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.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Roots Radio 19 - "O Canada! - Folk Songs From The Great White North" Part 2

Parts of the second half of the "O Canada!" radio show broadcast in Los Angeles on March 18th, 2017. One segment includes several classic Canadian roots songs, and the other consists of reflections on the lives and careers of two folk icons of the country who passed away in the latter half of 2016, Oscar Brand and Leonard Cohen, with representative musical selections from each. 


Show Theme: From "Forever And A Day" By The Kingston Trio 

Gordon Lightfoot - Bitter Green 
Joni Mitchell - Morning, Morgantown
Neil Young - Long May You Run 
Ian&Sylvia - Four Rode By  

Oscar Brand - The Bootlegger's Song 
Oscar Brand - Roll Your Leg Over 
Oscar Brand - When I First Came To This Land 
Leonard Cohen - Suzanne 
Leonard Cohen - A Woman Waiting 
Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Roots Radio 18 - "O Canada! - Folk Songs From Our Favourite Neighbours In The Great White North"

Songs old and new, traditional and modern, in French and English from the large and friendly country to our immediate north - a country with its own vibrant folk traditions and active folk music culture to this very day. This is the first hour of a March 18th radio broadcast, one that features among other music some of the roots music winners from 2016 for both the Juno Awards (Canada's Grammys) and the Canadian Folk Music Awards.

Opening: Farewell To Nova Scotia - Stompin' Tom Connors


Bruce Cockburn - Ribbon of Darkness
k.d. laing - After The Gold Rush
Neil Young - Four Strong Winds
Ian and Sylvia - Early Mornin' Rain
Cowboy Junkies - Tired Eyes


David Francey - Holy Ground
Chaim Tannenbaum - The Moonshiner
Les Souers Boulay - Maison
Pharis&Jason Romero - The Dying Soldier
Buffy Ste. Marie - Farm In The Middle Of Nowhere

Alexandre Belliard - Un Canadien Errant
West My Friend - Home By The Sea

Monday, December 26, 2016

For The Season #9: "Good King Wenceslas"

One of the ongoing pleasures of the holiday season for me is revisiting Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, first in its original format as a novella - and a ripping good read it is and remains being - and then in looking at several of the almost 30 film versions out there today, most all of which make a commendable effort to translate to the screen a complex narrative replete with interior monologue from the storyteller. No single movie of the tale manages to relate the full work in all of its deliciously Dickensian asides and details, and directors inevitably must choose which aspects of the Carol that they want to emphasize. Should the redemptive transformation of an old curmudgeon take center stage, or should the more explicitly religious idea of a hell-bound monster derailed from that destination by the intercessory power of a loving God be the point of emphasis? The cute little crippled and dying  boy or the deeply loving nature of his devoted father and the clearer but tougher vision of his mother? The evils and injustices of the world and the society portrayed in the book (and this is, as we shall see, a large part of the author's intent) or the power of a right-minded individual to rectify some of those evils and injustices?

Like all great stories, A Christmas Carol speaks to each of us in different ways. If you haven't read it of late and/or if you mainly know it or only know it through one or more of the films, it might not be a bad idea at all to give the original text another look. It's not long, it's available free online at multiple sites, and you might well be surprised how much of the original story hasn't made it into any of the movies - and how much of the tale is spot-on relevant today and how thoroughly its importance and its value transcend the Christmas season. It is a book for all seasons in its attempt to wrestle with the same issues of social justice and welfare that have raised their heads into elections around the world in the last year or two, and it emanates from the exact same time, place, and cultural context of its analogue in popular folk music, the great (post) Christmas carol "Good Kings Wenceslas."

And "Wenceslas" most emphatically is a folk song. Its lyrics, characterized as they are by the call to works of charity in the closing couplet, were the sole work of High Church Anglican priest and composer John Mason Neale (1818-1866), but the melody was delivered to Neale by his choirmaster and collaborator Thomas Helmore (1811-1890), who had found the tune (a spring carol called "Tempus adest floridum" or "The time of flowers has come") in an already-ancient book of anonymous medieval songs from Finland. Now, Neale and Helmore together left a powerful and deep mark on the music of Christmas that we know in English today, having composed and/or re-worked the best-known Advent carol in "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," two very popular Christmas songs in "Christ Was Born On Christmas Day" and "Good Christian Men, Rejoice," and the only St. Stephen's Day carol that most of us have ever heard, "Good King Wenceslas."

Neale and Helmore published a truly impressive number of hymnals and other collections of sacred songs over the years of their collaboration, but our case in point here relates to their 1853 Carols For Christmas-Tide in which "Wenceslas" debuted and which appeared exactly a decade after the Dickens classic. "Wenceslas" and A Christmas Carol reach the selfsame conclusion, albeit via very different plot lines. The transformation of Ebeneezer Scrooge is confirmed not by word or by attitude but by deed - Dickens remarks at the close of the tale that

He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world...and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.

Wenceslas, already regarded as a saint by his people, acts with sympathy and compassion to alleviate the sufferings of a poor man in the depths of winter, giving Neale the opportunity to moralize an explicit lesson in a lyric that becomes a sermon:  

Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, 
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

It is that "wealth or rank possessing" note by Neale that draws him closest in theme to Dickens. Charles D. was most certainly a liberal reformer in his day, having been born into a middle class family that had fallen on hard times resulting in several nightmare years in his childhood that saw him living in workhouses (an enforced servitude of the homeless and jobless poor, notorious for their exploitation and harsh treatment of their residents) and even debtor prisons with his father. These experiences clearly became the grist for the plot lines of some of Dickens's best-known and most successful novels - David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Hard Times, and of course A Christmas Carol among many others. Dickens came to regard both Adam Smith's promulgation of unregulated capitalism and John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism as pernicious lies that ignored the realities of the lives and plights of his own childhood and of millions of others like him in the Industrial Revolution era of the United Kingdom.

Neale shared many of Dickens's convictions, but please. We are not talking here about bomb-throwing anarchists or even members of Britain's incipient Socialist movement. We are talking about a pair of Victorian gentlemen of the upper middle class, High Church Anglicans both, men whose response to the savage inequities of the 19th century capitalist economy would warm the cockles of even the flintiest of hearts of modern American conservatives. For Neale and Dickens both believed that poverty could be alleviated and economic injustices resolved by moral action from those of wealth and privilege, not in the patronizing manner of the French concept of noblesse oblige but rather in the high-minded understanding of the Christian imperative to care for those in need. Dickens's reformed Scrooge and Neale's Wenceslas are literary embodiments of that belief, deeply held by both writers.

It likely doesn't matter that the Wenceslas story is entirely apocryphal or that the actual man was a Duke of Bohemia with the familiar Czech name of Václav who was murdered by his own brother. What bothered some of Neale's 19th century critics was that he and Helmore had co-opted the melody of a perfectly serviceable religious song about God's glory reflected in Spring and turned it into what one Grinch-like writer referred to as "insipid sentimentality" and "Christmas doggerel." No matter; "Good King Wenceslas" is doing quite well, thank you, more than 160 years after it first appeared. However, in the interests of fairness and full disclosure, here is that "Tempus adest floridum" root song in all its pristine glory:

There is much to like here, and the sprightly, even optimistic rhythm and melody fit perfectly with the lyric's joyful evocation of the wonders of Spring:

Spring has now unwrapped the flowers, day is fast reviving, 
Life in all her growing powers towards the light is striving: 
Gone the iron touch of cold, winter time and frost time, 
Seedlings, working through the mould, now make up for lost time.

For a sense of how this may have sounded in the era of its 1582 publication, here is Ernst Stoltz playing an authentic Renaissance lute with an anachronistic but charming and unobtrusive modern guitar:

For a solid pop-folk rendition of "Wenceslas," we turn to the Kingston Trio:

This is the longest-running iteration of the group that will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year, the configuration that has been touring together since 2005 and that features Bill Zorn doing the lead with the King's dialogue and George Grove and Rick Dougherty harmonizing beautifully with the page's lines. That kind of antiphony is characteristic of much medieval music, even if Grove's tastefully understated banjo line is not.

My good friend George, however, is not the only performer to see the possibility of an Americanization of this most English of carols via the inclusion of the banjo. Here is Dr. Josh Turknett, a neuroscientist and major proponent of clawhammer banjo music, with a delightful frailed version of the tune:

And if you were never quite sure what the difference was between the folk/clawhammer/frailing style of banjo playing and modern bluegrass banjo music, take a listen to Banjo Ben Clark with his instructional video in bluegrass rolls and fills - using this ancient carol as his model:

You can find scores more experimental versions of the song all over YouTube and other video sites, including reggae and blues and jazz and fiddle renditions. I love them all for their innovativeness and originality, just as I remarked above that I love the many cinematic versions of A Christmas Carol, however far they may stray from the author's initial intent. But "Good King Wenceslas" is in its own origins a stately English carol composed for Helmore's choir, so our last version today will be a recording of the great Robert Shaw Chamber Singers performing the traditional song as most of us first heard it:

Shaw's always tasteful arrangements and disciplined direction are here enhanced in this 1990s recording by baritone Victor Ledbetter singing the King's lines and mezzo-soprano Katherine Murray as the page.

The poor we have always with us, as Scripture reminds us, and both Charles Dickens and John Mason Neale use the Christmas season and its attendant joy to inspire people of good will everywhere to do what they could to meet the challenge of dealing with that sad fact. Their solution may not be mine and may not be yours, but it is an idea worthy of the earnest men who propounded it a century and a half ago. May we all feel blessed enough this Christmas season to share some of what we have with those who have less and bring the reformed miser and saintly king to life once again in our own world.


*The first eight 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"; #7 - "The Coventry Carol"; and #8 - "The Cherry Tree 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".

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Roots Radio 17: Nothin' But A Man - Songs About Work & Working People, Part 2

Down At The Coal Face (Mines)
Shut Up in the Mines of Coal Creek - The Old Time String Band
Coal Tattoo - Hank Cramer
Springhill Mine Disaster -  Luke Kelly
New York Mining Disaster 1941 - Martin Carthy
Blackleg Miner - The Kingston Trio

Another Season's Promise (Farms)
The Farmer Is The Man - Otis Gibbs
The Field Behind The Plow - Stan Rogers
Where Corn Don't Grow - Waylon Jennings
Pastures Of Plenty - Eliza Gilkyson
Deportee - Martyn Joseph 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Roots Radio 16: Nothin' But A Man - Songs About Work & Working People, Part 1

Ben Franklin's famous axiom that nothing is certain in life except death and taxes overlooks one other essential element: the work that may well drive us to death so we can pay those taxes. "By the sweat of your brow shall you earn your bread" is one of our oldest of old saws on work - a punishment for sin and a curse upon humankind. And truly, through much of the history of human experience, work has been just that. And yet - even within the context of often desperate necessity, our work has often had rewards beyond insuring mere subsistence. And that is the theme of my show this week - folk songs and blues songs and country songs and roots songs about people at work, about how what we do to earn a living can frustrate us, satisfy us, ennoble us, or crush us - sometimes all of them simultaneously.
This is the first hour of the original 2 hour radio broadcast  from June 18, 2016.

Show Theme: From "Forever & A Day" By The Kingston Trio
Opening: "John Henry" - John Cephas & Phil Wiggins

The Rush Of The Mighty Engine (Trains)
Old John Henry Died On The Mountain - Henry Grady Terrell
Jerry, Go Oil That Car - Harry "Haywire Mac" McClintock
Linin' Track - Lead Belly
Casey Jones - Johnny Cash
Drill Ye Tarriers - The Chad Mitchell Trio
Pat Works On The Railway - The Cottars
The Erie-Lackawanna Line - Hank Cramer

Working The Mill (Factories)
Ten And Nine - Liam Clancy
The Work Of The Weavers - Alex Sutherland & His Cronies
The Four Loom Weaver - Karan Casey
Aragon Mill - Karen Matheson, Mary Chapin Carpenter
Babies In The Mill - Larry Penn