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.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Ugly Betty

We finished watching Ugly Betty the other night. We only caught a few episodes during its broadcast run, and some of those were out of order, but they were enough to interest us in watching it on DVD.

Ugly Betty (and this is the US version we're talking about: I haven't seen the original) is a great argument for the usual Japanese and British approach to TV dramas, which is to wrap things up in one season. In the US every new series wants to be the next twenty-year wonder, but not every story can be sustained that long, at least not credibly. In the case of Ugly Betty, the series really could have ended at the end of the first season. The first season was, I thought, brilliant, but the quality dropped off at a steady rate over the next three seasons. Basically they had said everything they had to say in the first couple dozen episodes, and after that it was just repetition and variation.

So while I found episodes in every season that I loved - my favorite episode of all might have been the second-to-last of the whole show, when Betty's nephew comes out to his family - I can't help wistfully imagining what it would have been like had the producers just ended it after season 1 - had they planned it to end then, not on a cliffhanger but on a final note. I'm sure it would have been much more artistically satisfying.

Quibbles. For a while there it was the best thing on, I think. In some ways it was mining tried-and-true themes - uptown vs. downtown, working class vs. upper class, innocence vs. experience. And in some ways it was cashing in on the zeitgeist (it was Devil Wears Prada meets Sex in the City, right?). But to all of this it added storylines that I thought it took cast-iron balls to bring into network TV in America in the '00s: Betty's father's immigration status, the exploitative behavior of his caseworker, not to mention Betty's nephew's sexuality, Daniel's brother's transsexuality, and of course the whole question of Betty's appearance. And it pulled it off with ace casting, true performances, and crack writing.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Bob Dylan at the Grammys 2/13/2011

Bob Dylan, resplendent in gold shirt, spats, and ascot, sang "Maggie's Farm" on the Grammys telecast last night. Here's one place you can watch it. You have to wade through the good-natured but forgettable performances of some hip young whippersnappers to get to Bob, but then he takes the stage with members of his regular band, and the whippersnappers are relegated to strumming along and looking giddy.

The thing about Dylan that makes him so hard to get a handle on - perpetually, forever - is that underneath it all, he's a born entertainer. At this point, he's an elder statesman, an institution, a carved-in-granite icon, and all he had to do was show up and sing it like the record. But he's never once just sung anything like the record - instead he showed up and growled his way through the song, sounding like seventy miles of gravel road being raked over a barbed-wire fence. He looked like the ghost of Douglas Fairbanks and sounded like the ghost of Howlin' Wolf: swashbucklers both.

If you get Dylan, it was one of his better televised performances: all wry humor and Chaplin movements, gutbucket enunciations and bag-o'-nails intonations. He rose to the occasion, as much as he still can at age 69.

If you don't get Dylan, you were probably staring at the screen in disbelief, with the same look Jennifer Lopez had on her face when the camera cut to her. Like, huh?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Peter, Paul & Mary: A Song Will Rise (1965)

What do you do when your ship comes in but you don't want to get on?

PP&M put out two records in 1965, of which A Song Will Rise was the first. It varies the formula just slightly, expands their folksong palette nicely, and just does an all-around respectable job of trying to keep things fresh. But the bloom was off the rose by this point. Dylan went electric in January of 1965 - the famous Newport break didn't happen until July, but Bringing It All Back Home was released in March, and he was recording it in January, and don't you think PP&M knew what he was doing the minute he did it, sharing a manager and all?

I don't mean to keep harping on Bob like he was God or something, but within a year or so most of the folkies were plugging in. For all the kicking that attended its commencement, the great rapprochement with rock took about five months. Like Dylan, most of these people had grown up on Buddy Holly and Ricky Nelson, were musician enough to be fascinated by what the Beatles were doing, and could no longer remain untouched by the insights of Motown and Stax. And, besides all of these factors arguing for a louder, livelier musical setting, there was the fact that Dylan had opened the floodgates for young songwriters: people who had been educated in the old songs, but who had found their own lyrical voice, and in doing so left the old songs behind for a more contemporary form of expression. This can't be stressed enough: most important North American rock acts of the late '60s and early '70s came out of the folk revival. Most of the San Francisco psychedelic scene, the whole LA folk-country-rock tribe, and the New York-LA singer/songwriter movement: old folkies every one. The Folk Revival had sown the seeds of its own destruction, really: its popularity had drawn in a generation of smart kids who didn't necessarily have any deep allegiance to old songs, and who sooner or later would grow out of them, dissolving the movement whose ranks they had swollen. (Dylan, as in so many things, was the notable exception: as early as 1967 and the Basement Tapes it becomes clear just how deep his loyalty to old songs runs; in the early '90s he recorded the only all-trad albums of his career. He never left them behind.)

So what we have in A Song Will Rise is not quite a rear-guard action - that would be the role of their next album. This is an album unwittingly made for a moment that had already passed. Like a kid in bed listening to his parents argue in the kitchen down the hall, it may sense, dimly, that momentous things are being debated, but it really doesn't have any idea what's in store for it.

So, dig. The rousing gospel opener slot is given over to a Dylan song this time: tricky. A brace of avians with a single igneous projectile, and so forth. Musically, lyrically, "When The Ship Comes In" is an appropriate choice: energetic, apocalyptic. But it's another selection from The Times They Are A-Changin' - they, like the rest of the folk-revival community, seem to be politely bypassing Another Side Of... as if it were an anomalous bit of self-indulgence on Bob's part - just a phase, rather than his definitive new direction.

And yet the closing slot is occupied by Gordon Lightfoot's "For Lovin' Me." In its own way, this is even more of a nail in the Folk Revival's coffin than all the Dylan songs were. As long as there was only one serious songwriter on the scene, he could be treated as the exception to a traditionalist rule. But then Gordon Lightfoot comes along and shows that Dylan isn't the only one: in fact there were lots of people on the scene who were starting to come up with worthwhile new songs. Songs with a sharper, more individualistic perspective on love than could be found, at least very easily, in the old songs; songs more adult than what was coming out of the Brill Building. Songs that, beyond the fingerpicking, had little to do with folk music.