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The Last Month Of The Year: The Kingston Trio
It perhaps says everything about the Kingston Trio's meteoric rise and fall that when I came across Last Month Of The Year in a battered cardboard box at a carboot sale I hadn't a clue what lay within and decided to hand over the required pound purely on the strength of the front cover of snow-covered benches. Having bought it in August, it then sat in my collection for 4 months before it got played.
What a pleasant surprise then to hear the sweet harmonies and eclectic song choices ranging from obscure English hymns, spirituals, folk rounds and a sprinkling of traditional Christmas songs. The Kingston Trio certainly don't deserve to be neglected as they have become but then who would have guessed that a close harmony folk outfit with roots in Hawaiian calypso music would have risen to such success in the first place?
Having released their debut album in June 1958, by November the following year the Trio had 4 albums in the US Billboard Top 10. At one stage, they were responsible for 15% of all of Capitol's record sales - at a time when Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole were also on the label - and appeared on the front of Life magazine.
Their combination of simple instrumentation, honeyed vocals and eclectic repertoire were a massive hit with the public and helped to launch the folk revival that would soon bring along the likes of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez, though Simon & Garfunkel bore a more obviously direct influence.
But the Kingston Trio never had designs on being trailblazers. Having spent years performing at bars, restaurants and student events, the trio of Dave Guard, Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds saw themselves simply as entertainers. Having seen Pete Seeger's Weavers blacklisted for their left-wing beliefs, the Kingston Trio took a strictly non-political approach and unashamedly gave the old folk songs they sang a vocal sheen inspired by the rich harmonies of The Four Freshmen and The Modernaires.
The formula was massively popular with the public but it also stirred up huge indignation among old-school folkies, who accused them of "sallow slickness" and of being "prostitutes of the art". In a sour belch of pomposity, critic Mark Morris harrumphed about their 1959 Newport Folk Festival appearance: "What connection these frenetic tinselly showmen have with a folk festival eludes me... except that it is mainly folk songs that they choose to vulgarize."
Guard seemed the most stung by this criticism, publicly insisting that the Trio were not folk singers while privately pushing the band to get more serious about the music. He would eventually quit in 1961, with one of the reasons given being Shane and Reynolds' refusal to learn how to read music. The other two not unreasonably pointed out that having released 11 albums and played around 800 gigs in 4 years, they were already working hard enough, thanks. Not to mention the $25million in sales (approx $180m in today's money).
The first sign of Guard's keenness to appease the band's critics came with their Christmas album, The Last Month Of The Year. Reynolds later said: "Dave was responsible for a lot of that album. We really worked hard on that one, laying down a lot of the instrumental tracks before we did the vocals, working on harmonies over and over. Musically, it came off very well, it just didn't sell."
The band's sixth studio album, Last Month... was the first to miss out on reaching No.1, reaching a relatively lowly No.11 after its release in October 1960. The main reason for the public's indifference seems to have been the obscurity of many of the song choices (though the cheesy original cover can’t have helped - which perhaps explains the snowy benches on the reissue cover I’ve got).
Some of these songs are centuries old and the Kingston Trio's recording of them is now 51 years, but listening with 2011 ears what hits you is that Last Month Of The Year sounds both old and modern at the same time. Opener Bye Bye Thou Little Tiny Child would sound perfectly at home on a Fleet Foxes record. It comes from a 1534 mystery play and the only instrumentation is acoustic guitar and the twinkling sounds of what may be a bouzouki, over which the Trio's harmonies work their magic.
The White Snows Of Winter combines a melody lifted from Brahms' First Symphony with lyrics written and sung by Shane, plus Jordanaires' style backing from Guard and Reynolds, resulting in top-class crooning. A short and sweet burst of We Wish You A Merry Christmas comes with escalating banjo backing is quickly followed by All Through The Night, originally an old Welsh folk song (Ar Hyd y Nos) given English lyrics by Sir Harold Boulton in 1884.
Goodnight My Baby is a lullaby that starts with a gentle bass line from David 'Buck' Wheat, the fourth and unacknowledged member of the band at this stage, who played various instruments on the album, largely stepping in when the Trio were struggling with their own technical limitations.
Side 1 ends with Go Where I Send Thee, a spiritual previously covered by the Weavers and given a rousing hillbilly twist with banjos and an Elvis twang to the vocals.
Follow Now Oh Shepherds is a Christmas carol then popular in Puerto Rico and the lilting guitars have a subtly Spanish flavour. The globetrotting continues on Somerset Gloucestershire Wassail, an ancient folk song designed to inspire a good apple harvest for cider making and here given a Greek tweak with the bouzouki backing. Mary Mild is a variation on the old English folk song The Bitter Withy and tells the strange tale of a young Jesus wanting to play ball with the rich kids up the road and building them a "bridge of the beams of the sun" in order to persuade the snobbish brats to let him join in, which brings to mind bank bailouts, but lets not go there.
A Round About Christmas is a perky guitar and banjo-led romp through another festive child's favourite, and Sing We Noel is the other track most people have actually heard before, giving a gamboling rendition. Last Month Of The Year is an old blues tune first recorded by Vera Hall (best known nowadays for Trouble So Hard, which Moby remixed into Natural Blues) under the guidance of Alan Lomax, and the Kingston Trio throw in a little dash of rock'n'roll with their exuberant acoustic rendition.
Just 28 minutes and it's all over, which keeps you coming back for more of course. Only Shane is still alive of the originally trio nowadays at the age of 77 but the Kingston Trio name continues to this day minus his direct involvement. Perhaps he'll yet live to see this little gem finally receive the credit it deserves.
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