Album Review

Kingston Trio - The Essential

Kingston Trio - The Essential...

With the passage of many years, well-considered opinions frequently become prejudices, unless freshened by re-examination. I remember quite well that I disliked the Kingston Trio's music, but for the life of me I can't say why, except that they weren't "ethnic" enough for me in 1958. The one thing I recall clearly is their treatment of "Tom Dooley", a song that resonated strongly because of my acquaintance-through-letters with Frank Proffitt, the informant who gave the song to Frank Warner, the collector. In a long letter to me, Proffitt describes unexpectedly seeing the Kingston Trio sing that song, which meant so much to him, on his new black-and-white TV: "They clowned and hipswung. Then they came out with 'This time tomorrow, reckon where I'll be/If it hadn't a' been for Grayson/I'd a been in Tennessee.' I began to feel sorty sick. Like I'd lost a loved one. Tears came to my eyes. I went out and bawled on the ridge." After hearing the Kingstons' "Tom Dooley", their only #1 single, I stopped listening to them. It made me, the purist, "sorty sick." But I determined to revisit this recording of their old hits with fresh ears and re-examine my prejudice-encrusted opinions. It is hard to generalize about these 40 songs. They were done more than 40 years ago, and one doesn't like to pan the efforts of youngsters who have undoubtedly matured over the years, as I hope I have. Still, I hear and see very little respect for the folk genre here. Well over half these songs are folk or obviously folk-inspired. But only four are labeled traditional: "Tom Dooley", "When The Saints Go Marching In", "Haul Away" and "Roddy McCorley". There are seven originals. Most of the rest are a mishmash of twisted arrangements that not only obscure the true beauty of the folk songs from which they derive, but give them a meaning they never had. "Keep My Skillet Good And Greasy" is a fine old folk song that paints a marvelous portrait of a lovable country ne'er-do-well. Here it is renamed "Honey Are You Mad At Your Man", with an interesting but totally inappropriate instrumental arrangement, and the addition of a chorus from which the new title derives. I thoroughly enjoyed "Bonny Hielan' Laddie". I don't know if it's a "real" folk song or not. It is ascribed to Dave Guard and Joe Hickerson, and Joe certainly knows his stuff when it comes to the real thing. It shows me that the Trio is capable of the sensitivity and respect our folk heritage deserves, even if they were not trying to sound authentic. They were influenced to a large degree by the Weavers. Unlike the Weavers, though, they are mostly climax with very little buildup (see "Lonesome Traveler" and "Reuben James"). They sing "I Had A Sister Sally", renamed "Take Her Out Of Pity", fairly straight, but the ooo-ooo chorus behind the singing is disgusting -- destroying, as it does, the true meaning of the song. With only two or three exceptions, very little of the true beauty of our folk heritage is evident in this recording; only the bombast and insulting humor. What I like best about the Kingston Trio is that they used no instruments beyond their banjo and two guitars. I think I heard a bass, but no orchestras. Even the Weavers succumbed to the pressure of their producers to record with orchestras. I like it because I believe it was, in great part, the reason so many youngsters, mainly from the colleges, formed imitative groups. And for this we can thank them.