In the twilight of the 1950s they came, strumming familiar chords at a non-threatening pace to ease the frazzled nerves of major media conglomerates who wanted nothing to do with the madness outside their windows. Out there, atom bombs were exploding over beats in Chicago, and splatter paint was flying out of Charlie Parker’s horn onto Jacqueline Kennedy’s skirt, and we were all doing the Tutti Frutti and the Woolly Bully and Africa was free at last. More to the point, new seven-inch vinyl records made shipping a breeze for independent labels, and out of the shadows roared a multitude of wayward and wicked teen idols: “prurient” acts like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley that gummed the fear of God to the hearts of homeowners, and left large, respectable labels hesitant to hop on board any train that shook or shimmied like rock ‘n’ roll.
So the labels retaliated with the least seditious pop they could fluff up. They peddled Calypso, moralistic Jamaican wartime music that they wrongly hoped would be an edge-free substitute for R&B. (It was neither.) From the Appalachians, they trucked in Folk, and luck behold, the Kingston Trio had their toes in both genres, plus an easy-going demeanor and a disarming command of stage banter, bonding humor mostly. Oh, the bonding humor. They probably learned it in business school, from which they’d all graduated a year before forming a band—which should tell you everything you need to know about the validity of their claim to Folk authenticity, not to mention Calypso authenticity. Sun-bleached Californians who didn’t have an Appalachian thought banging around their cube-shaped heads, they made good on the Hollywood Appropriation Myth, and rode Other People’s Music up the escalator, towards the bank. Multiple millions of seven inches sold. Four LPs on the Top 10 chart at once, a record never again surpassed. As of 1960, they accounted for 20 percent of Capital Records’ year-end profit.
But, of course, you know how this story ends: It ends when their sales trailed off after 1963, and it ends in the dust-bin with their 1967 break-up. To this day, about the most significant yarn to be unraveled from the Kingston Trio story is that they proved that folk could be a commercially viable artform. So viable, if fact, that when a sarcastic little fart named Bob Dylan slithered his way into Columbia Records, the bean counters were ready to take that unlikely chance.
Forty years later, the lissome performances from Once Upon a Time, excerpts from their last shows at the Sierra Tahoe Hotel, stand as a mesmerizing document of ‘60s nervousness. Motioning through their last rites in the Tahoe limelight, with storm clouds hanging above their heads, the forsaken Trio clung to the last cheap trick that they, as minstrels, could whip up: the theatrical illusion that they were, sincerely, an apolitical threesome of know-nuffin’ Silent Majority boys, even as they twiddled out glib puppy-dog diddlies about innocent men being hung to death (“Tom Dooley”), or meekly covered Bob Dylan classics (“Tomorrow Is a Long Time”). Historically, the intrigue is in the hoaky stage banter, where bandleader Bob Shane cleverly positions himself as neither for nor against the New Left. In one interlude, he claims his pet cat crawled over to a “hip” neighbor’s party and ate “45 sugar cubes of LSD”, with a dismissive, condescending emphasis on the final syllable. And in another improbable fib, he recalls using non-violence to weasel out of a parking ticket, inspiring an angry mob to “beat the meter maid senseless.”
Then there’s the matter of Shane’s voice. Husky. Sure. Strong. Glossed in Hollywood Charm, a voice like Ronald Reagan’s. Such an instrument is a shield against uncertainty, and Shane’s woodsy timbre lends at least a semblance of seriousness to their cornball catalogue. Behind him, the boys on the frets are no less rigid with their faux-rabble rousing scripted spontaneity. As performers, their sentimental technicolor vaudeville gig had always stood a breed apart from the abstract expressionism and wild abandon of Bop, Beat poetry, Elvis Presley, and the Eisenhower Interstate System. Here at the end, they followed their lines like medicine, turning closing number “Saints Go Marching In” into a sing-along about the once-great Kingston Trio resolutely walking to their grave. Innocent-man-gets-hung crowd pleaser “Tom Dooley”, which had 10 years before seemed so criminally silly against the backdrop of McCarthyism, is revamped into a genuine moment: Again, that voice, combined with the palpable mid-‘60s tension in the air, grants the ritual an aura of dread. And then, that tribute to “Tomorrow Is a Long Time”. Nothing cheap or glib about that.
Peering back in time through the kaleidoscope of the tumultuous ‘60s, it’s tempting to view the Kingston Trio as a tragic anomaly, washed into the rocks by the changing tides of history—like a new species of dinosaur hatched the day the meteor struck. But their story, captured in flashbulb detail on Once Upon a Time, is anything by anomalous. In their sweet, bitter harmonies and their heaving resign, the Kingston Trio foretold a comedown yet to arrive, the malaise of Fleetwood Mac and Jimmy Carter. And beyond that, they hinted at an ever-lasting pop optimism, borne out of the unbreakable, plastic convictions that minstrels are paid to emote. To hear these three business school graduates squeeze out humor and some non-specified sense of corporate hope from the dire proceedings at hand is to glimpse, momentarily, the future and meaning and essence of American pop. Ours is a nation that has been consoling ourselves against imminent end-times since the Mayflower beached, and the Kingston Trio represent just three important prototypes in that endless drive to perfect those mechanisms of consolation. This is our country, a place where politics all too often hides its face behind that apolitical, know-nuffin’ cork, and few records capture our irreconcilable differences and nagging ambiguities in such stunning, aggravating detail.