Friday, August 29, 2014

The Sloop John B. Goes Home

For decades, I only thought of “Sloop John B.” as a Beach Boys song.  The 1966 Beach Boys track was the earliest one that I knew about, and I also knew that the song was on their acclaimed album Pet Sounds.  So, I thought that “Sloop John B.” was written by Brian Wilson.  Only recently did I discover that the tune — which is known by a variety of titles — is a traditional song from the Bahamas and was first committed to record more than 30 years before the Pet Sounds track.  My new knowledge of the song’s older identity made me want to look into some its older versions, some of which have lyrics in the Bahamian patois. 

According to Wikipedia, the song — known alternately as “Sloop John B.,” “John B. Sails,” “The Wreck of the John B.,” or “I Want to Go Home” — was first published under the title “The John B. Sails” as a transcription by Richard Le Gallienne in the December 1916 issue of Harper’s Monthly Magazine.  It was later included in Carl Sandburg’s folk-song collection The American Songbag (1927).  The tune was first recorded as “John B. Sail” by the American blues guitarist Arthur “Blind” Blake in 1930.  Here are a few other recordings:

In 1935, American field collector Alan Lomax recorded the Bahamas’ Cleveland Simmons Group singing the song under the title “Histe Up the John B.’s Sails”:

The version that first spread awareness of the song to a wide American audience was the Weavers’ “Wreck of the John B.” (1950):

Bahamian calypso artist Blake Alphonso Higgs sings “John B. Sails” (1952):

The tune’s most popular iteration up to that time was the Kingston Trio’s “Sloop John B.” (1958):

This was followed by Johnny Cash’s “I Want to Go Home” (1959):

Pop singer Jimmie Rodgers made arguably the first rock & roll adaptation with “Wreck of the John B.” (1960):

Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle version, “I Wanna Go Home (Wreck of the John B.)” (1961):

As Wikipedia says, Beach Boys member Al Jardine, a folk music fan, was impressed with the version sung by the Kingston Trio and persuaded Brian Wilson to adapt the song for the group.  After some chord modifying and lyric changes, the Beach Boys came up with the song’s best-known rendition, “Sloop John B.” (1966):

Friday, August 22, 2014

Sister, Sister

I’m perfecting my Rip Van Winkling.  So much happens in the world — interesting things that you think I’d keep my ear to the ground about — but I don’t find out about it till much later.  Why didn’t I know about some of these things?  How come I didn’t learn about them when they were new?  Where was my mind at the time?  I might as well have been sleeping for 20 years after drinking and playing nine-pins with Henry Hudson’s ghost.

Ravi Shankar (1920-2012)
One thought that’s lightly crossed my mind a few times over the past few years is what a collaboration between Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones would sound like.  I’m guessing that anyone reading this blogpost already knows that both of them are daughters of the late Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar, probably the world’s most famous avatar of his instrument.  Anoushka Shankar, a sitarist herself, is the daughter of the Indian woman that the sitar maestro eventually married, while Norah Jones is the progeny of his relationship with the American concert promoter Sue Jones.  

Growing up, the London-born Anoushka divided her time between the British capital and India but went to secondary school in California, studying the sitar with her father the whole time and eventually establishing a career as a sitarist.  Norah Jones was born in New York and raised in Texas, where she was immersed in jazz and the blues.  All of this (as you likely already know) lead in time to Jones’s multi-platinum pop-jazz album Come Away with Me (2002) and a huge career in the music industry.  According to the Los Angeles Times, Jones grew up knowing of Anouska, but Shankar fille was in her teens before learning the existence of her half-sister.   The two didn’t meet each other until 1997, when Anoushka was 16 and Norah was 18.  Given the seemingly complicated history between Ravi Shankar’s families, this set the stage for a lot of potential discord between them, potential discord that apparently never came to pass.  I’m relieved that Anoushka and Norah seem to get along so well.

Given the women’s common paternity but widely divergent lives and musical specialties, I sometimes wondered over the years what they would sound like if they ever worked together.  Well, I know now — a full year after the release of their first single from Anoushka Shankar’s album Traces of You, which features three collaborative songs.  I have embedded the video for the title track at the top of the post.  (Why I didn’t know about the album when it was released is a question that flummoxes me.)  Sadly, Ravi Shankar died while Anoushka was working on Traces of You.  One track from the album, “Unsaid,” is in their father’s memory.  “Unsaid” has lyrics by Anoushka Shankar and music by Norah Jones, their only co-authored song on the CD, a felicitous instance of a family’s grief healed by a family’s unity.  

So, after all these years of wondering what Norah Jones and Anoushka Shankar would sound like together, their three songs in collaboration on Traces of You finally answer my question — but for some strange reason, I didn’t learn of the album’s existence until a year after it came out.  Now, with that query satisfied, I can go back to sleep for 20 years.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Last Folk Music Record

Photo by David Gahr

I should like to consider the folk song and expound briefly on a theory I have held for some time, to the effect that the reason most folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the people.  Tom Lehrer (1959)

Remember the great folk music scare of the ’60s?  That was close!  That garbage almost caught on.  —Martin Mull (1977)

Whatever happened to folk music?  You know, the individual singer or group of singers facing a microphone and playing one or more acoustic guitars, chanting songs with easily heard, meaningful lyrics and with simple, minimalist accompaniment.  When it broke onto the commercial scene in the late 1950s/early 1960s, the stripped-down musical presentation avoided the showiness and ostentation of heavily orchestrated mainstream pop, compelling the listener to focus on the lyrics.  To ardent fans, folk music was a music of honesty and, to some, a music of social commitment. 

So, what happened to folk music?  Okay, one answer to that question is that all music is folk music because music is always made by folks.  But leaving that idea aside, back in the 1970s, I used to believe that something called “folk music” survived as a commercially successful enterprise up to that time.  

The usual music histories say that American “folk music” — rural music performed for urban audiences — acquired its commercial impetus with the emergence of the Weavers’ big orchestrally polished hits for Decca Records, “Goodnight, Irene” and “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” in 1950, but a few years later, the group members’ (especially Pete Seeger’s) past as left-wing activists made them a casualty of the McCarthy-era Red Scare.  Folk music wouldn’t come back into commercial prominence until the Kingston Trio’s 1958 all-acoustic chart-topper “Tom Dooley.”  After that, apparently due to the simplicity of needing only a voice and something strummable in order to put an act together, the college coffeehouses and the musical marketplaces were inundated with groups or individuals singing vintage songs accompanied by acoustic guitars. 

The acts seemed to fall into two categories: the clean-cut bearers of sweet harmonies obviously striving for mainstream marketability (the Kingston Trio, the Limeliters, the Brothers Four, etc.) and the rough-around-the-edges troubadours — in effect, the devotees of bohemian balladeer Woody Guthrie — who approached their music with a passion, conviction, and sometimes political perspective that seemed to place popular appeal on the back burner (such as Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and especially Bob Dylan), with Peter, Paul, and Mary occupying a sort of middle ground (both polished and politically conscious).  But, the history books say, folk music as a popular commercial enterprise began dying off after the Byrds introduced folk-rock with their cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Dylan himself went electric at the acoustic Newport Folk Festival, both occurring in 1965 and both occurring as a reaction to the very influential British rock & roll “invasion” of the year before.  

Also important was Dylan’s inverse influence on rock’s biggest act, the Beatles, prompting greater lyrical richness and more acoustic arrangements in the band’s songs (such as “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” [1965]), further blurring any distinctions between rock and folk. (Of course, folk music and rock & roll, both in the United Sates and in the United Kingdom, were never very far apart to begin with: in the U.S., both musical genres were influenced by country blues performers like Blind Lemon Jefferson, and U.K. rock grew out of the folk-based skiffle movement.)  Afterwards, the well-known American performers who first gained fame as folk singers, the story goes, were gradually absorbed into rock & roll or country & western.

But growing up in the 1970s, I thought that folk music held on as a high-profile phenomenon for a little while longer.  A large part of that might have been because my older brother played the guitar and hung around other guitar players.  So, I was used to being around acoustic guitar players strumming a well-known folk song or an unplugged take on a familiar rock record. 

Also, the largest, most popular section of my local record store (back in the LP days) was labeled “Rock & Folk,” which instantly put folk music on the same level as the ultra-hip rock music that dominated the radio airwaves.  Included in this section of the store were not only established folk-music figures like Baez, Judy Collins, and Gordon Lightfoot, but also more recently established artists like James Taylor, Jim Croce, Steve Goodman, John Prine, and Janis Ian: artists who sang their own compositions to acoustic-centered arrangements with unobtrusive electric and percussion accompaniment.  To me, this was also folk music.  Backing up my impression was the fact that perhaps the biggest act of the mid-’70s, John Denver, described the kind of music that he wrote and played as folk.  Even acoustically grounded “soft” rock bands like America struck me as playing more in a folk idiom than a rock idiom.  “Folk” became not only a traditional type of song, but a kind of acoustic-guitar-based performance style for recently written material as well. 

But by the end of the 1980s, performers who identified themselves as “folk musicians” tended to be lesser-known, non-mainstream artists who recorded for small labels and for a niche market: Stan Rogers, Kate Wolf, Eric Bogle, and so on.  The more famous acts, such as Taylor or Denver or Paul Simon were now filed together with the rock artists or the country artists — or even, in some cases, with “easy listening.”  Today, iTunes classifies the artists I mentioned above under “singer/songwriter,” a category that includes such obviously non-folk performers as Billy Joel and Van Morrison.  A category called “folk” seems to be assiduously avoided. 

From what I can tell, popular culture seems to think of folk music in its clean-cut, coffee-house manifestation, after the rise of the Kingston Trio and before the rise of the Beatles: as something square and irrelevant, something to be mocked — from the Martin Mull quote at the top of this blogpost to the risible acoustic guitarists portrayed in such movies as National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and A Mighty Wind (2003).  The Coen Brothers’ sympathetic warts-and-all look at an early-’6os Greenwich Village troubadour in their film Inside Llewyn Davis (2012) is a refreshing change. 

But the American folk music movement of the 1960s was more than merely a commercial flash in the pan, as represented by the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Folk music offered a lyrical depth and relevance that was uncommon in both rock & roll and the adult-oriented Tin Pan Alley pop of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.  It’s difficult to imagine issue-driven rock songs of the 1960s like Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” (1965) and the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” (1967) without the infusion of folk’s lyric-centered spirit.  Before then, rock was a kind of music where the beat was often more important than what the singer said (“Da Doo Ron Ron,” anyone?).  While the lyrics were sometimes significant in early rock & roll songs, they became consistently so after Dylan went electric and recorded such songs as “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965), where the music and the beat clearly took a back seat to the song’s caustic poetry. 
So, I have to wonder: Would 1960s rock music have been such a fertile ground for lyric-driven discontent surrounding the Vietnam War if it hadn’t been for the prosodic edge that Dylan and other folk performers brought to it?  The answer, my friend, is… 

Oh, never mind.