A Wild Old Family

A Wild Old Family


     In these days of YouTube and other digital music services, it's hard to imagine a time when acquiring access to songs was either an expensive or at best a tedious, if not impossible, quest.  Since I could never afford to just buy what I wanted, I remember going to the library to find records that came close, though usually when I did find recordings, they weren't exactly what I wanted to hear.   

     My mother collected sleeved 33 rpms, all salvaged from yard sales and Goodwill stores. I inherited this ridiculously large stack of vinyl that was my main source for music for many years. It's from this eclectic conglomeration of sound that I learned to play guitar and also from which I developed my preference for folk music and maybe my longing for country life.

     Among this amassment are several albums by the Canadian singing duo, Ian & Sylvia (pictured in the cover image).  From my first sampling I fell in love with their close harmony and cowboy flavored music.  One song, written by Ian Tyson himself, really caught my fancy. It's a ballad i.e. it tells a story my favorite type of song.  But the two most eye (or ear) catching elements are the guitar introduction, played by the legendary John Herald  and what I consider one the best opening lines to a story since Dickens, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," or Melville's, "Call me Ishmael" (a bit of an exaggeration perhaps, but it gives me the same feeling that something special is bound to follow) : 

Willy Palmer's stallion was no twenty dollar cayuse.

     I was probably 11 or 12 when I heard these words. I couldn't really make them out at the time, probably since I had no idea what a cayuse is or even that the word existed.  It wasn't until the world wide web came into being that I learned with any degree of accuracy the words to the song and the story they told. By then I could already play it in my sleep, though with only 10% of Herald's virtuosity. 

     If you don't mind, or even if you do mind, let's talk a bit about John Heraldremember I introduced him as the "legendary" John Herald, knowing full well that only people who closely follow this genre might have heard of him.

from a 1997 poster

     Why legendary?
     I'm glad you asked.

     Like me, Herald taught himself guitar; unlike me he became phenomenal.

     Herald was born (1939) and raised in Manhattan.  His mother died when he was three and his father, a published Bohemian poet, only half raised him, passing him around to foster homes. But his father took him to events where they saw and heard musicians such as Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly.  When he was 14 or 15 he spent the summer at Camp Woodland, a progressive (left-wing) inter-racial, inter-cultural  summer camp near Phoenicia, New York.  Pete Seeger's father-in-law, Takashi Ohta was the caretaker and Pete Seeger came by often. Seeger got all the campers to sing along, Seeger fashion, and Herald discovered not only that he had the best voice there, but that he loved singing.  Herald started frequenting the Sunday afternoon music sessions at Washington Square Park - you had to take music where you could find it back then.   He got involved with a local group who played there and soon became their lead singer. For the record Herald also attended Manumit School for Workers' Children, an experimental socialist boarding school in Bristol, Pa.
     He attended the University of Wisconsin. On his very first day he went to a freshman mixer where he ran into Eric Weissberg whom he immediately recognized as one of the musicians he admired at Washington Square. After introducing himself to Weissberg, his new acquaintance introduced Herald to bluegrass.  Blown away by its intensity, Herald convinced his father to give him $30 to buy a used Gibson so he could learn to play. He dropped out of school and spent all his time learning and practicing guitar. He and Weisserman started playing at Washington Square along with Bob Yellin and called themselves the Greenbriar Boys after the Carter Family song, Girl on the Greenbriar Shore.  Weissenberg was replaced by Paul Prestopino who in turn was replaced by Ralph Rinzler.  Now a real group, they started doing rigid rehearsals. In 1960 they traveled down to my own stomping grounds and took first place at the Union Grove Fiddler's Convention in Fiddler's Grove, N.C.,  becoming the first non-southern group to break through that glass ceiling since the annual event started in 1924.  
    Back in NYC, they started playing regularly at coffee houses, particularly Gerde's Folk City.  The New York folk music community was rather tight knit and most knew each other. Herald was good friends with a new-comer named Bob Dylan and helped him get work opening for them.  Of course, today everyone knows Dylan; not so many know the Greenbriar Boys.

1961 poster

     As their popularity grew among the other musicians, they backed up Joan Baez on two songs on her second album, Joan Baez, vol. 2.  After that, the signed a contract with Vanguard Records.  Overall they put out 5 albums (one in conjunction with Dián James). After they disbanded in 1967, Herald put out two solo albums and one with the John Herald Band.  He did session work for Vanguard, much of which was for Ian & Sylvia.

     An obituary by folkist, Ross Altman in Folkworks magazine in 2005, says:

"To folk guitarists, there is Doc Watson and there is John Herald, and it’s a long way down to whomever was number three on that list."
 "Playing folk music with John Herald was like playing jazz with Louie Armstrong—he made you sound great."


John Herald (1939-2005)

     As noted in the uppermost poster image, Herald arranged a popular version of the old ballad, "Stewball," a song soon made more popular by Peter, Paul and  Mary.  Another curious thing is that Linda Rondstadt (with the Stone Poney) was propelled to fame with her recording of Mike Nesbitt's Different Drum. Rondstadt's version is a rather faithful reproduction of John Herald's arrangement which was her introduction to that song:



Peter, Paul and Mary singing Stewball

     For harder-core folkies, here's the Greenbriar Boys on Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest.
     (a shout-out to @simaginfan for turning me on to this wonderful program)

     Ian Tyson was a rodeo rider. It started when he was a 19 year old city slicker living in British Columbia who decided to try his hand riding horses bareback. Early in his rodeo career, he was thrown and stepped on by a bronco, ending up with a shattered ankle. While recovering in the hospital, another kid there had a guitar. Tyson borrowed it and started teaching himself to play. The first song he learned was "I Walk the Line," by Johnny Cash.  Eventually he started performing in coffeehouses in Vancouver and in 1959 moved to Totonto. There he met Sylvia Fricker who had just moved there from Chatham, Ontario with aspirations of becoming a singer. The pair had something special.

    They moved to Greenwich Village, N.Y. where they became close with the still-undiscovered Bob Dylan and performed in various venues, finally hiring Albert Grossman and getting a recording contract with Vanguard Records.  Tyson recalls that hearing Dylan's Blowing in the Wind just after it was written inspired him to write original songs. His first song, Four Strong Winds is possibly his most revered (John Herald played guitar on the original recording). According to Ian Tyson himself, he wrote the song in a coffee house below the Kettle of Fish on 114 MacDougal St. in 20 minutes.  Tyson seems to have forgotten that this coffee house he mentions was the quite famous Gaslight Café which was actually down the stairs right next to the Kettle of Fish bar which was upstairs.

Ralph Rinzler, Bob Dylan and John Herald in the Gaslight, January 1961

     Likewise, Fricker's first attempt at songwriting resulted in her most remembered song, You Were on my Mind.  Fricker said she wrote the song in 1961 in the bathtub of the Hotel Earle in Greenwich Village.  "The reason I wrote it in the bathtub wasn’t that I was taking a bath. It was the only place the cockroaches wouldn't go."
      Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker married in 1964.  As harmoniously as their voices blended, their personalities and visions clashed and eventually their marriage just ended amicably as did their musical partnership.   Both went on to have fruitful, if not as visibly celebrated, solo careers.  Ian Tyson had his own T.V. show and made some well received albums. Embracing the cowboy life, he worked on ranches and finally bought a 640 acre spread in High River (south of Calgary), Alberta.  Fricker became active in the promotion and awards side of Canadian music, starting her own record label, Salt Records. She also made her mark as a song writer, a novelist and as a performer, solo and with Quartette.

The Song - Four Rode By:

Four rode by.
Rode through here-
Three McLean boys and that wild Alex Hare.
They were armed.
All were armed.
It was them, I'd have known them anywhere.

Willie Palmer's stallion was no twenty dollar cayuse
And when the wild ones stole him he hightailed it into town.
Ussher in those days was keeping order in the district
But before he'd ridden thirty miles the McLean boys shot him down.

A shepherd known as Kelly saw the wild ones as they passed.
They shot him with a rifle and took his watch and chain.
When the posse found them there in the lonely cabin,
A hunger took their pride away and no one else was slain.

They hung the boys in January eighteen eighty-one.
First time in that province that they'd strung up brothers three.
And a son killed nineteen Germans cross the seas back in seventeen.
One thing that's for damned sure they're a wild old family.

The story:

I owe this narrative to various websites but mostly to the book  B.C. Provincial Police Stories
by Cecil Clark

     Donald McLean was Scottish fur trader for the Hudson's Bay Company in charge of the Thompson's River Post, also called Fort Kamloops, in what is present day Kamloops, B.C.    After resigning from that position, he took up ranching.  He had had three wives and eleven children but when he took up ranching in 1861, he was with his last wife (who was the daughter of Louis Clexlixqen, Chief of the Kamloops indians) who bore hin 3 sons and a daughter.  During the Chilcotlin War, McLean he joined a party hunting Chief Klattasine. The tables turned and McLean was killed by one of Klattasine's warriors. His oldest son, Allen was only 9 years old at the time.
     As teenagers, the McLean boys were indeed wild, considered by most to be troublemakers.
     Their mother, Sophia, was an indian. Her sons, being "half-breeds," lived in a limbo world excluded by both the whites and the indians.  It must have been a hard life. Their mother received a small pension and the ranch itself was tied in a legal battle with Donald's sister who claimed that Sophia, being an indian, couldn't inherit the ranch.  The family scraped by mostly by stealing and intimidation. 
     In 1879, 24 year old Allen and his two younger brothers, 17 year old Charlie and 15 year old Archie along with a friend, 17 year old Alexander Hare, another "half-breed," stole a prize black stallion from William Palmer, a local rancher. Palmer reported the theft to 35 year old John Tannatt Ussher, the local constable, claiming he had seen Charles McLean riding the horse when he happened upon the four. When he heard them cock their weapons, he told them he wasn't looking for them.  They responded with the threat that they'd kill anyone who did.  Armed with an arrest warrant, Ussher deputized Palmer and a man named Shumway and they went after the horse thieves.  It was December and the trail was easy to follow in the snow. 
     They came upon the gang the next morning and the McLean gang started firing at the posse. Ussher, confident he could get them to simply surrender, approached them, unarmed, on foot.  Unfortunately, Hare, who was walking towards the constable, was armed-- with both a knife and a pistol. Ussher, thinking Hare was giving up, put his hand on the boy's shoulder. Hare stabbed Ussher until he fell to the ground., then started slashing his face.  In the meantime Archie approached the two and shot Ussher point blank in the head.  Palmer fired at the boys (Shumway, who was more of a guide, was unarmed) then the two rode back to Kamloops for help.  The boys stripped Ussher of his boots, coat, gloves, handcuffs, canteen, horse and saddle and left him on the ground. They rode off, stopping at a cabin owned by Tom Trapp whom they robbed and to whom they boasted of killing Ussher. Next they stopped at a house owned by man named Roberts. They also bragged to him of killing Ussher and told Roberts how were going to catch Palmer and torture him. They rode off again.
     Next they came to a ranch where a hired hand named John Kelly was tending the sheep. Charles shot him for sport and Hare took this watch and chain. Then they rode to Willie Palmer's ranch. Only his wife was there, so they stole all his firearms and ammunition.   Finally, they reached their intended destination - the ranch of Nicola Indians whom they had hoped to enlist to engage in an uprising, giving them a better chance to escape.  The gang holed up in a small cabin on the ranch. The McLean boys had no better relations with the Indians as with the settlers and received no help. Meanwhile the large posse led by Justice of the Peace, John Clapperton tracked them to the cabin. Clapperton threatened to burn them out, but everything was too wet to start a decent fire. Instead, he lay siege to starve them out. After several days the boys succumbed to thirst and gave up. They found Kelly's watch in the cabin along with 6 revolvers, 5 rifles and 2 shotguns.
     At the trial in March 1880, in which the jury deliberated for 22 minutes, the four were sentenced to death.  They appealed and the trial was rendered invalid on a technicality.  A second trial during the summer of 1880 also resulted in a guilty verdict. The four were hung on January 31, 1881. It was the first time three brothers were executed together in Canadian history.

     That ends the tale of the McLean gang, but not of the McLean family.  In 1885 Donald McLean's oldest son, Alexander (by his first wife),  went on a rampage killing one and wounding four Indians. He was promptly surrounded and killed himself.   Allen McLean (the oldest of the McLean gang) left a wife (Angele, the daughter of Johnny Chillihetza, who was Chief of the Douglas Lake indians)  and two boys.  the oldest, George (born 1875, or 1876 by some records), is the "son" referenced in the last line of the song.  After WWI broke out, George, then 41, enlisted in the 54th Battalion of the Canadian Infantry and was sent to France. At the Battle of Vimy Ridge that took place from 9-12 April 1917, George, already shot twice but armed with a dozen grenades made a lone attack on 60 entrenched enemy troops. 19 surrendered but 5 who didn't surrender attempted to reach a machine gun. In the melee that ensued, he killed the 19 German soldiers.  He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for gallantry.  (see: World Wars Aboriginal Veterans)

George McLean (1875-1934)


Now, let's full circle back to:

Willy Palmer's stallion was no twenty dollar cayuse.

     As I mentioned at the start, my original connection to this song was lyrical: I liked the sound and it fed my guitar picking aspirations.  Decades passed before the story revealed itself to me.  Keeping in mind I'm neither a poet nor an academic, I found the writing, after learning the lyrics and the story, exceptionally economical and evocative. The first line, just 8 words seemingly apropos to nothing, hits like the thud of a hammer and sets the scene to the entire tale. Every line that follows advances the story with mental images of the McLean wildness. The pace of the story matches Herald's lightning fingers.  

     The story appears to be a well-known one, at least in British Columbia. It could have been told in a haunting fashion that bemoaned the tragic situation and outcome, but Tyson chose instead to capture the essence and spirit of the raw, untamed west where lawlessness was just being subdued. 

     Although I'm more a cayuse than an Arabian filly, I do love a good ballad.

The ballad of Ella Speed by Ian & Sylvia, accompanied by John Herald:

Little Beggarman -John Herald, guitar; Eric Weissberg, bass