Posts Tagged ‘Peter Paul & Mary’

‘And It Came To Pass . . .’

Friday, December 23rd, 2016

With a storm moving in for Christmas Day itself, we’ve advanced our plans by one day, making today one of preparation and tomorrow the day that the Texas Gal, my mother and I will go to celebrate the holiday at my sister’s home in the northwestern suburb of Maple Grove.

But before I head out for some final shopping, I wanted to stop by here. As long-time readers know, I don’t really do much Christmas music. But this season, we’ll expand this blog’s Christmas music playlist by one song and then wish all of you and all of yours a joyful and peaceful holiday tomorrow, however you mark the day.

Here’s “Christmas Dinner” by Peter, Paul & Mary. Written by Noel Paul Stookey, it was released on the 1969 album Peter, Paul & Mommy.

And it came to pass on a Christmas evening
While all the doors were shuttered tight
Outside standing, a lonely boy-child
Cold and shivering in the night

On the street every window
Save but one was gleaming bright
And to this window walked the boy-child
Peeking in, saw candlelight

Through other windows he had looked at turkeys
And ducks and geese and cherry pies
But through this window saw a gray-haired lady
Table bare and tears in her eyes

Into his coat reached the boy-child
Knowing well there was little there
He took from his pocket his own Christmas dinner
A bit of cheese, some bread to share

His outstretched hands held the food
And they trembled, as the door it opened wide
Said he “Would you share with me Christmas Dinner?”
And gently said she, “Come inside”

The gray-haired lady brought forth to the table
Glasses to their last drop of wine
Said she, “Here’s a toast to everyone’s Christmas
And especially yours and mine”

And it came to pass on that Christmas evening
While all the doors were shuttered tight
That in that town, the happiest Christmas
Was shared by candlelight

‘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.

‘You’re Never Too Old To Change The World . . .’

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Pete Seeger passed away yesterday. His story is well told in today’s edition of the New York Times (and told in great detail at Wikipedia), and I thought that instead of trying (and failing) to tell the whole story this morning, I’d just share a few moments of Seeger’s musical life and heritage.

Seeger was a founding member of the Weavers, the early 1950s folk group that had a No. 1 hit with Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” and was blacklisted for its liberal leanings during the 1950s Red Scare. This is the Weavers’ 1950 recording of “If I Had A Hammer (The Hammer Song),” written by Seeger and fellow Weaver Lee Hayes.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Seeger was considered by many to be a dangerous man. As Wikipedia relates, “In 1960, the San Diego school board told him that he could not play a scheduled concert at a high school unless he signed an oath pledging that the concert would not be used to promote a communist agenda or an overthrow of the government. Seeger refused, and the American Civil Liberties Union obtained an injunction against the school district, allowing the concert to go on as scheduled. In February 2009, the San Diego School District officially extended an apology to Seeger for the actions of their predecessors.”

Seeger’s songs and music were without doubt popular and important far beyond the reach of radio and pop music. Still, in the 1960s, a few of his songs provided hits. “If I Had A Hammer” was a hit for both Trini Lopez (No. 3, 1963) and Peter, Paul & Mary (No. 10, 1962). (It’s likely, for what it may matter, that Lopez’ version of the song is the first Pete Seeger song I ever heard, as a copy of Lopez’ single came home with my sister one day in one of those record store grab bags of ten singles for a dollar. I still have the single, with “Unchain My Heart” on the flipside.) The Byrds (No. 1, 1965) and Judy Collins (No. 69, 1969) reached the charts with “Turn! Turn! Turn!” And “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” was a hit for the Kingston Trio (No. 21, 1962) and Johnny Rivers (No. 26, 1965), while a version by guitarist Wes Montgomery bubbled under the chart (No. 119, 1969).

Perhaps the greatest attention Seeger got in the 1960s was when he was scheduled to perform his Vietnam allegory, “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy” on the CBS television show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, in September 1967. Wikipedia notes, “Although the performance was cut from the September 1967 show, after wide publicity it was broadcast when Seeger appeared again on the Smothers’ Brothers show in the following January.” Here’s that January 1968 performance:

This morning, after I heard the news of Seeger’s passing, I dug around at YouTube for something different to post at Facebook. I came across a mini-documentary detailing how Seeger came to recite Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” for the 2012 collection Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International. It’s a piece that tells as much about Seeger as it does about the recording he was invited to make. I was especially moved at the end of the piece when one of the Rivertown Kids, the Seeger-organized choir of young people involved in the recording, seemed to sum up Seeger’s life about as well as can be done: “You’re never too old the change the world.”

‘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?

Saturday Single No. 341

Saturday, May 11th, 2013

It’s not something we planned, but there we were yesterday afternoon, the Texas Gal and I, walking through the house where I grew up on Kilian Boulevard.

We’d been looking for a garage sale just a few doors down, and when we’d seen nothing going on out front, we’d headed back up the alley. There was no sign of a sale, but at the very end of the alley, we saw the current owner of my old house sitting in a lawn chair, watching two of his children as they played on a trampoline.

He looked at us as I stopped the car. The Texas Gal whispered “What are you doing?” as I lowered the window on her side of the car and leaned over and asked, “You still have the piano in the dining room?” Surprised, he nodded. “Good,” I said. “That used to be my piano when I was a kid.”

“You lived here?”

I nodded, and he said, “You want to see the place?”

The Texas Gal started to say “No,” but I nodded again and said, “Let me pull around and park.” I put our 2007 Versa in the spot where my dad used to park his 1952 Ford, and we walked up the driveway.

Sadly, I don’t remember the man’s name. He and his wife have owned the house for a few years. The family that Mom sold it to in 2004 rented it out for a while when the economy went bad in 2008 or so, and then the current owners picked up the place. As we stood in the back yard, he asked me, “Are you the one who kept all those detailed notes? About when things were bought and where things came from?”

I laughed. “No,” I said, “That was my dad. I hope they’ve been handy.”

“Oh, yeah,” he said as we headed toward the house. He told us his wife – a nurse who works odd hours – was sleeping upstairs with the baby, so we couldn’t go up there, and he and their two other children led us into their home.

I showed him how the small mud room and the small pantry had been combined into a back porch when my folks remodeled the kitchen in 1960 or so, and he nodded. He asked if the linoleum – a pattern of blue and gold snowflakes on a flecked gold and white background – came from that time. I said yes, and the little girl told me, “Mom and Dad don’t really like it.”

I laughed. “It’s old-fashioned,” I said.

He asked about the woodwork, and I told him that when we moved in back in 1957, it had all been dark like the woodwork upstairs, that it was my folks who removed the varnish and dark stain from the wood downstairs and on the stairway. He led us down the hall and into the living room, where the floors were now bare, with the beautiful light wood showing. Someone else took up the carpet from the floors, he said, but he’d taken it off the steps, revealing that wood for the first time in nearly fifty years. He asked if there’d ever been a wood stove in the dining room, given that there’s an indentation near the corner where the chimney runs. I said we’d never had one there, but it was likely that there’d been one there when the house was built in 1917.

And then I stood at my piano. Given that the lady of the house was sleeping upstairs, I didn’t think about playing it, but I caressed its keys and the name of the manufacturer – Wegman – still clearly inscribed just above the keyboard. I looked at the little girl. When we’d been in the back yard, her dad had told me she played the piano. She was looking up at me, and I asked her, “Do you play every day?” She nodded. I leaned over and tousled her hair and then told her, “Play it well.” She smiled and nodded again.

I asked if I could see the basement, and the Texas Gal whispered “We should go.”

The man said, “No, this is wonderful. It’s kind of like one of those TV shows.”

So I headed down the basement stairs, and as I neared the spot where the low ceiling can clonk the unwary, the girl told me “Watch your head!” Her dad chuckled and said, “He’s walked down these stairs many times, honey.” He asked about the fruit cellar, and I told him it had been here when we moved in but that Dad had built the shelves. “Then he must have built the shelves in storage room on the other side of the basement,” he said.

Yes, I said, telling him that the further storage room had been a water cistern and that my folks had hired a man with a jackhammer to break through the basement wall into the cistern and then made another storage room. “We love it,” he said, and he began rummaging in a box on the cistern shelves. “And we love the fact that your dad kept bits and pieces here of what he’d done.” And he showed me a box with some leftover paneling pieces from when Dad built the basement rec room in 1968.

He opened a drawer in the laundry cabinet and pulled out a sheaf of owner’s manuals and warranty papers, evidence of the purchase of the washer, the dryer, the cabinets and more, many of them dated in either Mom’s handwriting or Dad’s. And then he pointed into the basement rafters, nudging with his index finger a curtain rod with a tag with Dad’s handwriting on it. The tag said the rod came from the living room window when new window treatments were installed in 1991.

“This is where I found the quarter-round for the living room, the dining room and the stairs,” he said, pointing at the basement rafters where the quarter-round had lain since 1960 or so. “It was all stored up here and all marked, so once I found it, it was easy to put back in place. I bless that man for taking such good care of this place for so many years.”

I nodded, and we headed back upstairs and toward the back door. By the time we got to the door, I could talk again, and we thanked the man for letting us into his home. We’d told him where we lived, and we said that he and his family should stop in if they should ever happen to see us outside. We walked across that familiar back yard to the driveway and down to the car, and as we drove off, I smiled, delighted that the house still has people living in it who love it, respect it and take care of it.

And although the meaning of the song isn’t quite the same as what I felt yesterday, I found myself drawn this morning into “The House Song” by Peter, Paul & Mary. It’s on Album 1700 from 1967, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

What Was That Song?

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

While I was writing earlier this week about spending Sunday evening at a Peter Yarrow performance (and sing-along), one of the songs Yarrow offered was running through my head. But since I wasn’t sure what it was, I didn’t mention it in the post.

Nor did I mention one of the nicer things about the show. During a twenty-minute intermission, Yarrow took song requests from members of the audience. He said as the first half of the show ended that he wouldn’t be able to perform them all, but with only a few exceptions, the second half of the show would be all requests. (The exceptions he mentioned were “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “If I Had A Hammer” and “Blowin’ In The Wind,” and I thought, “Yeah, like no one would request any of those . . .”)

Anyway, as he left the stage, I talked with him briefly and made my request. A while back, while looking for a CD of Yarrow’s 1972 solo album, Peter, I came across the last track from the album, and “Tall Pine Trees” was, for a few days, playing pretty regularly in the Echoes In The Wind studios. He nodded and smiled and said he’d see what he could do.

Twenty minutes later, as the second half of the show began, Yarrow held up a sheet of typing paper covered with scrawled titles and began to share the list of requests. “Well, for the first time ever, someone requested ‘Tall Pine Trees’,” he said. “And someone mentioned ‘Too Much Of Nothing’, and that one almost never gets requested.” He shook his head in mock bafflement, and the audience laughed.

As I expected, he did not perform “Tall Pine Trees,” but midway through the second portion of the show, he looked at the list of requests and said, “Let’s do ‘Too Much Of Nothing’, but let’s combine it with something else.” And he took off into a song that I knew I’d heard but that I couldn’t place, and after that song’s chorus came up – “Line of least resistance, lead me on” – he (and his son) would toss in the chorus of “Too Much Of Nothing.” It was a great combination, but the source of that vaguely familiar first part of the medley puzzled me.

Still puzzled Tuesday morning after writing that day’s post, I began to dig, and I soon learned that Yarrow and folksinger Chris Chandler had recorded a track titled “Isn’t That So/Too Much Of Nothing/Whoop” for Chandler’s 1999 album, Collaborations. I listened to an excerpt of the track and nodded in recognition. I didn’t care for Chandler’s (I’m assuming) spoken wisecracks during the track, so I didn’t buy it. But now I had a title for that vaguely familiar song. So I searched my own collection, and I found “Isn’t That So” as the first track of Jesse Winchester’s 1972 album, Third Down, 110 To Go.

If I were a tech wizard, I’d combine that track with the choruses from Peter, Paul & Mary’s 1968 take on “Too Much Of Nothing” from their Late Again album. That’s not going to happen, but here’s “Too Much Of Nothing”

And finally, yesterday I found a listing at Amazon for a box set of Peter, Paul & Mary’s 1972 solo recordings – Peter, Paul & and Mary – but I’m not ready to shell out sixty bucks for a used copy. I imagine that sometime soon, I’ll buy the three albums as mp3 downloads (the price is much more reasonable). But until then, I do have the closer to Yarrow’s album, the Russian-influenced “Tall Pine Trees.”

Dragons (And Music) Live Forever

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

“If you ask me who I am,” mused Peter Yarrow for a moment Sunday evening, “well . . .” And he paused as he looked out at the audience in St. Cloud’s Pioneer Place. “As I always have been, I’m the one who carries forward the tradition of Peter, Paul & Mary.”

And then, with his son Christopher playing a wash-tub bass and supplying vocal harmony, he launched himself into another song recorded by Peter, Paul & Mary. It might have been “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” or “Lemon Tree.” It could have been “All My Trials” or “Jesus Met The Woman.” It could have been the final pair of the evening: “If I Had A Hammer” and “Blowin’ In The Wind.”

I don’t remember which tune it was that followed Yarrow’s statement. I wasn’t taking notes. Rather, I was sitting in the front row, flanked by my mother and the Texas Gal. We were just to the right of center stage, as close as I’ve ever been for a performance by a legend. I watched Yarrow’s left hand play with his picks as he talked between songs. I saw his eyes get a little misty as he talked about his family – many of whom live in Willmar, Minnesota, about sixty miles away (and many of whom, along with other friends from the Central Minnesota city, were at the performance). I saw the slight tremors in his seventy-three-year-old legs as he moved to sit on a stool instead of stand several times during the performance.

But mostly, I just watched and listened as a giant of folk music worked the room and turned what I expected to be a concert into a three-hour sing-along. From the opening tune, “Music Speaks Louder Than Words” through the two closing songs mentioned above, Yarrow encouraged the two hundred or so folks at Pioneer Place to join in.

After all, he said, as he introduced his second tune – “Leaving On A Jet Plane,” performed in memory of his long-time friend and partner, Mary Travers, who passed on in 2009 – “You’ll sing along anyway, or at least mouth the words, so you may as well sing.” And sing we did, sometimes pretty confidently – as on the medley of “This Little Light Of Mine,” “Down By The Riverside” and “This Land Is Your Land” – and sometimes a little more tentatively, as in the case of “Stewball” and “Have You Been To Jail For Justice?”

And sometimes, we just listened, as we did when Yarrow sang the potent anti-war song he and Travers wrote, “The Great Mandala.”

Yarrow remains unabashedly liberal and spoke a few times about the causes he supports. He mentioned his marching at Selma, Alabama, during the early 1960s civil rights movement and the performance of Peter, Paul & Mary at the 1963 rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech. Yarrow noted that he and his children – Christopher and Bethany – have visited and performed at several of the Occupy sites in the past year. And he told us about his current project, Operation Respect, an educational program aimed at “creating compassionate, safe and respectful environments.” The theme song for Operation Respect is “Don’t Laugh At Me,” a song that first showed up on PP&M’s final studio album, 2003’s In These Times.

When Yarrow introduced the tune Sunday evening, he said, “You’ll all know some of the people in this song. You might have been some of them. And some of you will weep.” He was right. And the performance – during which, of course, we sang along on the chorus – earned Yarrow a mid-concert standing ovation.

I’ve listened to Yarrow’s music – the massive catalog of PP&M and his own, more slender catalog – for years, but I’ve never dug very deeply into the history and lore of the group and its three members, so I was intrigued to learn Sunday evening that Yarrow’s wife, Mary Beth, was the niece of the late U.S. Senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy. The two met during McCarthy’s 1968 campaign for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. And I was even more intrigued when Yarrow told us that not only was Noel Paul Stookey – “Paul” of PP&M – Yarrow’s best man when he and Mary Beth were married but that Stookey sang during the ceremony a song written specifically for the wedding.

It took a lot of talking, Yarrow said, to persuade Stookey to record and release “The Wedding Song (There Is Love),” which turned out to be a No. 24 hit and was, Yarrow said, the No. 1 sheet music seller for ten years. And as Yarrow then sang “The Wedding Song (There Is Love),” the rest of us joined in on the choruses.

Yarrow’s most famous song is likely “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Addressing the myth of the song’s reference to drugs, Yarrow told us Sunday evening that he and co-writer Leonard Lipton never had any thought besides writing a song about the loss of childhood. And he called up to the stage the younger folks in the audience – which meant, Sunday evening, those under thirty-five – and those folks (many of whom, I presume, were friends and family from Willmar) helped Yarrow and the rest of us sing that great song.

As he led us through the song, there were a few changes: The line “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys” is now “A dragon lives forever, but not so little girls and boys.” And the final chorus is now sung in present tense: “Puff the magic dragon lives by the sea and frolics in the autumn mist in a land called Hona-Lee.”

Puff lives forever. So will Yarrow’s music.

(Here’s a similar performance of “Puff the Magic Dragon” from Fairfield, Connecticut in 2007.)

Revised slightly after first posting.

Frozen Dinners Were A Treat

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

It was later than usual when the Texas Gal got home from work a couple of days ago. She said she’d had the day from hell and just wanted to sit in her chair and work on a quilt. I was not in great shape myself: I’d spent some of that afternoon shoveling snow from the walk and the driveway and kind of wanted to just sit myself. And the early darkness of the autumn afternoon didn’t help.

So we abandoned the minimal plans we’d had for dinner and popped two frozen dinners into the oven. Hers was chicken-fried steak, and mine was a chopped beef steak topped by some kind of southwestern sauce. And the two dinners did what they were supposed to do: fed us well enough and saved us time and effort. That’s why we keep a few in the freezer.

And as we ate, I was reminded of a time when having a frozen dinner was a real treat. Most nights when I was a kid, we ate as a family, all four of us at the kitchen table. About once a month, Dad would attend a dinner meeting of an educational fraternity, and there would be just three at the table. And every once in a while, Mom and Dad would have a dinner engagement somewhere – usually something connected with St. Cloud State – and dinner would be my sister and me.

During the early years, of course, that meant a babysitter would stay with us for the evening and get us through the evening meal. But as we got a little older – starting maybe around 1964 when I turned eleven and my sister turned fourteen – we got to stay home by ourselves and cook ourselves frozen dinners.

Folks who lived through the 1950s and the early 1960s will remember that Swanson, the most prevalent brand of frozen dinner, marketed its meals as TV Dinners, a name dating to 1952 when television was relatively new and the thought of a family huddled around a small screen eating convenient frozen dinners was, well, revolutionary in its way. By 1962, the television revolution was over – TV won – and Swanson, says Wikipedia, dropped the “TV Dinner” label. (Although the name lives on still today in common usage in our home and, I’m sure, elsewhere.) And on those evenings when Mom and Dad would be gone and my sister and I were home alone for a brief time, those frozen dinners were different enough to seem almost exotic, and I always chose my menu for those evenings carefully.

I liked the haddock, either breaded or in cream sauce, and I think there was a fried shrimp dinner. (The fried chicken, which seemed popular from what I saw in the freezer down at Carl’s Market, never thrilled me much.) I liked the Salisbury steak. And later on, in what I think was the late 1960s, Swanson began experimenting and came up with a Mexican meal I liked. But my favorite frozen dinner wasn’t a Swanson meal. I don’t recall the brand – its logo had, I think, a red flag – but it was a seafood platter: It brought me shrimp, scallops, a small fish filet and a crab cake, flanked by what were essentially hash brown patties or maybe tater tots.

Now, I’d certainly had shrimp and scallops in restaurants by the time I was, say, twelve, and I knew that the seafood in that frozen seafood platter didn’t compare to fresh seafood. But if I were going to be eating a frozen dinner at home, that platter was about as good as a Sixties kid could do.

As I think about these things, it seems to me that frozen dinner nights with my folks out somewhere were more prevalent during the late fall and early winter than at any other time of the year. That makes sense: That’s the season of holiday gatherings for the church, civic and educational organizations to which my parents belonged. So earlier this week, the darkness of an early evening in late autumn and a frozen dinner on a TV tray pushed me back to those dinners forty-some years ago. And that was a convenient hook on which to hang a look at a record chart.

I have no idea, of course, if I was dining on a seafood platter forty-three years ago this evening, but I certainly could have been. I was fourteen, my sister was seventeen, and if mom and dad were out for dinner, we almost certainly would be sitting in the kitchen with the oven on, listening to the rhythmic sound of the timer as it ticked its way toward our dinnertime.

If that were the case on December 2, 1967, we probably had the radio in the kitchen tuned to KDWB. And we would likely have heard some of the Top Ten from the list released that day:

“Daydream Believer” by the Monkees
“The Rain, The Park and Other Things” by the Cowsills
“Incense and Peppermints” by the Strawberry Alarm Clock
“To Sir With Love” by Lulu
“I Say A Little Prayer” by Dionne Warwick
“Please Love Me Forever” by Bobby Vinton
“Soul Man” by Sam & Dave
“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Gladys Knight & The Pips
“I Can See For Miles” by the Who
“An Open Letter To My Teenage Son” by Victor Lundberg

Eight of those are pretty damned good, and one of them – “Incense and Peppermints” – is among my all-time favorites. I do not recall the Bobby Vinton tune at all (having checked it out this morning at YouTube). And then there’s the single at No. 10.

“An Open Letter To My Teenage Son” by Victor Lundberg was a response to the very real gap between generations that was getting increasingly wider by late 1967. A spoken-word record (written by Lundberg as well) that touched on long hair, hippies, religion, patriotism and the draft, the record ends with Lundberg telling his son – according to Wikipedia, he did have at least one teenage son living at home at the time – that if he burns his draft card, he can also burn his birth certificate as well, because “From that moment on, I have no son.”

The record obviously rang true with a lot of folks, as it stayed at No. 10 for two weeks. It also inspired some answer records, including “A Letter to Dad” by Every Father’s Teenage Son, which was sitting at No. 97 during that first week of December 1967. I’m not going to embed the Lundberg single here, but here’s a link to the YouTube page. I haven’t looked real hard for “A Letter To Dad,” but here’s a link to the lyrics. Now, let’s dig a little deeper into the Billboard Hot 100 released on a day when I might have had a seafood platter for dinner.

At No. 49, we find an instrumental cover of the week’s No. 7 song, “Soul Man.” Ramsey Lewis – credited either by himself or as the Ramsey Lewis Trio – reached the Top 40 twice each in 1965 and 1966, with the best performing single being the first, “The ‘In’ Crowd,” which went to No. 5 in the early autumn of 1965. Lewis’ “Soul Man” would go no higher than No. 49.

In August and September of 1967, Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” had spent four weeks at No. 1. Now, in December, her “Okolona River Bottom Band” was at No. 59 in its second week in the Hot 100 and rising toward its eventual peak of No. 54. Gentry wouldn’t reach the Top Ten again, although two duets with Glen Campbell and her own “Fancy” would reach the Top 40 in 1969 and 1970.

I was surprised as I scanned the Hot 100 from that first week of December 1967 to see a listing of “Too Much of Nothing” by Peter, Paul & Mary. The record was at No. 62 and would eventually peak at No. 35, but I don’t recall ever hearing it. Written by Bob Dylan and originally recorded during the then-unreleased (but much bootlegged) Basement Tapes sessions, the version by Dylan and The Band showed up in 1975 when The Basement Tapes album was released. I couldn’t find the studio version of the PP&M version of “Too Much of Nothing” at YouTube, but I did find a performance by the trio on the March 23, 1969, episode of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour

At No. 80, we find a tune called “Sockin’ 1, 2, 3, 4” by a performer named John Roberts. The record – which I like quite a bit – uses the phrase “Sock it to me!” as a hook. Interestingly enough, the record predates the television show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, which I always thought had been where the phrase originated. (The show first went on the air, says Wikipedia, in January 1968.) And there’s little about John Roberts out there to tell any more of the tale. The website Soulbot.com says that Roberts was a former school teacher and that the record went to No. 19 on the R&B chart. I’ve seen the record mentioned as a Northern Soul hit in the United Kingdom, and Soulbot.com notes that “Sockin’ 1, 2, 3, 4” was popular at the Blue Note and the Twisted Wheel, two clubs in Manchester, England. All I know is that the record peaked two weeks later at No. 71, spent two weeks there and then fell off the chart.

Lou Donaldson is a prolific and well-known jazz saxophone player, with numerous albums reaching the Billboard 200 and the jazz and R&B charts. And that only proves how much I have left to learn, as I’d never heard of the man. But it was forty years ago this week that his only Hot 100 hit, “Alligator Boogaloo,” stood for a second week at No. 93 after Bubbling Under for five weeks. A week later, the record was gone from the chart.

I have no idea why, but the duets between Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood fascinate me. From “Summer Wine, “Some Velvet Morning” and “Jackson” through the entire album Nancy & Lee, I hear something that I’m not sure I can explain, but it’s a sound that I find compelling. Whatever it is I hear, it’s there again in “Sand,” which during this week in 1967, was Bubbling Under at No. 110. A week later, it was gone.

Jerry’s Tiny Record Collection

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

I found him in my stocking on Christmas morning in 1961, if I recall correctly. He was one of those little plastic trolls that became a major fad a couple of times in the years since, those little Scandinavian trolls that are so ugly they’re cute. I actually think the troll I found at the bottom of my Christmas stocking was one of the first on the market because he was different from the ones that came later: Jerry – and I have no idea why I called him that; it was an eight-year-old’s decision – was made of smooth shiny plastic, not with the matte finish that I’ve seen on every plastic troll since, and his eyes were colored black on the plastic surface, not made from glass beads.

Jerry came from Denmark. He even came with a passport that said so. Jerry’s passport said he was manufactured by the company founded in northern Jutland by Thomas Dam and carried the legend “Another Dam thing from Denmark.” I giggled at the faux profanity.

I imagine that I had some idea of where Denmark was when I was eight. I’m sure I knew it was one of the Scandinavian countries, as my half-Swedish heritage and things Swedish were important in our home. I probably recognized the design of the cover of Jerry’s passport: a white cross on a red field, modeled after the Danish flag just as the Swedish flag is a yellow cross on a blue field.

Anyway, I had a Danish troll. During the early times, he was pulled into the games my sister and I played. He became the very much larger brother in our family of small dolls and figures, whose adventures occupied us for hundreds of rainy and chilly days. (One of that tiny family’s favorite pastimes, I recall, was watching the fictional show Sea Urchin on a television screen drawn crudely on a small piece of wood.) And the rest of the time, when he was not cavorting with Elfy, Billy and the rest of his plastic family, Jerry sat on my desk through my childhood, my adolescence and onward.

When I went to Denmark for my junior year of college, he went with me. How could he not? It was his homeland. Most of the time there, he sat on my desks at my Danish family’s house and in my room at the youth hostel. But when I traveled, he did too, nestled inside my shaving kit. (Though I didn’t shave for most of that time, that’s what I called the little case anyway.) And for at least a moment or two at every place I stopped or stayed, from London to Moscow, from Rome to Narvik, I pulled Jerry out of the kit and let him look around.

As I write, he’s standing on the turntable cover to my left, positioned between the earpieces of my headphones, with the same impish grin and huge ears he’s always had, spreading his plastic arms wide to embrace the world, as he’s always done. (I wish I had a picture to share, but the only slide I ever took of Jerry was plagued by an eight-year-old’s photographic inexperience, and the digital camera is not available as I write. Additionally, every on-line picture I find is of later trolls with matte skin and glass eyes; I think Jerry may be the last of his kind.)

So what makes Jerry matter in this venue? Beyond the fact that he’s been my tiny companion for nearly fifty years, there’s also the fact that in the 1960s, Jerry had one hell of a record collection. Soon after I got him, I made a small house for him out of a cardboard box and set about furnishing it. A small weaving I did in school became his carpet. I found boxes that could work as cabinets, and he kept his valuables in Dad’s discarded metal canisters that had held Kodak film. And I – excuse me – jerry-rigged other things to provide him a good home.

Along the way, I found a magazine ad for one of the record clubs. Older readers will remember the ads: They were on heavy paper and showed the front covers – in graphics that were about a half-inch square – of maybe two hundred LPs. Those covers were partially die-cut so they could be punched out and glued to one’s membership application to indicate which records you wanted as your first gleanings from the record club.

And when I found one of those ads during the time I was furnishing Jerry’s home, I punched out a bunch of those little album covers and placed them in Jerry’s shoebox. He had a record collection! So what did he listen to? I don’t recall all of it, but I know there were a couple of Frank Sinatra albums, one or two records by Stan Getz, a few soundtracks – the red cover to West Side Story sticks in my mind here – and probably some other light jazz and vocal pop. This would have been around 1962, remember, when Peter, Paul & Mary and Ray Charles’ country albums would have been the edgiest things to top the charts.

So, using for the most part the list of Top Five albums from October 20, 1962, here is a six-pack of records that Jerry might have listened to in his shoebox in the autumn of that year:

“500 Miles” by Peter, Paul & Mary. This was a track on the trio’s self-titled debut album, which was No. 1 in the October 20, 1962, chart and stayed there for seven weeks. The album provided the trio with two Top 40 singles: “Lemon Tree” went to No. 35 in early June of 1962, and “If I Had A Hammer (The Hammer Song)” went to No. 10 that autumn.

“Desafinado” by Stan Getz & Charlie Byrd from Jazz Samba. This album wasn’t in the Top Five as of October 20, 1962, but it could not have been far away. (With a little bit more digging and a little luck, I learned that the album was at No. 9 that week.) By the time the No. 1 album changed on December 1 (with Peter, Paul & Mary yielding to Allan Sherman and his My Son, The Folksinger), the Getz/Byrd album was No. 5. It spent forty-four weeks in the Top 40 and was No. 1 for one week in March of 1963. As for “Desafinado,” the single spent ten weeks in the Top 40, beginning at the end of October 1962, and peaked at No. 15.

“You Don’t Know Me” by Ray Charles. Pulled from Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, “You Don’t Know Me” was at No. 2 for one week in September 1962 and spent three weeks atop the Adult Contemporary chart. The Modern Sounds album – the first of two such albums Charles would record – was No. 1 for fourteen weeks during the summer and autumn of 1962 and was at No. 3 in the October 20, 1962, chart I’m using. It had been the source in the spring of 1962 for “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” which went to No. 1 in the Top 40 (five weeks), the R&B chart (ten weeks) and the Adult Contemporary chart (five weeks).

“Tonight” from the soundtrack to the film West Side Story. Probably the most famous song from the musical created by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, “Tonight” is most likely my favorite song from a Broadway musical or resulting film (and by extension, Jerry’s favorite as well). I don’t see any singles in the Top 40 from the film, but the soundtrack went to No. 1 in May of 1962 and was No. 1 for an incredible fifty-four non-consecutive weeks. On October 20, 1962, it was at No. 2.

“Ramblin’ Rose” by Nat King Cole. Taken from the album of the same name, “Ramblin’ Rose” spent thirteen weeks in the Top 40 and peaked at No. 2 in September of 1962. The album – at No. 5 on October 20, 1962 – spent fifty-three weeks in the Top 40 beginning in late September 1962 and peaked at No. 3.

“Ya Got Trouble” from the soundtrack to the film The Music Man. While “Ya Got Trouble” wasn’t a hit single – The Music Man threw off no Top 40 hits – it was nevertheless a brilliant performance, with Robert Preston’s savvy traveling con man creating a problem where none existed. And lots of folks heard it at home, as the soundtrack album was in the Top 40 for thirty-five weeks beginning in August 1962 and peaked at No. 2, staying there for six weeks. It was at No. 4 on the chart of October 20, 1962.

I made a reference to Klezmer music when I wrote about last week’s Saturday Single. I’ll be doing so again two days from now.

Just Too Early

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

The Texas Gal doesn’t have to travel often for her job, a fact that she and I both appreciate. But every once in a while, there’s no way around it. So it was this morning, as she and a few co-workers headed for Chicago. Their flight was set to leave the Twin Cities at seven o’clock, and security concerns require passengers to be at the airport an hour before the flight.

So for the past few days, the Texas Gal and her co-workers were counting hours back from six in the morning to set the schedule. They decided to meet this morning at half past four at a truck stop parking lot located near Interstate 94, their route to the Twin Cities. Thus, our alarm went off at a little past three o’clock this morning. The Texas Gal did her last bits of packing, and we got her bags into the car and headed out for the small town of Clearwater twelve miles away, where the truck stop overlooks the highway.

I’m not much of a morning person. (Neither, for that matter, is the Texas Gal.) If I had my druthers, I’d likely sleep until noon and be active each night into the wee hours. But even as a house-husband, that’s not practical. And during the years I was in the workforce, my presence was required on my various jobs at a relatively early hour. So when I was working, I trained myself to get to bed earlier and get up earlier. During my newspapering days, I was frequently the first one into the office, and I learned that I could get a lot of routine work done during those early hours.

And that remains true even when the work I do is my own. I tend to write my posts for this blog in the early hours, generally finishing before ten o’clock and almost always before noon.

But I’m still not much of a morning person. Especially today. I think as soon as I get this posted, I’ll grab a nibble and get some rest. Sometimes early is just too early.

A Six-Pack of Early
“Early In The Morning” by Buddy Holly, Coral 62006 [1958]
“Early In The Morning” by Vanity Fare, Page One 21027 [1969]
“Early Morning Rain” by Peter, Paul & Mary from See What Tomorrow Brings [1965]
“Early In The Morning” by The Cuff Links from Tracy [1969]
“Early Morning Riser” by Pure Prairie League from Bustin’ Out [1972]
“Early In The Morning” by Corey Harris from Between Midnight & Day [1995]

Buddy Holly’s “Early In The Morning” was written by Bobby Darin and recorded with backing vocals from – according to the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits – the Helen Way Singers, a group that did lots of session work during the late 1950s, based on a quick Google search. The record went to No. 32 on one of the various charts kept during the late 1950s and to No. 45 on another. It was Holly’s last Top 40 hit before his death: In early 1959, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” entered the Top 40 on March 9, a little more than a month after Holly’s death.

Vanity Fare was a British pop group that, quite frankly, always puts me in mind of the groups that Tony Burrows was involved with: White Plains, Edison Lighthouse, the Brotherhood of Man and so on. But the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits lists five other names and no Burrows as members. “Early In The Morning” was a pleasant little ditty and went to No. 12 during a nine-week stay in the Top 40 as 1969 ended and 1970 began. Vanity Fare’s better-known hit, “Hitchin’ A Ride,” went to No. 5 during the spring of 1970.

“Early Morning Rain” is a durable Gordon Lightfoot tune that first showed up – as far as I can tell – as the title tune for an Ian & Sylvia LP in 1965. The composer’s own version shows up on Lightfoot! in 1966. By that time, the song had been covered by numerous folk artists and a few others, too, and over the more than forty years since then, the song has continued to attract musicians: Paul Weller included it on his 2005 album of covers, Studio 150. Peter, Paul & Mary covered the song on their 1965 album See What Tomorrow Brings. Here’s a video of a performance on the BBC that was most likely recorded around that time:

If there was an American equivalent of Tony Burrows, one of the nominees has to be Ron Dante, who was the voice of the Archies and of the Cuff Links in 1969 (and had previously sung as the Detergents on the spoof hit “Leader of the Laundromat”).  “Tracy” was the hit for the Cuff Links, reaching No. 9 during late 1969. One of the bits of filler on the Tracy album was “Early In The Morning,” which wasn’t a bad piece, as those things go.

Being an early morning rise sounds more appealing when Pure Prairie League is singing about it. The song was an album track on the group’s second album, Bustin’ Out, which remains one of the great country-rock albums. The hit on the album – though it took a few years for RCA to release it as a single – was “Amie,” which went to No. 27 in early 1975.

 Corey Harris, says All-Music Guide, “has earned substantial critical acclaim as one of the few contemporary bluesmen able to channel the raw, direct emotion of acoustic Delta blues without coming off as an authenticity-obsessed historian. Although he is well versed in the early history of blues guitar, he’s no well-mannered preservationist, mixing a considerable variety of influences — from New Orleans to the Caribbean to Africa — into his richly expressive music. In doing so, he’s managed to appeal to a wide spectrum of blues fans, from staunch traditionalists to more contemporary sensibilities.” I first came across Harris through his performance of “Walkin’ Blues” on the 2000 release, Dealin’ With The Devil – Songs Of Robert Johnson. Since then, I’ve only heard a few other things from Harris, but I’ve liked what I’ve heard. “Early In The Morning” is from his 1995 debut album.

— whiteray