Friday, December 25, 2015

For The Season #8: "The Cherry Tree Carol"

One of the most charmingly poignant of all English Christmas carols is also one of the oldest, a fitting companion in both its age and its source to "The Bitter Withy", which was the subject of my Christmas post two years ago. Both carols date at least to the middle of the fifteenth century and almost surely even earlier since each song appears in both handwritten and printed copies in Middle English, that odd hybrid of Anglo-Saxon and Old French that was the percursor of the Modern English that emerged around the time of Shakespeare. Yes, as an English teacher for 40 years I am well aware that lots of people think of Willie Shakes as "old English," but his work really isn't that at all. Most of us can make easy sense of at least half of what Shakespeare wrote simply by listening closely to good actors perform his plays or recite his poems. How hard is "To be or not to be..." or "But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun" to understand, grammatically at least? Want a bit of genuine Old English to chew on a bit this fine Christmas morn? OK, try this on for size:

  Fæder ūre, ðū ðē eart on heofonum,
  Sī ðīn nama gehālgod.
  Tō becume ðīn rice.
  Gewurde ðīn willa
  On eorþan swā swā on heofonum

Got it, right? Plain as day, no? OK - even in Shakespeare's time, those five lines were incomprehensible to the average person and were translated from that 9th century Old English to this, although with slightly different spelling:

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed by Thy name.
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.

As grad students like myself decades ago could attest, Middle English is tough but much less of a challenge. For example, here is the opening of "The Cherry Tree Carol" in one of its earliest printed versions, from about 1478, shortly after William Caxton brought the first Gutenberg printing press to England. Jesus' mother-to-be Mary speaks first:

A my swete husbond, wold ye telle to me
What tre is yon standynge upon yon hylle?

You scarcely need me to tell you that Mary is saying "Ah, my sweet husband, would you tell me/What tree is yonder standing upon yon hill?" Even at that, Middle English was a thing of the past a generation or two before Shakespeare's 1564 birth - but its grammar, syntax, much of its vocabulary, and certainly its aural rhythms were so close to our own language that a) most of us could go back to 1478 and after a few days of adjusting our pronunciation and adding some now-archaic words to our repertoire, we could make ourselves understood, and b) many poems and songs like "The Bitter Withy" and "The Cherry Tree Carol" transitioned fairly easily from Middle to Modern English.

The source for "The Cherry Tree Carol" is likely the same Apocryphal  Gospel of  Pseudo-Matthew that also provided the major plot points for "The Bitter Withy," though as with that song as discussed in the article linked above, the English composers adjusted the stories and their details to the landscape of Britain. But just as "Withy" conflated some details of the apocryphal story and changed others outright, "Cherry Tree" alters the time, place, and circumstance of the earlier tale. Cherry trees were as uncommon in the ancient Middle East as they are common in England and across most all of northern Europe, and the analogous story in Pseudo-Matthew has baby Jesus commanding a much more geographically-correct palm tree - a date palm, presumably - to bestow its fruit in his mother's lap. Virtually no one in late medieval England would have ever seen a date or a palm,  so cherries made an admirable and familiar substitution, with the added advantage of a kind of archetypal fertility symbolism as well.

"Withy" and "Cherry Tree," however, part company to a degree in the nature of their emphases. "The Bitter Withy," you may recall, has a little boy Jesus building a bridge of sunbeams with which to entice some disdainful rich lads to play with him. Jesus' divinity enables him to do this and to prance across the bridge, while the other boys plunge to their deaths when they try to follow him. Now, the divinity element was a given in any Jesus story that appeared by the eighth century date of  Pseudo-Matthew, but even then the question of whether the infinite God could be truly a finite human was still a matter of (secret) debate. "Withy" comes down emphatically on the "yes" side, with little Jesus experiencing and reacting to some very recognizable human emotions: desire for companionship, sadness over rejection, anger, and resentment of his mother's punishment of his misdeeds. "Cherry Tree," however, invents a non-canonical miracle when infant Jesus, still in utero, commands the aforementioned cherry tree to yield its fruit to his mother, who is suffering the scorn and rejection of her husband, who has just learned that she is pregnant with a child he knows is not his. Little fetus Jesus is thus shown to have the full power of the God of Nature and a preternatural ability to talk, and the net effect is to stress that this is no ordinary mortal boy.

The first version of "The Cherry Tree Carol" that I recall hearing remains my favorite. It was Mike Kobluk's solo on The (Chad) Mitchell Trio's 1965 LP, Typical American Boys:

Kobluk is a marvelous interpretive singer, as this track demonstrates. His lead on the CMT's ensemble performance of Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds" is a large part of why I believe that cut to be the finest version of the song ever recorded.

"Cherry Tree" is arguably more deeply embedded in the English aural landscape than it is in the American, so it is to me no surprise that Gordon Sumner/Sting does as fine a job with it as he does here:

I had liked Sting's work fronting The Police in the early 1980s, but with the release of his Ten Summoner's Tales album a decade later, I became a major fan as I realized both how much of a genuinely literary background this former secondary-level English teacher had, and how skillfully he had integrated significant elements of British Isles balladry into his writing. "Fields Of Gold" from 1993's Summoner's Tales is a nearly perfect amalgam of a kind of Romantic-era poetic sensibility with the structure of a 14th century Middle English ballad. Quite an achievement, really - and a key to how he can translate this old song into his own vocal style and idiom.

Now I don't need much of an excuse ever to include a Judy Collins performance in these posts; she is one of the greatest singers of my lifetime, and like her contemporaries Linda Ronstadt and Joan Baez, she has worked her vocal magic across a variety of genres and styles. But Collins brings something special to ballad-based folk tunes, most especially I think when she deals with a protagonist in the lyrics who is a female, often one in some sort of travail. "Anathea" and "In The Hills Of Shiloh" from her early repertoire spring instantly to mind. That sensibility lends an immediate and striking pathos to the lyrics of "The Cherry Tree Carol," with Collins here in a 1996 performance at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina:

The source story in Pseudo-Matthew creates a different context for the miracle than does "Cherry Tree." Instead of the latter's journey during Joseph and Mary's betrothal period, the Pseudo-Matthew context is the Flight Into Egypt, when the Holy Family as it came to be termed is fleeing from the murderous wrath of King Herod (see last year's "Coventry Carol" post for more on this delightful character). Both J and M are suffering from thirst and hunger, and that prompts infant Jesus to command the palm tree to bow down and give them its fruit and to "open a veyne" to supply them with water as well. There is no recrimmination here regarding the parentage of Jesus, and it is that aspect of the cherry tree tune - emanating as it does from Joseph's moral rectitude - that adds the element of pathos to Mary's silent suffering of an understandable but unjust accusation, as well as her wonder at the miracle and her resolute determination as she "went home with her heavy load" of cherries. Judy Collins' sensitive reading captures all of that quite effectively here.

For something entirely different, here is The Mark O'Connor Bluegrass Band with an instrumental rendition:

O'Connor's group is adept at creating the more usual blazing bluegrass sound in the rest of its repertoire, but I think that it takes a stroke of imaginative musical genius to recognize the idea that the standard bluegrass instrumental blend could be put to so quiet and moving a rendition. "The Cherry Tree Carol" not surprisingly does appear here and there in southern Appalachian folklore, though not at all as O'Connor and his band present it.

There are scores of variations on the lyrics of "The Cherry Tree Carol" across the English-speaking world, and a YouTube search will turn up more than a hundred recording and performance videos of the number, a significant percentage of which are by large chorales and classical orchestras. But "The Cherry Tree Carol" came into existence as an acoustic folk song, as we would term it today, and that is why I greatly prefer the simplicity inherent in these four renditions. The ancient roots of the song and its hauntingly beautiful melody make it a companion worthy  to stand with its better-known relatives in the body of music associated with Christmas.

*The first seven 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"; #6 - "The Bitter Withy/Mary Mild"; and #7 - "The Coventry Carol."   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".

Monday, December 21, 2015

Nick Reynolds And "Goodnight, My Baby, Goodnight"

The late Nick Reynolds was allotted by Providence with a greater range of talents and interests than most of those mere mortals among us could ever imagine. He was best known, of course, more than half a century ago as a singer and percussionist with the Kingston Trio in its heyday in the late 1950s and early 1960s; the high harmonies that he generally created himself became an integral part of the group's signature sound. And because he could play a bit of guitar and needed to find a rhythm instrument whose sound could cut through that of the booming rosewood Martin guitars of his bandmates Bob Shane and Dave Guard, Reynolds adopted the all-but-forgotten four-string tenor guitar, so effectively resurrecting the instrument in public awareness that when the national Tenor Guitar Foundation opened a hall of fame in 2011, its first inductee was Reynolds - even though there were many other distinguished tenor players from earlier generations, including actor Scatman Crothers and Mousketeer-in-chief Jimmie Dodd.

In the picture above, Nick's original Martin tenor had been modified to an eight-string version of the instrument, with the extra four strings being doubles and octaves, much as you would find on a 12-string guitar. Holding the instrument in this photo from about 1962 is Nick's son Josh, himself now an accomplished professional in advertising and communications and the chief proponent of his father's musical legacy as well. And "Goodnight, My Baby, Goodnight," a sadly little-known Christmas tune from an excellent but largely forgotten record album, is a song whose inclusion on that LP is precisely because of Nick and Josh.

The record itself was The Last Month Of The Year, released in early October of 1960. It was a startlingly different kind of holiday album, as Bill Bush notes in his 2012 book Greenback Dollar that chronicles the earliest years of the Kingston Trio:

 photo CDgmb_zpskafvw63v.jpg

What the album did include was a genuinely eclectic mix of songs: a medieval French carol, an ancient Welsh lullaby, a couple of seventeenth century English wassailing tunes, two African-American spirituals, and more, all masterfully arranged to stay within the musicians' somewhat limited vocal and instrumental ranges while at the same time respecting the traditions from which the songs sprang and in the process creating as memorable and original a holiday album as U.S. pop music had ever seen to that point in time.

But Last Month was a landmark KT album in other and less positive ways as well. It was the Trio's sixth studio album, with the first five reaching #1 on the Billboard 200 album charts and attaining gold record status. Further, the Kingstons had had the top-selling album in the country for 18 weeks in 1959 and a fairly astounding 24 weeks in 1960. Last Month's top chart position of #11 and eventual sales of 200,000 units may not have been chopped liver and well may have been a signature effort for less dominant performers - but it was so disappointing for a group that had sold about five million recordings in the previous two years that the band's label, Capitol Records, pulled the LP off of the market and offered it for sale for only two more years during the holiday shopping season.

That is a large part of the reason why pretty much only the hardest core of Kingston Trio fans have ever heard "Goodnight, My Baby, Goodnight." And a pity that is. Bill Bush remarks above that each Trio member volunteered suggestions for songs to include on the album, and "Goodnight" was one of Nick Reynolds' two choices, with the Welsh "All Through The Night" being the other. Reynolds claimed copyright for both of those numbers, though it would have been for the arrangement and some slight modifications to the lyrics for "Night," which is hundreds of years old. The case isn't so clear for "Goodnight, My Baby," though. Josh had been born a few weeks prior to the early summer recording of Last Month, and Reynolds remarked to Bush that "I was just knocked out by having a kid." If there had been an antecedent melody from which Reynolds derived "Goodnight, My Baby, Goodnight," it is still clear that Reynolds reshaped it and supplied lyrics that conformed to his characteristically emotional reaction to new fatherhood. I believe that those emotions are audible in Reynolds' vocals here:

While some of the arrangements and performances on this LP are most assuredly more intricate - and nine of them appear in other CV101 articles - none is more heartfelt, and for some people whom I know very, very well who are intimately familiar with this album - this is their favorite track - new parents, many of them, and that is not surprising.

Nor is it surprising that today's KT of George Grove, Bill Zorn, and Rick Dougherty also regularly include "Goodnight, My baby" in their annual series of holiday concerts, as they did here in their 2008 Christmas CD On A Cold Winter's Night:

Lead vocal here is by Dougherty, who owns the sweetest and truest tenor voice of any of the singers who have ever been a part of the group - by which no disrespect is intended toward Nick, who was actually a high baritone with an amazing and elastic upper range.

The other professional folk group still performing the number also has roots deep in the 1960s pop folk revival. The Makem and Spain Brothers originally included three of the sons of Tommy Makem, who was one of the greatest experts on and performers of traditional Irish balladry - and though contemporary with the KT, a major influence of the latter group's selection of Irish material as well.

This was from a December 2012 show in Boothbay, Maine.

"Goodnight, My Baby, Goodnight" remains among my favorite contemporary Christmas songs for its simple innocence. I was about ten years old when I first heard the tune, a bit past belief in St. Nick but only growing into the adult's appreciation of the magic created by that belief in the ready imaginations of so many little children. I watched as my seven younger brothers and sisters grew into and through that belief and all that it entailed, and no memories of my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood remain more precious and vivid to me than those of Christmas Eves long past. Our family ritual was always the same: following an early light dinner, the youngest four or five would be bathed, pajama-ed, and brought downstairs to the living room for the ceremonial taping of the socks to the fireplace mantel, to be followed by all of the children sitting around my mother, each clutching one of the figurines of our Nativity set, moving them toward the stable as my mother intoned her greatly simplified retelling of the Gospel of St. Luke - and thence to bed, with the little ones in a hyper state of excitement for the five or so minutes it took them to fall asleep. Something about "Goodnight, My Baby, Goodnight" takes me back to those times like virtually nothing else can.

Upcoming in a couple of days - the eighth edition of a "For The Season" articles on a traditional carol.

A Brief Note On CV101

For most of this year nearly past, I have used these blog pages to post radio shows and podcasts and have drifted rather far afield from the original intent of the venture - which was to use what was still the fairly new phenomena (in mid-2008 when we started up here) of YouTube and other video sites to explore the ways that acoustic folk and roots and singer-songwriter tunes transform themselves over time and in the hands of different interpretive artists. As of today, a bit short of eight years into the project, Comparative Video 101 has 203 posted articles (exclusive of this year's 12 radio/podcast pieces) with just under a quarter of a million posts viewed/accessed since Google started keeping stats in May 2010, with readership since January 2013 in 161 countries worldwide.

Needless to say, I have been delighted and gratified by this response. However infinitesimally small these numbers may be in the vast universe of the worldwide web, they are beyond anything that I ever thought either possible or likely, especially for articles that are actually personal essays on songs and performers who for the most part enjoyed their greatest popularity more than half a century ago. There is often a bit of background in the pieces (and as an academic myself, I wouldn't call it "research" per se), but the writing in these pages with which I am most satisfied is that which details emotional connections - mine and others' - to the songs and the manner in which they have resonated with me, often in fascinatingly evolving ways, through all the decades that I have known them.

All of this is simply preparatory to a relaunch of the song and performer articles, in addition to a continuation of the podcast and radio show postings. One of the constants here over the years has been an annual "For The Season" publication in the last seven Decembers of a profile of an often lesser-known traditional Christmas tune, in addition to five more articles about other songs with at least a tangential relationship to our Christian solstice celebration. I have two such essays in process now and will post them during this upcoming week, signalling (I hope) a return to form for this blog in 2016. To paraphrase John Paul Jones - I have not yet begun to write - or as Shakespeare notes in The Tempest - "What's past is prologue."

Saturday, January 31, 2015

In Memoriam Rod McKuen: "Love's Been Good To Me"

Rod McKuen's death on Thursday at the age of 81 was another one of those all-too-frequent-these-days John Donne moments, as in Donne's famous meditation on the connectedness of all people that climaxes with "Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." That funeral bell tolls perhaps rather more loudly for McKuen than it may well do for many of the rest of us, because for several decades McKuen was a major force in U.S. popular culture, with his songs selling tens of millions of copies (generally recorded by higher-profile artists than McKuen was like Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Judy Collins, Glenn Yarbrough, Madonna, and many more) and his books of simple, emotional poetry appearing ubiquitously for some years on high school and college campuses throughout the land. By his own count, McKuen had recorded over two hundred albums and earned 63 gold and platinum records worldwide. In television and film, McKuen also racked up an impressive list of credits, as his IMDB page indicates HERE, and I recall seeing him quite accidentally and surprisingly one late night as an actor in a B western from the late 1950s. Yet though his death was treated as a major event in national newspapers and websites, it was often accompanied by the sort of "I always wondered what happened to him" reaction, or less kindly, "I didn't even know he was still alive."  This was due in part because McKuen's fifteen minutes of fame had expired decades before, but also because a major bout of clinical depression stemming from an abusive childhood engulfed him in the 1980s, in his early mid-life when he had been at his most productive, and he disappeared from the public eye for some time. He emerged from that shadow later in the decade, but times and styles had passed him by. McKuen continued to work - to write, to score, to perform - right up until shortly before his death, though on a smaller stage and with less public acclaim.

McKuen's name has appeared in the posts on this site with some frequency, primarily because the pop-folk groups of the late 1950s and early 1960s like the Kingston Trio, The Limeliters, The Brothers Four, and others were the first to record and attract wide attention to his songs, including tunes profiled on this site "Seasons In The Sun," "Doesn't Anybody Know My Name?", and "The World I Used To Know".  I'd like to crib from myself a bit here from those earlier articles because they express better than any rewrite could what I have thought of McKuen through the decades. First -

While I am not a fan at all of McKuen's attempts at poetry, I hold him in high regard as a composer and lyricist, one whose musical vision in both songs and orchestral compositions was so idiosyncratic and so out-of-step with the pop culture of his times that an artist whose songs sold tens of millions of recordings (and "Seasons In The Sun" as done by Terry Jacks is one of only a handful of single records with certified worldwide sales of ten million or more units), who had arguably the greatest pop vocalist of the last century record an entire album of his compositions (Frank Sinatra's 1969 A Man Alone), and who sold millions of books when a genuine bestseller scores in the tens of thousands in hardcover - this artist is nearly anonymous today, despite being a healthy and active senior citizen. So much for the glory of the world....Part of the problem with McKuen's legacy, and here I mean the fact that this artist whose works in different genres were wildly popular in their day (even though he never evolved into a leading performer himself) is so largely unknown to younger generations today and forgotten by his own, is that McKuen's music was never quite either fish or fowl - never traditional-sounding or protest-oriented enough to be remembered as folk but never quite complex enough to bear comparison with the work of great pop songsmiths like Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer.

And more to the point of today's song - 

I always thought that McKuen the composer was at his best when, as with French writers like Brel, his lyrics and melodies were tinged with a kind of fin de siècle melancholy, a sadness as gentle as an autumn mist. Think, for instance, of the lyric derived from William Butler Yeats in McKuen's "Isle in the Water" - the subtle changes he makes to Yeats' poem and his original lines make even this love song quietly wistful. "Love's Been Good To Me" is one of the 60s best reflective ballads...

"Love's Been Good To Me" is as fine a song as McKuen ever wrote at expressing quietly a sense of  passing time and its attendant loss, and as such makes a fine eulogy for its composer. It is in its chord structure and lyric sensibility most definitely a mainstream pop number, and of course the best-known version was as a middling hit for Frank Sinatra, recorded for the aforementioned A Man Alone album.  Yet interestingly, the song comes across most effectively in the roots-y performances below by Johnny Cash and the Kingston Trio, both of whom respect the song's pop origins but present it with minimal instrumentation and without the lush orchestrations common to most other versions - and as we will see at the end, it is this simpler and less ornate approach that McKuen himself took with the song in his later years.

McKuen first recorded his song in early 1964:

McKuen was self-taught as a musician, and in his early years as a performer in the late 1950s in San Francisco's North Beach clubs like The Purple Onion, he accompanied both his singing and his poetry reading with a simply-played guitar. However, his time in Paris with Jacques Brel from about 1960 through 1963 became for McKuen a kind of education in music theory and arrangement, and when he returned to the U.S., he did so with sufficient knowledge to score the orchstrations on many of his albums, as he did here.

The first cover version of the tune was by the Kingston Trio, at the end of 1964 about six months after McKuen's original:

The lead here is by Bob Shane, quite naturally since he had the best voice in the group and because he was the member most comfortable with pop numbers and Broadway tunes and the like. The Kingstons had never liked being characterized as "folk," and from their first album six years prior to this recording and on from there, the Trio had always included pop-styled selections, sometimes to the chagrin of their record labels Capitol and (here) Decca, which were trying to market the band as "folk." As wrong-headed as that was, it did have its advantages for the companies: neither label had to hire anyone to score and play orchestral arrangements to back the group, and the guitar-only accompaniment for this track enhances the effect of McKuen's quiet if sentimental lyricism.

Johnny Cash had long been an admirer of McKuen, which might strike one as strange at first given Cash's identity as a country/rockabilly/roots artist - but The Man In Black responded most strongly to and recorded many of McKuen's earlier and folkier creations, and Cash featured McKuen several times as a guest on the former's long-running and highly-rated television show. It is no surprise then that Cash included a couple of McKuen tunes in his last studio sessions, the widely-lauded "American Recordings" for the label of the same name. In fact, the fifth album in the series is A Hundred Highways, the title clearly derived from the lyric of this song:

Cash's aged, craggy voice at this late point in his life and career is perfect for the lyric, and I find it singularly affecting, as are many of Cash's other tracks from those last years of his life.

Clearly, you can't talk about "Love's Been Good To Me" without including Frank Sinatra's rendition. Sinatra was so taken with McKuen's compositions that the A Man Alone LP includes only RM numbers, and "Love" was chosen as the flagship single from the album:

The 45rpm reached only #75 on the Billboard Hot 100 but scored a number eight position on the adult/contemporary charts. The orchestration here is somewhat muted by Sinatra standards; Ol' Blue Eyes generally went for accompaniments that in many cases might today be described as over-done or schmaltzy...

....which is why I especially like what McKuen is doing with his song here, in the television show from 2009 at Royal Theatre Carré in Amsterdam:

There is a clear connection here to what Johnny Cash did with the tune. McKuen's vocals had always been throaty, but the addition of a few decades of wear and tear to his voice helps here to transform a ballad that might have seemed to be the superficial sentiments of a callow playboy when sung by a youth into a far more moving and reflective retrospection by an older man on a life now all-but-over. That is why for my money this last version and Cash's are the best ones ever waxed and help to transform a middle-of-the-road pop composition into something deeper and more satisfying.

McKuen enjoyed a career that could be fairly described, like the artist himself, as bi-polar. He sold over a million books of poetry in 1968 alone - in an industry in which even then selling fifty thousand units would make a book a number one bestseller - but he was excoriated by serious critics with a savage vituperation that I have seldom seen launched at any other artist in my lifetime. As a lifelong devotee of poetry, I have never had much use for McKuen's verse - but did he deserve this, a day after his death?

"Rod McKuen, The Cheeseburger To Poetry's Haute Cuisine"

I think not. Neither his music nor his writing might be to everyone's taste, but his compositions of both spoke deeply to millions of people throughout the world, and that counts for something in my book - quite a lot, really. And so it was that I was pleased to see that McKuen may well have written his own epitaph in an interview in 2001 when he observed that, "I battled my way back to some kind of sanity by finally realizing I had absolutely nothing to be depressed about...I’ve had and am having a great life and I’ve never been happier. Besides, who knows how much time I have left on this earth? I have too much to do and too many things started and unfinished to afford the luxury of being unhappy."

For that - good on ya, mate.