Friday, June 23, 2017

A Song A Day: The Goldebriars, "Shenandoah"

JUNE 23, 2017




In 1964, Epic Records signed a two-man, two-woman folk group from Minnesota named the Goldebriars.

This quartet sang and played traditional songs and used banjos and guitars, but also wrote plenty of their own material. Interested in all sorts of unusual things, the quite bohemian Goldebriars relocated to Los Angeles, donned way-out clothes, and brought Jezebel—a fertility goddess from the Marshall Islands—with them everywhere as a good-luck charm.

The group’s leader was Curt Boettcher, a melodic and harmonic genius with gifts for composition and arrangement. His male cohort was Ron Neilson, who played the more difficult instrumental parts. Sisters Dottie and Sheri Holmberg provided the adventuresome, angelic harmonies that distinguished them from other such groups. The Holmberg sisters sang with clear diction but took their voices to new places.

Their first 45 release, in spring 1964, was “Pretty Girls and Rolling Stones,” an updated standard with writing credited to the group. This raucous hootenanny roof-raiser doesn’t quite succeed, but had more immediacy and harmonic sophistication than the music of other mixed-gender ensembles such as the New Christy Minstrels or Serendipity Singers.

“Pretty Girls” got little airplay and no sales. But in May, some DJs began playing the flip side, “Shenandoah,” a recasting of a melancholy old folk song that likely originated with northern hunters and trappers and their meetings with local Native tribes. It was usually sung by the likes of Paul Robeson or Tennessee Ford—men with deep voices who summoned the valleys and mountains with their rich tones.

The Goldebriars couldn’t compete with such a thing, so they did their own, utterly singular version. The Holmberg sisters took the lead with assistance from Boettcher, incanting male-perspective lyrics with no irony.

Transforming this tough, male folk song into a lush sort of international folk, a festival of interlocking harmonies, took some doing; this was daring, forward-thinking music. Producer Bob Morgan apparently deserves credit for helping the group with the overdubbed, multi-layered vocal arrangement.

Boettcher & Co. created, possibly by intent but most likely simply by following their vision, what a year later would be called folk-rock. The harmonies, ethereal guitars and autoharp, and carefully layered arrangement also presage psychedelic folk music by two years.

Given exposure in St. Louis by Top 40 power KXOK, “Shenandoah,” with its reference to the wide Missouri River, was an instant smash, vaulting into the station’s top five by mid-June. It also reached the top 20 in across the state in Kansas City. It got scant radio play anywhere else, though. As a result, “Shenandoah” never dented the Billboard charts and made just #148 in Cashbox.

Following two albums, the Goldebriars disbanded. Only Boettcher remained a fixture in music, quickly landing jobs producing hit songs for Tommy Roe and the Association and spearheading groups like The Ballroom, Sagittarius, and the Millennium. In these various permutations, he created some of the richest, most layered pop productions of the 1960s.

He continued to work into the 1980s without his earlier level of success and passed away in 1987 of a lung infection. Boettcher was just 44.

This isn’t among the most famous record he was on, but it’s one of my favorites. Hope you like it.

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