Saturday, February 19, 2011

Peter, Paul & Mary: See What Tomorrow Brings (1965)

1965's See What Tomorrow Brings was PP&M's last all-acoustic album. The last of their folk-revival albums: the following year they'd get with the program, as it were, and grow a band (largely people who had recorded with Dylan). They'd use ee-leck-triss-itty. They'd be playing, to quote a phrase, folk-rock.

Did they already know that's what they were going to do? Did they see mene mene tekel upharsin written on the studio wall, as Paul Simon sang? Is that what the title of this record means - and perhaps the cover, with a curiously isolated-looking trio walking hand-in-hand against the elements, preparing to brave a new world of pop music?



The title is also a line from their version of the classic shoot-'em-up "Betty & Dupree," a song that debates the possibility that tomorrow could bring a diamond ring. Or sunshine. Or a double cop-murder and prison. Or a taxi to Baltimore. Or a note from your baby. Or nothing at all.

It's the strongest thing on the record, and it's a good chance to explore just what PP&M could do, and where they fit. I wish I knew a little more about this song. It seems to be one of those Af-Am folk archetype things, like Stagger Lee (man shoots man over unforgivable wrong, and/or because he's a badass mofo) and Frankie & Johnnie/Albert (woman shoots man because he's been doin' her wrong). Here man gets in trouble because woman wants a diamond ring. Not money, not commitment, not per se: it's the specificity of the diamond ring that seems to be common across all versions, and not just because it makes a nice rhyme.

Where did PP&M learn it? I don't know. A lot of people were singing it in the late '50s and early '60s, both in and out of the folk revival. Given his importance to participants in the Folk Revival (he's one of those names you always run into in accounts of the period), I have no doubt they knew Josh White's version. He goes into great detail about the crime, the arrest, the trial - all things that appear in PP&M's version, although they compress things quite a bit. They may also have known Chuck Willis's version, an R&B hit; Willis's version, as was common practice at the time, left out the crime, but not the diamond ring, so as to make it a Top-40 friendly picture of gettin' engaged. Which makes it a classic example of the double-tongued speech that was happening in R&B in the '50s: listeners who knew the song (African-American listeners, particularly older ones, and a few white hipsters) knew very well what it was about without Willis having to finish the tale, while listeners who didn't know the song would have had no clue. Which raises the question: what is he really singing about? Who can say?

PP&M's version is full of crime and punishment, but departs from both those precedents by being quite upbeat. Up-tempo, that is: fast and rhythmic and good-timey, which makes the lovers' vows of faithfulness - both before and after the crime - really come across, really stick in the memory. But they don't expurgate the violence: they remain true to the story, such as they have it. Which creates a knowing irony - Dupree is still a man bound for jail or the chair, Betty is still a woman bound for loneliness and misery - but lie down, see what tomorrow brings... I think it shows just how smart and careful PP&M were: there's real complexity in the stance of narrator/singer toward the story here, in the gaps between the events and the mood of the telling. And a real unforgettable musical energy here. It's darn close to being my favorite version of the song.

For that dubious honor, it's tied with the Grateful Dead's adaptation of it, "Dupree's Diamond Blues."

The Dead, most of them, were old folkies. Garcia, Weir, and McKernan had all come up through the college/club folk scene of SF, Palo Alto, Berkeley. This fact can never be stressed enough, because it explains just too much about the underpinnings of Grateful Dead music, about the values, both concrete/musical and abstract/intellectual, that ruled their thirty-year project. It was a three-decade engagement with The Tradition: with history itself. (Among other things.)

In the early days, the five-man garage-rock Grateful Dead played "Betty & Dupree." You can hear the best surviving rendition of it here. (And dig that intro: "and beatniks! More beatniks than you can count on two hands." This is why we love the Grateful Dead.) I happen to love this performance: it's early Jerry at his most passionate, really nailing a ballad, with the underwater guitar and the wailing vocals. The band behind him is no quartet of slouches either, setting up a gently-swaying groove that compared nicely, for a bunch of semi-pros, with what Chuck Willis had mustered for his version.

And it's clearly Willis's version that the Dead are thinking of here. Not just because their arrangement (and particularly their tempo) approximates his, but because they truncate the lyric in the same way. No rooty-toot-toot of the pistols. But again, what is Jerry really singing about? I find it hard to imagine that he didn't know the PP&M version, released just the previous year; he likely knew Josh White's as well. And his audience, that night in the Matrix - were they ignorant teeny-boppers, or, as he suggests, beatniks - did they know what happened after the promise of the diamond ring?

Less than a year later, the Dead would be joined by Jerry's former singing partner, Robert Hunter, an old folkie himself; Hunter would take over lyric-writing for the band. And in 1969 he produced a rewrite of the "Betty & Dupree" story that would show up on the Dead's third album, Aoxomoxoa. In the intervening years, of course, the Dead had pulled away from their electric jug-band roots and become fearless explorers of intrastellar space, a side of themselves that this third album was meant to confirm. And yet even at their most spaciest, it seemed they couldn't entirely disentangle themselves from the knotty roots of their music, and so Hunter gave them "Dupree's Diamond Blues," and they played and sang it right, complete with banjo.

Hunter, of course, knew what the song was about, and he foregrounds it in his version. He tells it from Dupree's point of view, and pulls no punches: Dupree's baby wants that diamond ring more than any old thing, Dupree goes shoots the jewelry man and has to have that talk with the judge. Everything hidden in Willis's version is out in the open here: the crime, the punishment. And more: it's not quite love, but sheer need for jelly roll (if you have to ask...), that drives Dupree to armed robbery. And even more: Hunter quite cynically reverses the love-pledging found in all the earlier versions (including Garcia's own), by revealing that Betty was never faithful to Dupree - the judge knows her well. The law's corrupt, and so are wimmen. But still we needs us that jelly roll...

If it weren't for the fact that there are also faithful women (and even a few faithful men) in Hunter's rogues' gallery, this might be inexcusable. As is, I don't think it's meant to stand as a judgment upon all relations between the sexes so much as it is offered as an interpretation of the story being told in all those earlier versions - a cynical take, but not by any means one unjustified by other strands in the traditional tapestry. More than most songwriters of his generation, I think Hunter was (at times) striving to really fit into the folk process, add his two cents but make sure they had been properly earned, and that they were coin from the right realm.

For the record, I think the Dead's latter-day renditions of this song (such as the 1990 take on Dozin' At The Knick) were better than the earlier ones. I dig the psychedelic banjo on the studio take, and the Cheshire-cat grooviness of the psychedelic-cowboy version, but, like Dylan, I think Jerry as he got older achieved a kind of age-and-experience-related stature, a vocal soulfulness but also an authority, that allowed him to sing this kind of folk-derived material more convincingly than he could when he was a young whippersnapper.


But anyway, I do feel a restlessness on this last folk record of PP&M's, a desire to see what tomorrow might bring if only they walk out to meet it, and an attendant willingness to shake up their formula, if only in small ways. They start with a ballad, for example, rather than a rousing gospel number. They do no Dylan. They continue the Irish-music experiments they'd started on the previous record. They do more contemporary songs (another Gordon Lightfoot, a Travis Edmonson, a Tom Paxton, one by Ewan MacColl). They adapt a piece by Bach. They add drums to one number...

As an album it doesn't really jell as well as previous outings, but song for song it's as strong as anything after their second. It has many pleasures on offer...

And it would be their last album of their first run together that I would consider in any way folk. It's not just a matter of plugging in: there's also some dropping out happening with them in 1966. They disengage from the tradition: from their next album on it was all contemporary songwriters, or originals. No more were their albums opportunities to spelunk in the twisty tunnels of musical and lyrical exchange.

No more Bettys and Duprees. That's what tomorrow brought.

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