Thursday, December 25, 2014

For The Season #7: "The Coventry Carol/Lully, Lullay Thou Little Tiny Child"

(L -  François-Joseph Navez, 'The Massacre of the Innocents,' 1824)
The seasonal celebrations that occur around the winter solstice, psychologists tell us, are for many people fraught with an anxiety and sadness that is usually incomprehensible to those who have never endured it. It seems contradictory at first: this season that across religions and cultures and millennia is the joy-filled welcoming of the return of the sun and the lengthening of daylight hours through the newly-minted winter and into the spring just does not seem to correlate with a darkness and despair that would appear to be more appropriate to autumn. But that "black dog" of depression, as Winston Churchill termed it, bides its time in the deepest recesses of the mind and heart, awaiting its chance and any excuse to pounce and to tear at the peace and well-being of the lonely and the fragile.

It may be Seasonal Affective Disorder; it may be a bit of good old Kierkegaardian existential angst; it may be simply a consequence of the dissonance between the perceived happiness of others and the quiet desperation of one's own soul as the year draws to an end. But whatever its source, this profound sadness affects millions during the solstice celebrations, a melancholy counterpoint to the joys and reunions and feasts inherent in the holidays. And perhaps surprisingly, this dark thread through the red and gold fabrics of Christmas extends itself even into the music of the day, nowhere more so than in "The Coventry Carol," whose  tragedy is derived from scripture and theology but that I do believe bears some relation, however apparently obliquely, to that Yule-related black dog. More on that connection later.

"The Coventry Carol" is very, very old, dating back in all likelihood to the middle of the fourteenth century, a point immediately evident to anyone with even a smattering of familiarity with late medieval music, since "Coventry's" musical setting in a minor key resolving into a final major chord is typical of much of the other music that survives from that long-vanished era. Some sources erroneously report the song as a product of the 16th century, but that results only from the fact that the lyrics were first published in 1534. There is reliable evidence, however, that The Shearmen and Tailors' Pageant, the play for which the piece was composed, was performed as early as the 1370s and perhaps even earlier.

The so-called "Massacre of the Innocents," the Biblical tale that provides the inspiration for the lyrics of the song as the mothers of Bethlehem mourn the approaching murders of the babes to whom they sing, is itself an oddity. The story appears only in The Gospel of St. Matthew, strange because Matthew is one of the three "synoptic gospels" whose plots and incidents are nearly identical and which may well be derived from an older proto-gospel - and neither Mark nor Luke, the other two Synoptics, make mention of the event. The "raging Herod" motif is common enough, befitting a character who in history was ruthless and desperate enough to have his own sons executed for fear they would usurp his throne, and that bit of unpleasantness may well have given rise to this otherwise unsubstantiated account of the slaughter of male babies whom Herod feared might replace him.

As with most of the physical events described in the New Testament, the jury is still and probably permanently out as to the historicity of this event. Guided by faith, literalists will accept it as fact; guided by doubt, skeptics will scoff. Most middle-of-the-road scholarship leaves the factuality question alone in favor of trying to understand the metaphorical significance of the story in the larger context of the gospel message - which also creates some problems, as below.

But the peasantry and yeomanry of 14th century England (and not coincidentally the scores of medieval and Renaissance painters who used the motif)  had no such confusion; for them, the Massacre was a real event, a fitting reminder of the degenerate nature of sinful humankind, and one deserving of memorialization in this lovely but heart-rendingly tragic carol. I think we can catch a sense of the original sound of the song in this acoustic instrumental solo by Trond Bengtson, performed most appropriately on a medieval-styled lute:

Bengtson has chosen a slow and measured rhythm for his performance, fully in keeping with the pace of most medieval pieces and accentuating the deep, despairing sadness of the event. Likewise, The Robert Shaw Chamber Singers, an offshoot of Shaw's famous Chorale, here in 1993 deliver the lyric with similar pacing:

Shaw breaks one of his own precedents here. His arrangements were often built around the male baritone section singing the lead on the melody; here, in keeping with the plaint of the grieving mothers, the lead belongs to the sopranos. My friend, the late Joe Frazier of Chad Mitchell Trio fame, had been one of those aforementioned baritones in this group in the years before he joined the CMT.

"The Coventry Carol" quite naturally lends itself to female voices and interpretations, and scores of the popular music world's best sopranos like Joan Baez and Hayley Westenra and more have recorded excellent versions, for the most part with full orchestrations. Given my preference for the simplicity of acoustic folk music, however, the soloist I want to present here is a 20-year-old amateur who looks rather younger and who lives in Indonesia. Her real name is Saskia Kusrahadianti and her YouTube username is ScheherazadEify. Either way - you really need to hear this:

That's a lot of voice coming from so diminutive a person. Her lyric interpretation is outstanding, and she makes the interesting artistic choice to end each verse on a minor chord without the resolution to the major heard in most every other arrangement.

Most, but not all. This next is the track that leads off the Kingston Trio's highly original and now-classic 1960 Last Month of the Year holiday album. Beyond creating an instrumental setting that employs a celeste and bouzouki, the Trio makes an interesting thematic choice for the verse-ending major or minor decision:

The Kingstons are splitting the difference, so to speak. The last chord of each of the first two verses is a minor, with the attendant sadness implied by that. The third and final verse, however, ends on the major - a resolution, as it were, from dark to light. Given the lyric, this cannot quite be termed a happy or uplifting conclusion; rather, it sounds as if it is intended as the one ray of possibility in the stormy nightmare that the song describes.

And that would be entirely fitting, given the Massacre's strange place in the canon of Christian lore. Some scholars suggest that it is simply a literary device employed by the author of Matthew to effect a kind of fulfillment of prophecy from earlier scriptures. Others, as I note above, regard it as an example of an inherent evil, the "total depravity" of the individual soul that necessitated the birth of a savior who was destined to endure a savage and sacrificial execution in order to redeem unrepentant humanity. That dark thread of death pervades other Christmas carols, ancient and modern. The myrrh of the funeral appears in nearly every Three Kings carol, and the savior's death itself is referenced in others, like the more modern "I Wonder As I Wander." "The Coventry Carol" implies this as well: a world so brutal that innocent children can be murdered at the whim of a sociopathic monster is one in desperate need of salvation, a salvation hinted at in the final major chord of the original song and the Kingston Trio's arrangement.

In a larger sense, too, "The Coventry Carol" glosses in a way on the seasonal despair with which I opened this essay. The mothers in the song articulate their grief over the coming loss of their sons and in so doing express what is always most tragic about death, for the survivors of the departed, at least. It is not simply the end of another's life; it is the ultimate and permanent separation from that beloved other that induces the wild grief we all know too well. Those among us who suffer loneliness and alienation and disaffection at this time of year do so largely because of isolation and separation, and we could wish that, just as the birth of the baby in Bethlehem promises the possibility of eventual reunion with those now gone, those who so suffer can find their own major chord resolution into light at some time during this, the season of light.


*The first six songs in this series of holiday-related folk tunes include #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"; #5 - "Sing We Here Noel"; and #6 - "The Bitter Withy/Mary Mild." 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".

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Judy Collins: A Retrospective On Her 75th Birthday

Judy Collins, a genuine national treasure, turns 75 today. Probably no other single artist has been at the very center of my musical soul for the last 50 years and more, and not simply for the stunning clarity of her voice or the impeccable taste of her song selections and arrangements and her too-infrequent compositions. Collins' growth as a concert performer, her restless and daring search for different forms of expression, and her commitment to both her craft and her convictions make her for me the very personification of what an artist should be. She has enjoyed an enormous commercial success without ever seeming to have been corrupted or confined by it, and while my deepest affection for her music lies in her earliest efforts as a solitary folk musician performing traditional songs accompanied only by her very well-played guitar, I appreciate equally the fact that Collins has been able to transcend categorization to become simply one of America's greatest singers over the last half a century.

Collins has also written seven books, most of them autobiographical and three dealing with the personal tragedy of the loss of her son to suicide. However, unlike many of the performers of today - and I would add especially the legion of lesser female singers who make more money even than Collins ever did for work of stupendously inferior quality to hers - Collins never lived her life in the tabloids or other similarly salacious media. Her biography is interesting and at times moving, and for those so inclined there is a fairly good summary of it HERE. But I am old enough and old-school enough to have little interest in that beyond what she herself has chosen to share in her books. Judy Collins is first and foremost a great performing artist, and even presenting a modest sampling of that art is challenge enough for one article.

Judy Collins, Folksinger
A recent article noted that the brilliance of Collins' vocals often obscured what a fine guitarist she was. She showed what I would term a creative fidelity to the roots of the folk songs she performed, as here. Collins never tried to act the part of a rural inheritor of the folk tradition; she was an educated, modern woman who was comfortable presenting old songs in a contemporary idiom - a genuine urban traditionalist, but in the broader and not the more restrictive meaning of the term.


Judy Collins, Composer - Singer-Songwriter
Collins has only about twenty songs copyrighted under her own name. These are two of the best, and they have always left me wishing she had written at least twenty more. They demonstrate what happens when a lyricist with real poetic flair combines in a composer who actually studied music formally. I believe the word that I am searching for here, and one that I would append to nearly no other of the 60s era singer-songwriters, is "sublime."

Judy Collins, Interpretive Artist
It is worth noting, I think, that except for Seeger, not one of the composers whose work Collins is interpreting here was a tenth as well-known as she was at the point in time that she first waxed their songs. The fact that each is today regarded as a major artist is due in part to the high profile that Collins gave to their work early in their careers.

Of and with Pete Seeger


Of Joni Mitchell

Of Leonard Cohen

Of Bob Dylan

Of Ian Tyson

....and more recently, Collins performing a Sandy Denny song that she first recorded in 1970.

I saw Collins in concert about a year and a half ago at the Carpenter Theater at Long Beach State. She has lost only a little of the supple flexibility and beauty of her voice through all the decades of her career, and as might be expected, the range and emotional power of her interpretive abilities has only broadened and deepened with age. Fortunate indeed are those of us who know her work: she has the voice of an angel and has graced our national musical life for more than half a century now, and I hope for many more years to come.

Monday, March 17, 2014

"Bound For South Australia"

The general and often foolish gaiety that accompanies most St. Patrick's Day celebrations here in the U.S. serves two purposes. First and more obviously, the hats and parades and buttons and green-dyed rivers and all afford those of us of Irish descent a moment or two per year where we are able to assert a degree of kinship with a mythic and far-off land that many of us have never seen but from which our ancestors emigrated, usually many generations prior. In this respect, St. Patrick's Day in America differs little from the ways in which New York City's Italian-American population for decades observed October's Columbus Day, or the great Southwest's Mexican-Americans continue to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, a relatively minor holiday in Old Mexico that has been inflated into a major commercial event hiding behind a fiesta here in El Norte. But second and less obviously, the public demonstrations of pride and joy in one's Hibernian roots, especially in Boston, New York City, Chicago, and other eastern and midwestern metropolises, acts as a counter-balance to an inherent and often oppressive melancholy that seems to be part of the Irish character, however much it may be mitigated by residence in countries like the U.S. and Canada and Australia that are far more congenial to people's hopes and aspirations than the mother country ever was for most of its long and troubled history. As quintessentially-Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats remarked about one of his characters, "He had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy." Amen.

In Ireland, traditional St. Patrick's Day celebrations were much different than the "sure an' begorrah" fakery prevalent in  the U.S. Families would attend an early morning mass - it is, after all, a saint's day - and would assemble for a mid-afternoon dinner. Soda bread, yes - but corned beef and cabbage is an American invention, largely because beef brisket was the absolute cheapest cut available to the immigrants in 19th century, and beef of any kind was a luxury item unaffordable to the vast majority of the residents of the old country. Most of the Irish were lucky to get fish into their diets on occasion; for a real feast, mutton was the likelier main course for the relatively affluent and chicken or maybe mackerel for the majority. The St. Patrick's Day parades, which may have originated in the U.S., sprouted up in Ireland as dangerous and revolutionary acts of defiance against British rule. They were fraught with the risks of violence or arrest - in British-occupied Ulster well into the 1970s - and served as a rallying point for Irish nationalism, as surely as was "the wearin' of the green," equally suppressed by our English friends, who never quite seemed to understand why those troublesome Celts refused to embrace the high honor of being annexed into the British Empire along with Africans and Indians and other unlettered primitives around the world.

The political repression and the countless failed revolutions were at least as influential as the Great Hunger of the 1840s in impelling millions of the Irish to seek sunnier shores in the middle and late 19th century. To America and Canada they came in droves, of course, to labor in factories and build railroads and homestead land on the Great Plains ten times richer than they ever could have imagined existed. But they also went in significant numbers to Australia, both as convicts from the country's very beginnings at Botany Bay in the 1790s and as emigrants through the next hundred years. In fact, it could be argued that whatever the "national character" of Australia may be today, it is far more shaded by the influence of its Irish transplants than either of those of the U.S. or Canada. To Australia, the Irish brought their abiding love for horses and sheep and strong drink along with their undiminished abhorrence of British tyranny. They also brought their ballads  - and thus helped to shape the musical aspects of the emergent Australian folk culture.

"Bound For South Australia" is with "The Wild Colonial Boy" among the absolute best examples of the Irish-Australian ballads. Its rollicking tempo, its idealization of "Miss Nancy Blair" (who may well be a lady of the evening profession), and its chest-thumping pride in surviving the brutal gantlet of a sea passage around Cape Horn - these elements connect the tune most clearly and emphatically to similar Irish songs and sea shanties like "The Holy Ground" and "Haul Away, Joe." Scholar and folksinger A.L. Lloyd (an Englishman, for what that's worth) identifies "South Australia" as a capstan shanty, with its repeated "Heave away, haul away" fulfilling the same function of providing a rhythm for the backbreaking work of raising anchor or hoisting sails that "Way, haul away/We'll haul away, Joe" does in the aforementioned tune. "South Australia" first appears in print in the 1880s, and though it is likely somewhat older than that, it cannot be by much - anyone who was born in South Australia as in the lyric could hardly have been so prior to perhaps 1830 or thereabouts - there just weren't many women among the transported convicts who formed the bulk of the country's earliest population.

Lloyd recorded the song in 1958, and there do not seem to be many waxings earlier than that, though the song enjoyed a robust popularity Down Under through the normal folkways of oral transmission and school sing-alongs and the like. "South Australia" became a high-profile part of the English-language ballad repertoire, however, through this 1962 recording by The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, who were riding the crest of a phenomenal popularity first in America and then in their native Ireland:

The group took especial care with this track and most of the others on The Boys Won't Leave The Girls Alone on Columbia Records, the band's first real, professionally-produced studio album. In concert, the Clancys' only instrumental accompaniment at the time was brother Liam's effective but very simple guitar work, with occasional additional backing by Tommy Makem on pennywhistle or banjo, which Makem was still learning to play. For "South Australia," however, producer and band bass player Robert Morgan recruited an all-star line-up, with top-flight jazz musician Bill Lee (father of filmmaker Spike) on bass, studio pro and classically-trained John Stauber on guitar with the irrepressible Bruce Langhorne (both names should be familiar to all fans of early '60s folk recordings), and banjo by Eric Weissberg, member of The Tarriers and a decade later the player on "Dueling Banjos" in the film Deliverance. Weissberg also just happens to be one of the two or three best, most versatile, and most influential of all the musicians to come out of the folk revival in America. Harmonica support comes from eldest Clancy brother Paddy.

Most subsequent versions of "South Australia" can be traced in melody and lyric to the Clancys - but predictably, not that of Ireland's other great ballad group, The Dubliners, who have their own arrangement:

This is one of the last performances of the almost-original group, including founding member Ronnie Drew, now departed, and lead sung by the late, great Barney McKenna, who died just two years ago. Though McKenna is singing here to a simple fiddle accompaniment, he was probably the greatest tenor banjo player of the whole revival period, in Ireland or anywhere else.

While I have never been a big fan of The Pogues' approach to Irish folk music, they have always brought an undeniable energy to their style, and I rather like what they do with the tune here:

Lead singer Shane McGowan's throaty bellowing seems more appropriate here than it does on many of the band's other cuts. IMO, of course.

Oddly enough, it was difficult to find a video of an actual Australian singing the song. The Bushwackers Band is a fine Aussie band, but their version is a bit limp, so we turn instead to Salty Pete:

Pete's pronunciation of all the "aways" in the tune are a dead giveaway as to his country of origin.

Now, no Aussie musician today is more revered - and justifiably so - than master guitarist Tommy Emmanuel. Here, complete with flubs and outtakes, is Emmanuel's instrumental of "South Australia" with "The Sailor's Hornpipe" cut in for good measure:

You almost want to believe that you are seeing CGI here. Human hands just cannot be capable of such speed and dexterity - can they?

"Bound For South Australia" has been one of my favorite Irish-based ballads since I was a boy decades ago. It is simple, direct, energetic, and maybe just a tad naughty to boot - an unbeatable combination, as far as I am concerned. In fact, this being St. Paddy's Day and all - I think I'll post this, pour a glass of Jameson's, take out the trusty old Martin D18 on which I learned the song, and sing me some choruses of "South Australia." I have, as Errol Flynn's character remarks in Captain Blood, "the honor to be Irish," by extension at least, and I can think of no more satisfying ways of celebrating my ethnic heritage today.

Friday, January 31, 2014

In Honor Of Pete Seeger: "Guantanamera"

The best picture of Pete Seeger is any one like this one: a tall, spare figure - so tall and so spare that his famous 25-fret long-necked banjo looks perfectly proportional in his hands - standing alone center stage in a large concert hall, left arm raised and hand outstretched to the audience to encourage the people to sing along, to join him, and with him to become part of the song. It hardly mattered what the song was - an old English or Appalachian ballad, an African lullaby, a hard-driving rambling tune, a fiery pro-union or anti-war anthem - all Pete Seeger wanted was for people to sing it with him, and more to the overarching point of his life and career, with each other. "I think God is everything," Seeger remarked in an interview a few years back. "Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to someone or something I’m listening to God." For Pete, the voice of the people, or perhaps the voices of people - that was where dwelt the divine, and it made itself manifest in the sounds of people singing.

Seeger's death at age 94 earlier this week has generated a truly impressive tidal wave of accolades, remembrances, appreciations, and commentaries, and this is not in the least surprising because he was a gigantic presence in American cultural life for seventy years. While he was always quick to credit the resurgence of interest in folk music in this country to his friend Woody Guthrie ("We are all Woody's children," he often remarked) and to collectors like the Lomaxes, father and son, Seeger's own achievement is in fact far more significant in many ways. The Lomaxes were academic collectors working for the Library of Congress,  almost a guarantee of anonymity except in dusty university libraries.  Guthrie enjoyed a degree of popularity as a radio host and concert performer, and his record sales were more than respectable for a rural guy without formal training -  who also happened to be a political radical. And of course, Guthrie was struck down by Huntington's disease in his prime, diagnosed and hospitalized at the age of 40 in 1952, unable to perform or write very much for the last fifteen years of his life. That sad fact throws into even sharper relief Alan Lomax's comment that the folk song revival actually began when Guthrie met Seeger at a concert in 1940 - because Guthrie's incapacity left Seeger to carry the movement forward at the precise moment of the coming of age of American mass media with television, long-playing records, and a national audience for music.

That moment also coincided almost exactly with Seeger's fall from public grace due to his Communist Party associations, leading to his subsequent blacklisting during the worst years of McCarthyism and the Red Scare.  Seeger's Weavers - largely his own creation - had made itself the country's first legitimate pop folk group, performing a national and international repertoire of songs with consummate professionalism, where previously popular aggregations like The Carter Family had been generally  more regional in the music that they knew and played. But after Red Channels outed Seeger and fellow Weaver Lee Hays as CPUSA members (probably past tense by then, but at that point in history it didn't matter), the Weavers were dumped by Decca Records and had virtually all of their bookings and radio airplay cancelled.

It was this phase of Seeger's career especially that prompted the few but predictable discordant notes sounded in the press following his death. Some of that commentary was pointed and, to a degree at least, accurate: it took Seeger more than 30 years openly to repudiate the horrors of Stalinism that he had once endorsed, for example. But some of it was also of the "I-hope-the-old-Commie-is-burning-in-hell" stripe - mean-spirited, focused on particular aspects of Seeger's work and not the whole of it, and even in some cases trashing not only the man but the entire folk song revival - because the writers hated Seeger, they had to go after his life's edifice as well. A particularly egregious example is from David P. Goldman, who had grown up in a politically leftist family but had gravitated through his life to the other side of the political spectrum: "I was not just a Pete Seeger fan, but a to-the-hammer-born, born-and-bred cradle fan of Pete Seeger. With those credentials, permit me to take note of his passing with the observation that he was a fraud, a phony, a poseur, an imposter. The notion of folk music he espoused was a put-on from beginning to end."  Interestingly, Goldman's complaint is not simply the radical bent of much of Seeger's political music: it is the music itself he abhors as "pap," in addition to asserting that there is no "real American folk music" except the blues. The rest of what we think of as our folk heritage he dismisses as half an artificial construct of Pete's commie pals and the rest as the result of the unreconstructed ignorance of backwater rural rubes.

Well, each to his own - though you cannot help being reminded of the old parable of the three blind men trying to describe an elephant. My own observations on Seeger's politics can be found in the fourth paragraph of a piece I wrote eight years ago HERE, thank you. You don't start a worker's revolution with a banjo, and Seeger never intended to do so. In fact, he observed later in life that "if by some freak of history communism had caught up with this country, I would have been one of the first people thrown in jail." His collectivism, as I noted, was grounded in a very different set of values. And more to the point of this site - Seeger's repertoire was not some faked-up amalgam of silly old songs; it was one of the first very real iterations of world music, of the sense that one of the most important things shared by all people everywhere was music. As an expression of that belief, Seeger spent his entire career finding, learning, and performing songs from scores of countries around the world, with the traditional songs  of England and Ireland and Scotland and American cowboys and  riverboatmen and slaves occupying a central but not exclusive position in his concerts. Songs of India and Israel, South Africa and Norway, Australia and South America became familiar to Anglophone Americans through Seeger's recordings and performances.

Undoubtedly, the best-known of these Seeger discoveries is "Mbube"/"Wimoweh", but a close second is probably "Guantanamera" from Cuba, which as with many folk songs has a delightfully tangled history. The melody probably originated as a peon's song in the Cuban province of Oriente in the late 19th century, but possibly much earlier. Most Cuban scholars identify the two-word refrain as a salute to both the well-born women of the province ("las Guantanameras") and the simple peasant girls (whose songs had been termed "las guajiras"), making the tune a sort of all-purpose courting number.  However, the simple and repetitive chorus and the strict and regular meter of the lines of the verses made the original song a kind of Cuban "Hey LiLee LiLee," with street musicians and bar patrons and partygoers extemporizing verses as they went along, turning the news of the day and the sorrows of life and some randy jokes into a song that changed every time it was sung. One of the exponents of this format for "Guantanamera" - and quite controversially, one of the copyright holders - was the great Cuban bandleader Joseíto Fernández (1908-1979), who began performing the number on Havana radio around 1930. Here is Fernández from a television show some twenty years later:

My Spanish is limited but enough to recognize some of what Fernández is saying, and it is definitely not the lyric with which we are familiar today. That lyric is derived from the great Cuban poet and revolutionary and national hero  José Martí, who was killed in battle at the age of 42 in 1895 while trying to free his native land from Spanish colonial domination. Martí was an essayist, philosopher, and firebrand in addition to being a poet, sort of what you would get in American history and culture if you spliced the DNA of Thoreau, Whitman - and John Brown. The idea of taking the words of one of Cuba's most admired and lyrical writers and adding them to a popular and lovely melody is probably attributable to teacher Julian Orbón, who claimed to have done so around 1946. This new "Guantanamera" became an instant sensation in Cuba and was carried throughout Latin America by the fabulous Celia Cruz, the Queen of Latin Music, with a distinctively salsa flavored arrangement. Cruz is interspersing her own lyrics with Martí's in the best tradition of the song, but the blueprint of the modern version is audible here.

Orbón's intent was to take stanzas from five of Martí's short poems and conflate them into a single lyric. This arrangement was picked up by composer Hector Angulo, who studied in New York in the late 1950s and ran across Pete Seeger, who recognized immediately both the beauty of the melody and the poems. Seeger learned it and it became a popular part of Pete's concert repertoire. The gentle and reflective approach to the song, respecting as it does the sense of Martí's stanzas, received its widest exposure at first through Seeger's popular and widely-selling 1963 Carnegie Hall Concert LP:

It was this version that inspired The Sandpipers, a west coast vocal group being groomed by no one less than Herb Alpert, to record and release the number in 1966:

The Sandpipers' version won a gold record, was nominated for a Grammy, and went as high as #7 on the U.S. singles charts.

"Guantanamera" has continued since then to be a very popular staple of the world music song bag, with literally hundreds of cover versions currently available. Two of the best, I think, reflect the built-in flexibility of the number to differing interpretations - first, a distinctively Puerto Rican take by José Feliciano:

and a delightful mariachi version by Mariachi Imperiale de México:

I love the full-on treatment here - guitars, violins, coronets, guitarrón, percussion, the works.

But as T.S. Eliot wrote - in my end is my beginning, and I want to conclude with another version from Pete Seeger, with whom this post started long ago. This is a performance of "Guantanamera" by Seeger with his grandson Tao Rodriquez from 1993 at Wolf Trap in Virginia. The keyboardist is Arlo Guthrie, Woody's son and Seeger's frequent performing partner, and the back-up singers include Woody's daughter Cathy amd granddaughters Annie and Sara Lee:

Pete Seeger was 74 when this was recorded, at an age when lots of folks pack it in and move to the Sun Belt. Not Seeger. Can we watch him in this video and listen to him and not hear and sense the love of life and music and people that animated his public work for more than 70 years? Can we not see him for what he was, a national American treasure and a gifted artist well worthy of the hundreds of awards he earned? And were we not singularly blessed as a nation to have had him with us for another twenty years following?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

John Denver: "Leaving, On A Jet Plane"

December 31st would have been John Denver's 70th birthday had he lived, and that fact leads me rather more toward contemplation than to speculation. I have almost no inkling of what Denver might have done with these last sixteen years, and the October 1997 accident that took his life also ended his longed-for return to the center stage of American popular culture. Moreover, the period of his stratospheric popularity in the 1970s has retreated much, much farther into the past, irrelevant to the collective memory of the half of the population in the U.S. who were not even born when JD ruled the charts and airwaves or who were at best infants and toddlers - and for many of whom Denver's whooping enthusiasm in the concert videos posted to YouTube and his earnest if apparently at times naive promotion of the New Age and environmental causes of his day seem as alien to their lives and times as do the singer's granny glasses and bell bottoms.

Which is too bad, really, because Denver wrote some excellent songs in the folk idiom and performed them with consummate skill. I addressed these points recently and in more detail than I will here when I profiled "Take Me Home, Country Roads" last October. What was implicit at the end of that piece - when I quoted legendary producer Milt Okun's fervent wish that Denver would be taken seriously as an American musical artist on the same plane with Stephen Foster, Charles Ives, and Aaron Copland - was that JD was never embraced by any commuinity of critics, neither the pop and rock newspaper wags nor the academics of the professoriat, some of whom have been tripping over each other to get Bob Dylan either a real Pulitzer Prize or a Nobel Prize For Literature, or both. I know of more than a few Denver fanatics who just do not understand this at all, either the lack of attention to their hero or to the adulation accorded to Dylan and other singer-songwriters of the era, both famous and obscure, whose creative output seems generally to be more highly regarded than Denver's is, even with the re-evaluation of JD that is going on now and that I also discussed in the linked article.

The reasons for this oversight are varied, but they probably come down to what is perceived as a lack of depth and sophistication in Denver's music, something no one ever alleged about Dylan's lyrics or those of a few dozen other musical artists who like Bobby D at least skirted around the edges of the folk revival and accompanied their creations for the most part with acoustic guitars. Yet once again in this regard, Denver is being unfairly slighted. Though his highest-profile hit songs may well have been cheerful hymns to the beauties of nature and the wonders of romantic love, there was a decidedly darker undercurrent in much of Denver's writing - a melancholia approaching depression in a fine song like "Eclipse," for instance, or the urban alienation of "Fly Away." And always  - always - Denver wrote about loneliness and about isolation and about the consequences of the failure of the romantic dreams that he so famously extolled in the hits.

These two distinctly different sides of Denver's writing are evident in the first two of his compositions to be recorded professionally. The very first, copyrighted under his real name as "H.J. Deutschendorf, Jr.", was called "For Bobbie" and appeared on the second album that JD waxed as a replacement member of The Mitchell Trio in 1965. Though that original recording has yet to be posted on YouTube, Denver reunited with the original Chad Mitchell Trio for a number of concerts in 1987, and the his performance here from those shows (with his former partners in the group, Mike Kobluk and Joe Frazier) is virtually identical to the '65 studio recording:

The song was covered most famously by pop-folk superstars Peter, Paul and Mary, who renamed it "For Baby" and converted it into a tune for a newborn child. But Denver continued to perform it and record it with the original title and lyric - and the original intent as a competent if simple love ballad. It is pleasant enough, but had JD been planning a career based on songs like this, he would have been better off returning to Texas Tech.

Fortunately and famously, Denver was capable of much better writing, and his talent for matching words with melodies emerged in an emphatically more accomplished second recording, a 1966 composition that JD wanted to call "Babe, I Hate To Go." The title was nixed as drab and unimaginative by Milt Okun, who suggested that Denver use the first line of the chorus as the title instead of the last, and thus was "Leaving, On A Jet Plane" born. The last incarnation of the Mitchell Trio (with Kobluk and David Boise) recorded "Jet Plane" - complete with the comma that has since disappeared from the title but with which the tune is still under copyright - for the band's final album in 1967 called Alive:

Both the tune and lyrics here are greatly superior to the "Bobbie" number, but the performance seems rushed, as if Denver has not yet realized that he has written a somewhat sad song about lovers parting, with the "wedding ring" bit in the third verse coming across as a hopeful and possibly desperate antidote to the singer's sorrow as he contemplates the upcoming loneliness of the road. Denver's original solo rendition on his first commercially-produced album, 1969's Rhymes and Reasons, has similar pacing, if a somewhat more reflective interpretation of the lyric:

Several years later, however, when JD re-recorded some of his earlier tunes for the monster nine-times platinum-selling John Denver's Greatest Hits, Denver had altered both the speed of the melody and the more sober and quiet voice of the story:

With slight variations, this is the interpretation that Denver used in concert for the rest of his career.

Still, "Leaving, On A Jet Plane" and Denver's career would likely have been lost in obscurity (the sales of the first two recordings above were negligible) had Milt Okun not also acted as musical director for the aforementioned high profile PP&M, which may well have been the only pop-folk group whose popularity survived the onslaught of the British Invasion of rock music following the 1964 arrival of The Beatles in the U.S. Okun brought "Jet Plane" to PP&M, who included it in their 1967 offering Album 1700, surely one of the group's best and most accomplished efforts. For reasons now unknown, the band's label, Warner Brothers, waited until 1969 to release the tune as a 45rpm single, which became PP&M's last charting single (of several) and the only one to hit the #1 spot on Billboard's main pop charts.

"Jet Plane" became the signature number for the late Mary Travers, who recorded and performed it solo as well as with the trio. Further, the song's appearance on the popular 1700 album was what enabled Okun and Denver's other representatives to market the young unknown singer-songwriter to major label RCA. JD's Rhymes and Reasons debut, in fact, was released at precisely the time in autumn of 1969 that PP&M's "Jet Plane" was ascending the pop music singles charts. Additionally, one of Denver's first network TV appearances during his solo career was sitting in with PP&M for "Jet Plane" on one of the trio's specials, this one in 1969 at the height of the song's popularity - and the beginning of Denver's.

The tune has been covered by professionals hundreds and hundreds of times, in virtually every musical mode imaginable. A sampling of some of the more interesting takes - first, a version in memory of my father, a man of generally impeccable musical tastes ranging from Glenn Miller and George Gershwin to his annual seasonal subscription to the prestigious Chicago Symphony but who for some mysterious reason also loved the musical stylings of The Ray Conniff Singers:

Should that not be sufficiently abusive of the lyric and grating to the senses, I submit that this punk version by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes will do the trick:

Rather more interesting to me, not to say palatable, is what rapper and actor Mose Def does with the song:

It is a sampling of the number and not the song that John Denver wrote, but it somehow works for me in the way that Lindsay Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac remarked to John Stewart that a good pop recording should be repetitive and hypnotic.

Perhaps because of Mary Travers' top flight vocals on the hit version, "Jet Plane" has become a perennial favorite for female soloists. One of the most popular and widely-heard versions of fairly recent vintage was by Canadian Chantal Kreviazuk as part of the hit 1998 movie Armageddon:

Kreviazuk is a more than competent pro, and the jazz-tinged chord structure of her accompaniment creates a very different effect from Denver's original earnest folkie-ness.

For a contemporary female vocalist's interpretation, though, my favorite hands down is by Vienna Teng, a young Stanford engineering graduate whom I first heard ten years ago late at night while randomly flipping through television programs and seeing her do one song as the closing act on The David Letterman Show. Teng is a proficient and introspective songwriter with four albums to her credit (though she is apparently on a bit of a performing hiatus while she is working simultaneously on an MBA and M.S. at the University of Michigan), and her vocal delivery is nothing if not sensitive:

Teng gets a little too hushed at points here, perhaps, but in her favor it can be said that she at least avoids the breathiness of most of the American Idol generation of singers and demonstrates a genuine awareness of the meaning of Denver's lyric.

"There are no second acts in American lives," F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously observed, but he was not saying that revivals and comebacks are impossible. Rather, he meant that artists' careers in this country tended to be all build-up followed by decline, without the requisite second act as in the plays of his day in which the protagonist could learn and grow and develop depth and complexity in conflict in the middle of the story. I have often thought that such was the case with John Denver, who shot to international stardom and maintained a breakneck pace of developing his entertainment projects and promoting his environmental causes without being able to step aside for a time and rethink and broaden his songwriting interests. Throughout his career, he essentially got better and better at doing the same thing, though as his personal life darkened in his later years, so too did the tone of many of his musical creations. To say so is not to fault Denver; having once written a song as good as "Leaving, On A Jet Plane" is, as profoundly moving as it has been to so many people over the passing decades and generations and expressing both the light and dark of his creative vision, it would have been virtually impossible and likely foolish as well for JD not to try to forge such an expression once more. That he may never again have created so enduring a song as this speaks to his fallible humanity; that he never stopped trying, to his quality and commitment as an artist.