Thursday, June 17, 2010



Over fifty years have passed since the The Kingston Trio's close harmonies first made an impact on record buyers. Sporting haircuts that you could set your watch by, with vocal arrangements as sharp as their matching shirts, these guys were also excellent musicians. Their success was a product of possessing a fine ear for arranging traditional tunes coupled with raw talent. Commercially, folk music hit a rare peak in the early 60s due to the pioneering work of Dave Guard, Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds.

Criticized by purists at the time for taking more of a populist approach to the music that they turned out, hindsight reveals more versatility than audience pandering in their material.

From the Hungry i was the second release by the group in 1959 and was excerpted from two nights of recordings made during their month long engagement at this venerable San Francisco venue. "Tic Tic Tic" is my personal favorite. Tight playing and singing is the rule, rather than the exception with nary a note out of place.

Despite their appeal, they were often dogged by a dark, disingenuous cloud for claiming traditional songs that had fallen into the category of public domain as their own. It's one thing to co-opt dusty old melodies from another century (and many artists did so), though when they attempted to take credit for Pete Seeger's (co-written by Joe Hickerson) poignant "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", he politely asked that they drop any pretense of authorship.

For all that, their rendition is nothing short of perfect. Featured on The College Concert, it is one of many highlights on their first live disc with John Stewart who had replaced founding member Dave Guard in 1961. Guard's departure was apparently not amicable.

Nostalgia has been the primary driver for having these discs in rotation for the past few weeks. My parents had both of these LPs and I used to listen to them quite a bit as a child. (The cartoon depiction of the streets of San Francisco on the Hungry i album cover seemed like a page out of a coloring book to a four year old and I used it accordingly.)

Both sets hold up quite well.

The lads began to fall out of favor in the mid-sixties as more serious social concerns called for stronger language. People who chose to get their folk on now turned to singer/songwriters whose work reflected the turbulence of the times. British invasion bands helped swing the pendulum back toward rock.

Inevitably, they would call it a day in 1967, though the act has been revived with different line-ups in the intervening years.

I have made a few alterations to this write up in light of some great information passed on by writer Jim Moran via the comment section. His blog is a treasure trove of insightful pieces on folk music . Currently, there is an excellent post on Bob Shane which is a must read for fans of the Kingston Trio.


Jim Moran said...

Always nice to find a well-considered and finely written appreciation of the Kingston Trio - so please don't think me ungracious if I suggest a couple of alternative thoughts.

In the lead paragraph, you suggest that folk music was enjoying a surge in popularity when the KT came along. Not so at all. Folk music did not exist commercially as a separate entity for the major record companies, and folk records on very small labels like Folkways and Vanguard were impossible to find outside of a small number of urban centers like NYC and SF where the equally obscure performers of it (some of whom subsequently became famous) plied their trade in basement coffee houses.

It was the truly staggering success of record album sales of the early KT that created the mainstream market for folk-styled music and sent A&R men from all the major labels scurrying to find their own version of Capitol Records' largest selling vocal group before the Beatles - and in '58- '61, the KT outsold Capitol stalwarts like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole.

When the first Grammy Awards were handed out in spring of 1959 for 1958, the Trio's "Tom Dooley" (which had sold at that time three million units as a single, on its way to six) was awarded the first Grammy for "Best Performance - Country and Western" - because no folk category existed. That was rectified in the following year when the Trio one the first Grammy presented for a folk performance for their album "At Large" which had spent sixteen weeks atop Billboard's album charts and is still in the top 15 albums all time for that distinction.

Substantiation for this abounds on the web, but a good summary of it exists (easy to Google) in Time Magazine editor Richard Corliss' article from 2003 titled "Get Along, Little Folkie." The article on Wikipedia that I authored on the group a year ago is also comprehensive and thoroughly documented.

While I completely concur with your paragraph 4 ref. to the dark cloud that hung over the group for copyrights of public domain songs, that cloud was likelier the result of jealousy at the Trio's success and distaste for their commercialism rather than any sense of purity of intention. To say that everyone else did it as well - and here I mean such saintly figures of the folk/roots music movement as AP Carter, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Weavers, and literally EVERYone else - is to belabor the obvious. What all of these folks did was copyright THEIR arrangements of public domain songs - they were just generally less successful at it than the KT was.

The Seeger/Flowers story also isn't exactly as presented here - David Dunaway in his biography of Seeger presents the story as a friendly phone call from Pete to KT founder Dave Guard, who quickly supposedly changed the copyright info.

The problem is - Dave Guard never hear PP&M in Boston doing the song (which is where the Trio got it) and had left the group in a split so acrimonious that he didn't speak to anyone associated with the KT for more than a decade. IF Seeger's memory is correct (and I suspect he may have been confusing "Flowers" with some other earlier KT/Weavers copyright dust-up) - the story as Dunaway relates it is still inaccurate. Whoever Pete or Harold Levanthal (manager) spoke to, it wasn't Guard.

At this point, I'm sure you wouldn't be surprised to learn that I have a blog on Blogger (called Comparative Video 101) that focuses on folk music and uses the KT as something of a prism through which to view it, and that I'm working on a longer and more comprehensive project about the group and the times as well.

I've enjoyed scrolling through some of your other pieces (nice work on Dio) and look forward to more.

I sure hope you don't mind extended comments!


Jim Moran

Sean Coleman said...

Hi Jim,

Thank you very much for your comments, as they are very welcome here. Perhaps I jumped the gun on the folk craze by a couple of years, though I had intended to set it up better by stating that the folk tradition was the proverbial sleeping giant-around for eons before it really started attracting revenue for performers in the early 60s.

The information that you've provided here is fantastic. It had been a long time since I had listened to the Kingston Trio and I have been happily delving back into their stuff recently.

I will definitely be visiting your blog.

Thank you again,


Vinny "Bond" Marini said...

I also have some vinyl of the KT. Though they have not come out of the shelf in a long time.

Jim Moran said...

Hey Sean and Vinny -

The old KT might be worth a second listen some time - their stuff seemed pretty simple on the surface at times, but it was enormously influential. If you look at my Wikipedia article on the group in the last section under "Influence," you'd be amazed at how many rock, pop, and country artists of the later 60s and 70s and following have cited the KT as an influence. (Not Dio, I'm sure, but even I was blown away that both Kantner and Balin from the Airplane started off their musical careers in KT clone groups).

Great site, Sean - I've been enjoying paging through the several years of posts and looking for your comments on my favorite rock groups. Glad to see someone is still writing about real music.


Jim M.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Lovely voices. I only remember them vaguely but my husband more. Where did things like harmony go?

Perplexio said...

Their harmonies were really tight. It's tough to find harmony like that these days (unless you know where to look).

I think the closest any rock/pop band ever came to matching the KT's vocal harmonies was Little River Band.

Folk bands on the other hand-- like Peter, Paul, & Mary seemed to be more in tune with finding those magical and aurally beautiful harmonies.

Great review!