Daily Song Study

The Kingston Trio – MTA

In songs on July 14, 2011 at 12:22 pm

The explosion of folk music into the American mainstream was an interesting development, coming as it did right after the birth of rock & roll. While Bob Dylan and others would later make folk music every bit as controversial as rock & roll, one of the earliest and most successful entries in this genre was a trio of clean-cut boys from Hawaii.

The four albums that The Kingston Trio released between 1958 and 1959 charted among the top 10 albums for five weeks in November and December 1959, a record unmatched for 50 years. Their phenomenal success sent record labels on a signing spree, paving the way for acts like Simon & Garfunkel, Peter Paul & Mary, & pretty much all folk & Americana artists who would come later.

Today’s tune sounds like a political song, but the election it referenced had occurred over 10 years earlier in 1948. Indeed, it was the official campaign song for Walter O’Brien in that year (changed by the trio to “George” O’Brien since it turned out Walter was a socialist, a bad thing to be in the 1950s). The tune has become so entrenched in Boston lore that the city’s subway system named its electronic card-based fare collection system the “CharlieCard” as a tribute to this song.

The tune itself is a reworking of an 1865 song, The Ship That Never Returned, which was also rewritten in 1903 as The Wreck of the Old 97, a country music standard during the first half of the 20th century.

The point here, I suppose, is that a good song is a good song, and sometimes the intent with which it was written may have absolutely no bearing on why people like it.

I will add that this song has special significance for me for a different reason. When a friend of mine (recently passed) and I were in a college theater class years ago, we did a play called Dark of the Moon, a backwoods hillbilly drama. In the break between acts, he and I and a few other guitar-toting cast members would sit on the edge of the stage and play a bunch of tunes, one of which was this one. I played banjo, the first and only time I’ve ever done so. I dunno that I’ve ever had more fun than that.

  1. I grew up on this song. my mother played it quite often and she was no big music geek, so it was a thing. Still grabs me. Good concept, great melody, cleverly done. Still stands.

  2. […] Danny Dill & Marijohn Wilkin, and first popularized by Lefty Frizzell. This goes back a bit to our discussion of the rise of folk music in the 1950s, because Frizzell released the tune specifically to get out of his country pigeonhole and get some […]

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