Saturday, March 26, 2016

My Music: This Land Is Your Land (WQED/PBS, 2002)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The other KPBS “pledge break” special was This Land Is Your Land from the “My Music” series, which I had assumed based on what I’d previously heard from “My Music” would be a series of film clips showing 1960’s folksingers “in the day.” Instead it’s a 2002 concert from Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh (the Pittsburgh PBS affiliate, WQED, was listed as the show’s production company) in which various survivors from the 1960’s folk era were dredged up and put before an audience, with varying but generally entertaining results. The program opened with Judy Collins, who shared hosting duties with the Smothers Brothers, doing “Both Sides Now” — and doing a considerably jazzier version, with a surprising amount of improvisation on the melody, than the one she gave us back in the late 1960’s when she (not its composer, Joni Mitchell) had the original hit on the song. Then the Smothers Brothers came on but only to do a long introduction to the Kingston Trio, who were billed as featuring original member Bob Shane — though I suspect, given the relative ages of the participants, that Shane was the only original member represented — doing “Tom Dooley” (actually a rewrite of an old Black song called “Tom Dula,” itself based on a real-life case, though whereas the fictional Tom Dooley is awaiting a legal, above-board execution, the real Tom Dula was lynched) and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (a setting by Pete Seeger of an anti-war poem from the novel And Quiet Flows the Don by Russian author Boris Shtokolov, which was later translated into German at the behest of Marlene Dietrich, and still later Joan Baez recorded the German version!). I joked to Charles, “Which one became a woman?” — a reference to the film A Mighty Wind by Christopher Guest, who did to folk music in that movie what he’d done to heavy metal in This Is Spinal Tap, in which “The Folksmen” (his twisted version of The Kingston Trio) have to revamp the act because their bass player has gone through gender-confirmation surgery, though s/he still sings the bass vocal parts on their songs.

Then the Highwaymen were brought in for their big hit, “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” (introduced as a Black folk song when it was actually originally a spiritual — one would think the references to the Jordan River would give it away). That was set one; after the usual interminable “pledge break” the show came back with Glenn Yarborough singing his big solo hit “Baby, the Rain Must Fall” (he did better records as a solo artist, including a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her” and Rod McKuen’s “The Lonely Things” and “Love’s Been Good to Me,” but this was probably his biggest hit) and then rejoining his original group, The Limeliters, for “There’s a Meeting Here Tonight” and an hilarious send-up of generic folk songs called “Our Generic Uptempo Folk Song.” Then the Brothers Four — whom I’d always thought of as one of the “plaid” easy-listening vocal groups rather than a folk group (they did a ghastly cover of the Beatles’ “Help!” on the LP The Sounds of ’66, Volume 1), competitors with the Ames Brothers and the Four Aces — came out for “Greenfields” (I’d assumed the title was two words but the credit crawls announcing the contents of the CD’s being offered as premia for KPBS members and contributors gave it as one) and an O.K. version of another song I would hardly think qualifies as a folk song (though Harry Belafonte covered it on his album The Many Moods of Belafonte and gave it what I think is the best rendition it’s ever had, phrased with an eloquence that puts to shame the Brothers Four and almost everyone else who’s tried it): “Try to Remember,” the big opening number from the off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks. That was set two; the third set opened with a great comedy routine by the Smothers Brothers that skewered the madrigal tradition in general and the song “While the Nightingale Sings” in particular — odd that by far the two most entertaining bits on the show, this and the Limeliters’ “Our Generic Uptempo Folk Song,” were out-and-out parodies of the genre, but there they/we were!

Then there was a version of the New Christy Minstrels’ biggest hit, “Green, Green” (fortunately they did not call it “Greengreen”!) by Randy Sparks and the Minstrels. Randy Sparks was actually the founder of the New Christy Minstrels — who took their name from the original Christy’s Minstrels in the 19th century, whose leader E. P. Christy introduced many of the most famous songs by Stephen Foster (something I didn’t know until the 1970’s, when I first saw the 1939 biopic of Stephen Foster, Swanee River, with Don Ameche playing Foster and Al Jolson — who else? — as Christy). After the New Christy Minstrels became hit-makers, he formed another group to serve as a sort of farm team for them; he called this group the Back Porch Majority and kept ownership of them even after he sold the New Christy Minstrels name and franchise — so, no longer owning the name, Sparks had to perform New Christy Minstrels material and arrangements as “Randy Sparks and the Minstrels.” Then an incredibly aged-looking Barry McGuire did P. F. Sloan’s notorious faux-protest song “Eve of Destruction” (containing one of the worst songwriting lines of all time, in which the singer protests that world events anger him so much “my blood feels like coagulatin’”) — this was McGuire’s one hit and inspired a Right-wing response called “Dawn of Correction,” though later McGuire himself became a born-again Christian and denounced both “Eve of Destruction” and the politics behind it. Some of “Eve of Destruction” holds up pretty well (particularly the opening line, “The Eastern world/It is exploding,” and “You say you’re for peace/But what’s that gun you’re toting?”), some of it just sounds silly, but there were certainly better protest songs being written in the 1960’s (and not just by Bob Dylan, either!) and one has to wonder about a show paying tribute to 1960’s folk music that would include “Eve of Destruction” and not “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Then a surprisingly young-looking Roger McGuinn came out and did “Mr. Tambourine Man” in the original Byrds’ arrangement — I mentioned to Charles that I remembered liking the Byrds’ records except for their Dylan covers, which were never anywhere near as good as Dylan’s originals (but then one of the rules for membership in the Bob Dylan Cult in the 1960’s was you were never allowed to like a cover version of a Bob Dylan song —you could make exceptions for Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary because they were friends of his, but otherwise Dylan covers were beyond the pale, and I went on believing that until I heard Jimi Hendrix’ magisterial cover of “All Along the Watchtower” and had to admit that Hendrix had come up with a version equally valid and quite different, legitimately extending the original in the way a cover version should do). After “Mr. Tambourine Man” McGuinn and his band did the Byrds’ other big hit, “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” which he announced as a song by Pete Seeger based on verses from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. “Why was King Solomon given second billing?” Charles joked, to which I responded, “Because he was just the lyric writer.”

That’s how the main part of the show ended, but afterwards there was another interminable pledge break and then snippets of some of the promised “bonus material” available if you give KPBS a ton of money and request it as your premium: “Just Americans,” a Randy Sparks and the Minstrels performance of a song Sparks wrote right after 9/11, saying that the tragedies in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania had brought all Americans together and made us one country, erasing racial and religious divides (a judgment Sparks might want to revise now — assuming he’s still alive, which, according to Wikipedia, he is — given the success of politicians like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in demonizing Muslims over 9/11 and the more recent terror attacks in Paris, San Bernardino and Brussels) — and the Woody Guthrie song that gave the show its title, “This Land Is Your Land” (the “safe” verses only) performed as an ensemble piece by various members of the groups featured in the concert. This Land Is Your Land was a fun program but not much more than that; the 1960’s folk scene embraced a lot more than the pop-folk sounds virtually all the groups represented here were going for (I recently ordered the first Broadside Records album in its CD reissue from the Smithsonian, and though Bob Dylan’s three songs, issued under the pseudonym “Blind Boy Grunt” since Dylan was already under contract to Columbia, outshine everyone else’s the disc does show off some of the edgier sounds of the folk movement, including Native American Peter La Farge’s “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” and “Faubus’ Foibles” and Mark Spoelstra’s “The Civil Defense Sign”) and some of the protest songs, notably “Blowin’ in the Wind” in Peter, Paul and Mary’s performance, actually became hits. Still, it was fun for me to hear some of this music again even though you’d have to be my age or older to have a direct memory of it — this is one of those cases when the nine-year age difference between Charles and I matters: he was born in 1962 and therefore when these songs were hits he either didn’t exist yet or was way too young to notice them — and these styles are so different from modern music (even modern music made by people singing and accompanying themselves on acoustic guitars) I wonder what people even younger than Charles would make of it.