THE KINGSTON TRIO: AN APPRECIATION
by JOHN ALLEN SMALL
Note: Mr. Small is an award-winning
newspaper columnist and broadcaster who resides in Ravia, Oklahoma. A
life-long fan of folk music in general and the Kingston Trio in particular,
he has been known to throw heavy objects at people who don't like the
sound of the banjo. This is an expanded and updated version of a newspaper
column originally published in 1991. He may be contacted at: email@example.com
The year was 1968. That much I remember, because 1968 was a year for occurances destined to become
deeply etched within the memory of even a five-year-old: the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy,
the Tet Offensive, the National Democratic Convention in Chicago. For whatever reason, one particular album seemed
to spend a great amount of time on my father's old turntable during these strange and unpredictable times: Time To Think by the Kingston Trio. And one song in particular took on a special
significance for me; even today, "Ally Ally Oxen Free" seems far more heartfelt and poignant to me in
its call to make the world a better place than "Blowing In The Wind" or "Eve Of Destruction,"
or any of the other better-known "protest songs" dominating the airwaves at the time. Certainly its lyrics
were far more encouraging to a five-year-old who had already learned to worry about the fate of his home planet.
At that point I didn't know that the configuration of Bobby Shane, Nick Reynolds and John Stewart were actually
the second incarnation of the Kingston Trio; my father had all of the group's Capitol albums, dating back to the
early days of Dave Guard and "Tom Dooley," but I hadn't yet had the opportunity to formally "discover"
those earlier gems. I didn't know that Time To Think was already
several years old by the time I'd noticed it. And I certainly had no way of knowing, in that Autumn of 1968, that
Shane, Stewart and Reynolds had actually disbanded the year before.
What I did know--aside from the fact that "Ally Ally Oxen Free" provided a much-needed sense of hope--was
that these three fellows sounded so good together. There was a certain magic about their sound; I didn't know how
to describe it then, and I'm still not sure I could do it justice 30 years later. I just knew that I liked it.
That must have been music to my father's ears, because it didn't take long for him to provide a more proper introduction
to the Kingston Trio--both of them. By the time I was six I knew all the words to both "Tom Dooley" and
"Greenback Dollar" (of course, I wasn't allowed to sing the latter in public.) Eventually it got to the
point that every time Dad put a Kingston Trio album on the turntable, both of my younger brothers and I would sing
along often so loudly that Dad had little choice but to turn the volume way, WAY up in order to hear the Kingston
Trio over the Small Trio. We couldn't help ourselves. The Kingston's music was so lively, so full of joy and life
and excitement, that singing along seemed practically mandatory. Deep down inside, I don't think Dad really minded
our own tone-deaf contributions all that much; if nothing else, he knew he had passed along the love of the music
to his sons. I wonder if he realizes just how precious a gift that was.
And it wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to suggest that the Kingston Trio actually helped guide me through the
turbulence of my teenage years to emerge relatively unscathed. Their music infected me in a way that the rockers
and the punkers and the disco ninnies and the heavy metal freaks simply could not; while so many of my classmates
were frying their brain cells to the likes of Led Zeppelin and KISS and AC/DC, I was shuffling through the high
school corridors humming "Run The Ridges" and "M.T.A." (Ask my wife. She was my girlfriend
then. She remembers). Did my love for the Trio make me more "clean-cut" somehow? It's hard to say. The
only thing I know for certain is that by the time I'd graduated, I had never taken drugs, or developed a problem
with alcohol, and I still respected my mother and father. And all that is still true today. I leave it to others
to draw their own conclusions.
Others have explained, far better than I could ever hope to, the Kingston Trio's influence upon the American popular
music scene. Numerous articles have been devoted to describing how the initial success of "Tom Dooley"
and the Trio's subsequent acclaim grew out of the public's hunger for something that--while still fun and energetic--had
a bit more depth and complexity than, say, "Hound Dog" or "Wake Up Little Susie." Experts have
traced the Trio's influence upon such diverse acts as the Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, the Manhattan Transfer and
the Indigo Girls. There are even those who can make a strong case that the Kingston Trio helped pave the way for
the onslaught of Beatlemania in America. Such information is already a matter of public record, so it would serve
little purpose to repeat it here. Of far greater value--at least so far as this writer is concerned--is the sheer
joy that the Kingston Trio (in ALL of its configurations) has brought to so many people over so many years.
Several of the more cherished moments in my own life directly involve the Kingston Trio. I remember the big grin
that spread across my father's face as he looked through a restaurant window in the long-defunct Old Chicago shopping
mall and saw Bobby Shane, Roger Gambill and Bill Zorn--the "New Kingston Trio" as they were billed at
the time--sitting there eating hamburgers "just like regular people." I remember staring into my bride's
eyes and seeing the love reflected back at me as we stood there at our wedding, listening to Dad's recording of
Shane, Stewart and Reynolds singing "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." (I couldn't afford to a hire
a live singer--and even if I could have, what singer could have ever improved upon that harmony?) And I remember
dragging my wife off to Chicago's Ravinia Music Festival two years later to hear the Trio of Shane, George Grove
and Bob Haworth perform in-person. And then there was the night my parents and my brothers and I sat down in front
of the TV to watch the PBS special, "The Kingston Trio And Friends: A Reunion." The entire concert was
something special, but for sheer unadulterated musical joy few experiences could ever hope to top that show's finale--when
all the past and present Kingston Trio members up to that time joined together in one large ensemble to belt out
a couple of the classics. There they all were: Shane, Guard, Reynolds, Stewart, Grove, and the late, great Roger
Gambill. (Haworth wouldn't sign on until after Gambill's all-too-premature demise a few years later.) One big,
happy family, singing the great old songs the way only they ever could. Bridging the gap from the '50s to the '80s
and beyond, proving once and for all just how timeless their music truly is.
These are, I suppose, relatively small moments in the grand scheme of things. But they are the moments that fond
memories are made of. More than anything else when I was growing up, I wanted to be in a group like the Kingston
Trio. I wanted to show the world just how much their music meant to me. But two things conspired to keep this dream
from becoming a reality. I couldn't sing. And I couldn't play. No matter. I've found other ways to pay tribute,
to publicly express my gratitude for their having been a part of my life: By frequently mentioning the Kingston
Trio in my newspaper columns and my radio commentaries over the years. By not providing a moment's peace to the
clerks at my favorite used-record stores, the helpless victims of my ongoing quest for those hard-to-find Kingston
Trio and John Stewart albums. By writing letters of protest when Folk Era Records decided against releasing the
KT album Somethin' Else on CD in its entirety, having branded
the album as "inferior." (At worst it was an experiment in '60s-era folk-rock that didn't quite work;
did John Wayne lose any fans because he'd played Genghis Khan in "The Conqueror"?)
But the best way I can honor the Kingston Trio is to simply play their records, to introduce their music to my
sons the same way my father introduced it to his. Just last night I caught seven-year-old Joshua singing along
to my copy of "Hit And Run" while he and his little brother William danced around the living room. What's
a father to do? I did what my father would have done. I turned up the volume. Then I did my Dad one better; I got
out there and danced along with them. I'd like to think Bobby Shane might appreciate that!
(Copyright © 1999 by John Allen Small)