Monday, September 4, 2017

The Longest Farewell - "Adieu, Foulard"

My long time folk music friend Rick Daly from Connecticut had a bit of extra time on his hands a year or so ago so he decided to look up the translation of the word foulard, part of the name of a lovely and heartbreakingly sad old French song from Martinique whose proper title is "Adieu foulard, adieu madras." Now people of Rick's age and mine likely know what "madras" means, if for no other reason than the brief fad that swept the country around 1960 of madras shorts and madras shirts. If you recall, those items were generally sold in inauthentic plaid-like patterns, and they were made from really cheap cotton and even cheaper dye in the city of Madras (since renamed Chennai) in India. What was distinctive about them was that when they were washed, even in the coldest water, the dyes would streak or run and the original pattern would turn into something approaching a psychedelic vision, giving rise to the term "bleeding madras." The fad didn't last very long because the dye often clung to the inside of the washer and/or dryer and could ruin the next load of clothes, and the garments themselves seldom survived more than three or four trips to the laundry machines. So why is someone apparently composing a musical ode saying goodbye to cheap shorts? Friend Rick was even more puzzled when he found out that foulard is usually translated as "headscarf" or even "headkerchief," which apparently renders the title into English as something like "Goodbye  Headscarf, Goodbye Cheap Cotton."

Of course, the song's title means nothing of the sort.  The picture above shows Martinican women  dressed in their traditional foulards and madras, a costume that likely dates back to the era of slavery, when as slaves they were dressed in the cheapest material available to their masters. I believe that I detect in the colors and flourishes of these designs a kind of quiet rebellion against bondage, as the women long ago made an artistic virtue out of brutal necessaity - as if to say "You may control our bodies but you cannot confine our souls, and we choose to adorn those bodies with color, beauty, and grace." A second glance at this picture demonstrates how brilliantly they succeded in doing exactly that.

Yet the song whose published title was originally  "Adieu les jolis foulards, Adieu tous le madras" ("Farewell to the pretty scarves, farewell to all the cotton clothes") did not emanate from these women but rather from a member of the masters class, an aristocrat from pre-revolutionary France named François Claude Amour, marquis de Bouillé. De Bouillé was a cousin of our friend the marquis de Lafayette, and like his cousin  de Bouillé was a brave and able soldier who also played a key role in our revolution by keeping British forces in the Caribbean occupied in defending themselves against  de Bouillé's raids and attacks and hence unable to aid their country's forces in North America proper. Prior to that war, de Bouillé had been the governor of the French Windward Islands, which included Martinique and where de Bouillé lived for two years. It was during that governorship, probably in 1769, that de Bouillé composed the song that he seems to have called “Les adieux d’une créole,” or "The Farewells Of A Creole Woman."

Right off the bat we have a number of problems understanding both the context and the meaning of the lyric for several reasons, and these center on the multiple and if I may say radically differing understandings of what is meant by créole and its English counterpart "Creole." Today, both terms imply a person of racially mixed ancestry (usually African and European but also possibly Native and Euro or even Native and African) in the Caribbean or Louisiana. But to the French of de Bouillé's 18th century, the word could also mean a white French person who was born in the island colonies and not in France proper, much as the British in the same century coined the derogatory term "American" to describe people of English descent born in North America and whose birth implied a lack of refinement and common couth.* Like the French, our Anglo-Saxon forbears also used the term "Creole" at times to refer to their own Euro-Caribbean colonists who may have dared to inter-marry with other white but non-English folks of (God forbid!) French or Spanish descent. Look back at the character of Bertha Antoinette Mason in Brontë's Jane Eyre for an example of the disastrous results of such nation-mixing (as the Brits saw it, at least).

If you're still with me after that paragraph, you may be wondering "so what?" Well, here's what: with all the variations over the centuries in the French lyrics, we are left wondering exactly who is saying goodbye to whom. In a remarkable and moving essay published a few years ago and called "Singing By Heart: A Meditation On 'Adieu foulard, adieu Madras,'" Dr. Sarah Waisvisz of the Department of English at Carleton University in Canada, herself a woman of mixed ethnicity including a Martinican grandmother, suggests that the lyric is to be sung by a créole woman to her departing French lover, perhaps even de Bouillé himself. This would fit with both de Bouillé's original title and with Dr. Waisvisz's emphasis on the chorus, which she translates as meaning "“My darling is leaving/sadly, sadly, it is forever.” Waisvisz also stresses the utter finality of "adieu" - the word is not a simple "goodbye" in French (that would be the more common "au revoir" or "à bientôt," roughly "see you next time") but rather "farewell," or to give it its proper weight in English "fare thee well." It is, as Waisvisz asserts, "a song  of goodbyes.... a song of diasporas. Of exiles. Of loss. Of a lost home impossible to return to, impossible to find again, but impossible to ignore."

This understanding helps us to grasp the title, if indeed it is a woman addressing a man. She appears to be saying something to the effect of "Goodbye my love - you will miss all the color and passion of me, your island woman of forbidden love, and I know you will never return." It works equally well for me - perhaps even a bit better -  if in some of the gender-neutral lyrics it could be the Euro man regretting his departure from the passion and romance of his island lady - with her foulards and madras - to return to the repressed culture of his native land.

With that in mind, I'd like to present as the first version of the song the one of this group that is perhaps the least traditional but at the same time the most apprehendable to those of us who speak English. It is a solo by Bob Shane of the Kingston Trio for an album that was never released until Collector's Choice did so forty years after the tracks were laid down:

The English translation that Shane employs here is accurate in terms of the emotion of the tune if not literally in terms of the meaning of the French lyrics. The straightforward and very simple folk accompaniment allows the primary emphasis to fall on Shane's superb evocation of the emotion of loss that is at the heart of tune.

Next is a much more recent and modern-sounding pop vocal by Tanya St-Val, a lady of Martinque's island neighbor Guadeloupe. She is abetted by male vocalist Kali here:

St-Val is an accomplished singer of both operetta and jazz, so I suppose she can be excused for investing the vocal with a bit of that post 1980s female pop singers' breathiness. For me, however, the female/male interplay here covers a multitude of sins, as do her multi-tracked final choruses. Really good, and the song more as I think that Dr. Waisvisz understands it.

St-Val's fellow Guadeloupean, albeit from two generations before her 1966 birth, Gilles Sala delivers the number with a simple folk accompaniment but with a dramatic and highly-trained pop vocal style:

Sala's approach is more what I think we would have gotten from his contemporaries like Franks Sinatra, Andy Williams, and Jerry Vale had they attempted a rendition of the song.

Finally, a lovely solo instrumental on classical guitar arranged by Roland Dyens and performed with sensitivity and technical skill by Edwin Erpenbach:

Dyens' arrangement and Erpenbach's rendition invest the tune with the more complicated and jazz-inflected chording that was favored by yet another Guadeloupean, Henri Salvador, in his major 1957 hit version of the number.

For some people, perhaps once in a lifetime, your heart is so broken, so shattered by a loss so profound that you know it can never be made completely whole again, as does the speaker in this song. Never. The finality of that realization and the necessity of trying to continue living in spite of it is, for want of a better phrase, sublimely human. And for those who know whereof I speak - "Adieu, foulard" is your song.

*Regarding the term "American" above: take a look back at Jonathan Swift's great 1729 satire "A Modest Proposal," the one where Swift suggests that the answer to poverty in Ireland is that parents raise babies to be sold for meat. Swift writes: "I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled ..."

My friend Bakersfield Dan Hartfield pointed out that Bob Shane's almost certain source for his version, complete with the English lyric, was San Francisco world music pioneer Stan Wilson, whose vast knowledge of folk and pop numbers contributed mightily to the repertoires of the early Kingston Trio as well as to other Bay Area pop folk acts like The Gateway Singers and The Limeliters. Shane was largely mentored in professional entertainment by Wilson (and Josh White as well), and the extent of Shane's debt to Wilson can be heard in Wilson's own surpassingly lovely rendition of "Adieu, Foulard":


Here is a translation into English of the oldest version of the song:

Good-bye lovely scarves, good-bye Madras
Good-bye golden necklaces
My sweetheart is leaving me
Alas! Alas! It is for ever

Good-morning, Mr Governor I come to submit a request
To ask your permission
To leave my sweetheart to me

My young lady it is too late
Your sweetheart has already embarked
The ship is close to the dock
And is ready to sail

Good-bye lovely scarves, good-bye Madras
Good-bye golden necklaces
My sweetheart is leaving me
Alas! Alas! It is for ever...

Saturday, August 19, 2017

From John Stewart & John Phillips: "Oh, Miss Mary"

(L-R - John Stewart, Barry McGuire, Scott McKenzie, and Michelle Phillips sing at the memorial for John Phillips - Los Angeles, 2001)

When John Phillips died at the age of  65 in 2001, the obituaries and memorials quite naturally focused on his position as the founder, lead writer, and vocal arranger for the mid-1960s folk-rock band The Mamas and The Papas - as well they should have, since Phillips' vocal scores for the group were masterful and mature, surpassed in both complexity and sheer beauty in the pop-rock era by probably only Brian Wilson's arrangements for The Beach Boys. Phillips took the four voices of the band and layered a dozen and more tracks on top of each other, creating a shimmering wall of sound even when the group was singing in unison and not Phillips' famous harmonies and vocal counterpoint.

What most of the obits noted only in passing, however, was that Phillips began his career in professional music as a pop-folk musician with a band that he formed called The Journeymen. Active from 1961 to 1964, The Journeymen were highly regarded for both their adventurous song selection and arrangements and for the blend that they achieved, with Phillips bringing in his childhood friend and long-time singing partner Scott McKenzie - he of the sweet and highly trained tenor voice that we all heard a few years later performing a Phillips song titled "If You're Going To San Francisco" -  and an excellent vocalist in Richard Weissman, who also happened to be (and remains being) one of the greatest banjo players in the history of the U.S. The group was piloted by Frank Werber, manager and to a degree creator of the Kingston Trio, which even in 1961 was clobbering most of its competition in the folk and pop worlds in terms of record sales and income.  Werber helped The Journeymen to win a recording contract with Capitol Records, also the KT's label, and Werber may have been grooming Phillips' trio as a possible replacement for the Kingstons since the latter group's founding member and chief arranger Dave Guard had left that group in a huff, hurling the KT and Capitol into a state of uncertain anxiety.

It was at Capitol that Phillips met John Stewart, chosen over Phillips as Dave Guard's replacement in the KT largely because Stewart was an excellent banjo player and Phillips was not - and the banjo was an absolutely essential element in the sound that had rocketed the Kingstons to the top of the charts in album sales for the three years prior. Phillips and Stewart seemed to bond almost instantly. Both were songwriters, both liked folk music, and both had senses of humor that could be described charitably as somewhat off-beat. Stewart may even have flirted with the idea of joining Phillips in The Journeymen as a full partner, whereas in the KT Stewart was merely a salaried employee.

The friendship quite naturally led to the two collaborating in the writing of four songs:  "Chilly Winds," "Don't Turn Around," "You Can Rattle My Cage," and "Oh, Miss Mary." The Kingston Trio recorded the first and last of these, The Journeymen the last three.  All are well-crafted tunes of the kind that were derided by purists of the time as "fake folk" or "faux-folk," songs that were designed to sound at least vaguely traditional but which had no "authenticity" or folk provenance. Yet "Chilly Winds" and "Oh Miss Mary" have been near the top of the list of favorite songs among KT fans for decades, as are two other Phillips compositions, "Goin' Away For To Leave You" and "Oh Sail Away" (written with Weissman).

There was very nearly one more. Stewart enjoyed recounting from the stage at the Trio Fantasy Camp in Arizona that Phillips, in professional limbo between The Journeymen and The Mamas and The Papas, had visited him in San Francisco in late 1964 and had played for him a recent composition that just knocked Stewart's socks off.  Stewart wanted the KT to record it immediately, so he pushed Phillips into his own car and rocketed over to Columbus Tower, an office building owned by the Trio and home to their corporate headquarters. Phillips refused to leave the lobby of the building and go to Werber's penthouse office because "Frank doesn't like me very much."  Stewart replied that that was nonsense and that Werber had an ear for good songs and that Phillips' new one was fantastic. So Stewart went up to Werber's office alone and told Frank that he had Phillips in the lobby and that the latter had with him a song that was a sure-fire hit. "Phillips?" screamed Werber. "In my building??? Get that drug-addled psychopath out of here right away! I'll call the cops on him!' "But the song, " pleaded Stewart. "We're never going to record anything by that loser again!" Werber fired back.

The song that so excited Stewart was "California Dreaming."

Though not a blockbuster like "Dreaming," "Oh Miss Mary" made Stewart and Phillips a fair bit of coin, appearing as it did on the KT's popular and well-received 1962 College Concert album that rose to  #3 on the Billboard album charts and that sold over 400,000 units. It's a wispy, delightful little bit of faux-folk fluff with an infectious, lilting rhythm and a chorus you'd swear you'd heard before the first time you listen to it. The lead on the verses here is handled by the irrepressible Nick Reynolds:

The KT had pretty much made its folk bones with tunes like this - banjo numbers that plowed ahead and put the singers' natural exuberance on display. So it's no wonder that The Journeymen's version of the song with Phillips singing lead, even with its vocals arranged with perhaps more sophistication, doesn't quite measure up in the energy department:

Energy was never a problem for The New Christy Minstrels, who slow the tempo a bit but add an almost jazzy swing to it here:

The female voices - original members Gayle Caldwell and Peggy Connelly, I believe - add a nice touch, and I do believe that I detect the distinctive sound of one of my friend Art Podell's arrangements.
Barry McGuire may be in the chorus there, but his 1963 "solo" record The Barry McGuire Album included a version with his trademark growl and also featured on it "The Stars of the New Christy Minstrels" - it's a different take on the song:

We'll close our selection of versions with a fine one by Bill Mumy from his album Thank You Kindly. Now, you already know Bill Mumy, who as a child actor starred in Lost In Space and perhaps even more memorably as little Anthony Fremont, the monstrous six-year-old boy who terrorizes his family and neighbors with his psychokinetic powers ("Wish it into the cornfield, son!") on The Twilight Zone episode called "It's A Good Life." What you might not know is that Mumy grew up to be a successful award-winning and Emmy-nominated musician, singer and composer, one who has always loved folk music with an especial appreciation for John Stewart and the KT. He delivers an energetic reading of the Phillips-Stewart number here:

A final note might be in order. Now no one is more impatient than I am with folks who read too much into a song or poem, but in recent years I've noticed something interesting about "Oh Miss Mary." Its composition in 1961 or '62 came at a time when neither families nor society smiled benignly on girls who went off wandering on their own chasing rainbows and crossing rivers. Think, for example, of the delightfully earnest Betty Anderson (portrayed fetchingly by Elinor Donahue) on the old 1950s-60s sitcom Father Knows Best. Think Betty's going to do this kind of thing? Yet her granddaughters well may be pursuing exactly such a course. As I write this, two of the young women who were my high school students and who are now in their middle twenties are off on their own "Miss Mary" excursions. One has been crossing oceans in a sailboat and has wound up in places as diverse as Gibraltar and Brazil. Another has lived on three continents and for the last several months has been motoring around Europe completely on her own, crossing a somewhat dangerous border into Serbia just this morning. I'm pretty sure that neither women's places in the world nor the future of society occurred to John Stewart and John Phillips when they wrote "Oh Miss Mary" - it was just an enjoyable little tune to play on guitar and banjo. But without intending to do so, they may just have penned a song whose time has finally come. I'm wondering where my own young "Miss Marys" will be off to next.