Thursday, April 27, 2017
The Halifax Three
Several years ago I was browsing through the new arrivals bin at Boo Boo Records in San Luis Obispo when this record caught my eye. I was initially attracted to it by the group's name because I'm interested in Canadian folk music and also because I'm a fan of the title track. Looking at the cover I realized one of the guys looked familiar and after a moment I realized it was Denny Doherty of my childhood faves, The Mamas and the Papas. So I bought it not expecting much, but I have no regrets. The group was basically a knock-off of the Kingston Trio with a similar sound featuring an emphasis on three part harmonies. Doherty did most of the lead vocals along with Pat La Croix and Richard Byrne did all the arrangements as well as playing guitar. The record begins with Jesse Fuller's "San Francisco Bay Blues" which they deliver in a slick corny style that reminds me of a barbershop quartet or something you'd see in a variety show. The record improves with a dramatic arrangement of the traditional work song "Rocks and Gravel." My favorite version of this song is the one by Ian and Sylvia on their debut album, but this one is nearly as good with some wonderful vocal harmonies. "Little Sparrow" is another traditional song also known as "Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies." There are numerous recordings of this song, but this one is quite pretty with another strong vocal arrangement. "San Miguel" was written by Jane Bowers and it was previously recorded by the Kingston Trio. This version has a beefed up vocal arrangement that makes it more romantic and engaging. Their version of Mike Settle's "Sing Hallelujah" likewise benefits from dynamic vocal harmonies. Side one ends with the much covered traditional song "East Virginia." The group's version sounds like the one Joan Baez cut on her debut album. They are both moody and atmospheric although I'd give Baez the edge for being more expressive. Side two opens with "I'm Gonna Tell God" which is credited to Bob Gibson who recorded it with Hamilton Camp but it is actually derived from the old spiritual "The Welcome Table." The trio offers up a lively performance, but gospel music wasn't their strength, they don't sound convincing. "Rubin Had a Train" is a traditional song that has been recorded by a lot of bluegrass groups under the title "Reuben's Train." The group gives a fast paced rendition that is one of my favorite tracks on the record. The record slows down for "A Satisfied Mind" by Red Hayes and Jack Rhodes which was a big hit for Porter Wagoner. I prefer his version as well as the one by the Byrds on "Turn! Turn! Turn!" although the vocal on this track is very lovely. "The Man Who Wouldn't Sing Along with Mitch" is the kind of novelty folk song that the Kingston Trio used to record such as "M. T. A.". It is the most commercial track on the record and was released as a single. I dislike it enormously. The trio atones for it with the classic traditional folk song "The Great Silky" which is one of my favorite Child ballads. There are better versions around, but I find this one melodic and appealing although lacking in the haunting quality that Joan Baez gave it on her second album. "He Call Me Boy" was written by Richard Byrne, the only original song on the record. It is extremely derivative being a fake slave ballad but it has a dramatic sound that at least gives the record a stirring finish. Obviously this is a minor record that will likely only appeal to folk buffs but if you like the Mamas and the Papas and in particular Denny Doherty's voice as much as I do, you may want to pick this up if you stumble across a cheap copy. The material is mostly ordinary but the singing is first rate. Recommended to Kingston Trio fans.