Posts Tagged ‘Pete Seeger’

Archie Comics Cover _608It’s always interesting to discover something new — a few interesting facts or the true backstory — about things that have been in plain sight for most of your life.  Take for instance the song Black and White , released in 1972 by the pop band Three Dog Night.  The song went to #1 on the pop charts here and, with its pleasant beat and gentle message of racial equality, has been a staple of oldies radio for decades now.

I never really thought much about the song even though I’ve heard it hundreds of times over the years, even singing along with the lyrics that have been embossed in my synapses with repeated listening.  It came on the radio in our car the other day and Cheri and I couldn’t agree on who had written the song.  Three Dog Night didn’t write many of their own songs, most being penned by other, more notable songwriters– Hoyt Axton, Laura Nyro, Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, Elton John and others.  So whenever we hear one of their songs we try to identify the original songwriter.  But we drew a blank with Black and White.

Looking it up, we were both surprised that it was written in 1954 by songwriters Earl Robinson and David Arkin, a blacklisted teacher and set-designer who was the father of actor Alan Arkin.   This fact  made sense to me because I knew that Alan Arkin was a folksinger in the 1950’s, scoring a hit that went to #4 on the charts with a version of the The Banana Boat Song with his group, the Tarriers.

The song was written to celebrate the Supreme Court decision in the landmark case  Brown v Board of Education which outlawed segregation in public schools and was first recorded in 1956 by Pete Seeger.  In the original version, which Seeger sang, the beginning lyrics are different than the ones that so many of us who know the song through the Three Dog Night version remember– the ink is black/the page is white/ together we learn to read and write.  The original deals directly with the supreme court decision:

Their robes were black, Their heads were white,

The schoolhouse doors were closed so tight,

Nine judges all set down their names,

To end the years and years of shame.

The 1972 version that Three Dog Night recorded was based on one that was recorded a year before, in  1971, by a British group, Greyhound, that had a hit in the UK with it.  The Greyhound hit did not use these original lines anywhere in their version and Three Dog Night merely copied  this.  Though it doesn’t greatly diminish the song, it would be nice to have these lines in the song.  Perhaps by 1971 or 1972 they felt that the 1954 Supreme Court decision was no longer topical or relevant.

So, there you have it: a seemingly innocuous and pleasant song with some real history behind it.

Here’s a 1970 version from the Jamaican band The Maytones.  I believe that Greyhound‘s version of the following year came from this one.

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Most people immediately think of Roberta Flack when they think of the song The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, and for good reason.  Her 1972 version was  truly beautiful and deserved every bit of the acclaim it earned.  But the song didn’t originate with her and has had many versions through the years, including one of my favorites from Johnny Cash, which you can see below. 

The song’s history began in 1957.  Iy was written by Ewan MacColl,  a British folk singer who is a very interesting character in his own right.  He was a married man who fell in love with the much younger Peggy Seeger, the half-sister of folk icon Pete Seeger.  He later married Seeger.  MacColl wrote the song about her and for her to perform.  She needed a song for a play she was appearing in here in the USA so MacColl wrote the song and taught it to her via the telephone as he was barred from entering the States because of his Communist ties.  As I said, he was an interesting character.   Her original version is lovely with different phrasing than the better known Flack version.  I’ve also included a similarly performed and charming version from Peter, Paul and Mary.

Cash’s version is much more ponderous.  It is from his American series near the end of his life.  His voice was weaker and even rawer than in his younger days but Cash used it in an incredibly expressive way, giving the song  the feeling of a dirge as he looked back from a point near the end of his and his wife’s life, to an earlier time in his life and the fresh discovery of love.  It is both beautiful and sad. 

Just a great song.

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Saw a PBS documentary on the history of the banjo in American music last night and qhile it wasn’t the greatest documentary I have ever seen there were a few stories that really stuck out for me, primarily the story of Dock Boggs, who lived in the minig region that straddles southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky, was born in 1898 and as a young man picked up the banjo and developed a distinctive style of playing.  In the late 1920’s he gained a bit of regional fame with his music and recorded 12 songs in two separate sessions.

Then his career died in the dust of the Great Depression and he pawned his banjo and headed back into the coal mines, his music put away for what he thought was forever.

Thirty years passed and folklorist/folk musician Mike Seeger, brother of folk icon Pete Seeger, was seeking out Appalachian music to document in 1963 and remembered the impact of those few songs from Dock Boggs’ past.  Boggs was surprised when Seeger sought him out because he thought nobody remembered those songs from so many years before.  Fortunately, Boggs had recently purchased a banjo and had been practicing for a few months.  Seeger convinced him to appear at a folk festival in Asheville, NC and after that his career was revitalized in the folk revival of the 1960’s.

He recorded three albums and toured, playing folk festivals including an appearnace at the Newport Folk Festival, until his death in 1971 at the age of 73.  He left this world knowing that the gift he was given had not been completely lost in the coal mines.  I think it’s a great tale of a life’s passion lost and found.  Could be the subject of one of his songs.

Here’s an older Dock Boggs playing one of his classics, Country Blues.  This version is a bit more sudbued and a little less ominous than the original, recorded when he was young and still living a hard-drinking, brawling life.  You can hear the original here.

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