Well, this will be brief. We’re off for some tasks and errands this morning, with a few chores to keep me busy before that. And I don’t have any more to say about the season.
So here’s Sandy Denny’s “Late November,” a impressionistic and harrowing tune from her 1971 album The North Star Grassman And The Ravens. It’s today’s Saturday Single.
The wine it was drunk, the ship it was sunk
The shot it was dead, all the sorrows were drowned
The birds they were clouds, the brides and the shrouds
And as we drew south, the mist it came down
The wooded ravine to the wandering stream
The serpent he moved, but no-one would say
The depths of the waters, the bridge which distraught us
And brought to me thoughts of the ill-fated day
The temples were filled with the strangest of creatures
One played it by ear on the banks of the sea
That one was found but the others, they went under
Oh, the tears which are shed, they won’t come from me
The methods of madness, the pathos and the sadness
God help you all, the insane and wise
The black and the white, and the darkness of the night
I see only smoke from the chimneys arise
I’ve been pondering the song – written by folkie Tom Paxton and first released on his 1964 album, Ramblin’ Boy – for a couple of days, and I’ve come to only one thought about it: Despite some references to modern life – like subways – it has to me the feel of one of those songs that’s always existed, a song that’s evolved and come down through the years, loved and passed on from one generation to another.
Here’s Paxton performing the song live in England in 1966:
From the time Paxton wrote the song, it’s been covered regularly (and in several different styles). According to the generally reliable site Second Hand Songs, the first cover was in 1964 by American singer Julie Felix, who was far more popular in the mid-1960s in England than here, and the most recent cover came last year from Tim Grimm, an Indiana musician who recorded the song for an album of covers titled Thank You Tom Paxton. From 1964 to 2011, Second Hand Songs counts forty-nine covers of the Paxton tune. (As I said above, the site is generally pretty reliable, but I know of one cover that was overlooked: The Dubliners, an Irish folk band, released their rather ordinary recording of the song on a 2002 compilation titled 40 Years; some mild digging has not yet revealed when that version was originally recorded.)
I’ve been able to track down quite a few versions of the tune. Among the earliest are those from the Vejtables (the California band I featured two days ago) and the soul/gospel duo Joe & Eddie, both from 1965.
The Vejtables’ version bubbled under the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 117, and a year later, a version by a folk quintet called the Womenfolk went to No. 105. The only version of the tune to actually make it into the Hot 100 was a limp rendition by Neil Diamond, which went to No. 53 in 1971. And in 1968, the duo of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton took the song to No. 7 on the country chart, making “The Last Thing On My Mind” the first of many charting hits for that long-lasting partnership.
British folk singer Sandy Denny recorded the song for a 1967 album featuring solo performances by her and by Johnny Silvo; the track was re-released in 1970 on Sandy Denny, a collection of Denny’s early solo work. I found the track that I used for the linked video on a German version of that 1970 album, and I thought it was worth hearing simply for the beauty of Denny’s voice, even though the backing track seems intrusive.
One cover that seems familiar, though it got no Top 40 radio play, comes from the Seekers, found on their 1966 album Comes the Day. I suppose I might have heard it on an MOR station or two during the mid-1960s, but All-Music Guide does not list it among the group’s Adult Contemporary hits. So I have no idea where I heard the Seekers’ version long ago, but I think I did.
Not everyone who covered the song approached it as a folk song. The British group the Move turned Paxton’s tune into a trippy seven-minute opus on its 1970 album, Shazam.
As for my favorite versions of the tune, I like the Seekers’ version a lot, and the same goes for the Womenfolk’s take on the tune. And Rick Danko, Jonas Fjeld and Eric Andersen, recording as Danko/Fjeld/Andersen, did a nice version of the song – with Andersen taking the lead vocal – on their self-titled 1991 album.
But my list of favorites is going to have to make room for a new version of Paxton’s song. Judy Collins – who recorded the song on her live 1964 album, The Judy Collins Concert – revisited the song in 2010 for her Paradise album, bringing Stephen Stills into the studio to give her a hand.