Tuesday, May 02, 2006

No Lightweights

The Original Kingston Trio

For a group that was alleged to have been so determinedly and conscientiously apolitical for much of the first ten years of its existence, the Kingston Trio in fact managed to make its share of social comment, albeit in a primarily entertaining and highly polished manner - too polished, had you asked the Eastern urban folk "establishment" of the early 60s.

But from the first, the Trio had things to say. Even with its rehearsed and harmonic arrangements, the first eponymous album manages to include the kind of "working class hero" style of folk songs that the group had adapted from the Weavers' extensive repertoire of the same - songs like Saro Jane, Santy Anno, and even Sloop John B. The sly humor of songs like Three Jolly Coachmen and Banua also provided wry commentary on the social mores of the era.

Many of the succeeding albums continued the trend in some fashion or other. MTA is so delightfully a fun song to hear or sing that it's easy to overlook its original political intent, a sort of foreshadowing of the tax revolts and anti-government sentiments that swept the country decades later. As romantic and lovely as San Miguel may be, there is a definite comment on class and race in the song. The very selections on the Christmas album and the Trio's proclivity for singing in Spanish, Zulu, and Polynesian tongues made them (as has been observed here before) in many ways the first true exponents of "world music" - by itself a powerful and political statement.

The later arrival of John Stewart and the consequent inclusion of songs of commentary both literal and implied on most of the albums of that era - and the very dedication of New Frontier and the entire Time To Think venture - clearly did not spring from a vacuum but rather represented a logical progression of the group's approach.

Now it would be silly to suggest that the KT was trying to do what Peter, Paul and Mary were doing from the outset, or what the Chad Mitchell Trio made its stock in trade. But the Kingston Trio had a lot more to say in its song selection than is generally credited to it, and nowhere is this demonstrated more effectively than in its continuing use of Woody Guthrie's compositions. Hard Travelin' is one of Guthrie's Dust Bowl ballads and a good representation of the worker as hero songs (check out the full lyric: http://www.woodyguthrie.org/Lyrics/Hard_Travelin.htm). And the inclusion of two of Guthrie's more overt political statement songs on one album - "Goin' Places" - is truly remarkable. As most fans of the song know, This Land Is Your Land was Woody G.'s angry response to what he regarded as the fatuous jingoism of Irving Berlin's God Bless America. And if the Trio edited out some of the more inflammatory lyrics, no amount of editing can disguise the basic populism of the song.

More remarkable, I think, is the Kingston's inclusion of Pastures of Plenty on that album and later Deportee on Time To Think- both songs making a direct and unsparing commentary on the issues at the head of the news reports today. Though most of the migrants in the former song were in Guthrie's day Okies and other dispossessed farmers of the Steinbeck genre, the Trio's version appeared in the wake of Edward R. Murrow's classic documentary "Harvest of Shame," in which the plight of the exploited braceros of the day was examined in detail. That put a different spin on Woody's words:

"California, Arizona, I harvest your crops
Well its North up to Oregon to gather your hops
Dig the beets from your ground, cut the grapes from your vine
To set on your table your light sparkling wine

Green pastures of plenty from dry desert ground
From the Grand Coulee Dam where the waters run down
Every state in the Union us migrants have been
We'll work in this fight and we'll fight till we win."

And no different spin is necessary at all on Deportee - the final verse as the Trio sang it is as direct as commentary gets:

"Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except "deportees"?

Now I wouldn't assert nor presume to comment on the relationship of all of this to whatever political position anyone espouses today on the topic of immigration. The events of today, however - and hearing the phenomenal voice of Cisco Houston singing what I think is the second-best version of Deportee on record - simply reminded me of something that Milt Okun wrote about John Denver following Denver's tragic death. With apologies to Okun, I paraphrase: I knew the Kingston Trio. I know their music. They were no lightweights.

(This piece appeared in slightly different form at The Kingston Trio Place.)


Ken said...


Nice site with some interesting articles! I'll be back soon to post my thoughts on some of the topics you've published.

All the best with your new Blogger!

Ken Laing - The Kingston Trio Place/Shady Grove Radio

JK Moran said...

Thanks, Ken! You know, it's basically the same as the opost I made on your site. The pic and graphic dress it up nicely, though! I look fwd to any comments you'd like to make at any time. And again, thanks for the link from KT Place.