By Michael Katz
The revelation that Stephen Colbert is really a folkie at heart wasn’t all that surprising, if you follow his show. Still, as a retired camp counselor, it was a kick to see him with Don Fleming, Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello last night, listening to old reel to reel tape recordings from the collection of folklorist Alan Lomax. Being the possessor of innumerable Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary albums, I was well aware of Lomax and the roots of the music that extend back to Woody Guthrie and beyond. But when they returned from a commercial break to actually sing, it was an old Appalachian folk tune that was way up on the North Star Camp hit list of the 60’s and ‘70s: “Mountain Dew.” I won’t say that Emmylou and Elvis sang it in the same way that a bunch of kids from mostly well-to-do Jewish homes did around the campfire, but still: Gimme some of that good old mountain dew, mountain dew, and them that refuse it are few (Are few!) You’ll feel no pain, while it drives you insane…
Okay, you get the picture.
If I were to pick the three songs that we sang most from that genre, I would go with “Mountain Dew,” “Shanty Town” (It’s only a shanty, in old Shanty Town… The roof is so slanty, it touches the ground…) and “Goodnight Irene.” The latter, written by Leadbelly, became a sort of emblem for us in the mid-seventies, thanks to one particular counselor with a large collection of Woody Guthrie albums – I’ll just call him “Tom” — and to this day when I hear “Goodnight Irene” I still think of a couple hundred campers and counselors on the last night of camp, holding hands, rocking gently in the cool Wisconsin night.
So of course, when Colbert and friends came back from the last commercial break, they were singing “Goodnight Irene,” with Costello on the uke and Colbert along on guitar and vocals. You can hear the whole song:
Now I have to admit I’m still a little sore at Elvis Costello for up and marrying Diana Krall, extinguishing a torch that I’d been carrying since I’d seen her on a Tuesday night at a half-empty Jazz Bakery in 1995, singing from her Only Trust Your Heart CD, long before anyone knew of her. I flashed forward to a night at Catalina’s in Hollywood, not too long after that. I’d come to see pianist Benny Green’s group. It was Ray Brown’s birthday, and he was in the crowd. The great bassist being one of Diana’s mentors, she had slipped in unannounced for the celebration. She was sitting alone at the bar for what seemed to be the longest time, and I tried to gather enough courage to walk over and introduce myself. If I had only known she would eventually fall for a guy who could sing all the verses of “Mountain Dew.” And play “Goodnight Irene” on the ukulele. I could do that! (Well, not the ukulele part.)
Well, the rest is history. Diana and Elvis got married in a castle in England. I now envision them sitting in front of the hearth, on a foggy, windswept night, sipping imported moonshine and singing the chorus to Shanty Town: I’d give up a palace, if I were a king. It’s more than a palace, it’s my everything…
Okay, maybe not.
But I can still do all the verses to “MTA,” if anyone’s listening.
To read more reviews and posts by Michael Katz click HERE.