and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene are the most prominent - contain this exact incident, though they are replete with some very un-Savior-like deeds and pronouncements by Jesus, accounting in part for their exclusion from the biblical canon. However, the very early Infancy Gospel of Thomas (from about 185 CE) and its 7th century descendant known as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew do contain incidents reminiscent of both "The Bitter Withy" and that other lovely and equally ancient tune, "The Cherry Tree Carol." Pseudo-Matthew presents Jesus as using divine power to strike down a rich boy who had pranked him:

"He was playing with some children at the bed of the Jordan. And as He sat there, Jesus made to Himself seven pools of clay, and to each of them He made passages, through which at His command He brought water from the torrent into the pool, and took it back again. Then one of those children, a son of the devil, moved with envy, shut the passages which supplied the pools with water, and overthrew what Jesus had built up. Then said Jesus to him: Woe unto thee, thou son of death, thou son of Satan! Dost thou destroy the works which I have wrought? And immediately he who had done this died. Then with great uproar the parents of the dead boy cried out against Mary and Joseph, saying to them: Your son has cursed our son, and he is dead..."

Two other boys meet similar fates for even lesser infractions. Many of the basic elements of "The Bitter Withy" appear here: Jesus at play near the water, the miraculous creation of the "pools," the antagonism of an unpleasant boy, the striking down of said boy, and the complaints of the bereaved parents to Mary.

Many scholars today believe that copies of the Apocrypha made their way to England in the high Middle Ages despite the fact that they were suppressed in continental Europe. In addition to the aforementioned two carols whose stories have antecedents in these books, other tantalizing clues pervade English Christianity. For instance, the non-biblical tradition that Joseph of Arimathea, he who in the gospel stories provided a tomb for the crucified Jesus, made his way to Britain in possession of the spear that pierced Christ's side and the communion wine cup from the Last Supper - the Christian version of the mythic Holy Grail - appears in both Saxon and Anglo-Norman tales and occupies a central position in the King Arthur stories. Vague references to such a journey appear in later versions of the Apocrypha, as does the legend that Jesus himself visited ancient Britannia during the "lost years" of his young adulthood, expressed most famously by the great 19th century engraver, artist and poet William Blake in his lyric "The New Jerusalem," which since 1916 has also been a well-known and beloved hymn in High Church Anglicanism:

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen!

So how, one wonders, did such a strange tale become associated with Christmas celebrations? Though the Jesus of the lyric is a child, the only Christmas-y reference is to the assertion that he "was but a poor maid's child/Born in an oxen stall" - and that is clearly intended as a derisive taunt by the soon-to-be-departed rich kids and not at all the powerfully sacred scene in Bethlehem envisioned in contemporary Christianity. The answer, I think, appears in Maddy Prior's choreography above. "The Bitter Withy" is a true carol, one that in its origins was intended for dance as well as for group singing. The real appeal of the words for the medieval English peasantry and yeomanry is the identification of the child Jesus as "one of us" - and not in the sophisticated theological sense noted above in the first paragraph of "true God, true man" but rather more in the "poor maid's child" sense, someone who like them was of the downtrodden and wretched of the earth, but who was endowed with powers that enabled him to deal out the kind of appropriate justice to the impious and arrogant masters of the land, something that the serfs themselves could never do except in their wildest dreams. Or, perhaps, in a Christmas dance and song.


**Maddy Prior's Full Lyric
As I fell out on a bright holiday
Small hail from the sky did fall
Our Saviour asked his mother dear
If he might go and play at ball

"At ball? At ball? My own dear son?
It's time that you were gone,
And don't let me hear any mischief
At night when you come home."

So it's up the hill, and down the hill
Our sweet young Saviour run,
Until he met three rich young lords
"Good morning" to each one.

"Good morn", "good morn", "good morn"
said they, "Good morning" then said He
"And which one of you three rich young lords
will play at the ball with me?"

"Ah, we're all lords' and ladies' sons
born in a bower and hall
And you are nought but a poor maid's child
Born in an ox's stall"

"If I am nought but a poor maid's child
born in a ox's stall
I'll make you believe at your latter end
I'm an angel above you all"

So he made a bridge of beams of the sun
And over the river ran he
And after him ran these rich young lords
And drowned they all three.

Then it's up the hill, and it's down the hill
Three rich young mothers run
Crying "Mary Mild, fetch home her child
For ours he's drowned each one."

So Mary Mild fetched home her child
And laid him across her knee
And with a handful of withy twigs
She gave him lashes three.

"Ah bitter withy. Ah bitter withy
that causes me to smart,
And the withy shall be very first tree
To perish at the heart."

*The first five 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"; #4 - "Gloucestershire Wassail Song", and #5 - "Sing We Here Noel". Other Christmas-themed articles on CompVid101 include "The White Snows Of Winter", "Children, Go Where I Send Thee", "The Virgin Mary Had A Baby Boy", "Riu Riu Chiu/Guardo Del Lobo", and "Go Tell It On The Mountain".

Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK 50 Years Later: Songs Of November 22, 1963

"This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly, than ever before. And with each note we will honor the spirit of John Kennedy, commemorate his courage, and reaffirm his faith in the Triumph of the Mind."
- Leonard Bernstein, November 25, 1963 
Friday, November 22, 1963 was the only day I missed during my freshman year of high school because I was in bed with a left ear severely infected from early-season practice for the school swimming team. I had been hospitalized briefly two years before for mastoiditis in the same ear, a potentially very serious ailment, so my parents insisted I stay home that day (really against my wishes since I was terrified of falling behind in algebra) and allow the antibiotics prescribed by Dr. McMahon after his house call the day before to take their effect.

Not long after 12:30pm in Chicago, my mother came into the room I shared with my older brother, her face ashen and serious. "Mrs. Schroeder just called," she said. "She heard on television that several shots had been fired at President Kennedy's car in Texas. They don't know if he was hurt or not. I know how important history is to you, and today may be a day that people will remember for a long time." With that, she helped me bundle up and go downstairs to the family room and turn on the television, the television that was absolutely never on during the day except on weekends for sports - which is why Mrs. Schroeder, a devotee of  the classic soap opera As The World Turns (which began in the Midwest at 12:30) and a good friend and neighbor who knew of the blanket of electronic silence that enveloped the Moran home during the daylight hours, thought it important to call my mother with the news.

My two youngest brothers, the only ones of the nine of us at the time (the tenth was gestating at that point) who were not in school yet, were already down for their afternoon naps, so my mother and I watched the events of the afternoon unfold as they happened, largely in undisturbed silence, broken only by my mother several times after the 1pm death announcement with "Those poor little children! Those poor, poor children!" in reference to Kennedy's daughter and son, both younger than seven and now fatherless. In the midst of the earliest hours of a developing national cataclysm, this was exactly the aspect of the event that for me was quite understandably what affected my mother most deeply.

But she knew also her many children well, and she was exactly right about my preoccupation with all things historical - at that point, primarily the day-to-day remembrances of the events of the American Civil War a hundred years earlier. The centennial of the delivery of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address had just passed on November 19th, and the memorials of that event were fittingly quiet and sober, in memory now almost a prelude to the darkness to come upon the nation so swiftly and so soon after.

For me, history was never a dry compendium of names and dates. It was rather a set of vivid stories of people and events and conflicts, much more like a great and engrossing novel or an epic film than a subject fit only for school time boredom and resentment. I can trace much of my love of folk music to my love of history, or perhaps I could better explain them as twin children born of the same colorful childhood imagination. Robert Rogers of Rogers' Rangers, for example, was not for me merely a minor footnote in colonial history but was rather a giant figure of daring romance whom I had met in the 700 pages of Kenneth Roberts' wonderful Northwest Passage, still among my all-time favorite novels. Similarly, "The Escape Of Old John Webb" was more than just a song that I enjoyed hearing and singing; it was an adventure of which I was a part, a tale in which it was I who was breaking locks and bolts to free old John, if only in fantasy.

Hence my mother's concern that since I was home, by chance or by an act of providence, I should be able to see what was happening on a day that indeed people have remembered for a long time.

I cannot say that I was thinking of songs or music during the dark weekend that followed the assassination - but others were. The producers and crew of the UK's satirical Saturday evening revue That Was The Week That Was hosted by David Frost, a show already familiar to many Americans from excerpts broadcast on U.S. network variety shows, quickly re-tooled the program to become a memorial to JFK. At the center of the shortened and somber broadcast was a song written that day by Herb Kretzmer and David Lee that they titled "The Summer Of His Years." It was sung on the show by regular cast member Millicent Martin. While no video of the actual show is currently available (even though it was broadcast on Sunday the 24th on American networks), Martin reprised her performance a month later on TW3's year-end review. The song begins at about 2:05.

I remember being stunned by this performance. I could not conceive that a song so articulate, so appropriate, and so complete could be composed, arranged, rehearsed, and performed so quickly after the event.

Across the continent from me in California, Beach Boys Brian Wilson and Mike Love were working on songs for a new album on November 22nd. Years later, Love remembered that

"The Warmth of the Sun" was started in the early morning hours of the same morning that President Kennedy was killed in Dallas. The melody was so haunting, sad, melancholy, that the only thing that I could think of lyrically was the loss of love, when interest slips and feelings aren't reciprocated... though I wanted to have a silver lining on that cumulus nimbus cloud so I wrote the lyrics from the perspective of, 'Yes, things have changed and love is no longer there, but the memory of it lingers like the warmth of the sun.'

Love's commentary notwithstanding, I never saw much of a connection between the teen angst of "The Warmth of the Sun" and Kennedy's death - but others have, and the date and circumstances of its composition make it a necessary inclusion here.

Also in California on the same Friday, the Kingston Trio was in San Francisco working on its own new album, an uncharacteristically sober group of songs for an LP to be titled Time To Think. The news of Kennedy's assassination struck Trio member and songwriter John Stewart especially hard, and on Friday evening he tried to come to terms with his emotions by writing "Song For A Friend." When the album was released a few months later, the liner notes reported that the song was recorded on November 25, 1963, the day of JFK's funeral.

Stewart would go on to a long and distinguished if under-appreciated career as a singer-songwriter, but here at the age of 24 he is clearly still a journeyman learning his craft."Song For A Friend" has utter sincerity and some fine if sentimental imagery going for it, but it is a far cry from the sophisticated imagistic lyrics that would characterize much of Stewart's later work, including more than a dozen songs that referenced the assassination in one way or another. Compare "Friend," for example, to the recently-profiled "Dreamers On The Rise" from the 1980s, which though growing more directly out of Robert Kennedy's death also makes at least oblique reference to JFK's - and is a far better song.

In fact, all of these first three selections are probably of more interest as historical artifacts than they are as representations of great songwriting. I would not put either the Wilson/Love tune or Stewart's composition in the top 25 of the best songs of either of them.

"The Summer Of His Years" may be a bit of a different story, though as a topical song addressing a specific event it has probably outlived its ability to have the same kind of impact that it did at the point of its initial performance. Pop singer Connie Francis had a somewhat successful single with it in early 1964, but I thought that a far better recording was released by the Chad Mitchell Trio later that same year on its album Reflecting:

The CMT fused "Summer" with George F. Root's Civil War classic "The Battle Cry of Freedom," and if the former song does not rise to the same level of excellence that the latter does, the trio's medley works well as an expression of hope and the need to go on - and "Summer" bears up well while occupying the same track as "Battle Cry."

Roger McGuinn, who had cut his teeth professionally backing up the Chad Mitchel Trio under his real name of Jim, also reacted quickly to Kennedy's murder. He took an old public domain song that had been popularized around Greenwich Village in the 1950s by Dave van Ronk and Erc Von Schmidt called "He Was A Friend Of Mine" and according to McGuinn "[re]wrote the song the night John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I suppose you could say it's one of the earliest Byrds songs. The arrangement used was as I'd always sung it." McGuinn's lyrics point directly to the assassination:

The formation of The Byrds was a year in McGuinn's future when he completed his adaptation; the band waxed it in November of 1965.

That same month, singer-songwriter Phil Ochs, whose work is currently enjoying a long-overdue renascence, was touring England and wrote the first draft of what might be regarded as his magnum opus, "The Crucifixion." Where Ochs' previous best-known and best songs had been pointed, pithy, and often by turns uproariously satirical or prophetically angry, "The Crucifixion" is a long and sometimes rambling meditation that uses the Passion of the Christ as a metaphor for the contemporary propensity to sacrifice society's heroes.

While Ochs' larger point might have been philosophical, he also made clear that the parallels to Kennedy's death were intentional. "The Kennedy assassination," said Ochs, "in a way was destroying our best in some kind of ritual. People say they really love the reformer, they love the radical, but they want to see him killed. It's a certain part of the human psyche..." Robert F. Kennedy reportedly teared up when Ochs sang the song for him, sensing immediately the connection to his brother, whose death even a mere two years later had begun to assume the mantle of a martyrdom.

Probably the highest profile song to grow out of the assassination trauma appeared three years later in 1968. Again and like Stewart's "Dreamers" primarily a reaction to the murders that year of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, Dick Holler's "Abraham, Martin, and John" continued the mythologization of the three title figures, and as recorded by former teen heartthrob Dion DiMucci reached #4 of American singles charts late in the year:

The commercial success of the recording resuscitated Dion's flagging career, and the overt and unapologetic sentimentality of the number seemed perfectly attuned to the needs of an American public that had grown understandably weary of the senseless and seemingly unending sequence of horrendous, violent shocks - the murders and riots and bitter, divisive civil strife - that assaulted the nation's consciousness through the decade and shook its self-perception to its very heart. It was far more comforting to picture four men who had died pointless, brutal, and bloody deaths "walking up over the hill" than it was to confront the awful truth that a republic of ideas had become, as it sometimes had at prior points in its history, a shooting gallery for the psychotic, the alienated, and the disaffected. Leonard Bernstein's "triumph of the mind" quoted above seemed a distant dream at best and mendacious and fraudulent lie at worst. Transgressions born in blood just could not be redeemed in song.

Yet through the decades since 11/22/63, songwriters have kept on trying to do so - or at least to come to terms with what did or did not happen that day. A number of websites have attempted to develop comprehensive lists of tunes that have touched on that event, the most nearly complete of which seems to me at be at (the site's name being an allusion to the "death of Paul McCartney" flap around 1970). Scores of songs and versions of songs are listed here, including quite a few from punk and indie and alternative rock bands ranging from major artists to the deservedly anonymous. Some of the selections there and on other lists border on the silly. Paul Simon's "Sounds of Silence" may have been written in 1964, for example, but Simon is concerned with urban alienation, with how Walt Whitman's beautiful and vibrant 19th century "Mannahatta" - "The beautiful city, the city of hurried and sparkling waters! the city of spires and masts!" - could have degenerated into the lonely dark alleys and mean streets of his later "The Boxer" - and neither Kennedy nor his assassination had anything to do with that.

That list also omits some of the songs and some of the renditions included here - not surprisingly, I would say. Most of the selections in this post emerged from the pop folk era, and the impact and importance of that style of music has been largely forgotten, however extensively its DNA remains in the American pop bloodstream. Could I add but one song to the list, I think it well might be this one - an obscure John Stewart number written around 1990 that expresses a sense of all that has been lost since that day in Dallas:

I am not sure that I have ever fully endorsed the sentiment of Stewart's last line, much as I have a visceral recognition of what he is trying to say. The world changed on that day, and something was lost that has never been fully recovered. To suggest as many have that our "innocence" perished in Dealey Plaza that day would be to ignore the reality of an American history filled with awful experiences as recent as the Second World War or as remote as slavery and the Civil War it spawned. We could hardly have been termed "innocent" in 1963, whatever else we were. And two generations of Americans - my students, many of them - have been born and come of age in the five decades since the assassination. Each has grown to maturity with its own sense of itself, of its country, of what the promise of America has meant to it.

I have thought long and hard as this anniversary approached about what it meant to me and to my country, and I have no simple or easy answers. I was not, as my friend Mike Peterson observed in his excellent posts on 11/20 and 11/22 in his popular Comic Strip of the Day website, personally traumatized by the assassination, though I remember being fearful and disoriented for some time afterward, and I wept unabashedly during the broadcast of the funeral on Monday the 25th - not at the rehearsed salute of JFK's son but rather at the sight of his two grief-stricken brothers standing in despairing silence at the eternal flame. Something was lost indeed - but what? Simplicity? Security? my own childhood? I cannot say in clear and uncertain terms.

But for me the answer may well exist somewhere in the pairing of these last two videos. In 1993 at a John Stewart show I picked up a CD called The Trio Years in which Stewart in the late 1980s had re-recorded some of the songs he had written when he was a member of the Kingston Trio 25 years earlier. One track hit me with overwhelming force, a song called "New Frontier" that had been the title song of a KT album released in early 1963 and that in its first incarnation had been the youthful Stewart's ebulliently optimistic response to the ebullient optimism of the early Kennedy years:

Twenty-five years later, Stewart heard his own song this way:

The forward-looking voice of the young man has evolved into the retrospective voice of the old, a progress from unquestioning idealism to, perhaps, a wisdom tempered by experience. The man who died in Dallas exactly fifty years ago as I write this - 12:30pm CST - left behind a promise unfulfilled, a promise touched upon to one degree or another in many of the songs here. The imperative to fulfill as much of one's own promise in that time allotted to us may be the one lonely, solitary meaning to take away from the otherwise pointless tragedy of a half century ago.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Gordon Lightfoot: In Celebration Of His 75th Birthday

Gordon Lightfoot is 75 today, and that is a happy fact for any number of reasons - the first of which, of course, is that he is still with us to celebrate the day after his well-documented close brush with the Great Beyond in 2002. Lightfoot's survival of a stomach aneurysm, his five weeks in a coma, and his subsequent direction from his hospital bed of the production and remixing of his last studio album (Harmony, released in 2004)  are a testament to his toughness and grit, to say the very least. It is also a pleasure to see Lightfoot alive and kicking and in plenty good enough shape to accept all the awards and accolades and honors that have been heaped on him in recent years. This adulation has come now, perhaps, because as with several of his artist contemporaries (John Denver springs immediately to mind, as I note in the linked article), the pop music world in the U.S. had largely forgotten about Gord after his five minutes of fame (about five years, actually) in the 1970s, and Lightfoot's near-fatal illness may well have prompted people to dust off all those old tapes and LPs and realize what a treasure his career has been. 

Denver never lived to see the popular and critical reconsideration of his work (again, discussed at more length in the article above), but Lightfoot has accepted it all with characteristic grace, with obvious enjoyment, and with a quiet understanding of what his music has meant to two generations of Canadians and Americans. Lightfoot touches on all of this during this brief interview segment from the CBC in 2008 as he turned 70. It is a pretty good short intro to the man and his music as well:

I had my own say on Lightfoot a year and a half ago in a post that celebrated both the 50 year mark of Gord's career and one of my own favorite Lightfoot numbers, "Bitter Green." I do not want to repeat myself, so all I will say from that post at the moment is that of all the great folk-styled singer-songwriters of the Sixties and later - Paul Simon, John Denver, Joni Mitchell, John Stewart, Kate Wolf, Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, and so many more - Gordon Lightfoot remains my single favorite through the five decades since I first heard his music. Why that is so is easy to express. Even given the wide range of experiences, events, and ideas that his songs have dealt with, through all these years Lightfoot has remained faithful to his original vision, and that vision is closer to real folk music than that of probably any of his contemporaries except Paxton. The acoustic purity and deceptive simplicity of Lightfoot's recorded songs mark him to my way of thinking as a great artist, one who expresses the profound complexity of human experience within a genre whose dictates demand an accessibility and singability that would seem to obstruct such expression. Lightfoot accomplishes much while using rather little: a few acoustic instruments, usually, and his own voice, often unsupported by back-up singers or even double-tracked harmony. His entire body of work is concrete exemplification of the principle that less is often more.

It would be a fool's errand to try to assert what Gordon Lightfoot's best songs are, and God knows I would be hard pressed even to narrow my own favorites to twenty or twenty-five compositions. Yet of those, six or seven immediately suggested themselves to me to be appropriate for this article, mostly because these are some of the ones that I find myself returning to year after year and decade after decade to listen to, to reflect upon, and to play and sing for myself and my friends.

"Early Morning Rain"
This, of course, was the composition that put Lightfoot on the map, largely as a result of its appearing on two high-profile LPs. Canadian stars and Lightfoot mentors Ian and Sylvia recorded the tune even before GL did and named their fourth album on Vanguard after it, and the song's appearance on Peter, Paul and Mary's See What Tomorrow Brings record gave it its widest audience, since that LP reached #11 on the Billboard album charts and earned a gold record for the trio. Yet both groups softened the number, giving it a tinge of melancholy but downplaying the anguished near-despair of the song as Lightfoot wrote it - and as he performs it here, from 1979:

"Song For A Winter's Night"
As I mentioned in the "Bitter Green" post above, many of Lightfoot's most beloved songs are of love neglected or lost. This is one of the best of those.

"Affair On Eighth Avenue"
...speaking of which...

The entire BBC concert from which this performance is taken is available on YouTube and will be linked at the end of this article.

"The Minstrel Of The Dawn"
In which the troubadour sings of the life of the troubadour:

"10 Degrees And Getting Colder"
Combining the troubadour and lost-traveler-on-the-open-road-motifs:

"Did She Mention My Name?"
A rather more upbeat reflection on love and separation:

"Farewell To Nova Scotia"
Finally, a reminder that Lightfoot started out as a folksinger with a masterful way with a traditional tune like this:

Lightfoot continues to tour, averaging about one show per week, mostly in Canada but with frequent forays south of the border. It is a schedule busy enough to keep him sharp and engaged as a performer, and if time has diminshed the voice somewhat, the spirit is as willing as ever. Lightfoot usually demurs in interviews when people ask him what he thinks his legacy will be, and I understand that. As in the first video above, he thinks of himself as a working and touring songwriter and musician - a troubadour, in other words - and that is where his focus lies. But I closed the "Bitter Green" post with my assessment of his legacy, and at the risk of becoming self-referential, I would like reiterate it here: the last half century Gordon Lightfoot's music has embedded itself in Canada's cultural consciousness fully as much as has that of Ian Tyson or Joni Mitchell or Neil Young....Americans seem seldom to place GL on as lofty a pedestal as those others, possibly because of the very transparent emotion of his songs that make compositions like "Bitter Green" so beloved. But that transparent emotion is part of what has enabled Stephen Foster's songs to remain popular 150 years after their composition, and I'd bet that if you asked Lightfoot if he would rather be equated with Neil Young now or with Stephen Foster in a century or so, I think I know what he would say.
Four of the videos above are taken from an hour-long BBC concert special from 1972. It is a shortened version of the full show I saw that year during his "Summer Side of Life" tour. The DVD of that show is no longer available, but the entire television performance has been uploaded in HD to YouTube:

Lightfoot On The BBC: Full Show

It is well worth the time and concludes with a masterful rendition of "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," another gem.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Down By The Mission "San Miguel"

One of the sidelights of the American folk revival (from roughly 1930 through about 1970) was the creation of hundreds and then thousands of songs labeled "folk" by their composers or by the record companies or by the music press. At first, of course, ethnologists regarded the thought that a "new" song could be labeled as folk as absurd. The very definition of the genre at its inception as an academic phenomenon was that folk music consisted almost exclusively of traditional songs passed down orally through many generations - and consequently songs whose authorship was usually unknown. Exemptions to the rule were sometimes granted to songs of known authorship that had worked themselves into the folkways of the country, like those of Stephen Foster for instance, or songs whose authorship was discovered by dint of hard scholarly work by those same ethnologists and music historians. Less often, topical songs that provided some cultural insight into a particular period or event were also granted a pass and allowed to enter the sacred Temple of Folk - think of the songs from the Civil War era by George F. Root ("The Battle Cry of Freedom," "Just Before The Battle, Mother") or Daniel D. Emmett ("Dixie") or Patrick Gilmore ("When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again").

These prescriptions and definitions were turned topsy-turvy by the commercial aspects of the folk revival. When mass media in the form of radio and recordings became the primary formats through which music was disseminated (as opposed to previously when live performances and sheet music and family and local gatherings did the job), the public's insatiable appetite for the novel and new, and not coincidentally many performers' desires for more personal artistic expression than traditional music afforded, the term "folk" came to be appended to newer songs that would not have made the grade just a generation before. And when folk became a big-time commercial phenomenon in the late 1950s, after a few years of bitter debate about "authenticity" in the music press and among performers, the thought that a "folk song" necessarily had anything to do with "traditional" went the way of  bobby socks, black and white television, and honor among politicians - gone, and scarcely ever seen again.

Today, no fully satisfying and comprehensive definition for what folk music is exists at all - beyond, of course, Big Bill Broonzy's oft-quoted quip that "All songs are folk songs - I never heard no horse sing." On the whole, this is probably a good thing, since we can recognize distinct elements of traditional folk like melody, form, and instrumentation in the compositions of skilled crafters like Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Billy Edd Wheeler, Bob Dylan, and many more. At the same time, though, another and perhaps lesser brand of song also emerged, derided by critics as "fake folk" or "faux folk" - tunes that sought to imitate traditional tunes rather than to evoke the spirit of the old in contemporary compositions. A song like Jimmy Driftwood's "The Battle of New Orleans" might serve as a good and representative example of these, or perhaps Hoyt Axton's "Greenback Dollar." Nothing wrong with these at all as pop songs written in folk style, but to call them "folk" per se still excites the dyspeptic ire of some critics, one of whom wrote a few years back that "The invention of the faux-childlike faux-folk song was one of the greatest forces in the infantilization of American culture." I'd recommend that the writer take a deep breath and then inhale a couple of belts of a good whiskey - if such a fate has befallen the good old U.S. of A., it wasn't folk music fake or otherwise that made it happen.

One writer/composer who enjoyed a degree of success at creating such songs was Texan Jane Bowers (1921-2000), for whom music publisher and watchdog BMI lists 35 copyrights still in force. In the latter stages of her composing career, from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s, she was identified primarily as a kind of in-house composer for the Kingston Trio, occasionally in collaboration with KT founding member Dave Guard, and the group recorded 10 of those 35 tunes. But a significant number of other folk and country artists like Johnny Cash, Donovan, Lonnie Donegan, Bob Dylan, and Guy Clark also recorded Bowers' tunes. In fact, Bowers' best-known and most enduring song, "Remember The Alamo", the one recorded by most of the aforementioned performers, was initially waxed in 1956 by country great Tex Ritter, three years before it appeared on the Kingston LP At Large.

Bowers wrote a wide range of folk- and country-inflected tunes, but her stock-in-trade was embodying re-imagined and mythologized history in the lyrics of her many of her songs and then creating a tune to match them, as was the case with "Alamo," which the linked article discusses. Bowers' take on early Southwest history, from California and Texas most particularly, was imaginative, to be charitable. In "Coast of California", for example, a song beloved of many KT fans, Bowers fantasizes a pirate type of tale in which some buccaneers intend to boost a hidden treasure from a cave near Ensenada in Baja California. It is purported to be "treasure stolen from the Incas," hidden in the cave when the treasure ship "Clara ran aground." Bowers never explains why a treasure ship bound for Spain would have headed north to Baja from the Incas' native Peru when treasure ships originating there routinely sailed south and hazarded the Straits of Magellan around the tip of South America and thence into the Atlantic and home. And I had to laugh at the lyric

There's a mountain in the ocean on the coast of California
And deep within its side, the tides of night alone reveal
El Diego's hidden cave

There are plenty of mountains in California both Upper and Lower, but none in the ocean unless you count the Channel Islands, a good 250 miles from Ensenada. Yes yes, I know it's just a song - but this is all pretty egregious.

Even with missteps like those, however, Bowers' best work retains both a special kind of lyricism and a well-crafted sense of drama - two qualities that are abundantly clear in her very interesting early Southwestern romantic tune, "San Miguel." The plot line at first seems simple enough. A household servant of a rancho near a Mission San Miguel (there are three: one in Santa Fe, one near San Antonio in Bowers' native Texas, and the most famous and possibly the site of this song, San Miguel Arcángel near present day Paso Robles, California) waits upon the mistress of the casa grande, La Doña María, married to the ranchero. Our narrator named Manuel, however humble he may be, has fallen in love with the great lady. In his imagination, the mission bell warns him against harboring so impossible a dream, though he also imagines that

I hear with my heart what she says with her eyes

-  and the cryptic and pregnant final line of the lyric implies that Manuel may indeed have hope for the lady's reciprocation of his love.

From here, though, the plot thickens. Manuel is a laborer familiar with the mission, and this and the omission of a surname for him point to the likelihood that he is either a Native American or perhaps a mestizo. Bowers' lyric endows Manuel with a child-like simplicity, which in the early twentieth century of Bowers' childhood was considered to be a significant sign of the moral innocence of the natives (in stark contrast to the actual missionaries' sense that they were idolatrous devil worshipers) in a kind of Rousseauian "noble savage" ideal. But the very thought that a romantic attachment could be created or maintained across racial lines would have been charged with controversy both in the colonial era of the tale as well as in the decade of the song's composition. Bowers is treading here, however lightly, on dangerous ground. The mournful and melancholy tune, structured in a mostly minor key and with an authentic and accurate Spanish chord progression, underscores both Manuel's sadness and the secret and forbidden nature of his passion.

The first recording of "San Miguel" was as a vocal solo by the KT's Dave Guard on the group's third studio album, Here We Go Again:

The song is ideally suited to Guard's vocal style and his own sense of drama, and Bowers may well have had Guard in mind when she wrote the number, this despite a sometimes problematic relationship between the two over copyrights and arrangements.

The Here We Go Again album was a raging success, capturing a Grammy nomination in 1960 and entrenching itself as the #1 album on the Billboard charts for an impressive 9 weeks, which was behind only the Trio's At Large and the original Broadway cast album of The Sound of Music for the longest tenure in the top slot in 1959 and 1960. Not surprisingly, a goodly number of the songs on the record were covered by other artists, including "San Miguel." British skiffle legend Lonnie Donegan recorded "San Miguel" two years following in 1961:

Donegan is doing his dead level best here, but he has made some odd creative choices. His uptempo and heavily percussive arrangement takes most of the drama out of the lyric, replacing it with a kind of anguished teenaged angst. And while Lonnie is trying to invest his singing with what he feels is a Spanish flavor, he is making a huge linguistic mistake. The pronunciation of the letter r is of course markedly different in English and Spanish - in the latter, the tip of the tongue starts on the roof of the mouth and creates a kind of clipped roll to the sound. Donegan, however, is pronouncing most of his r sounds with a trill, which is used in Spanish only for the letter when doubled, as in ahorro - but never for an interior single letter, as here Donegan does in "María" and "Carlos" and a host of other words. And I cannot figure out why Donegan would say "Manuel" correctly (as "man-WELL") but fail so excruciatingly as he does by changing the pronunciation of "Miguel" from the correct "mee-GELL" to the awful "mee-GWELL." A sign of the times, I suppose - at least Lonnie is trying.

Nearly a decade later, popular French folk and ballad artist Hugues Aufray, who covered many American folk tunes (most famously "Santiano," a major hit for him, and an entire album of Bob Dylan songs) translated the number into his native tongue:

This was from late 1968. My French is a bit rusty, but Aufray's translation sounds fairly accurate to me. He also employs a guitar accompaniment strongly reminiscent of Dave Guard's.

In the 1970s, popular British-Kenyan balladeer Roger Whittaker gave the number his own distinctive treatment:

Whittaker has made another interesting creative choice here. Like Donegan, he has speeded up the tempo considerably from the original, but he has done so with an eye to creating a flamenco interpretation of the number, emphasized here by the lead guitar line.

Finally - a version performed by three friends of mine - George Grove, a member of the Kingston Trio now for 37 years, plus KT bassist Paul Gabrielson, with lead vocal by Alan Hollister:

The occasion of the performance was the annual KT Fantasy Camp in 2009. Alan creates exactly the right mood vocally, and his hand-strummed guitar accompaniment (something that I have seen him do countless times when we have played together) is perfect for the song. George is staying faithful to the original KT arrangement as he always does but at the same time embellishing it subtly and tastefully - as he also always does. George has a beautiful take on the song himself on one of his solo albums, but unfortunately it isn't on YouTube right now.

Jane Bowers was not trying to pass off "San Miguel" as anything other than what it was: a darkly atmospheric modern evocation of the Spanish colonial era, one which hints at issues which plagued their society and continue to some degree to plague our own. I doubt that she would ever have termed it a "folk song," given the span of her life and the era in which she wrote it. It isn't fake or faux anything, and I doubt that anyone got infantilized by listening to the number and loving it. Ironically, however, Bowers' respect for the authentic music of the era of the narrative, audible in the well-designed melody and in her good faith attempt to write lyrics that captured the ambiance of the time and place, render "San Miguel" rather closer to whatever "real" folk music is than most anything claiming the title that is released today.


In the interests of full disclosure and historical accuracy: the picture above is an 1832 painting of Mission San Gabriel, which happens to be a ten minute walk from where I now sit and whose church remains to this day as depicted here. I just couldn't find a good enough illustration for the real San Miguel.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads"

The death of John Denver sixteen years ago yesterday was a jolting moment for many people of my generation, a quiet reminder that all things must pass and that youth and life are fleeting and fragile. This was so both for those who loved JD for the soaring idealism and romanticism of his compositions and the ringing clarity of his voice, as well as for those who derided him as a shallow and sentimental poetaster who purveyed a uniquely awful brand of musical treacle. But love him or hate him, you could for all intents and purposes not ignore him for the two or three years of his peak popularity - roughly 1973 to 1976 - because he was absolutely everywhere in those days: consistently at the top of the album charts, making frequent forays into the Billboard Hot 100 Top Ten singles chart as well, including four #1 records, a frequent guest host on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, host of his own series of highly-rated network television specials that stretched well into the 1980s, in a starring role in a major Hollywood film with legend George Burns, in addition to a few other dramatic roles, as primary host of the Grammys five times, in nature specials and guest spots on popular variety programs - you could scarcely turn on the radio or TV for a few years then without bumping into JD's earnest voice and toothy grin. By most measures, no single artist in the world sold more records during those three years than did John Denver, the mop-haired and granny-glassed self-proclaimed "country boy" from Roswell, New Mexico who became a poet laureate of the state of Colorado and co-composer of one of the most popular songs in West Virginia - and one of American pop culture's first true multi-media stars.

In the best music business tradition, Denver's handlers (with the perhaps naive cooperation of Denver himself) promoted him so ruthlessly and exploited his popularity so thoroughly that a kind of JD exhaustion set in perhaps rather earlier than it needed to; after 1976, he never had another album or single record hit the top twenty on the primary charts, and though his albums have continued to register in the catalog sales reports to this day, his brief stint at the top of everything gradually faded, leaving him with a much-reduced but extremely loyal fan base in the 1980s and 90s. Too bad, really, because Denver continued to write beautiful and moving songs during those years, and as his live performances attested (see his 1995 Wildlife Concert video), he was singing much better at the time of his death than he ever did when his name was a household word and he was an international celebrity.

There was another unintended consequence of Denver's brief time as a superstar. Popular media saturation helped turn a genuinely talented performer and songwriter into an object of satire and derision. He was mocked with regularity everywhere from the Doonesbury comic strip to Saturday Night Live to anywhere else that a comedian could don a wig, a flowered shirt, and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. The very earnestness and unabashed sentimentality of his songs that had helped make him a cultural phenomenon was turned against him: he became a symbol of what some regarded as the post-hippie self-absorption of the early and mid-1970s. The fact the Denver consistently devoted a very large chunk of his very considerable fortune and huge amounts of time to advance the causes in which he believed - the environment, world peace, an end to world hunger among others - earned him no consideration from an increasingly cynical popular press in America. The ultimate indignity may well have been that Denver, who for more than a decade had been working with and donating to a number of foundations trying to end hunger, was not invited to sing on the "We Are The World" recording that was created to raise money to alleviate the effects of the devastating famine in Ethiopia and other parts of East Africa in the early 80s. Most of the four dozen or so singers who did participate had never had any involvement  at all with that particular cause, and the "commitment" of many of them ended when they walked out of the studio. That was never what John Denver was about.

The final casualty of the overexposure and the multi-platform popularity was that they have obscured for a time just how fine a writer and performer Denver was. The overt emotion and euphoria over nature in many of his songs might not be to everyone's taste, but the craftsmanship of melodic structure, instrumental accompaniment, and poetry of lyric in dozens of his tunes are undeniable. Denver's most popular numbers did not share the introspective angst of the compositions of most of his singer-songwriter contemporaries, and in the wake of his death in a light plane crash on October 12, 1997, the obituaries tended to focus on his popularity rather than on his musicianship - or on the likelihood that a goodly number of his tunes like "Annie's Song" and "Follow Me" and "Rocky Mountain High" among many others will almost certainly outlive him by decades.

Chief among these may well be JD's first hit record, "Take Me Home, Country Roads," known almost equally as "West Virginia." The song came apparently out of nowhere to dominate the airwaves for weeks in the spring and summer of 1971, rising as high as #2 on the singles charts and selling a million units by autumn. Denver was listed as co-composer in the copyright: he had become friends with Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert (a duo known at the time as "Fat City"), the act that opened for him at The Cellar Door folk club in Washington, DC. Danoff and Nivert had written the first verse and part of the chorus of the song, and knowing that Denver had authored a #1 single (Peter, Paul and Mary's rendition of "Leaving On A Jet Plane"), as well as many of the songs on his first three LPs for RCA Records, they asked him to help them complete the number. Denver obliged, helping to write the second verse and composing by himself the distinctive and highly effective bridge to the last choruses. Appropriately then, our first version of the song is a performance on Australian television by Danoff, Nivert, and Denver:

No lip-syncing here, no auto-tune - two guitars and three voices only in live performance, an endangered species in pop music today. And in support of fans' contention that Denver's voice improved dramatically over the decades after his peak, here he is in the aforementioned Wildlife Concert in 1995, two years before his death:

Denver's voice had deepened, and there were darker shadings in it as well as better breath control and less of the occasional reediness of his early years.

JD's allusion to Olivia Newton-John's hit with the song in the Land Down Under makes her version the next logical choice:

Newton-John, of course, was another international phenom at the same time as Denver, and the two collaborated on a number of hit tunes. Her version here is rather more straight-up than many of her own popular songs, which often tended to be ornate and over-produced.

"Country Roads" has been covered hundreds of times, and the folk-ish simplicity of the melody lends itself to a wide range of interpretations - as Ray Charles demonstrates here:

Charles retains the slightly uptempo rhythm of the original while stamping it with his own inimitable blues styling.

The tune is quite naturally adaptable to country and bluegrass genres. Next, Grand Ole Opry legend Roy Acuff reminds us of what country music actually sounds like:

...and Nashville studio/sessions legend Charlie McCoy renders unto country the things that are country's in this outstanding instrumental version:

McCoy is playing harmonica, guitar, and bass here. Both Acuff's and McCoy's tracks leave me shaking my head and wondering what the hell has gone wrong in Nashville over the last few years - they're not producing music there any more that sounds anything like this or is remotely as good.

Next, classic bluegrass harmonies from the Osborne Brothers:

A reggae arrangement from Toots and the Maytals, here from 2011:

Also fairly recently, Holland's Hermes House Band had a huge international hit in 2001 in the UK and on the Continent with this rock/reggae/bossa nova arrangement:

Finally - I always like to include amateur performances in these posts when I can find worthy ones, and I think that this one by Wingrass, a group from Japan that covers American folk and country tunes, has much to recommend it:

The vocals are competent and the instrumentation good, but what I really like about this Wingrass version is that the band slowed the tune down and added the almost mournful fiddle line, bringing out the melancholy and wistfulness in the lyrics that even Denver himself seemed to overlook at times.

I am a little surprised at myself by how little of John Denver has actually appeared in the almost two hundred posts on this blog. Denver was if nothing else a gifted performer and showman, and a fine interpreter of the work of other writers as well, as his performance of Steve Gilette's "Darcy Farrow" so clearly indicates. I like quite a few of his songs, including many that were just tracks on his albums and never singles or hits, songs like "Eclipse" and "Rocky Mountain Suite" and "Whispering Jesse" and many more. That oversight is sure to be rectified in the coming months, even given my predilection for looking at traditional songs in these articles. And the pop world seems to have turned a corner in its evaluation of Denver's music. Independent record label Red House Records released what I thought was a first-rate tribute album called Take Me Home in 2000 that featured reinterpretations of JD songs by indie artists like Bonnie Prince Billy and The Red House Painters. This year, ATO Records put out an album called The Music Is You with major artists like Lucinda Williams, Dave Matthews, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Emmylou Harris contributing.

Even more - also this year, a group of opera stars headed by Denver collaborator (in 1983 with Perhaps Love) Placido Domingo released a very well-reviewed CD called Great Voices Sing John Denver. The disc was the brainchild of music business legend Milt Okun, producer and musical director for the likes of Denver, Domingo, Harry Belafonte, Peter, Paul and Mary, and The Chad Mitchell Trio. It was Okun who mentored Denver into big time show biz when JD replaced Chad Mitchell in that group, and Okun supervised many of Denver's solo albums as well. The classically-trained Okun loved Denver's compositions, and that is saying quite a bit in and of itself. I recall that a week or so after Denver's death, the Los Angeles Times' respected rock critic Robert Hilburn published a retrospective on JD that essentially damned the singer with faint praise, mustering no better compliment than "soothing" for Denver's music and highlighting many of the rough spots in Denver's personal life. In a remarkable, moving, and very well-written response published in the same paper, Milt Okun took polite but strong exception to Hilburn's remarks. "I will bet," wrote Okun, "that in 25 years the artists and groups whose work Hilburn now finds so compelling will either be forgotten or remembered only in the Billboard lists of big sellers, while Denver's songs will continue to be sung in schools, at concerts and around campfires and will have become part of the cultural bloodstream of America." Time has indeed seemed to have borne out Okun's prediction, but for me the highlight of the response was the way that Okun closed it, and it is a fitting closing for this post as well:

"John's songs deserve serious consideration, serious critiques. He really represents the best of what the American popular musical community has accomplished. I hope that in time and with the consideration of serious critics like Hilburn, John will be accepted in the company of great American creators such as Stephen Foster, Charles Ives, Scott Joplin, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.

I knew John Denver. I know his music. He was no lightweight."

Friday, August 30, 2013

"Railroad Bill"

One of the darker aspects of American culture as it has evolved to this point has been our collective penchant to make folk heroes out of some really bad people, most notably high-profile criminals and sociopaths - Billy the Kid, John Wesley Harding, Wild Bill Hickock, Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, and more.

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to quote oneself at the beginning of a new article, and though I have never been found wanting in that admirable quality, I have a better reason than mere self-promotion for doing so. Over the 190 posts on this blog, a number of thematic connections have emerged from among the articles, exactly what you would expect in a folk song site because those patterns are embedded in the aggregate of this country's traditional music. There are probably ten or more posts each on spirituals, sea chanteys, calypsos - and maybe half a dozen or so on bad guys. The passage above opens my discussion in 2009 of "The Ballad of Jesse James", and that post includes an extended reflection on Americans and our love of outlaws. There are also posts on "John Hardy", "Tom Dooley", and several others.

"Railroad Bill" is a fine candidate to join our American folk song cavalcade of infamy. Though a dwindling number of scholars maintain that the tune's namesake is entirely fictitious, you'll never get a decent meal in south Alabama or northwest Florida if you say so out loud because of the actual documentary evidence (including the photo above of Bill and Constable Leonard McGowan, who shot him) that established his very real identity. After Mr. Bill robbed several trains and shot and killed two sheriffs in separate pursuits, warrants were issued for him under the name of Morris Slater, a convict who had run off from a work camp in Bluff Springs, Florida. Slater evaded capture for more than a year after the initial murders, often with an almost unbelievable ability to escape when surrounded, making him a kind of folk hero to the region's African-Americans, suffering at the time under the Jim Crow segregation laws. Slater was reputed to be a "hoodoo man," possessed of supernatural powers that allowed him to disappear at will and thus evade the minions of justice - until, that is, McGowan tracked Slater down and found him in Tidmore and Ward's General Store in Atmore, Alabama on March 7, 1896.

How Slater came to be dead in that store is still debated, with McGowan maintaining that there was a shootout but some black witnesses asserting that McGowan simply walked into the store, shot Slater in the chest as Slater was lunching on cheese and crackers, and then peppered Slater's prone body with a half dozen more bullets. For about a week following, Slater's body was carted around various towns in both Alabama and Florida, as an object lesson, no doubt. Admission to see the body was 25 cents, and if you came up with four bits you could even have your photograph taken with the moldering remains. When this charming road show found its way to Brewton, AL, a number of residents claimed that the man's real name had been Bill McCoy, native son of Brewton - and if true, that might well explain why Slater himself claimed the moniker of "Railroad Bill."

No one is quite sure when the song came into being, but it's a safe bet that it had been around for a couple of decades at least before its first publication and recording in the middle and late 1920s. "Railroad Bill" appears then and into the 1930s in songbooks by the Lomaxes (who believed him to be a myth), Carl Sandburg, and Dorothy Scarborough, among others. The tune exists in both black and white country blues traditions, and both black and white artists recorded the song from about 1925 and on. The musical Bill is always a good shot and a slippery character, but in some versions he is the murderous criminal of real life while in others he is a badly misunderstood black man, driven to violence by white persecution.

"Guitar Frank" Hovington provides us with the best straight acoustic blues version I could find on YouTube - I'm guessing that the earliest versions of the tune sounded a lot like this:

Hovington recorded this two years before his 1982 death, and you can hear in his version an immediate similarity in both the chord structure and the walking bass to Elizabeth Cotten's "Freight Train," with which "Bill" is often performed as a medley. And if it's really old-time acoustic blues that you like, it's hard to top this version by John Cephas on guitar and vocals and Phil Wiggins on harmonica:

Gotta love the way Cephas hammers out the accompaniment at the end, slowing like a train coming into a station, as Wiggins' harmonica transforms itself into a train whistle

Cephas was an exponent of the so-called Piedmont blues style of guitar - as was Frank Hutchison decades before. Hutchison was a white coal miner from West Virginia, and this 1929 recording is one of the earliest waxed of the tune:

Now for a couple of more contemporary takes on the song. First, the irrepressible skiffle pioneer Lonnie Donegan brings his signature style to "Bill":

This was recoded at a performance in Belfast in 1998, and that is of course Donegan disciple Van Morrison on high harmony and the second verse.

Dave Guard left the Kingston Trio in 1961 at the height of its phenomenal popularity in a bitter dispute with his bandmates over both finances and the group's musical direction. Almost immediately, he formed Dave Guard & The Whiskeyhill Singers with Cyrus Faryar, a Punahou schoolmate from Hawaii, KT bassist and jazz musician par excellence David "Buck" Wheat, and emerging folk star Judy Henske. Guard maintained in an interview in the mid-1980s that he was compelled to do so by contractual obligations with Capitol Records, who insisted that he owed them another record album, Trio member or not. The Whiskeyhill Singers made a valiant effort to create the kind of sound and repertoire that Guard felt that the Trio had moved away from, but by the 80s he had come to regard the effort as a failure, artistically as well as commercially. The group recorded but one released album and several tracks for another, and the whole experiment lasted a mere six months, leaving Guard with $10,000 of debt and a one-way ticket to Australia for himself and his growing family. The group did play a set at a major event at the Hollywood Bowl before disbanding, and Guard chose "Railroad Bill" as the opener:

Henske had left the group before this show, and Liz Seneff is the female voice here. Many of Guard's fans have always felt that he was being unduly harsh on the quality of what the WHS had created, and that had the group had more time to jell, it might have become something special. Their version of the song suggests that such might well have been the case - it has the signature energy, inventive banjo instrumentation, and creative harmonies of the earliest Kingston Trio recordings.

Finally, contemporary roots star Gillian Welch and her longtime collaborator David Rawlings have re-imagined "Railroad Bill" into something very different - beautiful harmonizing here:

Welch and Rawlings turn Bill into a sympathetic character, and the slower rhythm is reminiscent of some early versions of "Jesse James," the modified pace of both creating a mournful aura unusual for the tunes.

Following the "get your picture taken with a corpse" travesty after Bill's death, the body was finally interred in an unmarked grave, location unknown. But folk hero or simple murderer, Raillroad Bill aka Morris Slater aka Bill McCoy has no need of a tombstone. His immortality is guaranteed by the fact that people have been singing his song for nearly a century, and there is no sign that that will change any time soon.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

All Over This Land - "If I Had A Hammer" & The March On Washington

One of the elements of the August 28, 1963 March On Washington that is getting a fair amount of attention today on the 50th anniversary of this transformational moment in American history is the fact that music - folk music, in fact - was at the very center of the event and after Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech (which has a definite folk music connection, as we shall see) provided the most electrifying moments of the program that day. Publications like The Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, USA Today, and many more have all run thoughtful pieces on the music and the performers, though with degrees of accuracy that seem to me to vary in direct and inverse proportion to the ages of the writers. Younger critics seem to focus on Bob Dylan's presence on stage there, though anyone who watched the event unfold as it happened will tell you that the skinny kid with the scratchy voice was a "complete unknown" that day, dramatically overshadowed by musical giants both young like folk superstars Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary and old like Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson.

It was gospel singing all-time great Jackson, in fact, who prompted the most memorable event of the day - and one of the greatest moments in U.S. history. Jackson had sung the metaphorical spiritual "How I Got Over" at King's specific request, and she was still on the dais when King began his speech, which while rich and thoughtful was not moving the crowd in the way the King was accustomed to do. According to Harry Belafonte, also on the platform and the man responsible for the musical line-up that day, when King paused briefly after speaking for about ten minutes, Jackson, perhaps sensing that the moment called for more than King was at that point delivering, called out, "Tell them about the dream, Martin!" In response, King abandoned the rest of his notes and extemporized the only part of his remarks that today anyone remembers, the sermon-like section that begins with "I have a dream today" and concludes with "Free at last, free at least - thank God Almighty I'm free at last!"

Belafonte had selected and scheduled the performers with great care. In defiance of strong sentiment on the part of some organizers that only African-American musicians should be included, Belafonte insisted on featuring white artists as well. And it was Belafonte who pushed hard for having Dylan as part of the program because Harry B. recognized the power of the Minnesotan's lyrics, even though Robert was yet to attain any fame at all as a performer. The climax was to be and proved to be Joan Baez, only 22 at the time and still possessed of that perfect, clear soprano, leading the other performers and the crowd of a quarter of a million in singing "We Shall Overcome."

That performance was probably co-equal with Jackson's hymn as the musical highlight of the day - but a close second was Peter, Paul and Mary's stirring rendition of the Pete Seeger/Lee Hays "If I Had A Hammer." The song was never specifically a civil rights anthem and started its life as something quite different - but the relevance of its call for justice and love "all over this land" made it a perfectly apt selection, one that inspired a large part of the crowd to sing and clap along. It also allowed the trio to move smoothly into the quieter, more reflective "Blowin' In The Wind," which unbelievably that week was #4 on The Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and had been at #2 the week before.

"The Hammer Song," as Seeger and Hays had originally titled it, was one of the tunes that grew out of the pair's membership in The Almanac Singers, that early 1940s aggregation of political radicals (including Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston at times, as well as Bess Lomax Hawes of "MTA" fame) whose sole purpose was to sing at union and socialist rallies. The group had dissolved spontaneously after Seeger and Guthrie joined the armed forces during World War II, and when Hays and Seeger reconnected in 1949 to form The Weavers with Hays' friends Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, a very different kind of group was born.

The Weavers were the first pop folk act in U.S. musical history, or at least the first such troupe whose music transcended regional repertoires and became truly national and international in its scope. The Weavers were originally not at all political in the sense that the Almanacs had been. Their concert set lists for the most part included traditional American folk songs with a healthy dose of world music featured as well. It was not as if Seeger and Hays had abandoned politics at all; rather, the Weavers' family-friendly approach reflected Seeger's articulated belief that people would act together if they could sing together, and there were far more subtle political undertones in the Weavers' shows than had been the case in Almanacs' concerts. Seeger and Hays and the group sang of universal brotherhood and the glories of freedom and the power of working cooperatively - themes that implied but usually did not specifically promote the political agenda of the Almanacs or the unions or the socialists. In fact, when the Red Scare headsman's axe fell and the group was blacklisted in 1952, it was not for what The Weavers had been doing, popular concert and television and radio act that they were; it was for what the Almanacs had done and for Seeger's and Hays' associations with the Communist Party, USA.

While Seeger was likely never a formal party member and Hays was only briefly (he had as strong an anti-authoritarian streak as did Guthrie, another figure who just could not abide the stratified and hierarchical structure of the Communist Party), the first public performance of "The Hammer Song" was by Seeger and Hays in 1949, shortly after the song was composed. The event - a rally for the upper echelon of leadership of the Party, who were on trial in federal court at the time for sedition. Critics went so far as to suggest that the hammer of the title was a reference to the hammer and sickle on the Soviet flag - but there is neither a bell nor a song on the flag, and that supposition was patently ridiculous. Seeger was and remains a walking encyclopedia of American folk music, and he derived the hammer reference from an old spiritual called "Hammering Judgment," an antiphonal call-out spiritual in which the lead voice would intone a line like "God's a-talking to Moses" and the group voices would shout out "Hammering!" The song climaxes with "Tell ol' Pharaoh to loose my people" with the "Hammering!" response again.

The song was lyrically strong enough but at the same time generic and safe enough for The Weavers to record and release it, and the first version went like this:

This version - its rhythm, its pace, its harmony - is the one that all these decades later remains most beloved of a number of my older friends to this day, people who learned the song before Peter, Paul and Mary re-imagined it.

Seeger had known Mary Travers since her teenage years - she was a Greenwich Village child whose parents had worked with Seeger in a number of political causes - and it was she who brought the song into her own group's repertoire. Seeger related genially in a video now gone from YouTube that he thought that PP&M's version, which was considerably faster and more spirited than the original, actually improved the song:

One of Travers' improvements was changing the second-to-last line of the chorus from the original "all of my brothers" to "my brothers and my sisters," a decision whose inclusiveness was more in keeping with the spirit of the song anyway. The performance above, which I think is the best of several PP&M live videos of the tune, came on July 30, 1963 at the Newport Folk Festival, a mere four weeks before this performance on the national mall during the March:

Those two moments - Newport and Washington - firmly planted "The Hammer Song" both in the nation's consciousness and in the folk and pop songbag of the U.S. for decades afterward. Cover versions are too numerous to list, but there are a couple that I believe merit special attention. The first is by major early 1960s pop star Trini López:

López was one of the true crossover pioneers. Hard as it may be to imagine today, pop music in the country in the 50s was almost as fully segregated as public transport, and except for the brief flicker of popularity enjoyed by Ritchie Valens (Richard Valenzuela, actually) before his death at 17, mainstream American awareness of Latino music was confined largely to the output of a relatively small number of big bands. López began to change that; his "Hammer" here is unselfconsciously infused with every bit of Latin soul that he can muster, and though it creates an unusually cheery feeling for the song, it was a major national hit, reaching #3 on Billboard's singles chart, also in '63.

Finally - "The Hammer Song" has legs, as the Broadway wags often say, and it is still popping up as an expression of both challenge and of hope. Just this past June, original Beach Boy and folk fan Al Jardine lent his name and prestige to a group called Agit8, which has been recording and promoting protest songs as a means to fight "extreme poverty" and a host of other social ills. Jardine's choice of a tune to record? "The Hammer Song," here with Richard Barone and others:

I like the gusto and enthusiasm of this video - as if "Hammer" were a newly-composed anthem intended to address the issues of our times, rather than a nearly 65-year-old artifact from another century targeting other, earlier, even forgotten conflicts and issues.

I am not at all sure what future, if any, that folk and protest music have in the America of today. I see the grainy videos above with very different eyes than most all of the half of the U.S. population born after 1970 would see them. The 50 years that have elapsed between that day in August 1963 and this moment as I write seem to have evanesced like a dream, and when I hear the song and see videos of the King speech, the emotions of the moment come back to me with a powerful immediacy that belies the passage of time and reminds me of the utter truth of William Faulkner's observation that "The past is never dead. It's not even past." And a finely-crafted, intelligent, and uplifting song like "If I Had A Hammer," perpetually relevant as it is, has a lot to do with why that is so for me.

Addendum - Same Day, A Few Hours Later

The Newport Folk Festival video of Peter, Paul and Mary performing the song was lifted from Murray Lerner's film Festival, which chronicled some of the performances from Newport from 1963 to 1967. An incomplete version of that performance was also included in a documentary on Pete Seeger, during which Seeger talks at greater length about how the song came to be. In the snippet below from that documentary, Seeger credits PP&M with improving his tune: