The radio reception isn’t very good once you drop below the crest of the ridge that separates Oakland from Canyon. I was having a hard time following the interview program that served as soundtrack to my after school pick up run, but I could tell that the host was talking to somebody influential in the development of early rock music. And then I heard it: pumping through all the static and mumble came the unmistakable one-two bass pickup into C’mon Baby, Let the Good Times Roll.
Only I wasn’t sure just who was singing it. The song has been covered so many times by so many different performers that everybody has a different opinion about who first recorded it. If you’re of a certain age, I’ll bet the tune is running through your head right now, and you’re wondering too.
Turns out the song was the creation of Shirley Goodman and Leonard Lee, two twenty-year olds who one day walked into a New Orleans recording studio owned by a man named Cosimo Matassa and asked if they might make a record. Calling themselves Shirley and Lee, the duo released Good Times in 1956. As I mentioned, the tune has become associated with a lot of popular recording artists since then, but the original that I found myself listening to had a rare and wonderful quality about it – an almost naïve artlessness that bespoke the innocence and hopefulness of a time long gone by. It took me back and hooked me up to a time in my own history, a time made simpler and softer by the improving haze of memory. It was a tune woven into the fabric of both my own and “our own” collective past.
And that got me to thinking. How, when and where does a song become part of folk tradition? Is there a process by which a tune becomes disengaged from whatever the intentions of its creators might have been and becomes instead an element in the alloy of common culture?
In the Revels repertoire, we have lots of examples of songs that began life as an attempt to make a few shillings through the sale of broadsides; others that simply seized upon a popular ditty and reupholstered it with new lyrics. Some of the songs we sing are so old that their origins are impossibly sifted into the dust of history and we therefore consider them traditional. Others, although we know perfectly well who wrote them and when, we also consider traditional.
What is the mark of true folk music, and why am I considering my newly rediscovered bit of rock ‘n roll lore as a candidate for eventual inclusion in some future Revels trove of traditional tunes?
It seems to me that the mere fact that it becomes hard to remember who first sang a tune, or exactly how it is supposed to sound is a good first step. As it is performed over and over, it changes and each variant carries the stamp of a different artist, a different time, a different place. Like a well-worn piece of furniture, a tune comes to bear the marks of all the people it has served. It can be re-purposed, reshaped and even reupholstered to reflect needs of people through time. Other important qualities: it is short, simple, and easy to whistle.
True, it doesn’t sound like a piece of “traditional” folk music, but I’m guessing that Greensleeves didn’t sound all that folksey to 16th century Brits. Coulter’s Candy started life as an early advertising jingle. And did you know that Wild Mountain Thyme was first recorded by Francis McPeake in 1957, a year after Lee and Shirley hit the charts? The operative principle when it comes to folk traditions? You just never really know.
All of which leads me to predict that midway through some future Revels performance, generations perhaps not yet born will rise to their feet, join hands and dance through the aisles joyously singing that traditional folk chestnut, C’mon Baby, Let the Good Times Roll.
And nobody will wonder why.
* * * * *
Speaking of Revels memories, there is a wonderful effort afoot to collect the special stories that so many Revelers carry with them. Gail Richard is playing “story catcher” and gathering remembrances for future publication. Some of the tales she’s received so far recount touching, funny, or just bizarre happenings on and around the stage. Others describe events that illustrate the power of this thing we call Revels to draw people together. Here are a couple of examples of what I’m talking about:
During the Appalachian show in 1993, when Jean Ritchie was on stage gloriously rocking in her rocking chair spinning stories in that magnificent voice and mesmerizing the children’s chorus at her feet. A small child in the audience got up and walked up to the stage and sat down with the Revels children and sat enthralled as the others were doing. There was a great sigh, a collective sigh that rose up from the audience at that moment. - Cari Ferraro
The King and the Fool, 1995
I’d like to be able to say that “it was a dark and stormy night”…alas, no. However it was a dark and stormy part of my life as I had been quite ill for many months and life was a bit bleak for me and my 10-year old daughter. One day in November, I found an envelope on the windshield of my car, and within it a pair of tickets to something called ‘The Christmas Revels” in Oakland. Since I was still in frail health and my car was on its last legs, driving more than an hour to an unknown destination seemed daunting—but we sensed that there must be a reason for that mysterious invitation, so we drove off into a chilly December sunset to find out what life had in store for us. Now, 15 years later, I still wonder who left those tickets for us. Our Revels experience was absolutely magical and left us feeling truly blessed and thankful. In fact, it was a turning point for me because this is when I began to believe that life would get better—which it has, in spades! It was also an experience we knew we wanted to share with others. Thus, converging at the Revels has become an annual event for my family and an assortment of friends. We are all grateful to those unknown benefactors who knew just what was needed during a difficult time…and for every December thereafter. Thank you Revels! – Linda Scott
Do you have a story too? Contact Gail Richard and become a part of the project.
- David Parr, Artistic Director