Friday, March 29, 2013

Dino Valenti's "Let's Get Together"

For western Christianity, today is Maundy Thursday, which in my Catholic childhood was called simply "Holy Thursday," and it is the beginning of the Passiontide, which gives way at dawn on Sunday morning to Eastertide. For Christians, this is the most sacred and significant phase of the nearly 2,000-year-old liturgical year, observing as it does Thursday's Last Supper, Good Friday's Crucifixion, Holy Saturday's quiet entombment (and for those who really know their traditional theology, the Harrowing of Hell), and Easter Sunday's Feast of the Resurrection. All of the mysteries and core beliefs of the religion coalesce into the three day observance (again for traditionalists, the Triduum or "Three Days" is the official name) - the incarnation of the son of God as a human being, the point of which was to redeem humanity from its sins through a sacrificial death (symbolized by the eucharistic elements of Thursday's Last Supper) followed by a triumphant resurrection that solidified the possibility of redemption for all of us wretchedly flawed and miserably sinful people.

Yet another odd opening for an article on a folk song, it might seem at first, but I would suggest that it is the perfect context in which to understand why Dino Valenti's (pictured) "Let's Get Together" attained such popularity when it was written and recorded almost fifty years ago,  and why it remains relevant today, this week, now - even, perhaps especially, for those many of us who do not profess any such beliefs as described.  Valenti's lyric makes a clear if slightly oblique reference to mainstream Christian theology ("When the one who left us here/Returns for us at last," alluding to the belief in the second coming of Christ), but I would suggest that in the aggressively irreligious and secularist zeitgeist of the late 1960s when the tune became a major chart hit for The Youngbloods, its popularity with the record-buying youth of the day had nothing to do with conventional religion or theology whatsoever.  Rather, it is the way that the lyric expresses the universal desire for peace and love of nearly all the segments of that era's youth culture - the hippies and war protesters and Hare Krishnas and Transcendental Meditators and Flower Children and all their attendant wannabees and fellow-travelers - that propelled Valenti's composition to high-profile popularity and embedded it in the consciousness of the time.

Those last two sentences are, I suppose, some sort of heresy at best and apostasy at worst, and the good nuns of St. Raymond's School in my native Illinois are undoubtedly spinning in their graves even as I write this. Yet rest easy, good sisters - your lessons were not completely lost on this errant child. Beyond the theology, beyond the religious trappings of today, there remains at the core of the Holy Thursday story a transcendent moment, one of genuine historical significance whatever attitude one has toward  religion itself. In the Gospel of John, after the Passover Seder, Jesus is imparting a final lesson to his followers, which he begins by saying, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you..." - a corollary of sorts to the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have others do unto you. Taken together, the commandment and rule are enough to warm the hearts of even the flintiest and most committed of non-believers, including such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, both of whom revered Jesus as a great teacher without adhering at all to conventional beliefs in his divinity or in any traditional theology. Mahatma Gandhi also noted the significance of the imperative to "love one another" as the foundation of any society with pretensions to justice.

Whatever  Valenti's  intentions were initially, the song owes its popularity to the idealism of the young five decades ago - the plea of his chorus to "love one another right now," written in late 1963, expresses an urgency that seems poignant now that we know of the darkness that was settling over the land at just that time. Valenti (who was born with the name Chet Powers) recorded the song for his debut solo album on Elektra Records in January of 1964:

This beautifully clear recording is a digital remastering from 2007, significant in that Elektra (now a subsidiary of Warner Music Group) felt that despite
Valenti's spotty career, frequent legal troubles resulting from drug use, and early death at 57 in 1994, that there was still enough of a market for his music to validate the expense of upconverting the original analog tapes to a digital format. If their confidence proved justified, it was on the basis of this song.

Cover versions began to appear even before
Valenti's album was released, likely due to the small and close-knit community of folk and rock musicians (and the soon-to-be fusion of the two) in the San Francisco Bay area to which Valenti had moved, where everyone knew everyone else and traded and stole songs from each other. Kingston Trio manager Frank Werber apparently heard Valenti performing the song in a San Francisco nightclub, liked the tune, and brought it to his group, who also liked it and recorded it a mere two months after the release of Powers' record. This is from the Trio's eighteenth original and final LP for Capitol Records - Back In Town, recorded live at SF's Hungry i, from which the group had rocketed to fame six years prior:

Pop country legend Glen Campbell sat in on many of the tracks on the album, uncredited, and it may well be Campbell playing the 12 string guitar here. Though the album itself was of only middling success in terms of performances, sales, and recording quality, several of its tracks received favorable critical response. Just a few years ago, prominent Allmusic critic Bruce Eder remarked that "'Let's Get Together' might even have put the Trio out in front of the folk-rock pack, had Capitol gotten either this performance or the Trio's studio recording of the same period (which wasn't heard until the mid-'90s) out as a single."

Frank Werber also managed We Five, the Bay Area folk-rock group headed by KT member John Stewart's younger brother Mike. We Five had had an international smash hit early in 1965 with their rendition of Sylvia Tyson's "You Were On My Mind," and Werber believed that the follow-up release in late '65 should be the group's arrangement of "Get Together":

We Five's arrangement seems to have been a cross between
Valenti's original and the Kingstons' cover. Like the KT, We Five re-ordered the lines in the song's chorus and added an element of drama to their version that anticipates the Youngbloods. This recording reached a respectable #30 on the national singles charts, but it was the last of the group's 45s to make the Hot 100.

Folk superstar Judy Collins was also transitioning away from the accepted perimeter of revival-era folk music when she performed the song on a BBC television show in 1966:

Collins' syncopated take on the song reminds us that Brazilian bossa nova was all the rage in American pop that year, and Collins had the versatility to pull this off. It helps that her accompanying guitarist is the multi-instrumental genius Eric Weissberg, late of mid-50s folk group The Tarriers and a few years later the banjoist on the recording of "Dueling Banjos" that was included in the film Deliverance.

Back in the Bay Area, an assemblage of former folkies had created a folk-rock band that they named The Jefferson Airplane, including "Let's Get Together" on their debut album, which was released in mid-1966:

This is the Airplane pre-psychedelia - and pre-Gracie Slick. Signe Anderson is the female voice here.

Less than a month after Woodstock, in September of 1969, the "Celebration At Big Sur" in California sought to replicate the New York festival's success. It didn't come close, but at least Joni Mitchell was able to make this one - here with Woodstock vets Crosby, Stills, and Nash:

Mitchell was early in her career most successful as a soloist, and this apparently impromptu rendition doesn't reflect the best of what either she or CS&N were capable of. The video itself, however, with its crowd shots and cuts away from the performers, works nicely as a time capsule of sorts.

And that brings us to The Youngbloods, who first waxed "Let's Get Together" in 1967 and released it as a single. It went almost nowhere until '69, when this recording was used in a popular public service announcement for the National Council of Christians and Jews. RCA, the band's recording company, sensed that it was on to something and rushed out the nearly two-year-old track as a single. The suits were right in this case - the record reached #5 on the national charts:

Jesse Colin Young is the lead here, and the arrangement seems to owe a little bit to each of the preceding recordings, Collins perhaps excepted - the emotional crescendo of the Kingston Trio, for example, and the dramatics of We Five, and the guitar stylings of the Airplane. Like the track or not, it's a fine example both of the professionalism of the performers and of the superior technical know-how of the RCA engineers and producers.

Looking at the live performance videos above, it is tempting to relegate "Let's Get Together" to the dustbin of history as a naive and perhaps even shallow manifestation of a time period as fleeting and ephemeral as youth itself. The musicians are mostly in or nearing their seventies if they are alive at all, and many of the fresh-faced kids in the audiences are grandparents today. The Revolution came and went, effecting changes in many areas of American society without fundamentally altering it, and the battles we fight today - political, economic, and moral - are largely reincarnations of the same battles we were fighting with each other back then. The intensity and acrimony generated just this past week by the Supreme Court's consideration of same-sex marriage cases, not to mention the intensity and acrimony of a recently-concluded presidential campaign whose chief issues were economic justice and war and peace, remind me of nothing so much as of the divisive political conflicts of the late 1960s. How, then, has
Valenti's song lost even an iota of relevance? Should not the religionists pay more attention to Maundy Thursday's "new commandment" and demonstrate genuine love of neighbor transcending sectarian prejudices? And should not the humanists act as if they genuinely cared about real people and believed in the worth of individuals, even those whose ideas they find unacceptable? And is this not exactly the urgent plea of Dino Valenti in this song?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

John Stewart's "One More Town"

One of the unfortunate aspects of the unplanned hiatuses that I occasionally take from publishing posts here is that I miss dates and anniversaries that in the past have provided me with an opportunity to highlight topics in which I have had an interest stretching back decades. Last week, for example, was St. Patrick's Day - and in the four previous years I have had great fun profiling several of my favorite Irish songs. For several years I also did a late December retrospective on the best versions of songs that I had discovered in the expiring twelvemonth, but 2012 passed without such an article.

Most poignantly for me, I neglected in January to commemorate the anniversary of the passing of singer-songwriter John Stewart, whose death in 2008 I observed in a number of posts, including articles in 2010 and 2011 discussing two of his best-known songs, "July, You're A Woman" and "Chilly Winds," and what might well be a good introduction to the artist for those not familiar with his work, 2012's John Stewart's America. As a performer, Stewart had begun his career as a member of the Kingston Trio when it was America's most popular folk group, so it is no surprise at all that Stewart and his songs have figured prominently in these articles over the years, including last August's further reflections on his career while discussing his 1969 tune "Armstrong", this following the death of the first man to walk on the moon.

I had quite a bit to say about Stewart and his career in those two articles linked above and I don't want to be redundant here, but I would like to expand on a point that I made in each of those. Stewart's professional career lasted just under fifty years, and a protean career it truly was as Stewart moved from rock to pop-folk to country-folk to country-rock, back to rock and then roots and beyond - every format of  music popular in his lifetime except for disco. He released an album of "songs to run by." He recorded an album released after his death of piano-accompanied renditions of his songs. He anticipated and then god-parented any number of trends in music in this country and is often credited with being one of the first artists of what could truly be called the "Americana" style of music.

What enabled Stewart to have a viable career over all those years, however thin his concert schedule may have become at times, was his ability to write truly memorable songs. While the Monkees' mega-hit of his "Daydream Believer" - a song still heard and covered and performed today, 45 years after it broke through - may have paid the rent and bought the groceries for quite a while, it was the breadth and quality that his compositions evidenced from nearly the beginning of his career that has made him so remarkable if under-appreciated an artist.

I opined in a 2011 article that of Stewart's earliest work, the most professional and fully realized song that he composed was "When My Love Was Here" - but as beautiful as that 1950s-styled four-chord Kingston Trio ballad was, it was also completely atypical of the kind of songs that became his bread and butter, and to my memory he never again ventured into pop balladry. No, I would suggest that Stewart's coming-out party as a writer of top-notch folk-styled songs occurred in his second album with the group, 1962's Something Special, and what is probably the most memorable tune on the LP, "One More Town." Stewart was perhaps 22 when he wrote OMT, and though he had already had more than his share of adventures as a touring musician by that time, the lyric of the song is a forward-looking imagining, a young person's fervent hope that life can fulfill its early promise as an ongoing series of memorable and affecting experiences. Yet embedded in the lyric as well is an uncertainty - "I'm always goin', but I don't know where" that those of us who are four decades older than Stewart was when he wrote the words must find poignant and perhaps a tad melancholy. We may still be always going, but we know where we have been - and where we are headed.

The initial recording of "One More Town" was by the Trio on that aforementioned album, one that included for the first time in the group's history an orchestral background for the tunes, arranged by top-flight pro Jimmie Haskell:

The lead vocal is by the late Nick Reynolds, whose expressive and full-timbred voice is perfect for the song. While many KT fans found Haskell's orchestrations on most of the album's tracks to range from disruptive to wildly inappropriate, the strings work rather nicely here, I'd say, though I do believe they detract to a degree from the "folkiness" of the composition. Stewart delighted to relate in later years that Paul Simon had told him that Simon's "59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy") had been inspired by "One More Town," and both the rhythm and general tenor of "Groovy" do bear a striking resemblance to Stewart's work.

As noted in the linked articles above, Stewart could get testy early in his solo career if people asked him to do KT songs, but by the mid-1980s when he was in his 40s, he appeared to have rediscovered his own professional roots, first in an EP with former Triomate Reynolds (The Revenge of the Budgie) and then in a full-length CD titled The Trio Years in which he re-interpreted songs he had written in his Kingston days. All of the tracks are high-quality listening, and "One More Town" is one of the best:

This is the "older and wiser" voice and attitude that Stewart cultivated later in his career. The understated guitar work is for me one of the highlights of the track.

A decade after the KT version, Australia's New World group recorded and released "One More Town." This performance is from a 1971 BBC show called The Two Ronnies:

This is a bit too uptempo and happy for my taste, but the arrangement is professional and the performance creditable. The hair-dos and outfits may give us pause, though. I'm not sure how many of us would like to be reminded that we may have looked that way once. Positively cringeworthy, to cop a term from critic Richard Corliss.

Jeff Hall and Cherokee Road posted this rendition just a few months ago:

It's hard to tell from the video, but I'm going to guess that Jeff and friends are perhaps rather younger than the rest of the artists on this page, and that has got to be encouraging to those of us who want to see folk music in general and quality songs like this survive into the next few generations.

Finally and most interestingly, not to say oddly - "One More Town" as a square dance "call" by Dan Sahlstrom:

I think somehow that John Stewart would have gotten a charge out of this, however strange it may sound. After all, someone thought enough of the composition to adapt it to this use, and that is at least flattering to the tune, however you look at it and whatever you think of the result.

I was a mere wisp of a lad of 12 when I first heard "One More Town." A sensitive and imaginative and sentimental boy I was too, and this song was perfectly attuned to my own dreams of a life of adventure and meaning. But fifty years later, I still think it a wonderful song, and not simply as a measure by which to reflect on how I've lived my life to this point. No, John Stewart gave us a song that as noted above looks forward to and imagines all that life can be, all its possibilities for adventure and achievement. There is no expiration date on dreams, and I believe that we most honor Stewart and this lovely work by holding fast to ours.