Nick Reyonolds, a founding member of The Kingston Trio, one of the most influential musical groups in modern history, died on Thursday in San Diego. He was 75.
His obituary will show that Reynolds, Bob Shane, and Dave Guard started the trio in the late 1950’s, achieving their first success with the recording of the tragic folk tune Tom Dooley in 1958, and subsequently hitting the top of the charts with a series of albums that changed the face of American music and paved the way for such artists as Peter, Paul, and Mary, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Simon and Garfunkel, and a host of other folk-rock artists whose music influenced generations of Americans.
“The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta. . . . From Odetta, I went to Harry Belafonte, the Kingston Trio, little by little uncovering more as I went along,” Bob Dylan once said.
Reynolds typically handled the middle part of the trio’s scintillating three-part harmonies, sometimes adding bongos, congas and other percussion accents. Although the group’s music generally shied away from the politicized content of such forebears as Woody Guthrie and the Weavers, its commercial breakthrough in the late 1950s represented a clean-cut alternative to the sexualized rock ‘n’ roll of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and others that had American teens in its grip. And it helped set the stage for folk-rooted protest singers such as Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary.
“It really started with the Weavers, in the early ‘50s,” Reynolds said in a 2006 interview, referring to the New York-based quartet that included Pete Seeger. “We were big fans of theirs, but they got blacklisted in the McCarthy era. Their music was controversial. Suddenly, they couldn’t get any airplay; they couldn’t get booked into the big hotels, nothin’.
“We played their kind of music when we were first performing in colleges. But when we formed the trio . . . we had to sit down and make a decision: Are we going to remain apolitical with our music? Or are we going to slit our throats and get blacklisted for doing protest music? We decided we’d like to stay in this business for a while. And we got criticized a lot for that. . . . If Bob Dylan or Joan Baez had come out at that time, they’d have been dead in the water. But four or five years later, [their music] became commercially viable.”
Purists will debate whether or not Reynolds and the Trio were actually “folk” artists in the “traditional” sense of the term. In truth, the boys themselves realized their rather unique position in the folk firmament and never tried to be anything other than that which they presented themselves; first class entertainers and popularizers of the folk genre.
In addition to the Kingston Trio, the “Folk Revival” that brought to the fore artists like Pete Seeger and The Weavers, Harry Belafonte, The Chad Mitchell Trio, The Limelighters, and dozens more hit college campuses in the late 50’s and early 60’s. But it was one song by the Kingston Trio that brought the revival to the Moran house and forever after made folk music a part of our family.
The story, first told around family campfires, is that my father, who never listened to music on the radio if he could help it, evidently heard the Trio’s Charlie and the M.T.A. – about as close to a political protest song the Trio ever got – and brought home the album it was on, The Kingston Trio “At Large.” My father had already taken a liking to Belafonte’s husky-voiced calypso stylings so exposing us to the more traditional folk music sung by the Kingston Trio (named after Kingston, Jamaica because an earlier incarnation of the group sang calypso numbers) was an easy sell.
One of our number (there would eventually be 10 of us) became so enchanted with the music being sung by the Trio that he lobbied my parents for a guitar the next Christmas. My brother Jim was all of 11 years old when he found a cheap Silvertone under the tree but he quickly mastered the three or four guitar chords that allowed him to play many of the songs on that album as well as learn a few other favorites gleaned from the sudden appearance in the house of folk songbooks, that all to this day, form the basis of my own love for music.
There is no doubt in my mind that the music of the Kingston Trio and other folk artists brought our family closer together. Through the years, we welcomed into our family artists like The Clancey Brothers and Tommy Makem (who, as I explain here, helped us all discover our Irish heritage), the Chad Mitchell Trio, Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, as well as older, less well known folkies like Paxton, Blind Lemon, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Houston, Cisco, and Monroe. Their versions of the ancient work songs, drinking songs, shanties, love songs, protest songs, and songs of natural and man made disasters became a staple at family gatherings for the last half a century.
So the death of Reynolds has meaning for me beyond the normal mourning I might feel at the passing of a familiar figure from my youth. It is, in fact, like experiencing the death of a relative, someone who has walked beside me most of my life and who gave me an enormous amount of joy and a feeling of closeness with my family.
Reynolds and Bob Shane started a “fantasy camp” later in life where my brother Jim met the guys and actually performed with them. At the camp, he met a couple of other folk artists and they started a trio of their own – “Chilly Winds.” With more than 146,000 YouTube viewings of their performances, the group proves how the music of The Kingston Trio and other folk artists of the “revival” period have endured.
For in truth, many of the songs played by Chilly Winds and the Kingston Trio are as much a part of the American soul as the events and people they celebrate. Our national consciousness is plugged into this music and a large part of what makes us unique can be found in the richness and diversity of our folk music. From the Delta blues to the Scotch-Irish traditionals, the Cajun experience, the old Negro spirituals, and even popular music that has stood the test of time and become part of the American folk songbook like Tenting Tonight and other Civil War standards – all of these and music from other countries, other cultures have immeasurably enriched the American experience and have formed the background and rhythm of our family’s life.
A whole new generation of Morans have been exposed to the music of my youth and have embraced it as willingly and as lovingly as their fathers and mothers did. This is why the music of Nick Reynolds, the Kingston Trio, and other folk artists will never disappear; these timeless classics, when heard or sung together as a family, ensure that the bonds that make life worth living are strengthened beyond measure and allows us to share the common heritage we all claim by birthright as Americans.
It is an honor to welcome members and posters of The Kingston Crossroads who are probably the only group of people whose love of folk music exceeds my own.
Now, pay no attention to my brother Jim who is a Humphrey liberal (as opposed to an Obama liberal or a Noam Chomsky liberal) and while generally a sensible fellow, nevertheless usually is able to drive me to distraction with his political views. Here on this site you will find rational, reasoned critiques of American politics. The fact that those critiques come mostly from other people, however, shouldn’t deter you from perusing some of my more entertaining spittle flecked rants that target both so-called “conservatives” who struggle mightily to achieve a 19th century consciousness and modern day liberals who struggle mightily to achieve sentience.
As for Jim – yes, he was 11 years old at one time in his life. He may have even been 10 years old at one point but the evidence for that is suspect, coming as it does from recently discovered diaries excavated from a site in Northridge. Far more likely – Jim sprang fully growed with a Martin in one hand and a glass of Chivas in the other, holding forth on Chaucer (or Jacqueline Susanne) while strumming the Martin with his toes and swilling the Chivas through his ear and singing Jug of Punch with a perfect brogue.
A talented man, there…
My brother Jim emails with some corrections:
Great job, but
a) the fantasy camp was a John Stewart project that Nick agreed to be a part of.
It had to be that way. In the 2nd configuration ofthe original group, Reynolds played tenor guitar (an odd instrument that few people have) and sang tenor parts (hard) and Stewart played banjo (hard) and lead guitar (hard) and sang the more complicated harmonies high and low. Bob Shane played rhythm guitar strumming (he did it VERY well, but faking it is easy) and he sang leads and melodies (best voice in the group, some say in the whole folk revival) – so the fantasy element was essentially to be Bob Shane, sing the lead, and strum three chords.
Shane actually tended to avoid the camp for the first few years, popping in only occasionally and incognito during the shows. He was always leery of anything Kingston that he didn’t control and that even vaguely threatened the integrity of his touring group (of which he was a part until 2004 and that still tours, now with no original members). In the last few years, Shane has come to every show, sits front row center, beams like a proud father, and sings along from the audience on every song – and these are 3 1/2 to 4 hour shows.
b) the wire services made on unbelievable gaffe, repeated everywhere and included in the quotation in your piece, about Nick singing the “middle range”. Nick sang the HIGH harmonies, the tenor parts, and it is his voice that soars above the others on songs like Tom Dooley.
Most Trio fans aren’t aware of how often Nick sang midrange – maybe 12 or 15 songs out of 300 recorded (then Shane would do the high part). MTA is one of those songs. Nick sings lead and melody on the chorus. The high voice is Shane’s.
I missed the fantasy camp error and decided to leave the midrange thing alone, even though it started with LA Times writer Randy Lewis. People seldom pay attention to retractions, however prominently placed. It’s the first impression that a piece makes – and Nick getting all the attention now (including on CNN and George Stephanopoulous and elsewhere) is what counts.