The Kingston Trio – The Songs We Liked (And Those We Didn’t!)
by Rake & Rambler Sandy Seay
The Kingston Trio was the first really popular folk group of the late ‘50’s and early 60’s. A small number of folk groups had come along earlier, like the Weavers and the Tarriers, et. al, but none of them hit the skyrocketing popularity of the Kingston Trio. Other folk groups followed the Trio and were very successful, as well, like Peter, Paul and Mary, the Brothers Four, the Chad Mitchell Trio and the Journeymen, but none of them reached the heights of success like the Kingston Trio. I suppose you could put the Limelighters in this middle group, but they had a bit of a different schtick and we didn’t do any of their songs. We tended to gravitate toward the more authentic folk singers of the time, like the magnificent Ian & Sylvia -- we did a lot of their songs . . . .
According to their website, www.kingstontrio.com, the KT was the leading folk group during a period of time from 1957 to 1963. Their name comes from Kingston, Jamaica, and the original members were Bob Shane, Nick Reynolds and Dave Guard. Shane and Guard were from Hawaii and had played together in high school, while Reynolds was from California. For the most part, Shane played the 6 string guitar and Reynolds played the 4 string tenor guitar, while Guard played the long neck Vega banjo, invented by Pete Seeger. He began with a strum and a particular 2 finger style (see “The Escape of Old John Webb) and later added the clawhammer style so that today he is recognized as an innovator of the folk banjo style of play. It’s interesting to note that they switched instruments on “Tom Dooley,” with Shane playing the single string intro to the song and Guard on the guitar. On some of the up tempo songs, Reynolds would occasionally play the bongos.
Owing to an internal argument, Dave Guard left the Trio in 1961 and was replaced by John Stewart, who also played the long neck banjo, as well as 6 string and 12 string guitar. Stewart was a prolific songwriter and he was a perfect fit for the Trio. Some commentators refer to the Kingston Trio as the Guard years and the Stewart years. Even as folk music hit the skids following the British Invasion of the mid-60’s, the Kingston Trio continued to play and the group has preserved the music and performs in some fashion up to this very day. My friend Stewart Hall and I had the opportunity to hear them place in an outdoor concert near Tampa several years ago and we felt that they put on a terrific concert and that the music sounded exactly the same, just like the Kingston Trio!
When the Rake & Ramblin’ 4 began playing together in 1963, we found that we liked songs from different groups, but we preferred the more authentic songs of Woody Guthrie, Ian & Sylvia, the Carter Family, Doc Watson and others. So when it came to the Kingston Trio, we had a love/hate relationship with them. We loved some of their songs and really enjoyed singing them but others were not as appealing to us. In many cases, the Trio would take a perfectly good traditional folk song and then change the lyrics, the tune and the tempo, in order to make it more contemporary or, as we said, “commercial.” This was not always pleasing.
* Songs We Really Liked.
I suppose one of the most popular folk songs of the period was “500 Miles.” Many groups covered the song but none of them performed it as hauntingly beautiful as the Kingston Trio. It is such a lovely song both in the tune and the lyrics that we continue to sing it to this day. Another similar song is “Chilly Winds,” written by John Stewart, with its exquisite rolling guitar intro and its evocative lyrics. “If you’re feeling lonely, if you’re feeling low, Remember that I loved you, more than you will ever know, Going where them chilly winds don’t blow.” Their version of the Woody Guthrie song, “Hobo’s Lullaby,” pretty much can’t be beat and if I do say so myself, the rendition of “When I Was Young,” recorded by Dave and me at Books, Strings & Things in 1966, is pretty doggone good. “When I was young, and dreams were new, I loved a girl, who looked like you, I saw her face, in mountain streams . . . we lingered there and lost ourselves in dreams.”
As the Rake & Ramblin’ 4, we also liked some of their up tempo songs and performed them mostly for the fun of the music and for the enjoyment of the song. Examples include “Greenback Dollar,” Tijuana Jail” and “Buddy, Better Get on Down the Line.”
* Songs We Just Didn’t Know What To Do With.
There were a number of Kingston Trio songs that we just didn’t know what to do with, for various reasons. We liked the songs, but they just didn’t fit into our style of music. Some of them include “The Escape of Old John Webb,” “Two-Ten, Six-Eighteen,” “Take Her Out of Pity,” “It Was a Very Good Year,” “Pullin’ Away” and others. I don’t recall singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” because it was a protest song and we didn’t do protest songs. Looking back from the vantage point of many years and the Viet-Nam experience for our generation, I understand this song differently and would now sing it with a tear in my eye and a catch in my voice. “Where have all the young men gone, Gone to soldiers every one, When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?” Plato must have been right when he wrote, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
* Songs We Didn’t Like At All . . .
And then there were others, songs that we just plain didn’t like and others that we felt the Trio had changed too much from the original. The old Carter Family classic, “A Worried Man,” is an example. The KT version bears no resemblance to the Carter Family original. I won’t say that this is necessarily a bad thing but it was not our cup of tea. On the other hand, songs that we absolutely refused to do include “Three Jolly Coachmen,” “The MTA,” “The Merry Minuet,” “The Tattooed Lady” (don’t ask . . .), “Zombie Jamboree” and “Tom Dooley.” At least, we didn’t do the KT version – Dave later taught us the original, recorded by Doc Watson and others. I expect that we might have done “The Sloop John B,” but that one wasn’t a keeper . . . . And I’ll admit to liking their version of the Woody Guthrie song, “The Sinking of the Reuben James,” even if it is a bit overdone. Stewart does a good job on the banjo with finger picking and frailing within the same song. And I don’t think Woody would have been too thrilled with their version of “This Land is Your Land.”
* The Chestnut.
There is one song, however, that stands alone, and that is “Scotch and Soda.” It’s not a folk song, it’s just a pretty tune with cool and engaging lyrics. Bob Shane sang the song solo for the Trio and it’s a one-of-a-kind experience. At the concert in Tampa, the Trio told us that Frank
Sinatra had wanted to sing the song but upon hearing Bob Shane sing it, he refused, saying that no one could compete with Shane’s version. Maybe this is true and maybe not, but there’s no doubt that Shane hits it out of the park. The story is that Dave Guard was dating a girl named Katie Seaver who lived in Fresno, California. In 1953, Guard and Shane stopped by the Seaver house while driving from Stanford to L.A. and Katie’s father entertained them with a song he had heard in 1932, in a piano lounge in Phoenix. They asked the piano player to write it down, which he did, but never signed it. Shane and Guard liked it and took the song back with them and it has become the most popular Kingston Trio song of them all, even though the original composer is unknown. Incidentally, Katie Seaver’s brother, Tom, was 9 at the time but grew up to be one of the greatest major league pitchers in history. Imagine, in your mind’s eye, a young man and young girl, sitting alone by the Duck Pond at VPI, listening to these words with rapturous heart and the tender soul of innocence . . . “All I need is one of your smiles, sunshine of your eye, Oh me Oh my, do I feel higher than a kite can fly, Give me lovin’ Baby . . . I feel high.”
In retrospect, there was a lot to like about the Kingston Trio. We sang many of their songs and we still like to sing them today. Some of their other songs weren’t so hot, at least to us, but there is no question of the Kingston Trio’s huge impact on the music. Bob Shane is the only original member of the Trio alive today at age 84 and he is in poor health. Dave Guard died in 1991 at age 56. Nick Reynolds died in 2008 at age 75. In closing, I would simply say to all of us who love the music of the period, the lasting friendships and the tender, callow and unformed moments of youth . . .
“If I were young and dreams were new,
I’d love a girl who looked like you,
I’d hold her close, if she’d agree
To love perhaps a boy who looked like me.”
Thanks, fellas . . . Bob, Dave, Nick and John . . .
The Rake & Ramblin’ 4