Friday, February 29, 2008

If I Had a Seeger

I caught the last half of PBS's "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song" the other night and need to see the first part. A traditional, laudatory bio, it captivated me. Even though there was not a lot that was new to me, it is impressive to review his impact musically and politically. A bit like Zelig or Forrest Gump - he's on the Top 40, he's banned from TV as a Communist, he's teaching MLK "We Shall Overcome," etc.

Here's a link to more:

At camp, the Seeger songs we sing are, to the best of my knowledge:

Where Have All the Flowers Gone
If I Had a Hammer
We Shall Overcome

I don't think we ever sang "Turn, Turn, Turn," though I do remember singing it at progressive Catholic masses as a child. Not to mention "Blowing in the Wind" with that phrase changed to "the answer is living in all men," which always annoyed me - and nowadays would be considered sexist...

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Borrowed" melodies

A couple of postings ago I mentioned a new CD that has a version of "The Wreck of the Old '97." The funny thing about this song is that I had missed something obvious until I recently read the following fact: its melody was used as the basis of the Kingston Trio's hit, "The MTA." Come to think of it, it is! How did I miss that?

But I have done that before. I did realized that "Roll On Columbia" by Woody Guthrie is a reworking of "Goodnight, Irene." This borrowing is not unusual in the folk tradition.

At my camp we sang Tom Paxton's "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound," which was one of my favorites. Many years after learning it at a campfire one summer, I got a hold of a Paxton album and listened to him sing it. And his melody was different - and stunk! Well, it didn't really stink, it just wasn't the one I knew. Not radically different as far as tempo and range and overall feel, but not the same.

Then someone pointed out to me that the Ajawah version of "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound" is sung to the tune of "Blowing In the Wind" (with an additional and crucial three notes in the chorus for the second "where I'm bound."

Maybe I will investigate some day, but I wonder how this happened. Was it introduced this way? Just at Ajawah? Or from somewhere else? Or did the original tune morph over time into the more familiar one that Dylan wrote?

Friday, February 22, 2008

Tom Dooley - Song #9

There is a lot of good information on the web for "Tom Dooley" that a simple search will turn up, so I won't go into much detail on that. But the song is based on an actual event, which always makes a tune more interesting to me. How much is fact and how much is fiction is always debatable, but something in that mix must resonate, given "Tom Dooley"s resonance through the decades.

I always noticed the unique POV - the verses are first person, the choruses second person. Can you think of any other songs that do this? And it's not like different people sing the two parts in any version I've been part of or heard.

The last verse's lines about "down in some lonesome valley, hanging from a white oak tree" calls to mind Judas Iscariot, intentionally, I presume.

In Wilkes, NC, where the murder took place, has a Tom Dooley Museum and an annual play about the love triangle. Here is a link to the theatre:

Tom Dooley's last words: "“Gentlemen, do you see this hand? I never harmed a hair on Laura Foster’s head”

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Excellent new album out

I was on iTunes yesterday an in the new CDs section they featured "People Take Warning: Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs 1913-1938," which features 70 old time recordings. A number of songs about the Titanic, the Wreck of the Old 97, and other such cheery topics. Here is a link to a version of "Tom Dooley" which is not like the smooth, well-known Kingston Trio hit record:

Grayson and Whitter

Check it out... any songs stand out to you?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Group singing article in NY Times

This appeared almost two weeks ago, but better late than never. It's good to see that the joy of singing these great songs in informal groups is having a revival, or at least remains strong with a niche of followers across America.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Blow Ye Winds - Song #8

Let me pass this on from my friend, Gary, a long time camper and counselor who now lives in Fresno:

Here are some more verses to that whaling song. At Camp Ajawah we sang only verses: #1,4,10,11,and 12. Even those verses were modified a bit. Was it to simplify the vocabulary or did the person teaching the song to camp do it by memory?

'Tis advertised in Boston,
New York and Buffalo,
Five hundred brave Americans,
A-whaling for to go, singing,

Blow, ye winds in the morning,
And blow, ye winds, high-o!
Clear away your running gear,
And blow, ye winds, high-o!

2. They send you to New Bedford,
That famous whaling port,
And give you some land-sharks
To board and fit you out.

3. They send you to a boarding house,
There for a time to dwell;
The thieves they there are thicker
Than the other side of hell!

4. They tell you of the clipper ships
A-going in and out,
And say you'll take five hundred sperm
Before you're six months out.

5. It's now we're out to sea, my boys,
The wind comes on to blow;
One half the watch is sick on deck,
The other half below.

6. But as for the provisions,
We don't get half enough;
A little piece of stinking beef
And a blamed small bag of duff.

7. Now comes that damned old compass,
It will grieve your heart full sore.
For theirs is two and thirty points
And we have forty four.

8. Next comes the running rigging,
Which you're all supposed to know;
'Tis "Lay aloft, you son of a gun,
Or overboard you go!"
9. The coopers's at the vise bench,
A-making iron poles,
And the mate's upon the main hatch
A-cursing all our souls.

10. The Skipper's on the quarterdeck
A-squinting at the sails,
When up aloft the lookout sights
A school of whales.

11. "Now clear away the boats, my boys,
And after him we'll travel,
But if you get too near his fluke,
He'll kick you to the devil!"

12. Now we have got him turned up,
We tow him alongside;
We over with our blubber hooks,
And rob him of his hide.

13. Now the boat steerer overside
The tackle overhauls,
The Skipper's in the main-chains,
So loudly does he bawl!

14. Next comes the stowing down, my boys,
'Twill take both night and day,
And you'll all have fifty cents apiece
On the hundred and ninetieth lay.

15. Now we are bound into Tonbas,
That blasted whaling port,
And if you run away, my boys,
You surely will get caught.

16. Now we are bound into Tuckoona,
Full more in their power,
Where the skippers can buy the Consul up
For half a barrel of flour!

17. But now that our old ship is full
And we don't give a damn,
We'll bend on all our stu'nsails
And sail for Yankee land.

18. When we get home, our ship made fast,
And we get through our sailing,
A winding glass around we'll pass
And damn this blubber whaling!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Johnny Appleseed - Song # 8

This song appears to be sung as a grace before meals at many camps, by Girl Scouts, by church youth groups. It was one of a handful of songs we sang standing at our tables in the mess hall before eating. I thought it had probably been written by a parson or school teacher a hundred years ago and passed along.

But a quick search finds that, like yesterday's song, it was composed by professional songwriters. In this case, the team of Kim Cannon and Walter Kent wrote it for a Disney short on Johnny Appleseed in 1948.

Who knew?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Early in the Mornin' - Song #7

I always liked this simple song, which begins "I remember Grandpa telling me that I was born as the sun was coming up early (pronounced "ur-lie" for some reason) in the morn." It's in the tradition of the restless rambler who comes and goes, which I guess is why I like it. Other songs in this vein include Rambling Man (both the Hank Williams and Allman Brothers songs), Please Come to Boston, I've Been Everywhere, etc.

Couldn't find a recording on iTunes, but looked it up and found that it's a Kingston Trio song, written by Randy Starr and Dick Wolf (no, not the Law & Order producer). But it's based on the old sea shanty, "What do you do with a drunken sailor," so feels older than its 1950s origins.

Of course, there are a number of Kingston Trio songs on my list - Charlie and the MTA, Tijuana Jail, Tom Dooley being the three biggies - but now I will have to track down their recording of this song as well.

Monday, February 11, 2008

One Meat Ball (The Little Man) - song #6

When I searched iTunes for versions of this song, I could only find a bluesy version with modified lyrics. The way we sung this song was to sing a two-line rhyme and then repeat it. The first time through, the melody has a fun leap; the second is the same until the end, when it dips down and resolves.

It starts "The little man walked up and down, to see what he could find in to-how-hown; the little man walked up and down to see what he could find in town."

The odd story then unfolds of the little man going into a nice place, ordering a meatball, getting yelled at by the waiter when he asks for bread, and then going outside and killing himself.

The black humor always appealed to me, as did the dynamics of singing the little man's lines gently and the waiter's line gruffly. So why could I only find a version with a very different feel on iTunes?

Turns out in 1944 the original song was rewritten by two professional songwriters and eventually became a signature song for Josh White. The Andrews Sisters and Ry Cooder are among many others who have recorded this version.

But the true origins date back to the mid 19th century, when it was composed as a ditty by a Harvard professor, used in an opera buffa performed to raise money during the Civil War, and perhaps based upon a "Boston fact."

Two good links:

Does anyone know of a recording of this with the original melody?

Friday, February 8, 2008

Camp songs in commercials

Once or twice a year I will hear a familiar tune being used by the plunderers of Madison Avenue. I don't really begrudge the commercializing of public domain songs as it's usually interesting to see how they are used.

As a matter of fact, I recently saw a pretty creative commercial that uses "The Happy Wanderer" as its score; at the end, it turned out to be a commercial for

Here it is:

Have you heard this one? Or any other commercial uses of a summer camp song?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

iMix of 70+ songs from Camp Ajawah

I've spent a fair amount of time finding which Ajawah songs are available on iTunes; some are covered a zillion times; some not at all; and some take a little research to see what various titles have been used for the same song.

In this collection, I tried to take the "best" version available, tried to choose a variety of styles, and in some cases was unable to find versions I have found elsewhere. Please send me any suggestions or comments. The link is on the top left corner of the page, in case you missed it.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Song #5 - I've Got Sixpence

Back to the UK for this one. I will write more about this song some other time, but for now I just want to provide a link that gives chords and lyrics for "I've Got Sixpence," because I just discovered this useful site:

The interesting thing about the page for this song is that it tells the origins of the song - it was sold for a pint of beer...