Duke Ellington once commented
that there are two kinds of music: good music – and the other kind.
Bobby Darin lived his life in accordance with this sage observation.
Throughout his brief but brilliant career he embraced a multitude of
styles from rock-n-roll to swing, rhythm and blues to country, spirituals
to folk. He was equally adept in all genres, and yet his folk recordings
are perhaps the least understood and certainly the most underrated. This
compact disc rectifies that undervaluation, serving as evidence that Darin
was ahead of his time in his appreciation for and interpretation of folk
At the time these recordings
were made, Darin had already established himself as a musical chameleon.
His initial success with “Splish Splash” and “Dream Lover” was
quickly followed by the triumph of “Mack the Knife” and the transition
to so-called “adult music.” From teenybopper to Vegas headliner in
literally months, Darin proved equally adept at Vaudeville-era material,
holding his own in performance with show business veterans such as Jimmy
Durante, George Burns, and Johnny Mercer.
In 1962, Capitol Records lured
Darin away from Atco, the label with which he had first achieved success,
with a contract that at the time was the richest ever for a recording
artist. Capitol was intent on filling the void left by the departure of
Frank Sinatra in 1961. In keeping with this implicit assumption of Ol’
Blue Eyes’ mantle, Darin’s first session for his new label was a Billy
May-arranged collection of standards, Oh! Look At Me Now.
Darin intended his sophomore
release for Capitol to be entirely different. As a forward-looking artist,
he was constantly searching for new sounds and talent. His vision of
popular music was broad, and he was a champion of diversity and
multiculturalism before such terms became part of the American vocabulary.
In May 1962, Darin began
experimenting with a folk music interlude during his live performances. On
tour with the Count Basie Orchestra, the band would lay out while Darin,
accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, performed Leadbelly’s “Cottonfields.”
The Tarriers, a folk group that had scored a hit with “The Banana Boat
Song,” accompanied Darin on other songs during part of this segment.
These performances were the beginning of the album that would become Earthy.
Earthy was conceived as
a presentation of folk music from a variety of cultures. American prison
and chain gang songs are presented along with spirituals, Latin-American
tunes, talking blues, and even a song of Haitian origin. Such a collection
is markedly different from the more common folk material of the Kingston
Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary. In fact, the repertoire has more in common
with the material of Harry Belafonte, who contributed an arrangement of
“La Bamba” to the album.
Darin enlisted an old high
school friend, Walter Raim, to develop arrangements for the rest of the
album. When contacted by Darin, Raim had most recently been working with
Belafonte. Raim later recalled that “He (Darin) saw in folk music a
sophistication of some kind, a higher calling. He had in his mind that he
was doing something more important than singing
standards. He was attracted to the realness, the down-to-earth thing.”
Raim’s arrangements are
suitably sparse. For the most part, guitar, bass, percussion, and vocal
chorus are the only accompaniment. The feeling is one of intimacy, pulling
the listener in and drawing attention to the lyric.
The album opens with two prison
songs – “Long Time Man” and “Work Song”. Both effectively convey
the pathos of the individual who has lost control of his destiny.
Additionally, both songs include nonverbal vocalizations (whistles,
shouts, grunts) that reflect the influence of WPA-era recordings of field
hollers that Darin listened to with his friend/producer Nik Venet. On
“Long Time Man,” an imaginary mule train is coaxed along with
Darin’s whistles and shouts of “Yah!” On “Work Song,” the impact
of the sledgehammer is punctuated by the protagonist’s grunt of
exertion. These added features make the tunes more evocative and therefore
“Work Song” is a
masterpiece. The Nat Adderley-Oscar Brown composition offers a bleak
portrayal of despair driven by poverty and poor choices. Backed only by
bass and drums, Darin’s vocal nuances mesmerize the listener from
beginning to end. The jazz undertone, created by the syncopated bass line
and an unexpected modulation to a higher key create a driving,
tension-filled performance. (For an interesting contrast, listen to Sammy
Davis, Jr.’s version on his collaboration with Count Basie, Our
On “La Bamba” and “Guantanamera,”
additional percussion and Bud Shank’s flute augment the musical
accompaniment. Of particular note are the rhythmic handclaps on “La
Bamba” and Darin’s impish interjection of “Play, Mr. Shank” at the
onset of the flute solo. Although Raim maintains in the original liner
notes that both Latin tunes are sung entirely in Spanish, Darin can
clearly be heard repeating “I hear you now” during a customary
call-and-response refrain on “La Bamba.”
The American spiritual
tradition is represented by “The Sermon of Samson” (later covered by
the Grateful Dead as “Samson and Delilah”), “Why Don’t You Swing
Down,” and “I’m On My Way Great God.” This last number was
frequently included in Darin’s live sets, including his appearance on
Judy Garland’s variety show shortly after the assassination of John F.
Kennedy. A particularly stirring version can be heard on the Collector’s
Choice CD Bobby Darin: The Curtain Falls – Live at the Flamingo.
Darin later paid tribute to Robert Kennedy by resuming its performance
after his death in 1968.
Comic relief is provided in the
form of Hank Williams’ “Everything’s Okay” and “The ER-I-EE Was
A’Rising.” Despite these tracks, Earthy as a whole is permeated
with a sense of fatalism, a recognition of the limitations of the human
Although recorded only days
after Oh! Look At Me Now, Earthy sat in Capitol’s vaults
for nearly a year. “You’re the Reason I’m Living,” a
country-flavored single, was released in December of 1962 and became an
instant hit. As was common practice during the era, Darin went into the
studio to record an album of material in support of the single. The LP, You’re
the Reason I’m Living, was released in February 1963, and the
release of Earthy was pushed back to mid 1963.
Another top ten single, 18
Yellow Roses, nearly resulted in an additional delay. When it became
clear that he had another hit single on his hands, Darin rushed into the
studio to record an album of material to support another LP. Capitol
released both 18 Yellow Roses and Earthy in July 1963, and
focused its marketing dollars in support of 18 Yellow Roses. In
truth, the label that had signed Bobby Darin as their new Sinatra probably
didn’t know what to do with Earthy. No single was taken from the
album, and it failed to enter the charts.
Yet Darin had already made
plans to record another album of folk material. In contrast to the
diversity of styles and cultures presented on Earthy, the new album
would consist primarily of songs associated with the folk protest
movement. Songs performed by the Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan
were selected to present a modern folk sound, the sound most often
associated with Greenwich Village coffeehouses.
Golden Folk Hits, as the
album came to be called, differs from Earthy in several ways.
Whereas Earthy is filled with percussion, Golden Folk Hits
is notable for the absence of percussion – not a drum is heard.
Additionally, while several tracks on Earthy have an implicit
quality of despair, GFH reflects a vision of folk music as a source
of enrichment and enlightenment as well as entertainment. Darin seems to
be acutely aware of the power of lifting one’s voice in song, evidenced
by the upbeat tempo and constant accompaniment of vocal chorus.
Darin’s involvement with the
civil rights movement surely had an influence. In August of 1963, he
attended the march on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered
his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. According to Nik Venet, who
accompanied him to the march, “Darin thought the civil rights movement
was the great revolution of the twentieth century. The man was civil
rights conscious long before it became radical chic. It was a passion of
his.” This passion for social justice
would be in evidence throughout his life, from his participation in the
1965 Montgomery march for civil rights to his support of Robert
Kennedy’s campaign for the presidency.
When recording began in
September 1963, Darin enlisted the support of several musicians closely
associated with the folk movement. Roger McGuinn, who had been hired away
from the Chad Mitchell Trio by Darin in early 1962, participated in the
sessions for both Earthy and Golden Folk Hits. He had also
toured with Darin and performed during the folk segment of his concerts
throughout 1962 and 1963. McGuinn later became famous as founder of the
seminal folk-rock group the Byrds.
Darin also employed the
Tarriers, along with ace session guitarist James Burton and a young Glen
Campbell. Legend has it that Phil Ochs, a firmly established member of the
Greenwich Village folk scene, attended the sessions as an observer.
The material chosen was
suitably “now” in folk circles. In addition to two songs each by Pete
Seeger and Bob Dylan, songs popularized by Kingston Trio and the New
Christy Minstrels are included. By featuring such material, Darin hoped to
bring even greater popular exposure to the genre.
While somewhat less diverse
than Earthy, Golden Folk Hits is more cohesive. The
instrumentation consists largely of two or three guitars and bass. Nearly
every tune is taken at an up-tempo, creating a buoyant, joyous atmosphere.
Aside from the ruminations of “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” and
“Blowin’ In The Wind,” the only true ballad on the album is the
haunting “Why Daddy Why.”
Once again, spirituals play a
prominent role, opening each side of the LP. “Mary Don’t You Weep”
and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” are traditional gospel tunes given
an upbeat treatment. Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone”
is performed at a moderate tempo, followed by the exuberance of “The
Bob Dylan’s work is
represented by “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “Blowin’
In the Wind.” Darin was an early champion of Dylan’s work, featuring
“Don’t Think Twice” in his shows before anyone outside of folk
circles had heard of him. By selecting these particular tunes, Darin
effectively demonstrates Dylan’s range as a songwriter. The good-natured
humor of “Don’t Think Twice” serves as counterpoint to the poetic
philosophy of “Blowin’ In The Wind.”
Other highlights include a
soulful reading of “
,” “Settle Down,” which features a stellar James Burton guitar lead,
and the uplifting “Train to the Sky.”
Golden Folk Hits
released in November 1963. It had been a busy year for Darin. In addition
to the three albums released earlier that year by Capitol, Atco had
released an album of material that had been recorded in 1960. As a result,
GFH was the fifth release to reach market during that year. Perhaps
due to market saturation, the album failed to chart and remained largely
unknown until today.
Darin would revisit the folk
genre with great success with “If I Were A Carpenter.” While that tune
and the 1966 album of the same name are well known, listening to this CD
confirms that Darin was on to something years earlier. As Bobby Darin fans
know all too well, that was simply par for the course.