by Robert Seoane
 
JULIA LENNON AND MARY McCARTNEY – BOBBY FREEMAN – JOHNNY OTIS – THE ELEGANTS – DOMENICO MODUGNO – FOLK MUSIC – LEAD BELLY – WOODY GUTHRIE – THE ALMANAC SINGERS – THE WEAVERS – THE KINGSTON TRIO

JULIA LENNON

The life of The Beatles has been blessed with incredible highs but also beset with life-altering tragedies. Like great stories in the lives of people known to millions, it seems that these tragedies were ultimately a destiny leading to a greater event. In the case of John Lennon, each soul shaking moment he endured hardened his personality and influenced his art. In the eyes of the public and ardent fans, it reads like a Shakespearean tragedy embedded with incredible beauty.

“Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you, Julia” Julia – The Beatles from The White Album (1968)

Julia was leaving her sister Mimi’s home on the evening of July 15, 1958. She was to cross the street to the bus stop and wait for the bus home, where her boyfriend and son John waited for her.

A friend of Julia’s son, Nigel Whatley, happened by as Julia exited her sister’s house.

“I went to call for John that evening but his Aunt Mimi told me he was out. Mimi was at the gate with John’s mum, who was about to leave. We stood chatting and John’s mum said ‘Well, you have the privilege of escorting me to the bus stop!’ I said ‘That will do me fine.” –Nigel Watley

******

Julia Stanley Lennon had John on October 9, 1940. John’s father, Alfred Lennon, was a very witty and charming man who knew how to play banjo, as did Julia. Alfred Lennon married Julia Stanley in 1938 but soon enlisted and left for adventure in World War II. While he was away, Julia found a lover, Taffy Williams, and became pregnant with his baby Ingrid in 1945. The baby was soon sent up for adoption to a Norwegian family who cared for her ever since. John had one other baby sister born in 1947, Julia Dykins, from Julia’s second husband, John “Bobby” Albert Dykins, although they weren’t legally married.

Julia and her sister Mary Elizabeth “Mimi” Smith were polar opposites. Where Julia was a candle in the wind, Mimi was a woman who had a distinct opinion on social etiquette.

“She had a very strong sense of what was right or wrong.” –Pete Shotton of The Quarrymen on John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi

Mimi married in 1938 to George Smith but they never had a child. When Julia became pregnant in 1940 to John, Mimi knew that her sister’s lifestyle wasn’t fit for raising a baby. In 1946, she contacted Liverpool’s Social Services to complain about the fact that she was living with yet another man and sharing her bed with him and her son John nightly. After some convincing, Julia agreed to hand over her only son to her sister Mimi so that he would grow up in a more stable home.

Living with Aunt Mimi and Uncle George was indeed a good influence on young John. He was very close to his uncle up until his death in June 1953 at age 50 of a liver hemorrhage. It was 12 year old John’s first brush with loss, but far from his last.

John had been living with Aunt Mimi and Uncle George Smith on Menlove Avenue since he was six years old. The Smiths used to call their home “Mendips”, after a range of limestone hills located in Southwestern England. Yoko Ono purchased, restored and preserved John’s childhood home, then donated it to The National Trust, who has opened it to the public since 2003, restored it to its original look when John Lennon grew up there. Mendips would prove to be John’s refuge and Aunt Mimi was his stalwart, looking after him as he grew up and as he faced many difficult moments during his young life.

Alfred Lennon picked his five year old son up one day in 1945 from Aunt Mimi’s house to spend some time with him. His true intention was to take him away to New Zealand and raise him alone. Mother Julia got wind of this and tracked them down, confronting John’s father just hours after he’d taken him. She found them in a nearby pier, strolling. Little Johnny was holding his dad’s hand, happy as he can be. Julia confronted Alfred in front of the boy, and after much arguing and discussion, it was agreed to leave the decision of who Johnny should live with to the child, as if an innocent five year old can make a decision as important as that.

John’s father asked him if he’d rather go away and live with him or stay with his mother. Alfred Lennon must have conjured up images of fun and adventure, or maybe he just wanted to be with his daddy, because little John eagerly chose him. Leaving Julia crushed and feeling as though she had lost her son twice, first to her sister now to his father, she watched as John walked away holding hands with his dad.

But something made John turn his head to see his dear mother one last time. He must have felt the detachment or perhaps the image of her mother being left alone was too much, because in a moment, he let go of his father’s hand and went running to his mother, panicked at the sudden realization of loss. Reunited with her, Julia had no choice but to leave him back with his Aunt Mimi. It was an agonizing decision for the young woman but she also knew she was incapable of raising a child. Still, she visited him regularly.

John wrote “Mother” in 1970, a song about his abandonment by both his parents, and released it as a single. It was also the opening track off his first solo album “Plastic Ono Band” released months after the Beatles broke up. “Mother” is an achingly poignant composition, sung with real feeling and emotion. The song ends with the John repeatedly calling out for his parents, using Arthur Janov’s “primal scream” technique, where the person is encouraged to release his emotions through gut wrenching screams.


“Mother, you had me but I never had you, I wanted you but you didn’t want me. So I got to tell you goodbye, goodbye… Father you left me but I never left you, I needed you but you didn’t need me, So I just got to tell you goodbye, goodbye… Mama don’t go… Daddy come home…” Mother – John Lennon

One of the distinct songwriting differences between John Lennon and Paul McCartney was Lennon’s openness with writing lyrics reflecting his life. Many of the songs he wrote, “In My Life”, “Help”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Ballad Of John & Yoko” just to name a few, had to do with what was currently going on in his life or recollections from his past. Paul on the other hand, although still relating his lyrics to his own personal life, was more successful in disguising his feelings. McCartney penned songs like “Let It Be”, “I’m Looking Through You”, “Penny Lane”, “For No One” and so many others. They spoke of his past also but subtly, thereby making it less personal but more relatable to everybody else. Paul was not as confessional as his songwriting partner because he has the blood of a showman as well as an artist.

“The guitar’s alright, John. But you’ll never make a living out of it. -Aunt Mimi

Unlike Aunt Mimi, Julia was an ardent supporter of John’s burgeoning musical career. She was the one who had bought him his first guitar, a cheap Gallotone Champion acoustic “guaranteed not to split”. She was the one who dragged Aunt Mimi to St. John’s fete where her son was performing for the first time with his Quarrymen. Julia was thrilled but of course Mimi disapproved.

I was horrified to behold John in front of a microphone (and) as pleased as punch to see him up there.” -Aunt Mimi

Mimi didn’t like Paul McCartney upon meeting him because he came from a lower social class structure than they belonged to, and hated George Harrison because he dressed like a tough teddy boy.

“I was a nice clean-cut suburban boy, and in the class system I was about a half an inch in a higher class than Paul, George and Ringo who lived in subsidized government houses. We owned our own house, had our own garden… They didn’t have anything like that.” –John Lennon

During his early teenage years, Julia encouraged John to play music, teaching him the banjo and teaching him old Liverpudlian folk songs. He soaked it up like a sponge, thrilled to be growing closer to his mother now that he was no longer a child and being able to relate to her musically. One of the songs she taught him was later recorded on The Beatles final release “Let It Be” as a throw away ditty, yet still a sweet nod to his early years.

“Oh, dirty Maggie May, they have taken her away, and she doesn’t walk down Lime Street anymore, oh the judge he guilty found her, robbing the homes around her, that dirty no good, robbin’ Maggie May…” Maggie May – The Beatles, from Let It Be

******

John’s friend Nigel Watley often thought about how things would have been different if only he had walked Julia across the street to the bus stop. Maybe he would have noticed the oncoming car, grabbed her elbow and got her to slow down.

“We walked down Menlove Avenue and I turned off to go up Vale Road where I lived. I must have been fifteen yards up the road when I heard a car skidding. I turned around to see John’s mum going thru the air.” – Nigel Watley

She was killed instantly. The driver of the car that hit her was 24 year old Eric Clague, a police officer who was off duty and on his way home. He was not charged with excessive speeding, going within the thirty mile an hour speed limit, and he was not inebriated at the time. The conclusion was that 44 year old Julia Lennon, tragically, just didn’t see him.

“Mrs. Lennon just ran straight out in front of me. I just couldn’t avoid her. I was not speeding. I swear it. It was just one of those terrible things that happen.”- Eric Clague

Having been suddenly informed of a commotion by a neighbor, Mimi ran out of her home fearing and confirming the worst. She became hysterical.

“At about 9:45PM, the deceased left my home (in Menlove Avenue) and went in the direction of a bus stop on the opposite side by the Vineries. Shortly afterwards I was informed that she had been injured. I went to the scene. She was unconscious. I went with her to Sefton General Hospital. She was dead upon arrival.” – John Lennon’s aunt and Julia’s sister, Mimi Smith

The death certificate confirmed the cause of death was due to multiple head fractures.

A policeman knocked on Julia Lennon’s front door where her boyfriend and her son, John waited for her return from Mendips.

“It was just like it’s supposed to be, the way it is in the films. Asking if I was her son, and that. Then he told us, and we both went white.” – John Lennon to Beatles biographer Hunter Davies

The death of his mother in such a sudden, cruel manner despite having been an accident, affected John to his core. He became bitter, more rebellious. He concealed a seething anger and released it in spurts through dry, sharp, cutting wit.

“The day the Pope died, he did lots of drawings of him looking really awful. He did one of the Pope standing outside some big pillars outside Heaven, shaking the gates and trying to get in. Underneath it said, ‘But I’m the Pope, I tell you!’.” -Thelma Pickles, John Lennon’s college girlfriend.

Pope Pius XII died the same day as John Lennon’s 18th birthday, October 9th, just under three months after his mother had been killed. That cartoon is an interesting window into how his mind coped with the reminder of death, in this case, of the Christian world’s religious leader. The fact that the Pope died on John’s 18th birthday and on his first birthday without his mother, displays how he used humor to deal with pain. He submerged his feelings and used his developing cynicism to mock what is supposed to be holy in a flippant, comic fashion. It was the conduit for his pain and the essence of what made John a great artist, his ability to deal with reality in a truthful, yet wry manner.

“It was the worst thing that ever happened to me. We’d caught up so much, me and Julia, in just a few years. We could communicate. We got on. She was great. I thought… I’ve no responsibilities to anyone now.” – John Lennon

Like so many of us on this planet, John Lennon did not have a traditional upbringing and endured great heartache. Whether this informed his musical genius is a matter of speculation, but it’s a well-known and accepted truth that art is born from inner pain. The more an artist suffers they say, the greater his art.

His mother’s loss would be somewhat healed with a new, stabilizing female presence that would arrive into his life a few months later. Cynthia Powell, a pretty nineteen year old blonde and a year John’s senior, was to become Mrs. John Lennon four years later and bear John’s first son, Julian, named of course, after John’s dear mother.

“I lost her twice. Once as a five year old when I was moved in with my auntie. And once again, when she actually, physically died. And that was a really hard time for me. It just absolutely made me very, very bitter. The underlying chip on my shoulder that I had as a youth got really big then. Being a teenager and a rock ‘n’ roller and an art student and my mother being killed, just when I was re-establishing a relationship with her… it was very traumatic for me.” –John Lennon, just a few days before his murder.

Julia Lennon’s accidental killer took on a job as a postal employee to supplement his police officer income and delivered mail for years throughout the same neighborhood where he had inadvertently hit Julia Lennon. In 1964, he remembered hearing about Beatlemania like the rest of the Western World, but coming to a sudden shock when he realized his tragic connection to the legend of the Beatles.

“Like everyone else I started reading in the papers about them and they were never off the TV. I read that John Lennon’s mother was dead and that he used to live on Menlove Avenue. I put two and two together and realized that it was his mum that I had killed. Everything came back to me and I felt absolutely terrible. It had the most awful effect on me. The Beatles were everywhere, especially in Liverpool, and I couldn’t get away from it.” -Eric Clague

His route as a postman delivered him daily to his painful penance.

“My postman’s round took in Forthlin Road, where Paul McCartney used to live. At the height of The Beatles’ fame, I used to deliver hundreds of cards and letters to the house. I remember struggling up the path with them . But of course they just reminded me of John Lennon and his mother.” – Eric Clague

John wrote three songs to his mother, “Julia” “Mother” and “My Mummy’s Dead”. They are slow, introspective compositions filled with pain and sadness, made even that much sharper by the deep restraint in which he sang them, except for when he unleashes his emotion at the end of “Mother”.

“My Mummy’s Dead” is John, barely singing a desperately sad, morbidly painful memory of his mother in just a little under a minute, as the final cut of his first solo album, “Plastic Ono Band”. Sounding as if he were singing and playing a toy guitar from the womb, John uses the melody from the nursery rhyme “Three Blind Mice” to repeat words he never could completely accept.

“My mummy’s dead. I can’t get it through my head. Though it’s been so many years, my mummy’s dead. I can’t explain, so much pain. I could never show it. My mummy’s dead.” My Mummy’s Dead – John Lennon

It’s ironic when you think that the loss of Julia to John Lennon has eerie similarities to the loss of John to the world. We also lost him twice. The first time, when he went into retirement to bring up his newborn son Sean in 1975 for five years, not writing or releasing any music or appearing for any interviews. We lost him then for good when he physically died five years later as he was coming out of his self-imposed retirement.

His son Julian underwent a similar childhood as his father’s. Julian also didn’t get to see much of him due to the fact that he was born at the beginning of The Beatles’ fame, so he also lost him twice; the first time to the popularity of The Beatles and then when he died. Julian was also enjoying a new relationship with him, much like his father had been developing with Julia before her untimely death. Most ironically. John was 17 when he lost his mother. Julian was 17 when John was murdered.

John Lennon was murdered at age 40 on December 8th, 1980 in New York City by a deranged killer, less than three months after he released “Double Fantasy”, his new comeback album. Millions of fans welcomed him back. As usual, his confessional lyrics explain his five year absence with a sweetness that parallels the loss of his life in one of his final masterpieces, “Watching The Wheels”.

“I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go ‘round and ‘round, I really love to watch them roll. No longer riding on the merry go round… I just had to let it go…” Watching The Wheels – John Lennon

MARY McCARTNEY

Paul shared a similar pain with his friend and songwriting partner, having lost his own mother, Mary Patricia Mohin McCartney, on October 31, 1956, two years before the death of John’s mother. Mary McCartney was undergoing surgery for a fast spreading breast cancer when she succumbed. His catharsis from that tragic event and what helped him through his profound loss also helped his muse bloom. Paul McCartney wrote his very first song soon after his deep loss, and it was about the death of his mother. As was always McCartney’s style however, and unlike Lennon’s, he disguised the personal aspect of his composition by turning it into what was just a simple break-up love ditty.

“Well, gather ‘round people, let me tell you the story, the very first song I wrote, well, I woke up late this morning, my head was in the whirl, only when I realize, I lost my little girl, oh oh oh oh…” I Lost My Little Girl – Paul McCartney

That wasn’t the only time Paul wrote about his mother. But he would never be as obvious about it as John was so confessional. In one of Paul’s most personal and beautiful songs, he recalls his mother’s wisdom.

“When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.” Let It Be – The Beatles

Paul’s lyrics again disguise his personal connection with the song by allowing the public to perceive the composition as spiritual, invoking the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, when singing “mother Mary”, instead of his own mother, which is what he really meant, thereby opening the song up to more acceptance and understanding to any listener by appealing to them spiritually. As McCartney explained it, the genesis of the song came from a dream he had about his mother.

“I had a dream where my mother, who had been dead at that point about 10 years, came to me in the dream and it was as if she could see I was troubled. And she sort of said to me, she said ‘Let it be’. And I remember quite clearly her saying ‘Let it be’ and ‘it’s going to be OK. Don’t worry.” You know… ‘Let it be’”… “It was great to visit with her again. I felt very blessed to have that dream. So that got me writing ‘Let It Be’”. – Paul McCartney

Paul and his brother Mike were brought up by their father James McCartney, until his own death in 1976 at age 73 of bronchial pneumonia. Jim McCartney was an educated, mild mannered fellow who worked in the cotton trade as well as played in ragtime and jazz bands in Liverpool. He raised the two brothers with kindness, love and dedication. Cynthia Powell Lennon recalls Paul’s father often answering the door with his sleeves rolled up, wearing an apron and holding a tea towel whenever she and John came to visit. Many times, Paul’s father would leave him food to eat at the Cavern Club where The Beatles played in the early days. A loving musical tribute to his dad was composed by Paul McCartney in 1982 with “Put It There”, a saying his father used to tell his sons when extending his hand in friendship.

“Put it there if it weighs a ton, that’s what a father says to his young son. I don’t care if it weighs a ton, as long as you and I are here, put it there.” –Put It There – Paul McCartney

BOBBY FREEMAN

Bobby Freeman is a two-hit wonder. He released singles from 1958 at only seventeen years old up until 1964, but only of them would make it to the Top Ten. His debut single “Do You Want To Dance” was his biggest hit and was showcased in George Lucas’ film “American Graffiti. It was a catchy, danceable song that made it to Number One in the Billboard Pop chart and Number Two in the R&B chart but it was a fluke, because Freeman struggled to enter the Top Forty, let alone barely making it into the Hot 100 until 1964.

“Do You Want To Dance” got a new lease on life when Bette Midler recorded it in 1973. Many other artists re-recorded the song, including Del Shannon, The Beach Boys. Johnny Rivers, the Mamas and the Papas, the Ramones and John Lennon, but it was Midler who slowed it down and turned into a smoky, bluesy, soul-stirring song as you’re dancing closely with an amorous friend at the end of a long night.

Freeman’s only other hit single was “C’mon and Swim” in 1964, a song based on the newest dance craze, The Swim, where the dancer moves their arms as if they were swimming and hold their nose, lowering themselves towards the floor while wiggling their hips.

Released in the midst of Beatlemania, it held its own because it’s a wild, crazy tune filled with trumpets, a wailing electric guitar and a nice, fast beat. It’s no wonder it was so energetic because the writer and producer of “C’mon & Swim” is none other than twenty year old Sylvester Stewart. Stewart would develop and further funk music during the late Sixties and influence the genre for decades after he changed his name to Sly Stone and formed his own group “Sly & The Family Stone”.

“C’mon & Swim” also made it to the Number Five position in the Billboard Pop chart, but his subsequent single release, “S-W-I-M”, only made it to number 56, then sank like a rock.”S-W-I-M” couldn’t float. Freeman didn’t release another album for ten years, but that one failed to chart. At the time of the writing of this blog in 2014, Bobby Freeman is 74 years old and living in his hometown of San Francisco, California.

JOHNNY OTIS

To call Johnny Otis a one hit wonder would be a gross injustice. The fact that “Willie & The Hand Jive” was his only Top Ten Billboard hit doesn’t account for his lack of talent, but more for his talent of being able to encompass so many achievements. Born Ioannis Alexandres Vellotes to Greek immigrants and growing up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Berkeley, California, Otis was a singer, musician, composer, arranger, bandleader, talent scout, disc jockey, record producer, TV show host with his own program, artist, author, journalist and minister. He could essentially marry you, provide entertainment, then write about the affair and broadcast highlights on his show for you.

His first big impact in music legend happened in 1945 when he formed his own band with himself as bandleader and, although not written by him, had one of the most enduring hits of the Big Band era, Harlem Nocturne.

Two years later he opened the Barrelhouse Club in the Watts district of Los Angeles, California and hired, among others, the Robins, who would later go on to become one of the Fifties’ biggest groups, the Coasters.

Before the 1940s came to an end, Johnny Otis also discovered singer Little Esther Phillips, Mel Walker and tenor saxophonist Big Jay McNeely. He began recording them together, releasing a stream of great blues songs. Each of them made it to Billboard’s Number One spot in the R&B chart in 1949, “Double Crossin’ Blues”, “Mistrustin’ Blues” and “Cupid Boogie”.



Two years later, he released “Mambo Boogie”, the very first R&B mambo ever recorded.

His amazing ability to spot talent continued when he discovered 13 year old Etta James at one of his talent shows and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Otis produced, played drums and co-wrote “Hound Dog” with Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller for Thornton’s 1953 recording. Lieber & Stoller pulled a fast one on Otis when they changed their written and signed contractual agreement with him just before the duo gave “Hound Dog” for Elvis to sing. It became a monster hit and Otis sued but lost on the technicality that Lieber and Stoller were minors when they signed the original contract.

During that time, Johnny Otis was also artist and repertory man for King Records and continued to discover new, young talent that would one day all become members of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Hall of Fame, Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard and Little Willie John.

During the Fifties, he played vibraphone, produced and wrote songs. Always a multi-tasker, he didn’t just have a radio show for KFOX out of Long Beach, but he also hosted is own weekly program “The Johnny Otis Show”. That not being enough, he started his own label and changed the name of his band to The Johnny Otis Show to remind everyone of his program.

“Willie & The Hand Jive” is a classic rock ‘n roll tune that borrows the Bo Diddley beat to sing about a new dance move, but many people thought it was an ode to jacking off. Otis insists the song is not about masturbation, although it doesn’t help the argument that the name of the “hand-jiver” happens to be “Willie”, and a few times even sounds like he’s singing “handjob” on the recording. Nevertheless, the hand jive is an actual dance move involving a complicated pattern of hand movements that include fist pounding together, thigh slapping, hand clapping, cross-wrist slapping and hitch-hiking… but no off jacking.

It’s a great rock ‘n’ roll song that gets you jumping, but its beat is due to Bo Diddley. Otis was just smart enough to steal the beat and change the lyrics. Eric Clapton re-recorded his own laid-back version of “Willie & The Hand Jive” in 1974 on his album “461 Ocean Blvd”. Lacking the original recording’s urgency, it’s more of a laid back rendition that Clapton renders, and it’s also a fascinating study of how the Bo Diddley beat can sound slowed down.

George Thorogood recorded it as well in 1985. Thorogood’s version is closer to the original than Clapton’s, which may sound somewhat lackluster in comparison. The production quality of Thorogood’s version is better than the original simply due to it having been re-recorded thirty years later with advanced recording technology. So in this writer’s opinion, Thorogood’s take on “Willie & The Hand Jive” is the definitive version of the song. It’s rock ‘n’ roll at its best.

Johnny Otis continued to work through the following decades touring, recording other artists and producing, even finding time for running for California State Assembly member, but losing, probably because he did’t run under his professional, well-known name. During the 1980s, he had a weekly three hour radio show on Los Angeles radio station KPFK where he played records and invited musical guests. He continued recording with his sons Shuggie and Nicky releasing new Johnny Otis albums. In 1987, he hosted his annual Red Beans & Rice R&B Music Festival in Los Angeles and would continue to do so until 2006, touring and playing over the US and Europe during that twenty year period.

His radio show moved to another L.A. radio station in the 1990s and would broadcast until his retirement in 2004, when his grandson Lucky took it over for two more years.

Johnny Otis died of natural causes on January 17, 2012, just three days before one of his first discoveries’ death, Etta James’. He lived a full, busy life until he was 90 years old.

THE ELEGANTS

Vito Picone, Arthur Venosa, Frank Tardogno, Carmen Romano and James Mochella were pals who grew up in Staten Island, New York together and sang doo wop under the boardwalk by their homes. They called their group the Elegants, and they became a classic example of one-hit wonders with “Little Star”, a doo wop tune inspired by the nursery rhyme “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. It hit Number One in 1958 in both the Pop ad R&B chart, and dominated the radio most of that year. The Elegants toured with Buddy Holly, Dion & The Belmonts, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. Afterwards, none of their subsequent single and album releases ever came close to the success of “Little Star”. Some say it was because the group refused to pay payola to a prominent New York disc jockey, who then inhibited airplay of their subsequent releases.

“Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder where you are, high above the clouds somewhere, send me down a love to share…” Little Star – The Elegants

A revised version of The Elegants still perform and tour as of 2012 with Vito Picone and James Mochella as original members.

“Little Star” is a classic example of doo wop music and lauded by many well-regarded people in the record business including Phil Spector who once called it an “awful good record”.

NEL BLU DI PINTO DI BLU (VOLARE) – DOMENICO MODUGNO

“Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)” is not a rock ‘n’ roll song by any stretch of the imagination, but honorable mention is deserving of this tune because, besides it being a great song, it also became a big hit in 1958 during the beginning of the rock ‘n’ roll era, and is now considered a classic after it was re-done more than thirty years later by the Gipsy Kings.

Sung entirely in Italian, Domenico Modugno co-wrote “Volare” with Franco Migliacci. It seems that Magliacci started to work on the lyrics while contemplating two Marc Chagall paintings. One was a rendering of an artist painting on a canvas, and done in predominantly blue shades (“Le Peintre et son Modele”). The other was a painting of a man in yellow suspended in mid-air (“Le Coq Rouge”-1952). After drinking a little too much wine, Migliacci fell asleep, only to wake up again after having had a surreal, wine-induced dream. Upon waking up, Migliacci wrote lyrics about a man who dreams of painting himself blue and being able to fly. The only thing missing was the title of the song. Legend has it that the word “Volare” (“I will fly”) entered the lyrics when Modugno, while working on the song with Migliacci, opened a window and a huge draft of wind entered the room.

Modugno and Migliacci titled the song “Nel Blu DiPinto Di Blu”, then added “Volare” in parentheses. Having only used translation websites, I’ve translated the title to mean “Blue Painted in Blue” If there’s anyone who knows Italian well enough to confirm this, I would appreciate hearing from you.

The song is sung entirely in Italian and Modugno, who sings it, begins his version with a surreal prelude explaining the dream Migliacci had.

TRANSLATION: “I think that a dream like that will never return, I painted my hands and my face blue, then was suddenly swept up by the wind and started to fly in the infinite sky” Nel Blue Dipinto Di Blu (Volare) – Domenico Modugno

Mondugno presented the song with Johnny Dorrelli in the 1958 Sanremo Music Festival. The song won the contest and became a worldwide success. It sold a staggering 22 million copies and received two Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year, the only foreign song to have ever received this honor. It went on to place in third place at the 1958 Eurovision Song Contest representing Italy. It was Number One non-consecutively in Billboard’s Pop chart for five weeks and was also Billboard’s Number One single of 1958, over any rock ‘n’ roll song released that year. In fact, it was to be the only non-American, Canadian or British song ever to make Billboard’s Top Single of the year until 1994 when Swedish group Ace of Base broke the record with “The Sign”. Today, it’s considered to be the most played Italian song in Italy as well as the whole world.

“Volare” has been translated into many languages and recorded by many different artists including Dean Martin, David Bowie, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, Barry White and the Gipsy Kings. The Kings made it a late Eighties dance hit and they sang it with a mix of the original Italian lyrics as well as their distinctive Andalusian-tinged Spanish.

In 2005, the 50th Anniversary of the Eurovision Song Contest was celebrated and a ranking of the most favorite songs from the contest was revealed. “Volare” was Number Two, behind ABBA’s “Waterloo”.

“I myself voted for “Volare” but I am pleased that so many people voted for us.” – Benny Anderson of ABBA when accepting the Eurovision award.

FOLK MUSIC

Folk Music enjoyed a revival in 1958 when three young boys calling themselves The Kingston Trio released their debut album. Over the next several years, folk music would meld with rock ‘n’ roll and gave the genre a conscience by pointing to a new lyrical direction. Besides the “moon/june/spoon” rhymes of rock ‘n’ roll songs extolling teenage crushes and fast cars, notwithstanding the ‘beboplulas’ and ‘whopbomalumas’, ‘shananas’, ‘dipdipdips’ and ‘boombapaloochipas’, folk music sang of social injustice. It covered a vast swath of a country & western music, encompassing ballads and odes dealing with tales of violence and oppression. Folk music was the voice of the common people fighting against social injustices, evident in the traditional ballads that dated as far back as 17th century America. Since the 1930s, when the artists who knew these songs were first recorded for posterity, many compositions were also written in the 20th century by these very individuals that sang of controversial social issues of the day, from the Great Depression through World War II, and attaining a new level of popularity after its late Fifties revival, due primarily to the Kingston Trio. Soon, folk music would produce artists that would expand the genre even further, with lyrics that would read like epic poetry and, most daringly, mixing folk’s acoustic sounds with the electric energy of rock ‘n’ roll.

The roots of recorded folk music are very distinct and go back to the beginning of the 20th Century, specifically to a man who was born in a Louisiana plantation and grew up to become a multi-instrumentalist composer. He recorded hundreds of his own songs as well as traditional tunes from the past that many future artists would listen to and learn, thanks to his recordings. As a result, many of these songs are still sung and recorded today.

LEAD BELLY

Huddie William Ledbetter was an African-American blues and folk musician, responsible for composing and introducing many folk standards. Born in 1888 on the Jeter Plantation near Moorningsport, Louisiana, he nicknamed his own self Lead Belly, and had a seemingly unending knowledge of old folk songs, knowing how to play and sing hundreds of them. He sang gospel, blues about women, liquor, prison life and racism. He also sang songs about cowboys, cattle herding and sailors. He could play piano, accordion, mandolin, harmonica, violin and the instrument that would become his standard, the 12 string acoustic guitar. He was also a songwriter and his strong, distinctive voice lent itself to these self-penned songs of celebrities and the current events of the day, like “Mr. Hitler”, “Titanic”, “Jean Harlow” and “Howard Hughes”. Lead Belly compositions are the first recorded protest songs.


Many rock songs during the Sixties and beyond by many popular artists of the day were written as a form of protest over war and the social injustices of its day. Many of these artists also acknowledge that their influence can be traced directly to the protest songs of Lead Belly.


Lead Belly recorded many songs that later became rock ‘n’ roll standards. Songs like “House Of The Rising Sun”, “Black Betty” and “Midnight Special”.


Many of these folk songs were originally written in the 17th and 18th centuries and their composers are largely unknown. Lead Belly knew every one of these songs. Some tunes however, were written by him and others seem spontaneous, like “Black Betty”, with lyrics that sound as though they’re being made up on the spot, and his voice only accompanied by Lead Belly’s own hand clapping.


He recorded all these songs after he was discovered in prison, doing time for assaulting a man with a knife.

Lead Belly was discovered by a working father and son team, John and Alan Lomax. They were traversing the country in the 1930s in search of authentic folk music and musicians to record their songs and interview them for archival purposes, to be held in the Library of Congress. The Lomaxes recorded songs that were known mostly by sharecroppers and prisoners in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. John Lomax called it “negro music”. They first heard Lead Belly during their visit to Louisiana’s Angola Prison Farm. After listening and being amazed not just by his encyclopedic knowledge of hundreds of traditional folk ballads but also because of his natural ability to be able to play practically any musical instrument, they were determined to record him. In 1933, after serving the minimum mandatory three year sentence for his crime, John and Alan Lomax petitioned and succeeded in releasing Lead Belly from prison. These recordings today are a national treasure. Thanks to their existence, these old songs have continued to be heard and re-interpreted by the subsequent generations of young musicians whose only exposure to these traditional tunes had been Lead Belly’s recorded interpretation of them.

In 1958 Harry Belafonte released a calypso album that included one of Lead Belly’s own compositions, “Cotton Fields”.


Lead Belly’s influence on rock ‘n’ roll was far reaching and profound. One of his more contemporary fans was Kurt Cobain who, with “Nirvana” recorded “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” and included it in their 1994 “MTV Unplugged In New York” album.


Other artists who include Lead Belly on their short list of influences include such far reaching and diverse artists as Fifties skiffle musician Lonnie Donegan (“Rock Island Line”), Pete Seeger, The Weavers, The Beach Boys (“Cotton Fields”), Creedence Clearwater Revival (“Midnight Special”), Elvis Presley, ABBA, Frank Sinatra (“Goodnight Irene”), The Animals (“House Of The Rising Sun”), Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Ram Jam (“Black Betty),Tom Petty, Dr. John, Ry Cooder, Maria Muldaur, The Grateful Dead, Gene Autry, Led Zeppelin (“Gallows Pole”), Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Rod Stewart, The White Stripes (“Boll Weevil”), Meat Loaf, Ministry, Hugh Laurie, Red Hot Chili Peppers and the aforementioned Nirvana, to name just a few.


Lead Belly never got to enjoy his later fame, having died in 1949 at age 61 of Lou Gehrig’s disease.


John and Alan Lomax not only discovered Lead Belly but also recorded many of Woody Guthrie’s compositions. In 1940, under Lomax’ supervision, RCA recorded and released two groundbreaking folk music recordings, Woody Guthrie’s “Dust Bowl Ballads” and Lead Belly’s “Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison Songs”. Although they did not sell well when first released, they are now physical proof of the influence it had on music throughout the rest of the 20th century.

At about the same time as Alan Lomax was overseeing these two artists, twenty year old Pete Seeger assisted him at the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress. Seeger had to sift through the “race” and “hillbilly” music that best represented American folk music. So, while a young Pete Seeger was getting educated in folk songs, Lead Belly’s successor would take the ball and further the genre.

WOODY GUTHRIE

Woody Guthrie was the second in line, right behind Lead Belly, to make his permanent mark on folk music. He also recorded the old folk songs with John and Alan Lomax and composed a respectable share as well.

Bob Dylan along with Woody Guthrie’s own son Arlo, both admitted that they learned Woody Guthrie’s playing technique mostly from the only student Guthrie mentored, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, particularly because Guthrie by that time was no longer able to play guitar due to his development of Huntington’s Disease. Elliot’s philosophy upon hearing that Dylan had acknowledged him was a quote from Woody himself.

“Dylan learned from me the same way I learned from Woody. Woody didn’t teach me. He just said ‘if you want to learn something, just steal it. That’s the way I learned from Lead Belly”. – Ramblin’ Jack Elliott

Born in Oklahoma in 1912, Woody Guthrie’s very first album “Dust Bowl Ballads” was recorded in New York City in 1940, overseen by folklorist Alan Lomax. It is considered to be one of the first concept albums, dealing with songs of the Great Depression and its impact on America’s farmers, displacing them from their lands. “Dust Bowl Ballads” was originally released as a three record set on 78 rpm. In fact, the term ‘album’ was coined because since 78rpm’s could hold no longer than up to 10 minutes of music, unlike the LP which could hold up to 30 minutes per side, record companies routinely released these songs in ‘album’ form, consisting of several songs over two, three or more 78s.

The songs from “Dust Bowl Ballads” were the songs he composed when he lived among the farmers that were being forced to move from their land. John Steinbeck’s film, “Grapes Of Wrath” chronicles this moment in American history. Woody recounted his own experiences during that period with only his voice, an occasional harmonica and his acoustic guitar to accompany him. Its power was inherent in the scarceness of instrumentation, breaking down hardship into a simple arrangement.

Some of Woody Guthrie’s songs are archived in The Library of Congress. Nicknamed “The Dust Bowl Troubadour”, he traveled with the farmers from Oklahoma to California, learning and serenading them with their own traditional songs.

The most famous song he wrote is “This Land Is Your Land”, in 1940. It’s understood that he wrote it as a conscious alternative to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”, a song Guthrie claimed to be tired of hearing played endlessly on the radio. He considered Berlin’s lyrics to be unrealistic, so he took an old gospel melody called “Oh, My Loving Brother” and changed the lyrics for his most famous song.

“This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York islands, from the Redwood forest to the Gulfstream waters, this land was made for you and me.” “This Land Is Your Land” –Woody Guthrie

There is an innate patriotism in the song, sub-titled in a slight dig to Berlin’s tune as “God Blessed America For Me”. He was also very outspoken, and met many left-thinking liberals, including “Grapes of Wrath” author Steinbeck and long-time friend and actor Will Geer. Many of his friends flirted with socialism and communism as a viable alternative to capitalism. These associations may have very well influenced his way of thinking, and may have inspired the later verses in “This Land..”.

“In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple, by the relief office, I’d seen my people, as they stood there hungry, I stood there asking, Is this land made for you and me?” –This Land Is Your Land” – Woody Guthrie

Protest and social commentary was further introduced into modern music by Woody Guthrie after Lead Belly blazed the trail. Guthrie’s music echoed the work of Bob Dylan, who, like Woody, used only the guitar and harmonica in his early compositions. His songs had nothing to do with love or any teenage angst that rock ‘n’ roll music sang about, but real issues of the day, from the political state of the world to unfair working conditions and rebellion.

Tom Joad is the name of the main character in Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”, played by Henry Fonda in the movie of the same name directed by John Ford. Guthrie wrote “The Ballad of Tom Joad” about that character soon after seeing the film. He asked his friend Pete Seeger if he knew anyone who had a typewriter. Once that was procured, it took an entire night and a half gallon of red wine to produce the seventeen verse song. It echoed the famous monologue Henry Fonda delivers in Ford’s film.

“Wherever little children are hungry and cry, wherever people ain’t free, wherever men are fightin’ for their rights, that’s where I’m-a gonna be, Ma, that’s where Im’-a gonna be.” “The Ballad of Tom Joad” – Woody Guthrie

One of the most poignant songs in the collection is “Dusty Old Dust (So Long it’s Been Good To Know Yuh). What makes it work is its immediate sing-a-long quality, but also its lyrics. Although humorous and fun, they also carry a deep sadness with the fact that it’s about the separation of friends. Dust storms devastated small towns and forced the separation of loved ones. “Dusty Old Dust” is sung in such a matter-of-fact, resigned manner, it only makes the song more poignantly real.

Bruce Springsteen, an avowed follower of both Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, drew a permanent connection with Steinbeck and Guthrie when he released his album “The Ghost of Tom Joad” in 1995. He also echoed the famous words that Steinbeck wrote as Tom Joad’s epitaph.

“Now Tom said, ‘Mom, wherever there’s a cop beating a guy, wherever a hungry newborn baby cries, where there’s a fight against the blood and hatred in the air, look for me, Mom, I’ll be there.'” The Ghost of Tom Joad – Bruce Springsteen

Guthrie’s recordings, much like Lead Belly, influenced the rock and roll movement to an immeasurable degree. Songwriters who cite Guthrie as a primary influence include Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Harry Chapin, John Mellencamp, Joe Strummer, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. These artists indeed have kept the spirit of protest alive.

THE ALMANAC SINGERS

At about the same time that he had written “This Land…”, Guthrie moved to New York City after corresponding with Pete Seeger to join Seeger’s new band “The Almanac Singers”. Guthrie wrote songs with Seeger for the next three years, adding legitimacy to the group because he was an Oklahoman who had actually experienced what he sang about, not a liberal New Yorker offering their views on other people’s misfortune. This gave Guthrie a lot of clout in the New York folk movement. Along with Millard Lampell and Lee Hays, Seeger and Guthrie wrote and sang anti-war, anti-racism, pro-Union songs with a decidedly socialist bent. Their songs dealt with the issues of the day, as the group’s title implies.

The Almanac Singers were part of a broad coalition of liberals and centrists of the time called The Popular Front, in which even the USA Communist Party was a member. The Front had committed itself to “put aside their differences in order to fight fascism and promote racial and religious inclusiveness and workers’ rights”.

Pete Seeger joined the Young Communist League when he was 17 years old in 1937. Communism at that time was at the height of its popularity and influence. In 1942, Seeger became a member of the Communist Party USA, but left it in 1949.

As the winds of war blew in the late 1930s, the Soviet Union was arguing that the United States was using the threat of Nazism as an excuse to invade the USSR. As a result, believers like Pete Seeger endorsed pacifism and was totally against the United States’ participation in the war that was brewing overseas.

In the early 1940’s, the four Almanac Singers lived in an apartment in New York City together, and also shared the residence with traveling artists and musicians. They dubbed their home The Almanac House. It soon became a central meeting place for leftist intellectuals and folk singers. It was like a small commune, a lifestyle that would become popular among the youth of the Sixties, sharing chores as well as the rent.

The Almanac Singers’ debut album in May 1941, “Songs For John Doe” was recorded before Guthrie’s inclusion in the group and was about staying out of World War II, condemning then President Roosevelt’s peace time draft. The album was a resounding failure, primarily because hardly anyone agreed with its theme, and barely sold. A review in Time magazine on June 16, 1941 denounced “John Doe” as a “mendacious Moscow tune”. Eleanor Roosevelt, a fan of folk music, called the album “in bad taste”.



By June of 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, thereby destroying the very reason Pete Seeger advocated pacifism. “Songs for John Doe” was quickly pulled from distribution.


The Almanac Singers’ follow-up to their shaky debut was “Talking Union & Other Union Songs”.


Although still somewhat political, the songs steered away from commentary on the rapidly spreading war and focused instead on labor problems back home. In 2010, it was selected by the Library of Congress to be included into the National Recording Registry.



Once the United States entered WWII, The Almanac Singers had done an about face, changing from protesting the war to supporting it, and released “Dear Mr. President” in 1942. Pete Seeger wrote the title song.

Now Mr. President, we haven’t always agreed in the past, I know… but that ain’t at important now. What is important is what we got to do. We got to lick Mr. Hitler, and until we do, other things can wait…” Dear Mr. President – The Almanac Singers

Guthrie’s contribution to the album was “The Sinking Of The Reuben James”, about the torpedoing of a US naval vessel by German U-boats.

“Tell me what were their names, tell me what were their names, did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?” The Sinking of the Reuben James – The Almanac Singers

The Almanac Singers released a few non-political albums as well, one focusing on traditional folks songs and another one with just sea chanteys. Both of them were produced by Alan Lomax.

The Almanac Singers disbanded in 1943 but left behind the blueprint for the folk protest musical genre that would culminate with Bob Dylan twenty-two years later when he introduced the electric guitar into folk music to an outraged folk audience at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

After a prolific decade as a solo artist that included a stint in the US Army, Guthrie’s health began to deteriorate by the late 1940s. A campfire accident a few years later rendered his arm practically useless and unable to ever play a guitar again. He died in 1967 at age 55 of complications of Huntington’s Disease.

THE WEAVERS

In 1948, after getting married, having a nest of children and serving in the military, Pete Seeger formed The Weavers with ex-Almanac singer Lee Hays, as well as Fred Hellerman and female artist Ronnie Gilbert.

One look at the Weavers and you’d never guess that these guys were from New York’s Greenwich Village or that they could even influence a glass of water, because the last thing they looked like were rock stars. Dressed in 1940s business suit attire, the four Weavers looked more like an accounting firm than a musical group and could quite possibly audit you as they sang. But back then, fashion and attitude wasn’t important apparently. Seeger had also become a more savvy marketer of his music. He learned his lesson with the short lived success and demise of his Almanac Singers and since he wanted to grab the ear of as many people as he could, made some commercial adjustments to the Weavers sound that would distance themselves from the Almanac Singers.

Pete Seeger named his group the Weavers after an obscure play by Gerhart Hauptmann called Die Weber (The Weavers-1892), about the uprising of Silesian weavers in 1844. After a year or two of struggling to book gigs and be heard, they finally got to record their first pair of songs. They were Lead Belly’s “Good Night Irene” and a song originally written in Hebrew in 1941 called “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena”. The single became a massive hit in 1950 and stayed in the Number One Best Sellers position for thirteen straight weeks.

IF I HAD A HAMMER (THE HAMMER SONG) – THE WEAVERS

One of The Weavers most recognized songs was written in 1949 by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays. It became a hit in 1962 for Peter, Paul & Mary right in the midst of the folk revival and the surging civil rights moment that was beginning to tear at the seams of this country. Soon, this tune along with other Pete Seeger songs would become anthems for the Civil Rights movement of the early Sixties spearheaded by Martin Luther King, Jr. “If I Had a Hammer” proved so popular that it was recorded by various artists in different languages including French, Italian, Spanish, Bulgarian, Czech and Arabic.

Seeger was purposely choosing and writing songs to record that did not have an opinionated political bent. He also separated himself from the regular acoustic guitar accompaniment that was common in folk songs and added lush orchestration to accompany the Weavers’ voices and guitars. These were the commercial compromises Pete Seeger steered his group towards to reach a wider audience. In this, he succeeded. The political climate of the early 1950s was extremely anti-Communist thanks to Senator Joe McCarthy’s (R-Wisc.) hunt for Reds in America. By this time, Seeger had renounced his Communist association, but not his inclination towards writing protest songs. He kept this at bay however, during his tenure with The Weavers and focused just on writing and recording good folk songs.


The Weavers recorded and released standards like “On Top of Ol’ Smoky”, “The Wreck of the John B”, later recorded by various artists, including the Beach Boys, as “Sloop John B” in 1966.


“Rock Island Line”, a hit for British skiffle artist Lonnie Donegan in 1957, a marked influence on an impressionable 16 year old John Lennon; “The Midnight Special”, ultimately to become the theme song to one of the very first late night rock TV shows in the 1970s.


“Greensleeves”, an English folk song dating back to as early as 1580.

“Wimoweh” a South African composition, originally written in Zulu that would find new popularity in 1962 when the Tokens added English language lyrics to it and renamed it “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”;


“Sixteen Tons”, a 1941 Merle Travis song that would be re-recorded to much popularity by Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1956.

and “When The Saints Go Marching In” an American gospel hymn first recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1948.

Despite Seeger’s attempt to steer the Weavers away from songs of social commentary, the group was blacklisted in 1953 during the peak of their popularity, prompting radio stations to refuse to play any of their records. Seeger was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee on August 18, 1955. He refused to name personal and political associations on the grounds that this would violate his First Amendment rights. The truth of the matter was that he had become disillusioned with the Communist Party USA after learning about Josef Stalin’s atrocities and left the CPUSA in 1949, but still stayed friends with some of its members; friends he protected with his silence.

“I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.” -Pete Seeger

His refusal to answer questions led to his indictment for contempt of Congress in 1957. Seeger had to keep the federal government apprised of his whereabouts if he ever left the Southern District of New York. In 1961, he was also convicted in a jury trial of Contempt of Congress and sentenced to ten -year terms in jail, to be served simultaneously. His indictment was ultimately ruled flawed and an appeals court overturned the conviction in May 1962.

Folk music took a step back in popularity starting in 1953 due primarily to the silencing of the Weavers. The group made a comeback in 1955, recording an album in Carnegie Hall with their own standards and favorites and that led to a resurgence in interest of the genre, culminating with a new group of singers who would jump-start folk music’s revival and eventual integration into popular music during the rock ‘n’ roll era

THE KINGSTON TRIO

From 1958 to 1961, The Kingston Trio were the most popular group in America. By steering away from the protest songs that made up folk music’s core, they achieved a commercial success that showed exactly how much America loved these songs and this beloved centuries-old genre. Fourteen of the nineteen albums they released during that three-year period went into the Top Ten National Billboard album chart. Five of those albums hit the Number One spot. Their overwhelming success paved the way for future folk singers, many of them copies of the Trio, but many others who would soon follow in their footsteps. They were folk singers and artists who would push the genre even further like Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary and Bob Dylan.

“(The Kingston Trio are) the most envied, the most imitated, and the most successful singing group, folk or otherwise, in show business,” and “the undisputed kings of the folk singing rage by every yardstick.” Herbert Kamm; “Those Fabulous Folk Singers”-The Schenectady Gazette, 8/29/1961

The biggest irony was that the Kingston Trio never considered themselves folk singers.

“We never called ourselves folk singers… we did folk-oriented material, but we did it amid kinds of other stuff. But they didn’t know what to call us with our instruments, so Capitol Records called us folk singers and gave us credit for starting the whole boom.” Bob Shane of The Kingston Trio

Indeed, the Kingston Trio also sang many foreign language and calypso songs. The name of their group is named after Kingston, Jamaica. Of the three members, Dave Guard, Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds, Guard and Shane grew up together in Honolulu and met during junior high school. Both learned ukelele in school. When they separated during their college years, both Guard and Shane went to separate colleges, but both were still near San Francisco, California. Shane met Nick Reynolds at Menlo College and developed a fast friendship. Reynolds was very familiar with and loved folk and calypso music. He also had the ability to create tenor harmonies for songs. Eventually, after the two sang in luaus and frat parties for a time, Shane introduced Reynolds to Guard. They formed a four member group and called themselves the Kingston Quartet. Soon after, they met future manager Frank Werber, who agreed to represent them on one condition. Werber felt that bass player Joe Gannon didn’t match up in terms of talent in comparison to the other three. Gannon was summarily fired, and out of protest, the second member, Barbara Bogue left the group as well. This cut the Kingston Quartet down to just a Kingston Duo.

Shane and Reynolds quickly called Bob Guard who had returned to Honolulu some time back. Guard eagerly flew back to San Francisco and signed an agreement with Frank Werber and the other two, that they were to be named The Kingston Trio and share profits equally.

THE KINGSTON TRIO – ALBUM

Recorded over a three day period in February of 1958 for Capitol Records, the Kingston Trio recorded their debut album for release as a 33 / LP, as opposed to 45 rpm singles that the other interested record companies had proposed. Werber and the Trio felt that the 33 / format would suit them best, particularly because they could see that the 33 / LP would soon become the industry standard.

True to the Trio’s promise, the album was not just folk, but also showcased calypso songs with its traditional folk music. It was released on June , 1958. The artist dubbed “King of Calypso”, Harry Belafonte was enjoying his own popularity in 1958, having come to public attention two years earlier with “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)”. Belafonte and The Kingston Trio influenced each other as both artists would sing calpyso and folk. After three months since the album’s release, with the help of having copies available at The Hungry I where they performed in San Francisco, and the nudged by two radio disc jockeys out of Salt lake City, Utah who picked one particular song to play on the air repeatedly, “The Kingston Trio” LP finally entered the Billboard Albums chart in October. It stayed there for four years.

TOM DOOLEY – THE KINGSTON TRIO

DJs Paul Colburn and Bill Terry at station KLUB in Salt Lake City started to play “Tom Dooley” on the air repeatedly, and called other DJs around the country to do the same. This cause a surge in album sales because the song was still not available as a single.

“Tom Dooley” was released as the Kingston Trio’s second single (“Scarlet Ribbons” was their first single release, a bore that didn’t stand a chance in the rock ‘n’ roll era) in August of 1958. Capitol Records could no longer ignore its airplay throughout the whole country. Upon the single’s release, it climbed up to Number One not only on the Billboard Pop chart but in the R&B chart as well, and ultimately sold over four million copies. “Tom Dooley” also helped the group’s debut album reach Number One, solely on the strength of the single’s success.

“Tom Dooley” is anything but a rock ‘n’ roll song, but the public’s attention to it was the first step in thinking that, if folk can become a hit in a rock ‘n’ roll environment, the possibility existed of sooner or later melding the two genres together.

“Tom Dooley” is a 19th century North Carolina folk song about the murder of a woman by the hand of her fiancee, an actual event that occurred in 1866. The man’s name was Tom Dula but his last name was corrupted with time. Part of the wider genre of the Appalachian “sweetheart murder ballad”, its lyrics, like in most folk murder ballads, are downright morbid.

“I met her on the mountain, there I took her life, met her on the mountain, stabbed her with my knife, hang down your head Tom Dooley, hang down your head and cry, hang down your head Tom Dooley, poor boy, you’re bound to die…” Tom Dooley – The Kingston Trio

The song stayed on the chart for five months, into 1959 and earned them their first gold single.

THREE JOLLY COACHMEN – THE KINGSTON TRIO

The first song on the album, “Three Jolly Coachmen”, was also released as the B-side of their first single before “Tom Dooley”. It’s a humorous tune about drinking and the Trio sing it with the occasional faux British accent. The second track, “Bay Of Mexico” has a more calypso feel, proving once again what the trio kept insisting, that they weren’t just folk singers.

“We are not students of folk music. The basic thing for us is honest and worthwhile songs that people can pick up and become involved in.” Dave Guard – The Kingston Trio

“Santy Anno” and “Bay of Mexico” were both traditional songs that had also been covered by the Weavers, a group that was a major influence on the Kingston Trio’s songs. But where Pete Seeger of the Weavers had dabbled with social criticism in his songs, the Kingston Trio steered clear of any controversial songs and made light of them instead. This led some folk purists to turn their nose up at the Kingston Trio, accusing them of softening their sound for the sake of commercialism. The Trio also disdained lush orchestration, unlike the Weavers. They preferred that their songs were spare instrumentally, relying mainly on their three guitars, usually using a 6-string guitar, a -string tenor guitar, a -string banjo and a Pete Seeger model long neck -string banjo.

Besides a handful of traditional songs similar to the Weavers’ catalog like “The Wreck of the John B” (the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B”);

the group also chose a song by Woody Guthrie called “Hard, Ain’t It Hard” and another by Terry Gilkyson called “Fast Freight”. Gilkyson was also the composer of the first track off the Everly Brothers “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us” album, called “Roving Gambler”.


“Songs Our Daddy Taught Us” by the Everly Brothers was released in December of 1958, six months after the Kingston Trio’s debut album. It was very similar in style as the Kingston Trio. It was a collection of traditional folk songs sung by the brothers and each song was accompanied by their two guitars and no more. “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us” is a beautiful Everly Brothers album and should hold an important position in folk history, having been released during the beginning of the folk music revival of the late Fifties. Unbelievably, the album did not fare as well, but it’s arguably one of the best produced folk albums of time, with crisp guitars and the brothers soaring, angelic harmonies.

SCOTCH AND SODA – THE KINGSTON TRIO

The only song attributed to one of the three singers in the Kingston Trio album was “Scotch and Soda”, in this case, Dave Guard. Guard sings it with such a bluesy feel that he proves what the Trio had been saying the time: the Kingston Trio were NOT just folk singers. “Scotch and Soda”, with only the accompaniment of a strumming acoustic guitar, rivaled the vocal of peer and publicly proclaimed “Godfather of Soul”, Sam Cooke.

The truth is that “Scotch and Soda” like many of the other tunes they record, was also traditional, but because it was in the public domain, the group re-arranged the production, giving it a modern bluesy feel and then copyrighted their arrangement. This worked many times except for the times they would attempt to call copyrighted songs their own, simply because they weren’t aware that some of the songs they sang were not traditional but recently written by Seeger.

The Kingston Trio’s debut album was only the beginning of their meteoric but short-lived success. The album won a Grammy the following year for Best Country & Western Performance. They won in that category because the Grammys had not assigned an award for folk music recordings. They rectified that the following year, particularly because of the Kingston Trio’s success and the resulting flood of folk artists into contemporary music at the time. Ironically enough, they also won the following year with their album “At Large”, this time under the category they had inspired, Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording.

From 1958 to 1961, their first five albums made it to the Billboard Number One LP spot and were each awarded gold records. Their saturation into the market was at its acme within the last two months of 1959 when four Kingston Trio albums ranked in the Top Ten of Billboard’s Top LP chart. By the peak of their career in 1961, the Kingston Trio had sold over eight million albums rivaling sales of Capitol Records’ two other huge artists of the time, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra.

FROM THE HUNGRY I – THE KINGSTON TRIO

The trio’s second album was a recording of a live performance at the San Francisco nightclub they got their start in before being signed to Capitol. Songs include “Wimoweh”, the precursor to 1962’s “Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens, also having been sung by the Weavers.

ZOMBIE JAMBOREE – THE KINGSTON TRIO

One of the tracks is a danceable calypso song called “Zombie Jamboree” that would probably be well received today in 2014 in an age when zombies are so popular.

“Back to back, belly to belly, well I don’t give a damn, I done dead already, oho back to back, belly to belly at the Zombie Jamboree…” Zombie Jamboree – The Kingston Trio

THEY CALL THE WIND MARIAH – THE KINGSTON TRIO

“They Call The Wind Mariah” from the Broadway play “Paint Your Wagon” was often mistaken for a folk song only because it was a song many heard sung by The Kingston Trio. But the truth of it was that it was written by Alan Lerner and Jack Lowe in 1951. It’s composed in the style of folk because the play had to do with the California gold rush of the mid-nineteenth century, back when many folk songs were first written. It became a popular song among folk music fans, having also been recorded by comedy folk duo the Smothers Brothers in 1961. “Paint Your Wagon” was released in 1970 as a feature film with Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin. In the film, Harvey Presnell sings “…Mariah”.

SOUTH COAST – THE KINGSTON TRIO

“South Coast” was a song written in 1953 by Lillian Ross, Rich Dehr and Sam Eskin in the classic folk style about a Spanish guard who wins a young girl in a card game. Of course the girl dies in the end. The original song’s lyrics were more explicit than the Trio’s watered down, but still pretty version.

“I showed him three kings over sevens, he flung open the door with a curse, saying take her god damn it, you’ve won her, she’s yours now for better or worse.”

“South coast is a wild coast and lonely, you may win a game at Jalon, but the lion still rules the barranca, and a man there is always alone…” South Coast – The Kingston Trio

NEW YORK GIRLS – THE KINGSTON TRIO

“New York Girls” is a 19th century Irish-American funny, upbeat song about a sailor who falls into the lure of a lady of the evening. It lent itself for their live performances as their shows were always interjected with humorous comments on their lyrics.

“My gold watch and my pocketbook and the lady friend had fled, now looking ‘round this little room, nothin’ could I see, but a woman’s shoes, an apron, which now belonged to me…“ New York Girls – The Kingston Trio

THE MERRY MINUET – THE KINGSTON TRIO

The only time the Trio did dabble in social commentary was humorously, with “The Merry Minuet”.

“But we can be tranquil and thankful and proud for man’s been endowed with a mushroom shaped cloud, and we know for certain that some lovely day, someone will set the spark off and we will be blown away.” The Merry Minuet – The Kingston Trio

It was 1958 and it was the beginning of the Cold War. The Kingston Trio continued the folk tradition of social commentary heralded as far back as the times of Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, to reflect these dangerously changing times with their own, commercially acceptable tongue-in-cheek attitude.

SHADY GROVE/LONESOME TRAVELER – THE KINGSTON TRIO

“Shady Grove” was an 18th century folk song and one of the first bluegrass songs ever written, played with guitar and banjo. Shady Grove is both about a woman and a destination as well.

“Shady Grove, my little love, Shady grove I know, Shady Grove my little love, bound for Shady Grove…” Shady Grove – Kingston Trio

The Kingston Trio’s recording of “Shady Grove” segues into “Lonesome Traveler” as Dave Guard’s banjo kicks into high gear and the three sing the story of a circuit rider in the need of a woman… like Shady Grove.This song has stayed in the American songbook as recently as 2011 when Tom Petty recorded it through his group Mudcrutch.

WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN – THE KINGSTON TRIO

The Kingston Trio close their second album with “When The Saints Go Marching In”, an American gospel hymn. As far away as folk music can be, this is a Christian hymn played mostly by jazz bands, but as the Kingston Trio always said, they sang anything they considered good and didn’t limit themselves to the folk music genre.

STEREO CONCERT – THE KINGSTON TRIO

Their third album was an oddity in that it was only released in stereophonic sound, not just monaural, which was not usual at the time since the advent of stereo had still not fully taken over the recording industry due mostly to the high price of a stereo LP. It also had the same cover photo as their debut album except for the fact that it says STEREO CONCERT in big, white letters above their name. I suppose the marketing reason for that was that this album was essentially a Greatest Hits album recorded live on December 15, 1958 at Liberty Hall in El Paso, Texas. It was the only album during their three year winning streak that didn’t make it up to Number One on Billboard’s Top LP chart, reaching only Number 15, but the live greatest hits compilation also kept their best tunes in the public ear between LPs of new material.

Much unlike later years when artists would release an album annually, LP output back in the Fifties and much of the Sixties believed in churning it out. After the Kingston Trio’s debut album was released in June of 1958, their second album, “From The Hungry I” was released six months later in January of 1959. It was followed by “Stereo Concert” three months after that in March 1959. Their fourth album, “At Large” came out, you guessed it, three months after that, in June of 1959, exactly one year after their debut album.

AT LARGE – THE KINGSTON TRIO

M.T.A. – THE KINGSTON TRIO

“At Large” was The Kingston Trio’s first stereo studio album. Stereo was a new technology that they felt certain would be the sound of the future. The big single that came out of “At Large” was “M.T.A.”. The initials stood for the Metro Transit Authority and it was another tongue-in cheek tune that parodied folk songs with social commentary with its spoken open. After warning of an increase in the fare of a subway ride, the trio go into a guitar and banjo jangling tale of poor old Charlie who was a nickel short of changing trains and was riding the subway system for eternity.

“But did he ever return, no he never returned and his fate is still unlearned, he may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston, he’s the man who never returned.” “M.T.A.” – Kingston Trio

The song has interesting origins. It was first born as an 1865 sea ballad called “The Ship That Never Returned” written by Henry Clay Work, a well-known songwriter at the time of the Civil War.

It was recorded for posterity by Carl Sandburg in 1927 in a collection of songs in which the Pulitzer Prize winning poet sang and played guitar himself called “American Songbag”. The melody was then adapted and its lyrics changed to “Charlie on the M.T.A.” in 1948. The purpose for the change of lyrical direction from a tragic tale of a ship lost at sea to the absurd tale of a guy lost underground was to elect a Boston Progressive politician named Walter A. O’Brien for city Mayor.

O’Brien lost. In fact, he finished last. He didn’t have enough funds for radio advertising so he commissioned folk singers to write songs that he would play out of loudspeakers from a truck driven through town. He was fined $10 for disturbing the peace. At least he left us a catchy song.


Other songs on the album include “Blow Ye Winds’ a happy, banjo driven sea ballad that anybody can sing along to; “Corey, Corey”, a song originally written as “Darlin’ Cory”, a well known folk song about a moonshine-making woman; and “La Seine” a love song sung in English but set in France.


The second side of the LP includes “Good News”, a 19th century spiritual whose melody seems to have been taken from “(Give Me That) Old Time Religion”, an 1873 gospel song that has become a standard in many Protestant hymns;

“Getaway John” another murder ballad that sounds like early Simon & Garfunkel, particularly “A Most Peculiar Man” (1965);


and the last track on the album, “Remember The Alamo”, a song that championed Texan heroes Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett in their fight against Mexico to establish an independent republic. It was a composition that had been recently written just a few years before by Jane Bowers and recorded in 1955 by Tex Ritter. The trio had met Bowers during their tour through Austin at around the same time.

TIJUANA JAIL – THE KINGSTON TRIO

Although not included in the album, “Tijuana Jail” was released as a single at the same time “At Large” was still on the charts. “TJ” sounded suspiciously like “Midnight Special” but with different lyrics, and with the Trio’s typical tongue-in-cheek, playful style.

The flip side, “Oh, Cindy” displayed Guard’s virtuosity on the banjo with the three finger-picking style that defines bluegrass music, reminiscent of the ruling bluegrass banjo pickers of the day, The Foggy Mountain Boys: Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

The Kingston Trio showed no sign of waning as the Fifties drew to a close. Their future seemed endless. Nobody during that time could foresee the seismic change that would overcome popular music in 1964 when the British Invasion led by the Beatles would change rock ‘n’ roll music forever. The Sixties would be a decade of musical renaissance, social revolution and world altering events, and its soundtrack would largely be comprised of rock music tinged with a hint of folk.

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