Friday, August 30, 2013

"Railroad Bill"

One of the darker aspects of American culture as it has evolved to this point has been our collective penchant to make folk heroes out of some really bad people, most notably high-profile criminals and sociopaths - Billy the Kid, John Wesley Harding, Wild Bill Hickock, Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, and more.

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to quote oneself at the beginning of a new article, and though I have never been found wanting in that admirable quality, I have a better reason than mere self-promotion for doing so. Over the 190 posts on this blog, a number of thematic connections have emerged from among the articles, exactly what you would expect in a folk song site because those patterns are embedded in the aggregate of this country's traditional music. There are probably ten or more posts each on spirituals, sea chanteys, calypsos - and maybe half a dozen or so on bad guys. The passage above opens my discussion in 2009 of "The Ballad of Jesse James", and that post includes an extended reflection on Americans and our love of outlaws. There are also posts on "John Hardy", "Tom Dooley", and several others.

"Railroad Bill" is a fine candidate to join our American folk song cavalcade of infamy. Though a dwindling number of scholars maintain that the tune's namesake is entirely fictitious, you'll never get a decent meal in south Alabama or northwest Florida if you say so out loud because of the actual documentary evidence (including the photo above of Bill and Constable Leonard McGowan, who shot him) that established his very real identity. After Mr. Bill robbed several trains and shot and killed two sheriffs in separate pursuits, warrants were issued for him under the name of Morris Slater, a convict who had run off from a work camp in Bluff Springs, Florida. Slater evaded capture for more than a year after the initial murders, often with an almost unbelievable ability to escape when surrounded, making him a kind of folk hero to the region's African-Americans, suffering at the time under the Jim Crow segregation laws. Slater was reputed to be a "hoodoo man," possessed of supernatural powers that allowed him to disappear at will and thus evade the minions of justice - until, that is, McGowan tracked Slater down and found him in Tidmore and Ward's General Store in Atmore, Alabama on March 7, 1896.

How Slater came to be dead in that store is still debated, with McGowan maintaining that there was a shootout but some black witnesses asserting that McGowan simply walked into the store, shot Slater in the chest as Slater was lunching on cheese and crackers, and then peppered Slater's prone body with a half dozen more bullets. For about a week following, Slater's body was carted around various towns in both Alabama and Florida, as an object lesson, no doubt. Admission to see the body was 25 cents, and if you came up with four bits you could even have your photograph taken with the moldering remains. When this charming road show found its way to Brewton, AL, a number of residents claimed that the man's real name had been Bill McCoy, native son of Brewton - and if true, that might well explain why Slater himself claimed the moniker of "Railroad Bill."

No one is quite sure when the song came into being, but it's a safe bet that it had been around for a couple of decades at least before its first publication and recording in the middle and late 1920s. "Railroad Bill" appears then and into the 1930s in songbooks by the Lomaxes (who believed him to be a myth), Carl Sandburg, and Dorothy Scarborough, among others. The tune exists in both black and white country blues traditions, and both black and white artists recorded the song from about 1925 and on. The musical Bill is always a good shot and a slippery character, but in some versions he is the murderous criminal of real life while in others he is a badly misunderstood black man, driven to violence by white persecution.

"Guitar Frank" Hovington provides us with the best straight acoustic blues version I could find on YouTube - I'm guessing that the earliest versions of the tune sounded a lot like this:

Hovington recorded this two years before his 1982 death, and you can hear in his version an immediate similarity in both the chord structure and the walking bass to Elizabeth Cotten's "Freight Train," with which "Bill" is often performed as a medley. And if it's really old-time acoustic blues that you like, it's hard to top this version by John Cephas on guitar and vocals and Phil Wiggins on harmonica:

Gotta love the way Cephas hammers out the accompaniment at the end, slowing like a train coming into a station, as Wiggins' harmonica transforms itself into a train whistle

Cephas was an exponent of the so-called Piedmont blues style of guitar - as was Frank Hutchison decades before. Hutchison was a white coal miner from West Virginia, and this 1929 recording is one of the earliest waxed of the tune:

Now for a couple of more contemporary takes on the song. First, the irrepressible skiffle pioneer Lonnie Donegan brings his signature style to "Bill":

This was recoded at a performance in Belfast in 1998, and that is of course Donegan disciple Van Morrison on high harmony and the second verse.

Dave Guard left the Kingston Trio in 1961 at the height of its phenomenal popularity in a bitter dispute with his bandmates over both finances and the group's musical direction. Almost immediately, he formed Dave Guard & The Whiskeyhill Singers with Cyrus Faryar, a Punahou schoolmate from Hawaii, KT bassist and jazz musician par excellence David "Buck" Wheat, and emerging folk star Judy Henske. Guard maintained in an interview in the mid-1980s that he was compelled to do so by contractual obligations with Capitol Records, who insisted that he owed them another record album, Trio member or not. The Whiskeyhill Singers made a valiant effort to create the kind of sound and repertoire that Guard felt that the Trio had moved away from, but by the 80s he had come to regard the effort as a failure, artistically as well as commercially. The group recorded but one released album and several tracks for another, and the whole experiment lasted a mere six months, leaving Guard with $10,000 of debt and a one-way ticket to Australia for himself and his growing family. The group did play a set at a major event at the Hollywood Bowl before disbanding, and Guard chose "Railroad Bill" as the opener:

Henske had left the group before this show, and Liz Seneff is the female voice here. Many of Guard's fans have always felt that he was being unduly harsh on the quality of what the WHS had created, and that had the group had more time to jell, it might have become something special. Their version of the song suggests that such might well have been the case - it has the signature energy, inventive banjo instrumentation, and creative harmonies of the earliest Kingston Trio recordings.

Finally, contemporary roots star Gillian Welch and her longtime collaborator David Rawlings have re-imagined "Railroad Bill" into something very different - beautiful harmonizing here:

Welch and Rawlings turn Bill into a sympathetic character, and the slower rhythm is reminiscent of some early versions of "Jesse James," the modified pace of both creating a mournful aura unusual for the tunes.

Following the "get your picture taken with a corpse" travesty after Bill's death, the body was finally interred in an unmarked grave, location unknown. But folk hero or simple murderer, Raillroad Bill aka Morris Slater aka Bill McCoy has no need of a tombstone. His immortality is guaranteed by the fact that people have been singing his song for nearly a century, and there is no sign that that will change any time soon.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

All Over This Land - "If I Had A Hammer" & The March On Washington

One of the elements of the August 28, 1963 March On Washington that is getting a fair amount of attention today on the 50th anniversary of this transformational moment in American history is the fact that music - folk music, in fact - was at the very center of the event and after Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech (which has a definite folk music connection, as we shall see) provided the most electrifying moments of the program that day. Publications like The Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, USA Today, and many more have all run thoughtful pieces on the music and the performers, though with degrees of accuracy that seem to me to vary in direct and inverse proportion to the ages of the writers. Younger critics seem to focus on Bob Dylan's presence on stage there, though anyone who watched the event unfold as it happened will tell you that the skinny kid with the scratchy voice was a "complete unknown" that day, dramatically overshadowed by musical giants both young like folk superstars Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary and old like Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson.

It was gospel singing all-time great Jackson, in fact, who prompted the most memorable event of the day - and one of the greatest moments in U.S. history. Jackson had sung the metaphorical spiritual "How I Got Over" at King's specific request, and she was still on the dais when King began his speech, which while rich and thoughtful was not moving the crowd in the way the King was accustomed to do. According to Harry Belafonte, also on the platform and the man responsible for the musical line-up that day, when King paused briefly after speaking for about ten minutes, Jackson, perhaps sensing that the moment called for more than King was at that point delivering, called out, "Tell them about the dream, Martin!" In response, King abandoned the rest of his notes and extemporized the only part of his remarks that today anyone remembers, the sermon-like section that begins with "I have a dream today" and concludes with "Free at last, free at least - thank God Almighty I'm free at last!"

Belafonte had selected and scheduled the performers with great care. In defiance of strong sentiment on the part of some organizers that only African-American musicians should be included, Belafonte insisted on featuring white artists as well. And it was Belafonte who pushed hard for having Dylan as part of the program because Harry B. recognized the power of the Minnesotan's lyrics, even though Robert was yet to attain any fame at all as a performer. The climax was to be and proved to be Joan Baez, only 22 at the time and still possessed of that perfect, clear soprano, leading the other performers and the crowd of a quarter of a million in singing "We Shall Overcome."

That performance was probably co-equal with Jackson's hymn as the musical highlight of the day - but a close second was Peter, Paul and Mary's stirring rendition of the Pete Seeger/Lee Hays "If I Had A Hammer." The song was never specifically a civil rights anthem and started its life as something quite different - but the relevance of its call for justice and love "all over this land" made it a perfectly apt selection, one that inspired a large part of the crowd to sing and clap along. It also allowed the trio to move smoothly into the quieter, more reflective "Blowin' In The Wind," which unbelievably that week was #4 on The Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and had been at #2 the week before.

"The Hammer Song," as Seeger and Hays had originally titled it, was one of the tunes that grew out of the pair's membership in The Almanac Singers, that early 1940s aggregation of political radicals (including Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston at times, as well as Bess Lomax Hawes of "MTA" fame) whose sole purpose was to sing at union and socialist rallies. The group had dissolved spontaneously after Seeger and Guthrie joined the armed forces during World War II, and when Hays and Seeger reconnected in 1949 to form The Weavers with Hays' friends Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, a very different kind of group was born.

The Weavers were the first pop folk act in U.S. musical history, or at least the first such troupe whose music transcended regional repertoires and became truly national and international in its scope. The Weavers were originally not at all political in the sense that the Almanacs had been. Their concert set lists for the most part included traditional American folk songs with a healthy dose of world music featured as well. It was not as if Seeger and Hays had abandoned politics at all; rather, the Weavers' family-friendly approach reflected Seeger's articulated belief that people would act together if they could sing together, and there were far more subtle political undertones in the Weavers' shows than had been the case in Almanacs' concerts. Seeger and Hays and the group sang of universal brotherhood and the glories of freedom and the power of working cooperatively - themes that implied but usually did not specifically promote the political agenda of the Almanacs or the unions or the socialists. In fact, when the Red Scare headsman's axe fell and the group was blacklisted in 1952, it was not for what The Weavers had been doing, popular concert and television and radio act that they were; it was for what the Almanacs had done and for Seeger's and Hays' associations with the Communist Party, USA.

While Seeger was likely never a formal party member and Hays was only briefly (he had as strong an anti-authoritarian streak as did Guthrie, another figure who just could not abide the stratified and hierarchical structure of the Communist Party), the first public performance of "The Hammer Song" was by Seeger and Hays in 1949, shortly after the song was composed. The event - a rally for the upper echelon of leadership of the Party, who were on trial in federal court at the time for sedition. Critics went so far as to suggest that the hammer of the title was a reference to the hammer and sickle on the Soviet flag - but there is neither a bell nor a song on the flag, and that supposition was patently ridiculous. Seeger was and remains a walking encyclopedia of American folk music, and he derived the hammer reference from an old spiritual called "Hammering Judgment," an antiphonal call-out spiritual in which the lead voice would intone a line like "God's a-talking to Moses" and the group voices would shout out "Hammering!" The song climaxes with "Tell ol' Pharaoh to loose my people" with the "Hammering!" response again.

The song was lyrically strong enough but at the same time generic and safe enough for The Weavers to record and release it, and the first version went like this:

This version - its rhythm, its pace, its harmony - is the one that all these decades later remains most beloved of a number of my older friends to this day, people who learned the song before Peter, Paul and Mary re-imagined it.

Seeger had known Mary Travers since her teenage years - she was a Greenwich Village child whose parents had worked with Seeger in a number of political causes - and it was she who brought the song into her own group's repertoire. Seeger related genially in a video now gone from YouTube that he thought that PP&M's version, which was considerably faster and more spirited than the original, actually improved the song:

One of Travers' improvements was changing the second-to-last line of the chorus from the original "all of my brothers" to "my brothers and my sisters," a decision whose inclusiveness was more in keeping with the spirit of the song anyway. The performance above, which I think is the best of several PP&M live videos of the tune, came on July 30, 1963 at the Newport Folk Festival, a mere four weeks before this performance on the national mall during the March:

Those two moments - Newport and Washington - firmly planted "The Hammer Song" both in the nation's consciousness and in the folk and pop songbag of the U.S. for decades afterward. Cover versions are too numerous to list, but there are a couple that I believe merit special attention. The first is by major early 1960s pop star Trini López:

López was one of the true crossover pioneers. Hard as it may be to imagine today, pop music in the country in the 50s was almost as fully segregated as public transport, and except for the brief flicker of popularity enjoyed by Ritchie Valens (Richard Valenzuela, actually) before his death at 17, mainstream American awareness of Latino music was confined largely to the output of a relatively small number of big bands. López began to change that; his "Hammer" here is unselfconsciously infused with every bit of Latin soul that he can muster, and though it creates an unusually cheery feeling for the song, it was a major national hit, reaching #3 on Billboard's singles chart, also in '63.

Finally - "The Hammer Song" has legs, as the Broadway wags often say, and it is still popping up as an expression of both challenge and of hope. Just this past June, original Beach Boy and folk fan Al Jardine lent his name and prestige to a group called Agit8, which has been recording and promoting protest songs as a means to fight "extreme poverty" and a host of other social ills. Jardine's choice of a tune to record? "The Hammer Song," here with Richard Barone and others:

I like the gusto and enthusiasm of this video - as if "Hammer" were a newly-composed anthem intended to address the issues of our times, rather than a nearly 65-year-old artifact from another century targeting other, earlier, even forgotten conflicts and issues.

I am not at all sure what future, if any, that folk and protest music have in the America of today. I see the grainy videos above with very different eyes than most all of the half of the U.S. population born after 1970 would see them. The 50 years that have elapsed between that day in August 1963 and this moment as I write seem to have evanesced like a dream, and when I hear the song and see videos of the King speech, the emotions of the moment come back to me with a powerful immediacy that belies the passage of time and reminds me of the utter truth of William Faulkner's observation that "The past is never dead. It's not even past." And a finely-crafted, intelligent, and uplifting song like "If I Had A Hammer," perpetually relevant as it is, has a lot to do with why that is so for me.

Addendum - Same Day, A Few Hours Later

The Newport Folk Festival video of Peter, Paul and Mary performing the song was lifted from Murray Lerner's film Festival, which chronicled some of the performances from Newport from 1963 to 1967. An incomplete version of that performance was also included in a documentary on Pete Seeger, during which Seeger talks at greater length about how the song came to be. In the snippet below from that documentary, Seeger credits PP&M with improving his tune:

Friday, August 23, 2013

Billy Edd Wheeler's "Jackson"

Billy Edd Wheeler has had a wonderful career that has taken him from the hardscrabble hills of the West Virginia of his birth in 1932 to the rarefied academic air of the Ivy League to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Along the way, Wheeler has written songs that have topped a number of different music industry charts, twelve plays that are still performed across the country today, and several well-regarded books of poetry and humor. In his latter years ("the back nine of life," as he refers to it), Wheeler has turned to painting, with perhaps surprising success given his late start in the field. As his River of Earth (above) shows, his style is reminiscent of what you'd get if Vincent Van Gogh and Thomas Hart Benton were cloned into a single artist, and if you peruse the collection of images of his work on his own website HERE, you'll see a variety of other influences as well. Wheeler is a man of many parts. He has written great songs like "Coal Tattoo" out of the difficulties of his own upbringing and at other times collaborated to create hits with some of the great pop songwriters of the last century - and those songs have earned him gold records through the performances of the likes of Elvis Presley, Neil Young, Judy Collins, Johnny Cash, Kathy Mattea, and many more, with more than 57 million recordings sold worldwide of tunes that he composed.

By his own account, Wheeler was in graduate school at Yale studying playwriting when the idea came to him for what is undoubtedly his highest profile tune, "Jackson":

" 'Jackson' came to me when I read the script for Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (I was too broke to see the play on Broadway)...The way that couple dig at each other becomes mean spirited and nasty, even tragic, in Albee’s play.  But it’s natural for couples, married or not, to spar good-naturedly.  Otherwise, life would be boring.  In “Jackson,” the couple fusses back and forth, but there are subtle touches that let you know they are still in love."

I wonder if anyone else sees a bit of an anomaly here - that one of the biggest country-styled hits of the 1960s, a number still widely performed today, had its genesis in an Ivy League grad student's apartment in Connecticut and drew its theme from one of the great, dark classics of American literary theater. That fact is, I think, a testament of sorts to an unusual kind of genius, perhaps not surprising from an artist like Wheeler who could pen everything from goofball novelty tunes like "Humperdink, the Coon-Hunting Monkey" to achingly romantic torch songs like "The Coming of the Roads." That's some kind of genius indeed.

Wheeler's original concept for "Jackson" was to tell the story as a sequential narrative, but that idea was squelched by Wheeler's friend, associate, and sometime writing partner Jerry Leiber of Leiber and Stoller fame (who also helped Wheeler with "The Rev. Mr. Black," among other songs). As Wheeler relates:

"When I played it for Jerry , he said 'Your first verses suck,' or words to that effect. 'Throw them away and start the song with your last verse, "We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout."' When I protested to Jerry that I couldn't start the song with the climax, he said, 'Oh, yes you can.' So I rewrote the song and thanks to Jerry's editing and help, it worked."

Wheeler recorded the tune for his third LP, 1963's A New Bag of Songs. However, before the record was released, Wheeler sent the song west to the Kingston Trio, who had just scored a huge hit early in the year with "Mr. Black," and that group became the first to release the number in July of that year:

From the first, Wheeler had intended "Jackson" to be a male/female duet, and that quite naturally created a problem for the Trio. The group had bent genders a couple of times before, notably by turning the girl narrating her own story in Ian Tyson's "Someday Soon" into the young man of the lyric, but "Jackson" presented a different problem entirely. The solution was to create an antiphony between the young man's part (sung by John Stewart) and an adult authority figure, possibly the father, sung in the harmony responses by Nick Reynolds and Bob Shane. It works OK until the end of the last verse - you have to wonder what dad is doing behind a "japan fan."

"Jackson" remained in the vaults for about four years following the KT version, until Johnny Cash came upon Wheeler's Bag of Songs in 1966 and decided to record the tune with his soon-to-be wife June Carter:

The song, of course, became one of the biggest hits of Cash's long career and one of the three or four most identifiable duets performed by the Carter-Cash act. Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood were working on their own rendition when the Johnny and June collaboration came out, and Sinatra/Hazelwood were beaten to the punch by a matter of months:

Sinatra and Hazelwood are rather more laid back in their presentation than Carter and Cash, and that brings up an interesting point. One of the reasons that I prefer to look at traditional songs in these posts as opposed to songwriter tunes like this one is that trad tunes tend to have more variations in arrangements and performances. However, even a copyrighted number like "Jackson" can engender a pretty fair number of different approaches to it, as these first three videos demonstrate. Wheeler addressed that when discussing a lyric change from his original in the Carter-Cash version: "Songs often get changed as different artists do them, often for the better. I don’t mind minor changes. I like it when artists make the song their own."

Cases in point now follow. Jerry Lee Lewis and Linda Gail Lewis give "Jackson" that old time rock 'n' roll feeling in their 1969 release, complete with Jerry Lee's boogie-tinged piano accompaniment:

In the late 70s, an aging Carl Perkins teamed with Johnny Cash's daughter Roseanne at the beginning of her career for their duet on the song. Perkins, of course, was one of the pioneers of the rockabilly style that helped propel both Cash senior and Elvis Presley to fame and fortune, so it's rockabilly we get in this rendition:

Finally, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are one of the best contemporary folk and roots groups, rather more accomplished instrumentally and vocally than many of their higher-profile competitors. The clawhammer banjo and mountain fiddle in their version here makes an interesting match-up with the blues-inflected vocals - a stunning performance, in my judgment:

Billy Edd Wheeler seems to be enjoying the slower pace of his ninth decade with his painting and poetry, but this highly successful and widely honored star of the Nashville songwriting firmament has had some choice words of late for the current state of country music. Wheeler has said that he always liked story songs, songs that often took a while to unfold. But in an interview a year ago with NPR's Laurin Penland, Wheeler said that he's been shut out completely of today's country music world. "It's natural that not many of those young writers in their late teens, early 20s, even in their 30s — they don't want to write songs with a 79-year-old man. They don't even want to hear an idea. So it's tough. A good story and a well-sung song is not enough anymore. You've got to really honk it up. I mean, it's rock 'n' roll. If you can't rock, just stay in bed..." Given the third-rate drivel that is most of what Nashville is releasing today, we can all be thankful that Billy Edd Wheeler showed up there a half a century ago to write the kinds of songs like "Jackson" that once upon a time made country music - well, country music.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Whimsical Woody Waltz: Guthrie &"Those Brown Eyes"

"Woody saw the ravages of the Dust Bowl and the Depression firsthand...and he wrote tough yet lyrical stories about the men and women who struggled to survive, enduring the indignity of living life at the bone, with nothing to eat and no place to sleep. He traveled from town to town, hitchhiking and stealing rides in railroad boxcars, singing his songs for spare change or a ham sandwich...his eye was clear, unclouded, and unobstructed by sentimentality."
 - Bill Moyers

Moyers is writing here primarily about "This Land Is Your Land," and he does a fine job in a few sentences of summarizing what public memory celebrates about Woody Guthrie - the populism, the passion, and the politics, for the most part. Yet I would take minor exception to his final sentence, since Guthrie was indeed possessed of a strong sentimental streak, especially for children, and if that sentimentality never quite clouded his vision, it did remain a significant element in much of his songwriting. Throughout his career but especially toward its premature end, as his own brood of youngsters was expanding and growing, he wrote more and more children's songs. In fact, 25 years after Woody's 1967 death, a librarian at Sarah Lawrence College discovered a manuscript of such tunes written in Guthrie's hand, some of which were annotated as co-composed by his wife Marjorie. Guthrie sons Arlo and Joady and daughter Nora reconstructed the melodies both from memory and from some surviving tapes and with their own children recorded and released 20 Grow Big Songs in 1992. All told, Guthrie wrote several score children's songs that we know of, most of which have the virtue, according to Allmusic's Bob Hinkle, of "an unusually strong identification with actually being a child, in all its simplicity and charm..." I would guess that most folk and roots music fans have at least heard this one:

This is the perfectly charming Woody Guthrie, the memory of which has been largely obscured by his more familiar image as a firebrand and activist as articulated by Moyers above.

Another facet of Guthrie's writing and performing that is less remembered today than it should be was his romantic side, both in his selection of traditional and popular songs to record, like "Red River Valley" and "Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot?," and in songs that he wrote or significantly re-arranged, like "Those Brown Eyes." This last one is one of those really delightful folk mysteries as to its origin. The version usually sung today has a copyright assigned to "Guthrie/Arkin/Carey/Darling," the last three of course being The Tarriers, who re-arranged Woody's version slightly when they recorded it in the late 1950s. Guthrie added a bit more instrumentation than he normally employed in this mid 1940s recording -

- and The Tarriers followed his general outline for their rendition a decade or so later:

Interestingly, the Guthrie recording cuts the story off at the point where the singer sees the beloved with another man, whereas The Tarriers include the older version - that the fellow was her brother and not a rival for her romantic affections.

Jim and Jesse McReynolds also gave the song a respectful reading in the best tradition of classic American country music:.


Guthrie's copyright tends to underscore the general supposition that WG wrote "Those Brown Eyes," especially since Guthrie was usually direct and upfront about songs that he thought were traditional when he recorded them. Yet an earlier version of the number, nearly identical in the lyric though somewhat different in the melody, had been recorded as "Those Dark Eyes" in 1929 by Jack Copeland Mathis, who released records at different times under the names of Blind Jack, Jack Mathis and Cowboy Jack. According to his daughter, Mathis was born in Kentucky but spent most of his life in Texas, recording, performing, and hosting a popular radio show. However, the year before Mathis's record, a certain Fay and the JayWalkers waxed yet another version of "Those Dark Eyes," again with the same basic story and lyrics but again with a different tune. Fay and the JayWalkers may have a copyright as well - evidence of it seems lost - but it appears as if even they were basing the number on a now-forgotten nineteenth century pop song.

What lends additional weight to that last possibility are several aspects of "Those Brown (or Dark) Eyes" that do not conform to the normal and expected parameters of most traditional American folk tunes. First, the song is written in a 3/4 waltz-like tempo, which while not at all unheard of in the country's folk catalog ("I Never Will Marry," "Streets Of Laredo," and the "Pretty Little Foot" mentioned above, to name three) is far, far less common than straightforward 4/4 time signatures. Further, the mistaken identity/lost love nature of the lyric sounds rather more like a cheesy 1800s melodrama or a Victorian morality tale than it does an Anglo-American or Scotch-Irish traditional ballad.

In any case, the song's popularity has persisted for decades, interestingly most especially in Ireland, where half a dozen major singing stars have recorded versions of the song, notably Johnny McEvoy, and rather more melodramatically here bySean O'Farrell:

The Kingston Trio picked up the song from The Tarriers, whose copyright they acknowledged in their 1963 rendition on the album Sunny Side:

This version is noteworthy only for the dependably excellent lead vocal by Bob Shane and the addition to the instrumentation of a fine supporting guitar line by session musician John Staubard.

For something with a more interestingly contemporary take on the tune, California's great Dave Alvin goes back to the 1929 Mathis lyrics, which echo an 1865 "Those Dark Eyes" published version attributed only to "Armand." Mathis seems to borrow some of the colorful descriptions of the first two verses from that one, and Alvin gives the tune a full-on modern country/roots treatment:

Alvin included this one on his 2000 album Public Domain: Songs From The Wild Land, which features Alvin's arrangements of traditional songs. While Jack Copeland Mathis's daughter does not seem to be interested in enforcing any copyright claims, I wonder idly whether or not some descendant of Fay and the JayWalkers might not be knocking on Dave Alvin's door at some point.

"Those Brown Eyes" is a slight if pleasant song, and I have always wondered at its durability since it keeps popping up somewhere or other, decade after decade. The very nearly mawkish sentimentality of the lyric's idea - the departed and possibly misunderstood lover looking down from heaven on her now-regretful suitor - and the fact that this appealed enough to the otherwise generally tough-minded Woody Guthrie that he chose to record it is certainly indicative of the fact that there was more to WG than anthems and angry protests. A definite streak of sentimentality manifests itself in Woody's recording, so - QED, as we used to say in geometry class.

Friday, August 9, 2013

"Bimini Gal"

Folk music and drinking seem to have a natural affinity for each other, and there is no wonder in that given the really large number of traditional songs that celebrate the imbibing of alcohol in all its forms. Some of those numbers are sprightly tunes that depict dancing and fellowship and good times and the virtues of spirituous liquors, others rather darker in nature as they recount hangovers, fights, violence, and disasters begotten of alcoholism. Not surprisingly, the Irish seem to lead the pack in the sheer quantity of songs of both kinds about alcohol  - but the Caribbean balladeers really aren't very far behind them, and our island friends seem to be even better than the Irish at blending the two themes into a single song. Think of some of the highest-profile island songs and you'll see what I mean. "The Banana Boat Song" as we know it today is about backbreaking labor on the graveyard shift, the reward for which is "work all night for a drink of rum." Perhaps the most internationally famous song from the area, "The Wreck of The John B" as Carl Sandburg titled the first published version, is generally performed with a happy, somewhat uptempo rhythm - this despite the fact that the lyric is about as dark as drinking lyrics come. Recall that singer, grandfather, and crew all get so plastered that they end up in a confrontation with each other violent enough to trash the ship and force the local police to intervene and (by implication) haul them off to the slammer, from which the singer (sounding as if he is still drunk) "want to go home" because "this is the worst trip/Since I've been born." Not your garden variety good times and brews tune,  however much that everyone from Blind Blake Higgs to The Beach Boys seems to perform it that way.

"Bimini Gal" and its later adaptation "Bimini" are first cousins to "John B." Both are Bahamian in origin, with "John B" traceable to a real ship that sank in the harbor of Eleuthra Island about the year 1900 and "Bimini" (whose harbor is depicted above) arriving some decades later from the eponymous pair of islands a mere 80 miles due east of Miami.The oldest version of "Bimini Gal" seems to exist only as a fragment, perhaps the chorus of a sea chantey-like work song for repetitive labor. Its sole lyrics were

Oh, when I go down to Bimini
Never get a lickin' till I go down to Bimini.

Bimini gal is a rock in the harbor
Never get a lickin' till I go down to Bimini.

Pete Seeger identified it as "a descendant of a street dance from Nassau" and included it on his Folkways recording of Folksongs Of Four Continents from 1955. A sample of this version appears on the Smithsonian/Folkways page for the album HERE, and if you play the clip you'll hear Erik Darling on lead, three years before he replaced Seeger in The Weavers.

The most unusual rendition of this version - and oddly, perhaps the most influential - was recorded by legendary Bahamian guitarist and singer Joseph Spence (1910-1984), a unique musical artist if ever there was one. As Allmusic's Mark A. Humphrey has written, "Spence created an idiosyncratic (and inimitable) guitar style rife with percussive and improvisatory vamps....He was a folk guitarist's Thelonious Monk, and his growling vocal counterpoint and surprising inventions are one of folk music's great delights." And further-

The combination of Spence's voice and guitar is one of music's most unforgettable. It is a low, rumbling voice that is sometimes simply moaning and mumbling, as if this was a Glenn Gould voice track. As for lyrics, clearly enunciating two words out of a line is a good average for this man, and the results should make many other vocalists think about following suit. His vocal style could be appreciated simply for being bizarre and unorthodox, true, but the same could never be said for his guitar playing. He often uses a drop-D tuning, which means his bass string is lower than usual. This in turn creates many variations in harmony as he plays, combining very nicely with the hard, percussively snapping feel of his picking.

Lest you think Humphrey is exaggerating here, take a listen to Spence's mesmerizing delivery of the number:

Inimitable to be sure, and if Spence's vocals aren't to everyone's taste, you still have to stand in awe of what the man is doing with his guitar. Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham once told John Stewart that a good song should sound "repetitive and hypnotic," and I think that is a perfect description of what Spence is doing here.

Bruce Molsky is a folk artist whose work I have learned of only in recent years, mainly from research for this blog. He is talented and tasteful, and he presents a more conventional instrumental of Spence's "Bimini Gal" here:

Like Spence, Molsky is using a dropped D tuning, though he is using finger picks as opposed to Spence's hammering flatpicking. Without exactly imitating Spence, Molsky retains the "percussive snapping" effect that the Bahamian achieves in his rendition.

The original lyric that Spence growls out is suggestive of the later "Bimini" song. The "Bimini gal is a rock in the harbor," which sounds a bit odd until you realize that a rock in a harbor is likely to sink a ship, which for our singer is getting that licking that he had never experienced before. There were other Bahamian songs recounting bar fights over girls, with some expressly citing Bimini Bay or Bimini Harbor as the locale for the ruckus, so it wasn't much of a leap for songwriters Bill Olofson and Mark McIntyre to fuse "Bimini Gal" with one of those other tunes and come up with "Bimini" (in much the same way that Seeger combined another Bahamian fragment, "When The Whale Gets Strike" with the old Anglo-Irish "Greenland Whale Fisheries" to come up with the most familar modern folk version of the song, sung in that manner by Theodore Bikel, Judy Collins, Peter, Paul and Mary, and The Weavers). The Kingston Trio included the new combined song on its fourth studio album, 1960's Sold Out.

The album cover in the video is, of course, a picture of the wrong edition of the Trio, but the track retains its appealing energy a half century after it was recorded. The aforementioned fusion creates an oddity - a song with two choruses, the "Never get a licking" from "Bimini Gal" and the "Send my bail down to Bimini" of the more modern tune. The cut also underscores one of the strengths of the first configuration of the Kingston group, that being the marvelous sense of rhythm that each of the originals possessed - Bob Shane on guitar, Nick Reynolds on bongos, and Dave Guard on banjo.

The current KT slows the tune down a bit and invests it with a bit more of a pop-calypso feeling:

The Olofson-McIntyre version has also remained a favorite of amateurs - here, Chicago-based band "A Bunch of Coconuts," one of several versions currently on YouTube:

Finally, contemporary Caribbean artist Stevie S and the Calypsonians do a modern riff on the original "Bimini Gal" song:

Stevie seems to be going for repetitive and hypnotic, as he melds calypso and ska rhythms with a dash of reggae - and if you listened long enough, a touch of bluegrass as well.

There is a good-natured, good-humored element in both these songs. Our local lady may be a dangerous rock, but that doesn't seem to keep the ships away, impending licking or no. And while she may be the proximate cause of a "Sloop John B" kind of alcohol-fueled disaster, it's pretty clear that once that bail arrives, our boys will be out and about and after her again. Warm breezes, tropical women, and a bit too much rum can do that to a guy.