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.