Hang down your head
August 9, 2008 1:15 AM   Subscribe

Guitarist and banjo player Erik Darling died last Sunday at age 74. His arrangements of traditional songs played a significant role in the folk music revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Darling's first group, the Folksay Trio, recorded an influential version of an old North Carolina folk song in 1951.
Standing in front of a microphone ... was not the same thing as playing and singing in Washington Square or in someone’s apartment with reckless abandon (which would have been better). I could not help but think that every nuance would count. The result was, I couldn’t sing and play the guitar at the same time on one of the songs. RECORDING SESSION 101: you cross the George Washington Bridge to a New Jersey basement and sing. Still, our syncopated version of “Tom Dooley” on this little record was the one from which the Kingston Trio got their version of the song (as the late Dave Guard has told us), and that song gave them the number one hit that began their career.
Darling found his first commercial success with The Tarriers, a trio that included future Oscar winner Alan Arkin. After backing up folk singer Vince Martin on his hit "Cindy, Oh Cindy," the group recorded a version of "The Banana Boat Song."*
Our version of the song was performed on the Hit Parade TV show for eight weeks. Without intending to, we had started the Calypso craze. We were not even singing Calypso--“The Banana Boat Song” was a Jamaican folk song and most of our material was North American folk music--but the music industry needed to label what we were doing. Every time we appeared on a TV show, the set was palm trees and bananas, or pilings, barrels and docks, or all five. We were covered by Capital Record’s version of the same song, “Day-O," by Harry Belafonte. With Capital’s power, as well as Belafonte’s ability to dramatize songs and perform, it is Belafonte’s version of the song that is remembered to this day.
Though their musical interests reached beyond the West Indies, The Tarriers' Darling-era YouTube offerings are limited: here's "Chaucoun," the trio's rendition of the 19th-century Haitian song "Choucoune."

Darling was chosen to succeed Pete Seeger in The Weavers in 1958, and quit The Tarriers a year later (his replacement was Eric Weissberg of "Dueling Banjos" fame). In 1962 he left The Weavers and soon after formed The Rooftop Singers with Lynne Taylor and Bill Svanoe. They hit pay dirt with a cover of Gus Cannon's "Walk Right In" (original version; Darling's bluesy version from 2000). The song, with its dual twelve-string guitars, hit No. 1 in the US in January 1963.
I thought that if the three of us recorded “Walk Right In” as Leadbelly would have, with the sound of a twelve-string guitar, but in our case with two twelve-string guitars playing exactly the same notes in unison, we’d have a hit. The only problem was that there were no twelve-string guitars being made at the time. We waited six months for the Gibson Company to build us two of them.
They followed up with "Tom Cat," a cover of Cliff Carlisle's "Tom Cat Blues." Some prudish radio programmers refused to play the somewhat risqué tune. When invited to appear on Hootenanny, The Rooftop Singers played it safe.

Darling never again found success on the Billboard charts, but he found contentment in his musical projects, in his painting, and in "writing and emailing old and new friends all over the world."
I discovered that a writer and folk music enthusiast in Japan, Jeffrey Yamada, had bought my original 12-string (from the Mandolin Brothers) that was used on the "Walk Right In" single. He strummed it for me over the phone. "You know what this is?" he said. I never dreamed. Such is the way of the world.
*The clip is from the 1957 low-budget musical Calypso Heat Wave—Alan Arkin's earliest IMDb credit. He talks about his stint with The Tarriers in this interview, starting at about 6:20.
posted by Knappster (4 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The Rooftop Singers couldn't follow up "Walk Right In". No one could have. What a stupendous recording. But dig that You Tube Hit Parade clip for "Banana Boat Song". What charmingly insane white people!
posted by Faze at 5:39 AM on August 9, 2008

His recording with the Kossoy Sisters, Bowling Green, is really great. A track from it was used in O Brother, though on the soundtrack CD, their track was replaced by an Allison Krauss or Gillian Welch version. Still, it generated enough interest to get the album re-released.
posted by palimpsest at 7:22 AM on August 9, 2008

What a great post! I vaguely knew who Eric Darling was, but I didn't know he'd been in every damn band my dad listened to growing up (except the Kingston Trio).
posted by smartyboots at 12:03 PM on August 9, 2008

Great post!

The story of Tom Dula is locally well known. Grayson descendants are still around in these hills.

R.I.P., Darling boy.
posted by maggieb at 9:04 AM on August 10, 2008

« Older A long time ago, in a galaxy far away...   |   Bernie Mac Dead at 50 Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments