Song Of The Day 4/29/2014: The Village Stompers - "Washington Square"

Pre-Fab Four: In the vacuum between Elvis going into the army and the Beatles' emergence Dixieland found its way back onto the uppermost reaches of the pop and adult contemporary charts. Well -- seeped its way, that's probably more accurate. So evergreen was traditional jazz that it actually ended the Beatles' initial 3-song, 14-week run at the top of the charts, when Louis Armstrong's version of "Hello, Dolly!" briefly evicted them in May 1964. But that was it for Dixieland as a commercial force, and outside of New Orleans it was relegated to Shakey's pizza parlors and Memorial Day weekends in Old Sacramento.

The Village Stompers, whose music was fairly charming, might have seemed like vindicators emerging from the charred, smoldering battlefield where Dixieland musicians had lulled rock musicians to sleep and then clubbed them to death with their trombones. They were part of the Greenwich Village folk scene, the progenitors of the hybrid "Dixie-folk" as heard on their #2 hit "Washington Square."

You'll note the banjo carries the melody in the opening folk portion of the song, which is tricky because there's absolutely no sustain on the plucked notes of a banjo. Ralph Casale -- who as a guitarist had one of the most versatile, productive studio musician careers ever, with everyone from the Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman orchestras to the Turtles* -- compensated by making constant, staccato strums on a single note in a spot where, say, a flutist could just keep breathing. Not the optimal tactic, but what's a Dixie-folk banjoist gonna do? Sit on the porch of a Georgia backwood shack, knock out his teeth and wait for Ronny Cox to show up in a raft with Burt Reynolds and a guitar?

"Washington Square" and the rest of the Stompers' material was decent Dixieland music, embraced as nostalgia seemed to be getting the upper hand on the rock music fad. But it turns out it was set up. It's like the movie theater in your neighborhood showing Steve Reeves episodes of Superman while waiting for the next Avengers installment to arrive. Heartwarming, in many ways more appealing, but too many damn banjos. Er, metaphorically.

*(In fact, Casale is credited with coming up with the arrangement for the Turtles' signature hit "Happy Together", as he tells it in an interview with SongFacts: "Two unknown writers [Gary Bonner and Alan Gordon] were sent into Regent Sound studio by their publishing company after their song was turned down by a number of groups. They obviously didn't have the right concept for the song or it would have already been recorded by someone. A chord sheet was placed in front of the musicians and we immediately proceeded to put this song together. I came up with what I considered and called a Lovin' Spoonful feel. I created the figure and all the other musicians including Bonner and Gordon immediately understood the direction. The vocal arrangements fell into place very nicely. Regent Sound was an excellent studio so the demo sounded like a finished product. I later told everybody, 'I just heard a hit record.' No one really knows for sure if a song is going to be a hit but if you hear recordings on a daily basis you sometimes can sense a hit record. I thought the writers were going to be the artists. Apparently they had the Turtles in mind. The Turtles added their sound to the arrangement and the rest is history.")

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