Saturday, April 3, 2010

Ode to a Mixed Tape – Traditional Folk, 2001

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

This tape was one I made as a traditional folk sampler. Rather than using the top-10 Peter Paul & Mary, Kingston Trio, (New) Christy Minstrels kind of thing (and I don’t believe I own any [N]CM), I went for the songs. Traditional folk music is largely based on a history of orality (unlike, say, classical or opera, which are literary), so the content is more fluid as it was passed down through time. That is why there is more than one version of many of the songs on the first side, to show different versions of essentially the same tune. The songs I chose range from early Madrigals through Americana and, of course, Woody (albeit indirectly). As always, I have tried to find videos where available, but folk music is not highly sought in a YouTube world. Even the images of the covers were hard to come by on many. Hopefully that will change. Some of the bands below are kind of obscure, most of them I bought in used stores from the Sally Ann (Salvation Army to you uninitiated), to used furniture stores, to garage sales. I will take my music as passed down, as well.


Smith SistersSunnyside
These two songs are off the Bluebird album (all three of their releases are named in relation to aviary), on Flying Fish Records in 1984, which I picked up at Tower for $0.99. This song was most notably done earlier by the Carter Family way back when, though it had a resurgence after it appeared on the soundtrack of O! Brother Where Art Thou?. This version, which ends the album, is suitably cheerful, with Debi Smith’s yodel-style vocals focused and strong, yet playful, with sister Megan keeping up harmony as usual (i.e., very well). Their sound is a bit chirpy, so the album titles make sense. It’s a very warm version of the song.
Smith SistersLeatherwing Bat
This is a classic song, covered by just about everyone from the early ‘60s folk movement, such as PP&M. It takes different birds (there’s that association again), and uses them to look at relationships, such as infidelity, courtship, etc., to explain things such as the color of the birds. What’s interesting to me is that in this ‘80s retelling, they subtly adapt some of the wording, such as changing the meaning of bow from bow-and-arrow to hair ribbons. The original song is a little bitter, and they make it a bit more, er, modern.

Allen-Ward TrioLeather Winged Bat
I picked up this 1965 self-titled album for $1.00 during the late ‘80s, at a used furniture store in Ontario. There is a sticker on the cover (on the plastic wrap) that says, “The #1 Folk Act From Canada.” As far as I know, this is their own release, which is a shame because they are amazingly good. Along with some originals (such as the truly beautiful “I Need a Friend,” hauntingly sung by Lynn Ward, supported by her brother Robin and Craig Allen). In their version of “LWB,” it starts off with a Celtic guitar lift that transforms into the flow of the melody of the song. They do the more classic version, filled with luscious three-part harmony.
Allen-Ward TrioThe Cuckoo
This is another traditional song that was widely covered during the ‘60s. It was totally rewritten in the ‘80s by NYC’s Washington Squares who use the chorus of “On the fourth day of July” and turn it into a U.S. political statement, rather than the original British one about poverty and the desire for beauty: “Oh the cuckoo is a pretty bird / And I wish she were mine / I would never give her water / I would only give her wine.” What’s interesting about the A-WT version is they do it a capella, relying only on three-part harmonies. They sound great together.
Allen-Ward TrioNo More Auction Block
Robin Ward takes the lead vocals in this (with Lynn and Craig backing up) powerful spiritual. Many times when a white group does spirituals, it has a sense of disingenuousness, but not here. Robin has a mournful tone that works with both passion and prayerful of freedom. I’ve heard other versions of this song, but this one remains my favorite.
Check out:

Ramblers ThreeCharlottetown Is Burning Down
Don’t know what the hell I did with this record, but I can’t seem to find it on my shelf, nor much info on the net. Oh, well. The Ramblers Three are definitely in the mode of the Kingston Trio (there were a lot of them). This version of “Charlottetown” is a bit vanilla, but has some interesting harmonies. It’s a nicely-done sing-a-long chorus of a kiss-off to Liza-Jane.
Ramblers ThreeOh, Let Me Fly
In a similarly straightforward way, they cover this spiritual. It’s smooth and solid harmony in, again, Kingston Trio mode. It’s pretty rich even in its classic way.

Brown & DanaOh, Let Me Fly
These songs come from Garrett Brown and Al Dana’s album, It Was a Very Good Year,” on MGM in 1963. Their version of this spiritual is, as Joe Goldberg says in the liner notes, “One minute and 37 seconds of pure swing!” It does too. The arrangement is very upbeat and a totally different rhythm than the Ramblers Three, with a bop beat rather than a smooth folkie.
Brown & DanaSinner Man
This is another standard, but I have to say this is among my fave versions. The background laugh during the “Satan said Sinner man, come right in,” is a perfect touch. Songs that are rounds like this have a tendency to be a bit too circular and wearying (e.g., just about anyone’s version of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”), but this one remains interesting all the way through, even on repeated listening. There is an excitement level that comes through in the rhythmic strum and emotion they put behind it.

Steeleye SpanCold, Haily, Rainy Night
Here are three cuts come from their 1971 Big Tree record, Please to See the King (their second release). As when I saw Steeleye Span play at the Bottom Line in NYC during the ‘80s, they have an interesting mix of olde English sound with electric instruments, giving these songs a cold, static-electricity feel that is sharp as a needle, an aural version of a metallic taste in the mouth; and yet, it works. Back in the Renaissance period, soldiers were sort of like rock stars, and were just as fickle. Here is a story of an innkeeper’s daughter who makes the mistake of “opening up her window,” and what becomes of it.
Steeleye SpanJigs: Bryan O’Lynn/ The Hag with the Money
An instrumental mix of two different jigs with that same blue electric feel to them, this song is a fine mixture of the old and the new. Its use of sharp and flat notes with the electric guitar makes it sound as jolly as it does ominous.
Steeleye SpanThe King
This song was reportedly (on their liner notes) sung by itinerants who brought a dead wren door to door just past Christmas, and asked for money to see “the king.” Because it’s done a capella, it has more of a madrigal (and nasal) tone that is more traditional than most of the other SS electrified material. It’s a beautiful piece (as is their electric stuff, as well).

Pete SeegerDeportee
This cut is from Pete Seeger Sings Woody Guthrie, a 1967 Folkways release. It’s amusing to me how Pete has spent so much of his life singing the songs of Woody Guthrie, and now people are singing songs of and about him (e.g., Harry Chapin’s “Old Folkie”). Pete’s probably not long for this world, considering his age, but his music will last a lot longer. Even in this case where he sings one of Woody’s power songs, when people cover it, they do Pete doing Woody, rather than just Woody (though it should be noted that Woody penned the words, and Martin Hoffman wrote the tune). This song is based on a true event of a plane going down in Los Gatos Canyon where everyone was killed, but the news reports just referred to the people on the plane as deportees, not even bothering to publish the names. The song is long and simple, with Pete on vocal and banjo, but it is very powerful. While Pete should not be forgotten for his amazing music (even the minor point of changing “We Will Overcome” to “We Shall Overcome,” making the song so much stronger), he was a good interpreter of other’s songs as well. I was fortunate to see him play a couple of times in large settings, including singing with Arlo Guthrie and Bob Dylan in 1973 at the Friends of Chile Concert at the Felt Forum (which became the Theater at MSG) in NYC; I also got to stand next to him – he’s freakin’ tall, man – a couple of years ago in Central Park during a Toshi Regon soundcheck. There are lots of videos of this song on the ‘Net, just none of Pete doing it.

Sweet Honey in the RockDeportee
Ah, Sweet Honey in the Rock. They are magical on record and even more so live, and I’ve seen them four times (at Queens College, twice at Carnegie Hall, and their annual February children’s concert in the school across the street from Irving Plaza). Mostly a capella (with some minor instrumentation such as shakers), these women based in Washington, DC, have one of the deepest harmonies you are ever likely to hear. Their version of this song, from 1985’s, The Other Side, released on Flying Fish, is sung at almost a whisper, with a cry out here and there, but is still full of power. These use the echo to just the right level to make it haunting. Just gorgeous.

Len & JudyThe Land of Odin
This song is arguably “traditional,” and comes across as sort of psychedelic folk. Off the Folk Songs / Sweet & Bittersweet album on Prestige in 1965 (bought it for $1.00 at the same time as the Allen-Ward Trio, above), it discusses an island in the sky 10,000 miles high that is 10,000 miles long by 10,000 miles wide. Yeah, it’s kinda off-kilter. Siblings Len and Judy Novy have a sweet harmony, but this song has since become a bit tiresome for me. When I made this tape, I knew I was going to give a copy of it to someone of Norwegian heritage, and had just enough room at the end to add this one. Now I wish I had put a different song on, because L&J are fine, it’s the song that’s kind of lost its appeal to me.


Most of the songs on this side, with two exceptions, are either from two live compilations, Folk Era’s Live Sampler on Folk Era in 1988 (from earlier recordings), and Greatest Folksingers of the ‘Sixties a comp made “from the Vanguard folk catalogue” and “highlights of the Newport Folk Festivals” (got it at a Sally Ann for $7.99). This latter collection is from 1987 on Vanguard Records. The notation FE and GF will state from which it originates.

Northeast WindsMartin Greigh
An Irish group from New England, the NEW is a foursome that has a really nice traditional sound, and lush harmonies. This is clearly shown in the song (pronounced “Martin Gray”), about a sailing family whose matriarch leaves to live inland, and the father, at some point, just takes off in the ship and doesn’t return (“Four boats in the harbor / Where’s the Martin Greigh / She was due to fetch the cutty lights / By 3 o’clock today / No sail on the horizon / No vessel by the cay…” I fell in love with song (and this version) the first time I heard it, especially on the penultimate chorus where they sing it a capella, thick with their Irish lilt (think the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B”). [FE]

Judy Collins / Theodore BikelGreenland Whale Fisheries
There are two different versions of this song; one is where the captain of the ship is sorrowful for losing some of the crew, and the other where he is sadder about losing the whale than his men. This one falls to the latter, as Theodore Bikel, who does the harmony to Collin’s straightforward singing, states in one of his solo moments, “O the losing of these gallant men / It grieves my heart so / but the losing of this great sperm whale / It grieves me 10 times more.” Still, it’s a great, blustery, sad whaling song that has been covered umpteen times, but this live at the Newport version remains my fave one (the video is the same cut). [GF]

Figgy DuffYankee Clipper
For those who don’t know, as they apparently do not have a wide knowledge base, Figgy Duff is a folk band from New Foundland who, for a while (before the death of its founder), had an lush Celtic sound, as so many great groups from the Maritimes do (e.g., the Rankin Family). I first heard Figgy Duff on the CBC while driving to Ontario, and was blown away by them. I given the then-recently released Weather Out the Storm (nominated for a Juno award) in 1989 as a present. This cut is actually a medley of the song mixed with some jigs between stanzas. The core of the song is a married woman’s fling with the captain of said ship, and its implications. Definitely upbeat melody and the jigs are worked in quite smoothly.

Ian & SylviaYou Were on My Mind
This Canadian duo had a few hits, most notably this and “Four Strong Winds,” though most Yanks know the We Five version (link to the video is below), which was on pop radio. This is more country than folk, I guess, but it’s a great song in the tradition. Ian went on to greater country fame as a solo, but they still perform together occasionally. I got this off their two-volume greatest hits package that is wonderful from beginning to end. It’s understandable why they are considered a national treasure up north.

Bonus: The We Five version:

OdettaJohn Henry
The late Odetta was a strong woman who sang of freedom, and was the forerunner of so many powerful women of color. I had the fortune to see her play at the Calgary Folk Festival a decade or so back, and even at that stage, she was a force to be reckoned with. Her version of the John Henry tall tale of man-vs.-machine is, as far as I’m concerned, the definitive one. She whoops at the right moments (when “John Henry whoops the steel on down”). This song, under her tutelage, builds to a climax of JH’s death of exhaustion by making the audience feel that drain, as she chugs the song with a steam engine rhythm. [GF]

Bob Gibson & Hamilton CampWell, Well, Well
Both are well-known folkies from the ‘60s, with Camp having a big hit in his native Canada with a cover of Dylan’s “Girl From the North County”; he was also a sit-com actor during the ‘70s, usually playing bizarre boyfriends (The Marry Tyler Moore Show in the famous “Toulouse Lautrec is my favorite artist” episode), or deranged bosses or dads of dates; you’d know him if you saw him. What I like especially about their coverage of this spiritual, other than (but including) the way their voices blend together so well, well, well, is that they sing it heartfelt, rather than trying to show how cool they are being white singing a spiritual. They have a Joe and Eddy kind of appeal to them. [GF]

Staple SingersI Wish I Had Answered
The Staple Singers were definitely known for their gospel recordings, such as “I’ll Take You There” and the uplifiting “Respect Yourself.” This live song is solid R&B gospel at its finest, with hands clapping, and a cry for redemption. The song’s protagonist has an ever increasing fever through the song, and is now realizing, as his end is nigh, that he wished he had answered the Lord’s call sooner. What’s also great about the song is that some of the Staples get solos, such as Mavis, and show their gifts. It’s a fun song, with a message. [GF]

Flatt & ScruggsSalty Dog Blues
Yeah, they were known for doing a little theme that starts off, “Lemme tell you all a story ‘bout a man named Jed…” However, the songs I like them for are “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and this one. Bluegrass central, F&S knew not only how pick ‘em, they knew how to pick ‘em. Almost an answer to Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” from the man’s perspective, but as a total rave-up. The clip below is short, but it sounds just like the recording on the CD. [GF]

The WeaversErie Canal
This is arguably the best known recording of the tape. It has that great tongue-twister line (sung by Pete), “We mighta gotten floundered on a chunk o’ Lackawanna coal.” The lyrics were pretty salty for the time, including drinking, hoisting of panties up the flagpole (“as a sig-a-n’l of distress”), and general partying on the boat (hence the almost floundering). Even after all these years, it still has a memorable, catchy chorus. [GF]

Clancy BrothersSweet Thames Flow Softly
A lovely ballad by those Irish lads, the Clancy Brothers, who in this case join with Robbie O’Connell, as opposed to Tommy Makem. It is a wistful remembrance of the girl the singer loves as they stood by the Thames River, with the lilt of the evening meeting the lilt of the brogue. Sort of an Irish version of “Sunday Will Never Be the Same,” I guess. If I had more room on the tape, I would have added the live versions of “Finnegan’s Wake” and their powerful “Risin’ of the Moon” from this CD. [FE]

Northeast WindsLeaving of Liverpool
This is similar to “Sweet Thames,” but a bit more upbeat, as the singer / sailor is about to sail off to places unknown (“Tis not the leavin’ of Liverpool that grieves me / But my darlin’ when I think of thee”). NEW may have been from New England, but they had the Irish sound down so perfect (hardly surprising considering the large Irish population in that town). This is just a beautiful song full of expectant desire. [FE]

Northeast WindsThe Orange and the Green
I know the Irish Rovers are more famous for this song, but (a) I don’t have theirs, and (b) I really like this live version. For those who don’t know it, the song is about a man who grew up with a Catholic father and a Protestant mother (“And it is the biggest mix-up that you have ever seen / My father he was Orange and me mother she was Green”). It’s a funny, tragic-sorta, upbeat tune about difference in the culture clash. [FE]

Tommy MakemThe Whistling Gypsy
Tommy Makem made a notch in the folk idiom in the U.S. with this number. It’s a jolly, loving song about a father who chases his daughter who has run off with what he believes to be a Gypsy, but is in for a surprise. The song’s catchy “La-de-do La-de-do-da-day / La-de-do La-de-day-hee” chorus stays in the brain well past the song being done. The video is not the same version as the recording, but it is the correct artist from the right period of time, so there, deal with it. Don’t get me (non)-Irish up!


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this post! In depth and outstanding. Thanks!


  2. Hey Tom,

    Thanks for the kind words. Been a folk fan since sleepaway camp back in the '60s. That's what led to my punk fandom, as punk and folk are essentially the same music, just one is faster, and louder, but they are both protest music, commentery of the time, and usually lo-fi. More to come in time.