Archive for the ‘1964’ Category

‘Hi Ho, Nobody Home . . .’

Friday, December 18th, 2015

When our small band of church musicians looked ahead to Sunday’s scheduled celebration of the season and of holiday traditions from around the world, we dug into our songbooks and memories and our collections of LPs, CDs and mp3s for some inspiration.

And one of the tunes that my friend (and co-musician) Tom came up with was “A’Soalin’,” recorded in 1963 by Peter, Paul & Mary for their Moving album:

Tom told us (and will tell our fellowship members Sunday) that the song arises from the English Christmas tradition of handing out goodies on the day after Christmas. It’s far more likely that the song arose from the tradition of handing out what were called soul cakes on All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween) and that Peter, Paul & Mary turned it into a quasi-Christmas song by appending a verse from “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” to the ending. But never mind. It’s a good tune.

(But the spelling puzzles me: How did “soul” become “soal”? I suppose we’d have to ask the writers, who are Noel Paul Stookey, Elaina Mezzetti and Tracy Batteste for the song. I have no idea who Tracy Batteste is; the only time I seem to find her name online is in collection with “A’Soalin’.” Mezzetti, according to the official Peter, Paul & Mary website, is Peter Yarrow’s sister; Yarrow said she was given writing credit on “A’Soalin’” and some other PP&M tunes to provide her some income. So if anyone knows why the spelling changed, I imagine it’s Stookey. If I ever get the chance, I’ll ask him.)

Anyway, the odd thing about “A’Soalin’” was that when Tom introduced us to the song, I knew the first verse. Long ago, as I wrote about cover versions, I told the story of my dad’s gift to me in early 1965 of an album titled Ringo, featuring the spoken-word tale made famous by Lorne Greene. The 1964 album, however, was by a group called the Deputies, and that disappointed me. Still, I listened to the album, unhappily comparing the Deputies’ lame version of “Ringo” to the one I heard on the radio. But I also heard for the first time “Big Bad John” and versions of other songs in the public domain: “Shenandoah,” “Darling Nelly Gray,” “(Won’t You Come Home) Bill Bailey” (offered as just “Bill Bailey”) and a few others.

And I heard an odd track with melancholy lyrics and a melody offered at points as a round and studded with abrupt ascending key changes. It got a trifle manic at points. The Deputies called it “Hi Ho.” And I liked it well enough.

It is, of course, the first verse of what PP&M had recorded in 1963 as “A’Soalin’.” I’d once considered digging the Deputies’ album from its place on my country shelf, but I’d been thinking at the time about their versions of “Big Bad John” and “Shenandoah.” I’d not thought about “Hi Ho” for years, until Tom shared the PP&M track with us.

So I listened to the Deputies again and realized it’s not as neat to me in 2015 as it was fifty years ago. And that’s okay.

All In Texas

Tuesday, August 4th, 2015

As we drove down the Interstate Saturday en route to meet friend and regular commenter Yah Shure for lunch, the radio offered us ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.” I wondered out loud whether I should have included the record or the group’s “Legs” in this blog’s long-completed Ultimate Juke Box or the following series of posts called Juke Box Regrets.

Having decided that including ZZ Top’s “La Grange” in the long project was likely enough Texas boogie, I told the Texas Gal that one of my goals in life is still to drive through the streets of La Grange, Texas, with my car audio blaring out “China Grove.”

“Or the other way around?” she asked with a chuckle. That would do, too, I told her. And then she asked “But what about Luckenbach?” I said I wasn’t sure what to do about any visit to that city, and we began listing song titles that include the names of cities in Texas. It didn’t take us long to come up with a good list, and I’ve continued the work this week. So here’s a six-stop musical tour of the Lone Star State.

We’ll cross into the state from the Oklahoma panhandle, probably because someone told us to get of out Dodge City, just a ways north and east in Kansas. So the first major city we come to, smack-dab in the middle of Texas’ own panhandle is Amarillo. And it’s “Amarillo” by Emmylou Harris that starts off our musical tour. She’s lost her fellow, but not to another woman: “Oh I lost him to a jukebox and a pinball machine,” she sings.

The song, written by Harris and Rodney Crowell, was the opening track to Harris’ 1975 album, Elite Hotel. The album went to No. 1 on the Billboard country chart and to No. 25 on the Billboard 200. And we’re on our way south, noting that we could have listened to a couple of other tunes instead: “Midnight In Old Amarillo” by Cindy Cashdollar (2004) or “Amarillo By Morning” by George Strait (1982).

But we head south to Lubbock and then make our way southeast to Abilene, which George Hamilton IV said, in his 1963 cover of Bob Gibson’s 1957 song, was “the prettiest town I’ve ever seen.” Hamilton’s “Abilene” was a pretty major record, sitting on top of the country chart for four weeks and reaching No. 4 on the Adult Contemporary chart and No. 15 on the Hot 100.

The record was one of thirty-one that Hamilton got into the country Top 40 between 1960 and 1973. I have to admit that his work is mostly unfamiliar to me, and I may correct that. While in Abilene, we could also have listened to Bobby Bare’s 1963 cover of the same song, Dave Alvin’s similarly titled but entirely different song from 1998 or Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Way Out In Abilene,” which showed up for me on a 1973 album titled Legacy of the Blues, Vol. 12.

We head east along Interstate 20, now getting into parts of Texas I’ve seen, even if I don’t know them well. Eventually, we make it to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, and the first tune we come across is the 1984 single “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind” by George Strait. His gal has gone to Dallas, not far away in miles, but far enough in culture. My take on the two cities – and the Texas Gal generally agrees – is that Dallas is a city that mixes Eastern and Southern cultures in a kind of uneasy truce, while Fort Worth, just thirty or so miles away, is a Western city, and the gap between the two is greater than the distance.

Strait’s record went to No. 1 on the country chart, one of an incomprehensible number of country hits in his column. (My copy of the Billboard Book of Top Country Hits goes through 2005, and Strait’s total at the time the book came out was eighty; All Music lists at least twenty country hits for Strait since then.) As we leave Fort Worth, we’ll skip Dallas and head south, but as we do, we can listen to Lee Hazlewood’s ‘Fort Worth” from 1968 and what seems to be an obscure single by Steely Dan from 1972 titled “Dallas.”

About ninety miles out of Fort Worth, we reach Waco and the Brazos River, where Billy Walker’s bandito was urging himself on in 1964’s “Cross The Brazos At Waco.”

The record went to No. 2 on the country chart and bubbled under the Hot 100 at No. 128. “Cross The Brazos . . .” was one of thirty-eight records Walker put into the country Top 40 between 1954 and 1976. As we cross the Brazos and prepare to leave Waco, we can listen to Ronnie Dunn’s “How Far To Waco” from his 2011 solo album.

The road bends slightly to the southwest, and 180 miles later, we find ourselves in San Antonio. Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys released two versions of one of his most famous songs: “San Antonio Rose” in 1938 had a traditional string band arrangement, while “New San Antonio Rose” in 1940 added horns and some odd vocal embellishments, but the two were essentially the same song.

As we head through San Antonio, we choose the instrumental “San Antonio Rose” by pianist Floyd Cramer. The 1961 single was the most successful of the records we’re listening to today: It went to No. 8 on both the country and pop charts and to No. 3 on the adult contemporary chart. There are no doubt other tunes about San Antonio, but they’re not on the digital shelves here, and as we drive southwest out of town, we listen to versions of Wills’ tune by Patsy Cline and Leon Russell.

Our last stop today is another 150 or so miles to the south: Laredo, right on the Rio Grande, celebrated in one of the great traditional American songs. The version of “Streets of Laredo” that we hear today is by Willie Nelson, found on his 1968 album Texas In My Soul. Oddly enough, no version of the song has hit the country Top 40, but a version by Johnny Cash bubbled under the Hot 100 at No. 124 in 1965. (The tale of “Streets of Laredo,” as gathered at Wikipedia, is quite interesting.)

And if we’re in a mood for some different Laredo music as we reach the Rio Grande, there’s always the “Nuevo Laredo Polka” by Gilberto López, a 1950 track. And casting regretful thoughts toward records about El Paso, Houston, Brownsville, Galveston and more, we come to a stopping place.

‘I Know It’s Late . . .’

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

Having learned earlier this week that a cover of the classic soul song “Steal Away” was the last single Bobbie Gentry released, I did a minor bit of digging. As I wrote Tuesday:

It’s a tune that Jimmy Hughes wrote and took to No. 2 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1964 although I know Etta James’ 1968 version and Johnny Taylor’s 1970 cover better.

From there, I went and found Hughes’ version to refresh my memory. And as I listened, I glanced at a few websites and, as often happens, learned something unexpected: The Soul Tracks website told me that Jimmy Hughes’ “Steal Away” was the first recording made at Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, and it was the first release on the original Fame label in 1964.

I also noted Tuesday that deep in the digital shelves, I found Gentry’s 1978 cover of “Steal Away.” While listening to it, I wandered out onto the Web to find a visual for a video, and learned from the record label that it, too, was produced by Rick Hall. Its sound echoes, at least a little, some of Gentry’s earlier recordings and is, to my ears anyway, a little unsettling, which only seems fitting given the song’s topics of deception, stealth and betrayal.

For Another Time
I’d also mentioned Tuesday that there was at least one of other cover of Patti Dahlstrom’s “He Did Me Wrong, But He Did It Right” out in the world. It was by the R&B trio of Pat Hodges, Denita James and Jessica Smith, recording for 20th Century as Hodges, James & Smith. Since then, however, the YouTube video of the track has disappeared. So we’ll listen to that track – and more, perhaps – from Hodges, James & Smith another day.

Let’s Go To Town

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

Every once in a while, you just gotta go to town and find out what’s there for you.

So you need an invitation? Okay, you’ve got one from Joe Therrien & His Rockets, who recorded “Hey Baby Let’s Go Downtown” on the Brunswick label in 1957. The rockabilly invitation turned up a few years ago on That’ll Flat Git It, a massive (twenty-six volumes) collection of generally obscure country and rockabilly singles.

So, once we’re in town, we need to find out what’s going on. That means we need to listen to the “Small Town Talk” as offered by Rick Danko from his 1977 self-titled album. The tune, written by Danko and Bobby Charles, was first released on Charles’ 1972 self-titled album (which Danko co-produced with John Simon). It’s since been covered on occasion, most recently by Boz Scaggs on the album A Fool To Care, released in March.

If we’ve been gone a while, well, we might find it kind of hard to fit back in, even after several years. That’s what happened to Percy Mayfield (or at least he imagined it did) to inspire the song “Stranger In My Own Home Town.” There are a few versions of the tune out there, but the one that gets me going is Elvis Presley’s, recorded in Memphis in February 1969 and originally released on the 1970 album, Back In Memphis.

And of course, there might be some folks in town that we’re not all that happy to see, as the Tokens noted in “He’s In Town” in 1964. The record, written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, made it to No. 43 on the Billboard Hot 100. If he’s back in town, and she’s thrilled about it, it might be kind of hard to stay.

We might stay anyway, but I have a sense that we’d be wandering the streets late at night, murmuring to ourselves about “Love On The Wrong Side Of Town” just like Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes were back in 1977. The track, written by Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt, was originally released on the album This Time It’s For Real.

But you know, if we get past all that and hang around town for a while, we might find ourselves in a place where we belong, and someone else might come along from somewhere else who needs what we have to offer. In that care, we’d be the “Home Town Man” that Terry Garthwaite and the rest of Joy Of Cooking were thinking about on their Castles album in 1972. And we’d be home.

Saturday Single No. 441

Saturday, April 4th, 2015


You know that line about blind pigs and acorns? Well, it happens here, too.

We were all set to go play some games with numbers, seeing as how today is April 4, which translates into 4/4. We were going to turn that into 44 and see what records sat at No. 44 on April 4 over the years. And then we looked at the Billboard Hot 100 from April 4, 1964, and parked at No. 44 was a record titled “Forever” credited to by Pete Drake and His Talking Steel Guitar. That stopped me.

Drake, who passed on in 1988, was a master of the pedal steel guitar, and his work showed up on more Nashville sessions than one can likely keep track of, almost certainly in the thousands. The list of credits at All-Music Guide, which generally offers – as I understand it – listings from only those album that include credits in their packaging, runs 615 entries long. Many of the listings are for recent re-issues, but even so, the names – both from the reissue era we’re now in and from the years before Drake’s death – are impressive: B.J. Thomas, Don McLean, Stonewall Jackson, Lacy Dalton, Janie Fricke, Kenny Rogers, Moe Bandy, Dolly Parton, Leon Russell, Bob Dylan, Doug Kershaw, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Ian & Sylvia, Buddy Holly and on and on.

His biography, as offered by Wikipedia, is instructive, and it’s possible that Pete Drake would have been famous if the only thing he’d done was organize the Sons of the South in the late 1950s; that band had as members such luminaries-to-be as Kershaw, Jerry Reed, Roger Miller, Jack Greene and Joe South. But of course, he went on to play on those thousands of sessions and to produce as well.

And he was instrumental in the development of what came to be known as the talk box, later used to great effect by Peter Frampton, Joe Walsh and others. Drake’s work built on the idea, Wikipedia says, of Alvino Rey and his wife, Luise King, “who first modulated a guitar tone with the signal from a throat microphone in 1939.” In an interview with Douglas Green for Guitar Player magazine in the early 1970s, Drake said:

You play the notes on the guitar and it goes through the amplifier. I have a driver system so that you disconnect the speakers and the sound goes through the driver into a plastic tube. You put the tube in the side of your mouth then form the words with your mouth as you play them. You don’t actually say a word: The guitar is your vocal cords, and your mouth is the amplifier. It’s amplified by a microphone.

The system, Wikipedia notes, was only loud enough to be useful for studio recording (which left to others the work of creating a system that could be used in concert).

And it was that plastic tube gadget that Drake used on his 1964 album Forever. The title track from that album is the record that caught my attention this morning, when I noticed it sitting at No. 44 in the April 4, 1964, Hot 100. It eventually peaked at No. 25. A second single, “I’m Sorry,” bubbled under at No. 122 later in 1964 (and showed up on a 1965 album, Talking Steel Guitar).

Given all that, it was an easy choice to make “Forever” by Pete Drake and His Talking Steel Guitar today’s Saturday Single.

Chart Digging, July 25, 1964

Friday, July 25th, 2014

Looking into the records in the higher portions of the Billboard Hot 100 from July 25, 1964 – fifty years ago today – is fun but unsurprising, like reading a favorite novel for the fifth time. I’ve been known to do that, read books five times or more, but I also read stuff I’ve never read before, combing the shelves at the local library for authors and titles new to me.

The parallel here is, of course, to go deeper into the Hot 100 from fifty years ago and find tunes that I’ve never heard (or may have heard but have since forgotten). Today’s exploration brings up six records from that long ago chart’s Bubbling Under section.

Parked at the very bottom of the Bubbling Under section, at No. 135, is one of those oddities: A performer’s only listed record sitting in the lowest position possible for one week only. After giving it a listen, I might think that “A Casual Kiss” by Leon Peels, an R&B singer born in Arkansas and raised in California, might have deserved more attention. It’s a pretty record, but it’s offered in a doo-woppish style that likely sounded out-of-date by mid-1964. It would have made for a great slow dance, though. And it’s interesting to note that a few years earlier, Peels was the lead singer of the Blue Jays, who were themselves a one-hit wonder, with “Lover’s Island” going to No. 31 in 1961.

Sitting at No. 129, we find a record I have heard, although I didn’t recall it until this morning. “The Seventh Dawn” by Ferrante & Teicher is one of the movie themes the piano-playing duo frequently recorded, and it’s one of the 175 F&T tracks on my digital shelves. The 7th Dawn was a 1964 film about the Communist insurgency in Malaya after World War II; it starred, among others, William Holden and Susannah York. I don’t know about the movie, but the F&T single is actually kind of blah, and its chart performance reflects that. In four weeks of bubbling, the highest the record got was No. 124, a great distance from the duo’s best charting singles: “Exodus” went to No. 2 and “Tonight” from West Side Story went to No. 8, both in 1961.

With Fats Domino’s unmistakable voice and the R&B sax break, “Mary, Oh Mary” has some of the elements of Domino’s classic New Orleans work from the 1950s. But as good as the single sounds today – and it’s pretty darn good – it wasn’t what the marketplace was looking for in July 1964. “Mary, Oh Mary” was bubbling under at No. 127 fifty years ago; it would stay there one more week and then disappear. It was the 74th single Domino put in or near the pop chart since 1955. He would have three more records reach the Hot 100, but just barely, with two records going to No. 99 later in 1964, and his cover of the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” reaching No. 100 in 1968.

Jerry Wallace’s name showed up here once before, when I wrote about his 1972 hit (No. 38 pop, No. 2 country, No. 9 AC), “If You Leave Me Tonight I’ll Cry,” which was used as a plot device in a January 1972 episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. This morning, we’re listening to “It’s A Cotton Candy World” from its perch fifty years ago at No. 126. Three weeks later, the record, which is pleasant but no more than that, slipped into the Hot 100 and spent one week at No. 99. It was one of seventeen records the Missouri-born performer placed in or near the Hot 100 between 1958 and 1972. From 1965 into 1978, he placed nineteen records in the country Top 40, starting with “If You Leave Me . . .” and including its follow-up, “Do You Know What It’s Like To Be Lonesome,” which went to No. 2 on the country chart.

Moving up ten slots in that long-ago Bubbling Under section, we find at No. 116 an updated version of a famed American song. “Frankie & Johnnie” was likely a Nineteenth Century folk song but its origins are misty, says Wikipedia. (For those interested in popular music history, the story of the song, as told at Wikipedia, is fascinating.) Either way, the tale of Frankie and her two-timing man showed up in the Hot 100 five times between 1959 and 1966, with the best-performing version being Sam Cooke’s 1963 take, which went to No. 14 (No. 4 R&B). The version we’re interested in this morning is, as the record label says, “The New ‘Frankie and Johnnie’ Song” by the Greenwood County Singers. One of two charting records for the California-based group, which included a young Van Dyke Parks, the record would move into the Hot 100 a week later and eventually climb to No. 75 (No. 15 AC).

You might remember the nursery rhyme:

Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea,
Silver buckles at his knee;
He’ll come back and marry me,
Bonny Bobby Shafto!

Well, fifty years ago this week, Bobby Shafto was Bubbling Under, with “She’s My Girl” sitting at No. 105. The English singer, about whom even Joel Whitburn seems to know little, was, one would think, stage-named after the subject of the nursery rhyme, who was likely, says Wikipedia, “a resident of Hollybrook, County Wicklow, Ireland, who died in 1737.” Or the singing Shafto could have been stage-named for Robert Shafto, an Eighteenth Century member of the British Parliament. Or the singer’s parents might have actually carried the surname Shafto and decided to saddle their son from his birth with that burdensome name. I don’t know, but I lean toward its being the silly brainstorm of the singer’s manager or some promotions person employed by the Rust label. In any case, the record was not bad, but it really went nowhere, spending one week at No. 99 before bubbling back down to where we found it. It was Shafto’s only charting single.

Walking At Wapicada

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

It was sometime around this time in 1964 that I became a golfer. Well, put it this way: Sometime in June 1964, at the age of ten, I played my first nine-hole round of golf.

For several years, probably since I was six or so, I had on occasion accompanied my dad as he took on Wapicada Golf Course, a nine-hole layout northeast of St. Cloud. (It’s since been renamed Wapicada Golf Club and expanded to eighteen holes.) Dad was out on the course a couple of times a week during the warm months: He played in a weekly league (on Thursdays, I think), and at least one other time each week he loaded his Sam Snead clubs into the ’52 Ford and headed out on Highway 23 toward Wapicada. And on those non-league rounds, I often tagged along.

So what was there for a kid to do as he walked a mile and two-thirds around a golf course? Well, beyond the simple joy of spending time with my dad as he did something he loved and the benefit of physical exercise, there was plenty. A meandering creek ran across the course, flowing west to east on its eventual way to Elk Lake about fifteen miles away, and just south of the creek was a steep slope; both came into play on four holes, two going up the slope beyond the creek and two coming down the slope in front of the creek. Plenty of golf balls went into the creek or the marshy areas just south of it, and it was great fun wandering there as Dad and I made our way around the course, looking for lost balls, dragonflies and frogs.

Here’s a map of Wapicada from a 1964 scorecard. (Note: South is to the top.)

So what else did I do as I walked along with Dad? I kept his scorecard. I washed golf balls on every tee. (Most of the ball washers were the type where one places the ball in a vertical column and then moves the column up and down; one of them – on Hole 2 or 3, I think – was the circular type, where one drops the ball into a hole and then turns a crank to move the ball through the washer. I much preferred the latter type; it was just, for some reason, more fun.) I helped keep track of where Dad’s tee shots went, as Dad had occasional trouble with a severe slice. And, I imagine, we talked as we walked although I don’t remember anything of import that Dad ever said to me there. But that’s okay; conversation between us didn’t have to be important to be valuable.

I loved the bridges at Wapicada, especially the rustic plank bridges that crossed the creek on Holes 1, 4 and 6. I was a little less fond of the bridge on Hole 9, which was more substantial, with metal railings and trusses. It wasn’t quite as romantic, I guess, as the other bridges, but it provided almost a formal passage for those about to complete the ninth hole and head on to the clubhouse. In the mid-1960s, though, there wasn’t much of a clubhouse. Wapicada was built – as were so many things over the years near growing cities – on a one-time farm (probably pasture, given the lay of the land), and the clubhouse for all the years I went to Wapicada was the old farm house.

A big wooden bar with stools, some coolers and tables and chairs – and some neon wall signs and clocks – changed what was, I suppose, the living room into a barroom and the adjacent rooms into quieter places for folks to gather after their rounds. A three-season porch was added, it seems to me, and the original enclosed porch was set aside for a pro shop. I always looked forward to stopping at the clubhouse. Dad would order a Squirt for me and a Hamm’s beer for himself, and I recall standing there wondering if this would be one of those occasional days at the course when Dad would buy us a couple of Slim Jims.

On occasion, I’d tag along when Mom joined Dad, and sometimes I’d be there when the two of them played with another couple, and those times were fun, but not as much fun as when I had Dad to myself. And of course, I looked ahead to the time when I could play the game instead of watch it. And it was fifty years ago this summer that Dad handed over his old clubs to me and I hacked my way around the course in 110 strokes.

I got a little bit better at golf over the years. (How could I not, right?) During my college days and for a few years after, I’d go out on the course on weekends with Dad and my brother-in-law. And I played fairly regularly once I moved to Monticello in 1977, often getting nine holes in early on summertime Thursdays before heading to a weekly mid-morning staff meeting. But golf got more expensive, and my life moved in other directions. The last time I remember being on a course was in 1986 or so, when Rob and Rick came to Monti on a Saturday and the three of us knocked out nine holes in the morning and then repaired to my place for sandwiches, beer and laughter.

I’ve still got Dad’s pre-1960 clubs, tucked into a corner in the basement. His Sam Snead set went in the garage sale Mom had a few years ago. And my golfing days are long over. Even if I wanted to get out onto the course again, pesticides and fatigue would make it at best difficult. But that’s okay. Things come and go. And golf is, as James Brown sang in an entirely different context back in that 1964 summer of my first round of golf, just one of the things that I used to do.

‘Up Above My Head . . .’

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

I’m out of commission today, the combination of a spring cold and muscles still aching from Saturday’s construction and garden efforts. So I’m punting, but here’s a 1964 release from Long John Baldry & The Hoochie Coochie Men (with, according to several things I’ve read, Rod Stewart’s recording debut). Written by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, here’s “Up Above My Head.”

Saturday Single No. 378

Saturday, February 8th, 2014

So where was I when the lights went on fifty years ago tomorrow evening, when Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles and Americans began to stir from the darkness that had enveloped them since the previous November, when their president was killed?

Where was I? In the basement of my Uncle Gene’s home in the St. Paul suburbs, with a fair number of my cousins. But as to the lights coming on again and American grief beginning to dissipate, well, we’ve heard that for years, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a cheap and cheesy linkage of two separate events that happened to follow one another by a little more than two months.

Not that we hadn’t been grieving since Dallas. We had. An American president hadn’t been killed for more than sixty years, and John Kennedy had seemed so youthful and so energetic that I think we saw him as invulnerable. I was ten, and after Dallas, the world felt subdued and grey, and I can only assume that those feelings were a reflection of the feelings of the adult world around me. And little things kept reminding me of our loss: I winced far past February whenever I went into the St. Cloud Post Office and saw the picture of President Lyndon Johnson on the wall.

And then came the Beatles. Were they fun? Yes. Did they deliver a new kind of music? Yes. But I’m guessing that the awareness of those things was generally evident only to pop-music listening teens and folks in the music and radio businesses. I think parents, in general, were bemused and befuddled. Folkies and so-called serious musicians were mostly dismissive or hostile. (The chief outlier among the folkies, if we can believe the stories, was Bob Dylan, who heard the future in “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” but then, Bob Dylan always was an outlier.)

Now, I love the Beatles’ music. They were the first pop/rock group whose music pulled me in, and as such, they can take the blame for everything that’s followed, including the 2,900 LPs; the shelves of reference books; this post and the 1,400 or so that have preceded it here; and the bad, mediocre and occasionally good lyrics and songs I’ve written over the years. But all that came later, spurred by Abbey Road.

When I saw them on Ed Sullivan that February night fifty years ago, I saw a band that my girl cousins liked. (I only had at that time one boy cousin near my age who lived in Minnesota, and I don’t recall him being with us that evening.) I didn’t see the Beatles as a band that would change the world of popular music and the larger world around it. After all, I was ten. But I have a hard time believing that non-music, non-radio adults of the time had even a dim clue of what the Beatles would do, either. I certainly don’t think that the joyful hysteria among young people, especially among the girls, did anything more than baffle (or maybe anger and upset) the vast majority of parents in the same way as did the Beatles’ long hair – and as conservative as it looks now, it’s worth remembering that it was outrageously long for the day.

None of this means that the Beatles who showed up on Ed Sullivan’s show fifty years ago this weekend weren’t a musically accomplished band who would become even more so and who would become at the same time a cultural force with influence far greater than anyone could have imagined on that night in February 1964. That’s all true. But we didn’t know all that on that night. Looking back at history foreshortens the view: Things that developed over time seem to be jammed up one against the other, and things that happened separately at about the same time get linked, even though they have no connection other than the times in which they happened.

Having been linked in the media by newsmen, historians and hucksters for two generations, the two events – JFK’s death and the Beatles’ arrival – will remain linked in popular perception. But it might be good to remember that the Beatles were not grief counselors. They were a band, the best band in the world, and they only got better. That, I think, is the important thing to remember about the events of fifty years ago.

I’ve think I’ve posted it here before, but there’s only one piece of music that makes sense today: Here’s a rip from the A-side of the 45 that my dad bought for my sister and me in February 1964. Fifty years ago this week, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was in the second week of a seven-week run at No. 1, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

Video deleted.

‘Stewball Was A Race Horse . . .’

Friday, December 27th, 2013

Now, about the song “Stewball.” We offered in this spot yesterday the version of the song recorded in 1940 by Lead Belly and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet for the Victor label. Pretty much a work song, that was the second of several iterations of the folk song that arose in England in the late Eighteenth Century.

Second Hand Songs notes: “Skewball, born in 1741, was a racehorse bred by Francis, Second Earl of Goldolphin. The horse, a gelding, was purportedly the top earning racer in Ireland in 1752, when he was 11. The song apparently originated as a ballad about a high stakes race occurring in the Curragh in Kildare, Ireland, in March 1752, which Skewball won.” The website gives a date of 1784 for the song, noting that the date “is for the oldest broadside identified of the ballad . . . held by the Harding Collection of the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford.”

The webpage continues, “According to John and Alan Lomax in American Ballads and Folk Songs, the ballad was converted into a work song by slaves – which is supported by the version of the lyrics published in their book. ‘Skewball’ apparently became ‘Stewball’ after the song migrated to the United States.”

Beyond the work song version of “Stewball,” the original story-song continued to be recorded. A 1953 recording by Cisco Houston is the earliest listed in the on-going project at Second Hand Songs, but Woody Guthrie recorded the tale of the horse race in 1944 or 1945. His version was released in 1999 on Buffalo Skinners: The Asch Recordings, Vol. 4 on the Smithsonian Folkways label.

Then came along the Greenbriar Boys. A trio made up by 1960 of John Herald, Ralph Rinzler, and Bob Yellin, the group, says All Music Guide, was “[o]ne of the first urban bands to play bluegrass” and was “instrumental in transforming the sounds of the hill country from a Southern music to an international phenomenon.” The Greenbriar Boys released their first two albums of bluegrass tunes in 1962 and 1964, but of more import for us today is a tune that showed up on New Folks, a 1961 sampler on the Vanguard label. Herald, Rinzler and Yellin set the words of “Stewball” to a simple, folkish tune (written by Yellin, according to website Beatles Songwriting Academy) and recorded the song as their contribution to the album:

After that, covers of the new version followed: From Peter, Paul & Mary in 1963 (a single release went to No. 35 and is the only version to chart), from Joan Baez in 1964 and from the Hollies in 1966, according to Second Hand Songs. And I know there are many other covers. Most of those take on the Greenbriar’s Boys’ version (including one by Mason Proffit on its 1969 album Wanted), but there are other covers of the early folk version and the work song version as well. I didn’t go digging too deeply, though, because something else about the song grabbed my attention this week.

Now, I’ve heard the version of “Stewball” using the Greenbriar Boys’ melody several times over the years, notably the versions by Mason Proffit and Peter, Paul & Mary. Heck, I even sang it along with Peter Yarrow at a concert a year-and-a-half ago. But I’d never noticed or thought about the tune’s similarity to another famous song until this week.

Last Tuesday, I ran past Second Hand Songs while looking for an interesting cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1971 single “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”, and when the results came up that put the Lennon/Ono tune in the adaptation tree for “Stewball,” I did a mild double-take. And then I thought about it, running the two tunes through my head. And yeah, John (and Yoko, to whatever degree she was involved in the writing, listed as she is as a composer) lifted the melody and chord structure from the Greenbriar Boys’ version of “Stewball.” There were a few changes, notably a key change and the addition of the “War is over if you want it” chorus, but it was essentially the same song.

And I’m not at all sure why Herald, Rinzler and Yellin didn’t complain. Does anybody know?