GROOVES & CUTS – Elvis Presley Sang Folk Songs? – John Alice
Aside from the fact that Elvis Presley was known for his ability to effectively perform in many musical genres including rockabilly, country, Gospel, blues, middle-of-the-road ballads, easy listening, traditional pop, Dixieland, New Orleans lite jazz (“Crawfish”) & straight rock ‘n roll Presley was never known, or considered, a folk singer.
But on a closer look at his recorded repertoire, he did skim the surface of genuine folk. He recorded the German folk song “Wooden Heart,” the Irish classics “Danny Boy,” “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” “Stay Away,” (a variation of “Greensleeves”) & The Green, Green Grass of Home.”
He recorded the Italian Neapolitan folk-ballad classics “Surrender” (based on “Come Back to Sorrento”), & “It’s Now or Never,” (light opera “O Solo Mio”). Folk songs in Europe. There’s the 1933 classic about a dog. Written by Red Foley & Arthur Willis, “Old Shep” (mentioned in the lyric of Led Zeppelin’s “Bron-Y-Aur-Stomp,”) when Robert Plant sings “When you’re old and your eyes are dim/Ain’t no Old Shep gonna happen again.”
Presley covered Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” before Bob recorded it & Dylan has said it’s one of his most cherished covers. Also, Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Mornin’ Rain,” Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” & the traditional “As We Travel The Jericho Road.”
More contemporary folk songs like “Until It’s Time For You To Go,” by Canadian First Nations singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie. English folk-singer Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” “Mary In the Morning,” by Michael Rashkow & Johnny Cymbal (“Mr. Bass Man”).
More commercially, Elvis did “Clean Up Your Own Backyard,” “In the Ghetto,” “Life,” & “If I Can Dream.” All 3 could be considered folk with a tweak in the arrangement. They have the lyrical message. He performed “Down By the Riverside,” “500 Miles,” “Goin’ Home,” “It’s a Long Lonely Highway,” “Mansion Over The Hilltop,” the traditional “Run On,” “Shake a Hand,” “Three Corn Patches,” “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds,” & the late singer-songwriter Tom Jans’ “Lovin’ Arms.” (Tom sang with Joan Baez’s younger sister Mimi Farina, after her husband Richard Farina was killed in a motorcycle accident).
Elvis never formally released a folk LP, but he always had material that could’ve made a good one. Presley probably wouldn’t sing anything political, or anti-this or that, because he was wise enough not to alienate his audience (unlike Bruce Springsteen & Neil Young). It’s known that Elvis admired Bob Dylan’s songs, he said so.
He had Peter, Paul & Mary & Odetta albums in his private record collection. But Elvis never explored an entire LP of folk. He did sprinkle such tunes throughout his career. I would’ve found it interesting to hear Elvis cover Barry McGuire’s “What’s Exactly The Matter With Me?” It would’ve stated exactly where Presley stood with seriousness & humor, politically & career-wise. I’ll bet Bob Dylan would’ve enjoyed laying down the harmonica solo, or Elvis could’ve had his friend Bobby Darin do it. Glen Campbell’s lead guitar would’ve been perfect. What a record that could’ve been.
So, that brings us to genuine folkies. Arlo Guthrie (son of Woody) & the legendary banjo picker the late Pete Seeger of The Weavers. During a live performance, Arlo recounted an earlier live concert in Denmark where he chose to sing a song by the “renown” folk singer…and hesitated a moment before adding: Elvis Presley…to laughter.
But Arlo in his wisdom tells the audience what folk music is, and what it isn’t. His story about how an old Elvis Presley song based on an Italian melody sung live in Denmark became in essence — a very real folk song. The tale is retold at this live performance poignantly. For the story alone, this video is worth watching & listening to. And at the same time, an education.
Take the time to enjoy this marvelous moment where an Elvis Presley classic rendered by Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger & 30,000 people in Europe sang “I Can’t Help Falling In Love” in unison. A magical moment as a folk song.
And oh, surprisingly, Pete Seeger knew the Elvis song too.
SPILLED MERCURY: There are some interesting releases scheduled this summer I won’t have time to review. However, they’re too good to be ignored. Notable exceptions: Leah Shaw has an enchanting vocal quality with creative stylings. An instantly obvious Norah Jones’s tone, Leah has enough originality in her showcase to keep her material compelling. 8 cuts pepper her new CD Play Beautifully (Drops July 30). At times, a little ethereal that may be off-putting to some, but the songs have power. Leah should remember one rule: only famous artists with track records should tinker on their recordings with dialogue & stray notes. We’re not in on the joke or pander. Artists not so famous should stick to the program. Get to the point quickly. Excitement is not evident on this LP – but poignancy is.
Austin, TX-based Suzanne Santo offers her sophomore Yard Sale, LP (Drops Aug 27-Soozanto Music) that features a single “Common Sense” that sparkles with pristine production work. The song has wonderful vocals, bristling intelligent creative lyrics & instrumentation. This is seldom heard by today’s artists, but this is exceptional. A simple delight.
A little more in a traditional bluegrass-Americana sense is the very brightly lit & upbeat music of Montana’s 5-piece Laney Lou & the Bird Dogs. It features Lena (Laney) Schiffer (vocals/guitar), Matt Demarais (vocals/banjo), Brian Kassay (vocals/fiddle), Josh Moore (vocals/guitar) & Ethan Demarais (bass). Laney has an exquisite voice. The well-recorded banjos & fiddles conjure rousing feelings for ears of all sizes…even ears with wax in them. “Hi-Line,” bristles with energy & melody. “Black Crow,” (not the Joni Mitchell song) has a haunting melody & arrangement. Excellent. Their 4th LP is nowhere near retro or antique in approach. It’s tailored with grace. The 11-cut Through the Smoke, drops July 30th.
Key West pianist Ericson Holt on Aug 20 drops a captivating 99 Degrees (Conch Town Records) with stinging guitars & tight melodies & Holt’s distinctive vocals. The lyrics are achingly beautiful with well-navigated stories & memorable music. He possesses a country tinge but loads it up with seductive asides (“Clever Girl”) with what I call a Bobby Rydell-female chorus. Why do you ask? Because Rydell was famous for that kind of chorus on many of his early 60s pop classics (“The Cha, Cha, Cha” & “Sway”). Rydell’s female chorus was exquisite. Holt knows what he’s doing even if he never heard of Bobby Rydell. This song conjures those memories with slinky voices, deep-toned piano notes & Holt’s fortifying vocals (“Sweet On You”).
From Andrea von Kampen, we get relaxing vocals with sublime music immaculately crafted & filled with buttery rhythms on “Water Flowing Downward.” If folk music is headed into a more modern-world direction this may be a good example. Nice delicate guitars & violins with syrupy intimate female vocals that are sweet & at the same time mysteriously enchanting.
Andrea maintains the style without getting tedious like Enya, & Sarah MacLauchlan. She has a vivid showcase. Her LP “That Spell” (Drops Aug 6-Fantasy Records).
Hailing from Alaska, Ava Earl’s The Roses, (Dropped July 23) with 10 cuts of contemporary pop-country was well-recorded in Nashville & features Ava’s sparkling vocals. For some older listeners, her voice may be too sweet with little vocal texture & timbre. But Ava has clear notes, an attractive tone & sounds like a young Joni Mitchell who eventually matured & had a distinctive well-articulated voice. Only time will tell. But Ava seems to have the material & good musicians who help her navigate the territory into interesting areas. She does need to fluctuate a little better vocally between songs or risk falling between the cracks which renders everything sounding similar. She needs to get more aggressive, get angry, enthusiastic, assertive, something — to separate & capture one song from another. At times, it sounds like Ms. Earl sings in one key.
But from what I hear, she has the ability to overcome that.
All CDs are available as noted or at the artists’ websites.