Locker Room Etiquette

Trust me on this: Don’t get caught singing to yourself “A-dee-do a-dee-do-da-day, a-dee-do a-dee-day-dee” in the locker room. The guys will look at you funny, and if you tell them you’re just singing the refrain from “The Gypsy Rover,” they probably won’t even know the Judy Collins version, not to mention the ones by the Clancy Brothers, the Kingston Trio, the Seekers, et. al.
But it’s the one by the Highwaymen that I was caught singing in the locker room a few Saturday mornings ago before leaving for the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference at the Hilton. I’d registered and picked up the schedule before the gym—but it’s a book with a couple hundred pages full of times and venues of maybe thousands of showcases that take place at the hotel and all over town, and I’d gotten through maybe the first third of the listings. So I was lucky to spot the Highwaymen’s two Saturday evening showcases before they happened–and luckier that they didn’t conflict with previous commitments.
But could this really be the Highwaymen, the original Highwaymen? Not the country superstar quartet from the mid-1980s made up of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, but the folk revival quintet from the late 1950s and early ‘60s, whose “Michael (Row the Boat Ashore)” was a No. 1 pop hit in 1961 when I was nine years old? Whose seminal repertoire also included such famous folk songs as “Cotton Fields,” “Marching to Pretoria,” “Santiano” and the “Gypsy Rover”? Could they really all be alive?
Yes, incredibly, I discovered when I walked into the third-floor performance space. Except for Chan Daniels, who died in 1975, the Highwaymen are still Dave Fisher (guitar), Steve Trott (mandolin), Bob Burnett (guitar) and Steve Butts (banjo), with upright bassist Johann Helton, who has been with the group since 1971. Indeed, the “Original Highwaymen” (that’s the name of their web site) sound very much the same—if not better, as Dave Fisher believes.
I was still starstruck when I called Dave three weeks later, still raving about their two 20-minute, five-song APAP showcases (I had attended both)—and of course, there hugely influential music. Indeed, many of their songs are among those my generation learned early on in grade school.
“We have a pretty good ear for material,” said Dave, who came together with his musical mates at Wesleyan University in Connecticut in 1958 (their name came from the classic Alfred Noyes poem, also an inspiration for a classic Phil Ochs folk song). “When we got out of school in 1962 we moved to the Village, so we were exposed to everybody and found a lot of good songs.”
They were the house band at the famed Gaslight Café coffee house on MacDougal Street in the heart of Greenwich Village, where they led a “Who’s who” of the early 1960s New York folk music scene.
“There was a whole ‘Gaslight gang’: Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joni Mitchell–even Doc Watson and Mississippi John Hurt. They were our friends, and whenever we weren’t working we’d hang out, sitting around singing songs.”
The Highwaymen would record many of them, including Paxton’s “Ramblin’ Boy” and Len Chandler’s “Green, Green, Rocky Road.” “He was the first guy to sing in the coffee shops,” Dave said of Chandler, the Civil Rights Movement folk/protest singer. “Until then it was almost all poetry.”
The “Voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” of course, was Odetta—who died two months ago. “She was at the Bitter End,” continued Dave, and the Highwaymen were heavily influenced by her, famously covering “Cotton Fields” and “Santy Anno” after hearing her versions. The latter tune—spelled “Santiano” in their recording—was originally a British sea chantey; Dave’s arrangement has since become a huge hit several times in France, first for Hugues Aufray in 1961, later for Star Academy 5 (2005) and for Laurent Voulzy (“the French Paul McCartney”) in 2006.
“It was supposed to be our first hit,” Dave recalled, “but they turned the record over and played ‘Michael.’”
“Michael (Row the Boat Ashore)” came to the Highwaymen via the legendary folk group the Weavers, “our biggest influence,” Dave says, with the version by the Kingston Trio–the major folk group that directly preceded the Highwaymen–“giving us the impetus.” I don’t normally sing along at shows as a matter of principle, but they asked for audience participation and I did manage to croak out a “Hallelujah” chorus at the end when they did it at the Hilton. But I completely lost it when Dave sang the high harmony part: I hadn’t heard it sung live, probably, since I was in the first grade at Fox Point Elementary School in Milwaukee. A girl named Nancy was sitting behind me and sang the high part. I realize at this very moment that I’ve had a lifelong crush on her.
“‘Michael’ was released on September 21, 1961,’” Bob Burnett’s wife Cathy told me at the Hilton. “Our son, Michael, was ‘released’ exactly six years later. Steve Trott has a daughter Michelle, and Steve Butts and his wife, Marian, have a dog they aptly named Mike. We all realize that ‘Michael’ played an important role in our lives. I guess it still does!”
At the Hilton they also did “No. 1,” a song Dave wrote to catch everyone up with the Highwaymen following their “Michael” heyday, when they appeared on “The Tonight Show” and twice on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” First verse: “We were No. 1 it seems like yesterday/Billboard said ‘These boys are on their way’/Our very first song we sang sold a million strong/Now we can’t figure out what the hell went wrong…It’s a long way down from No. 1.”
The explanatory song goes on to recount how they progressed through life: “So I set myself to school to study law/And them cotton fields have never seemed so far/I cut my hair and I got myself some power/Now I work all day just wracking up billable hours.”
Trott did in fact go to law school—and is now a sitting federal appeals court judge. The group had only intended to last two years, and 1964 would mark the last time they would sing together—until 1974.
“We did a reunion concert in Long Island that was televised late night on ABC and it gave us the idea to start doing it again,” Dave said. “We started doing it more and more as we got less and less encumbered by work and other things.”
Trott’s legal background would come in handy in 1990 when “a bunch of out-of-work, washed-up, over-the-hill Highwaymen wannabes stole our name,” he said during the Hilton showcases. The lawyer repping Cash, Jennings, Nelson and Kristofferson apparently figured that since the original Highwaymen weren’t playing so much anymore, the new ones could just take their name.
“We may be crazy, but we’re not stupid,” added Trott, the federal judge. “So we did what any red-blooded American group would do—we sued them! It gives new meaning to the term ‘home court advantage,’ don’t you think?”
They settled when Jennings called and offered to stage a joint concert with both groups, where they’d all have fun and split the proceeds.
Continued Dave: “We knew John because we’d done the [early ‘60s folk music TV show] ‘Hootenanny’ show with him, and when we first saw him after we made our settlement, he walked in and said, ‘I told them not to use [the Highwaymen]–I worked with you guys!’ It turned out the same lawyer we had 10 years before was representing them, so they had a huge conflict of interest!”
Nowadays, the original Highwaymen perform between 20 and 40 dates a year (they’re opening for Judy Collins next week) and hoping for increased bookings from their APAP showcases.
And do they dread the 56 year-olds in their audiences whose eyes well up when they croak the words to “Michael (Row the Boat Ashore)”?
“We have to be a little careful,” said Dave. “We’ve been together 50 years now. Steve Butts revels in telling that to the audience, but I’m saying, ‘They’re coming here to feel young again, not to feel old—and we’re all on or approaching 69 ourselves!”
And “Ah-dee-do, ah-dee-do-da-day”?
“We got that from Tommy Makem,” Dave said, citing the late Irish folk musician, who performed with the Clancy Brothers,  as the source for “The Gypsy Rover.” “He learned it from his mother, and I learned it from him.”
Such is the way of the folk song tradition, as manifested by the Highwaymen.

One thought on “Locker Room Etiquette

  • December 19, 2010 at 6:51 pm
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    There is some solid information on this blog. I am in love with your blog so far. I’ve added the feed to my Google Reader RSS subscriptions and will be sure to spread the word to my friends. I did have an issue with how quick this post loaded. Might be something to optimize.

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