Hip folk music fans of the 1960s regarded the Kingston Trio much the way hip jazz fans of the 1990s regarded Kenny G.
They didn’t. Or if they did, it was a punchline.
So let’s take the death of Bob Shane, the last survivor from the lineup that first defined the Kingston Trio, as an occasion to say that where the Trio is concerned, that’s always been a bit unfair.
The Kingston Trio that had a №1 hit in 1958 with “Tom Dooley” wasn’t the original lineup. They had gone through multiple changes for several years, playing in all sorts of tiny places mostly for fun, before Shane, Nick Reynolds and Dave Guard got serious about a music career.
Guard left in 1961, having lost his argument that the group should become more musically sophisticated, and was replaced by John Stewart, an excellent musician himself. The new trio broke up in 1967, this time mostly victims of changing public taste, and in the half-century since, revolving combinations of originals and replacements have kept the Kingston Trio alive.
Proving, perhaps, that we like solid melodic songs.
It wasn’t any big mystery in the ’60s, when the image of “folk music” came to be dominated by intense artists like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Buffy Ste. Marie, why the Kingston Trio didn’t fit.
Just look at them. Three lean, handsome, clean-cut white kids in matching striped shirts, looking like they’re on their way to a frat party with maybe a quick stop at the malt shop. In a world moving toward Dr. Strangelove, Catch-22 and Midnight Cowboy, they seemed to have stepped right out of Ozzie and Harriet.
They were the antithesis of what the late Dave Van Ronk called that decade’s “great folk scare.”
In subsequent years the Kingston Trio has occasionally and grudgingly picked up a little credit, mostly for their role in opening the top-40 radio door to folk-style and acoustic music with “Tom Dooley.”
It would be more accurate, in truth, to say the Trio was helping hold the door open. The Weavers had radio hits in the early 1950s with folk tunes like “On Top of Old Smokey,” albeit with lush string arrangements, and the Tarriers — Alan Arkin’s first group — not only scored radio hits, but wore matching striped shirts.
Nor were the Kingston Trio ever hard-core radio darlings. Only one of their other singles reached the top 10. Still, anyone who listened to the radio then knew catchy tunes like “MTA” or “Tijuana Jail,” and for several years they were the public face of folk music in America.
This came as a relief to much of America, since previous faces of folk music like the Weavers and Woody Guthrie had often seemed to have demands. The Kingston Trio just seemed to want to have fun.
Perhaps as a result, their fans liked to sit back and listen to a whole bunch of their songs all together. That is, their fans tended to buy their albums more than their singles, which is how, at one time in 1959, they had four albums in the top 10. In the years since, only the Beatles have done that.
Being “album artists” put the Kingston Trio ahead of their time, in a sense, but more importantly, it said they created a solid body of music.
Which is how their legacy really should read.
They were good.
If they stood at the microphones with big smiles, striped shirts and stringed instruments, singing catchy songs that made audiences nod in rhythm, hey, how was that different from what Pete Seeger was doing?
The folk purist, of course, would say Pete Seeger was singing with a purpose about matters of importance.
Thing is, the Kingston Trio did that too. Seeger’s haunting “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” never reached more people than when the Trio turned it into a radio hit.
On their albums, the Trio recorded songs like “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” “Deportee,” “The Patriot Game” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Nope, they weren’t protest singers. They tilted toward traditional songs like “Colorado Trail,” “Across the Wide Missouri” and “Goober Peas.” They put topical songs in the mix for the same reason they did pop songs like “Jackson,” because musically, that’s how it works with the folk. Big tent.
If there’s a common thread through Kingston Trio songs, it’s the deeply embedded folk tradition of telling stories. “MTA” is a crowd-pleasing novelty song. It’s also a story. “Everglades” is a story. “Desert Pete,” “Greenback Dollar” and “The Reverend Mr. Black,” their other top-10 hit, told stories.
“Scotch and Soda,” Shane’s featured number in Kingston Trio concerts, is the kind of love song Sinatra would have sung if he’d gone into folk.
And that’s the other thing. Trying to define folk music, as tempting as it has been over the years, is like trying to define the color blue.
If folk music what “the folks” sing, that covers the whole musical waterfront, from Maine to Mexico. That’s why, when the folk purists started telling Dylan what he shouldn’t sing, he was outta there. That’s why Bob Shane didn’t waste a second of his 85-year life because he spent much of it in the Kingston Trio.
They didn’t just pass the torch on. They carried it.