Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Brothers Four -- "Greenfields" (1960)

Once there were green fields kissed by the sun
Once there were valleys where rivers used to run
Once there were blue skies
with white clouds high above

It's been over five months since the tornado that wiped out a broad swath of Joplin, Missouri, and a lot has happened in the meantime.  

When I visited shortly after the May 22 tornado struck, it seemed like all there was to see in my old neighborhood was rubble.

Here's what the 2100 block of Mississippi looked like on June 3:

Here's a video showing the view in all four directions from 24th and Missouri.  (Sorry about all the wind noise.)

But by the time of my return visit in the fall, virtually all the rubble was gone.  (I've read that there was three times as much rubble in Joplin as there was in lower Manhattan after the 9/11 attacks.)  So what you saw were a lot of vacant lots -- the rebuilding was just getting started.

I did a lot of walking around during both visits, and took a lot of photos.  My photographic talents are average at best, and I was equipped with only my Blackberry's humble built-in camera -- so don't expect too much from the photos I'm sharing with you.

Perhaps the most memorable image from the May 22 tornado's aftermath was the large and seemingly undamaged metal cross that towered over the ruins of St. Mary's Catholic Church.  (My understanding is that the cross will be preserved and made an integral part of the new church.)

Here's a picture of that cross, an American flag, and a bulldozer -- perhaps the combination of these three things sums up what the residents of Joplin are all about these days.

The thought that was always first and foremost in my mind during both of my Joplin visits was how fortunate my parents had been.  

Actually, the thought that was really foremost in my mind during those visits was how fortunate I was that I didn't have to deal with helping my parents rebuild.  Dealing with insurance companies and contractors and all that would have been overwhelming enough, but I think the psychological effects of losing a home would have been far more difficult to deal with than the physical effects.

My parents' home, which is at the corner of 24th and Alabama, was damaged but not seriously -- it was never uninhabitable.  But if you walked north not quite two blocks (about 1000 feet) this is what you would have seen:

You're standing at the corner of 22nd and Alabama, looking north.  Somehow, one house of the 22 houses between 22nd and 20th streets on Alabama remained standing.  The other 21 were a total loss.

Let's go one block east and look north from the intersection of 22nd and Mississippi:

That's pretty much the same view, except not even one house survived of all those that once stood between 22nd and 20th on Mississippi.

Let's turn 180 degrees and look south from 22nd and Mississppi:

Everything looks pretty normal, doesn't it?  That because it was pretty normal.  Some of the houses on this block sustained some damage, but they all looked like they had been restored to their original condition.

The Joplin neighborhood where I spent the first 18 years of my life (plus the next several summers) changed hardly at all while I lived there.  I've been back once or twice a year since then, and it hadn't changed that much in the ensuing 35-plus years -- until May 22.

It's disorienting to stand at 26th and Pennsylvania or 24th and Missouri or any number of other intersections in that neighborhood and see virtually no structures for several blocks in any direction.  I looked to the west, the north, the east, and the south, and the view was pretty much the same: all you could see was a lot of concrete slabs where houses used to stand, and some badly battered trees.

Here's the view from 26th and Pennsylvania, looking to the northwest:

Here's the view from at 24th and Minnesota, looking west:

And here's the view from 26th and Missouri, looking northeast towards what's left of Joplin High School:

I know it's hard to tell much from this picture, but the white building is a brand-new house that is going to have to be torn down to make room for the new high school.  As I understand it, the owner of that lot was eager to rebuild, and was one of the first people in Joplin to get a building permit.  Unfortunately, the school district then found out that the high school had been built in a floodplain, and would have to be relocated.

The school district is buying up some 80 building lots in a four-block area just west of the current high school.  The owner of the white structure in the photo above is the only landowner in that area who had started to rebuild.

Here's a link to a Joplin Globe story about all this.

There is quite a bit of building going on.  The owner of this house in the 2600 block of Grand, which was severely damaged but not completely destroyed, is adding a second story.  (There were zero two-story houses in this neighborhood when I was growing up.)

Here's a view from the 2100 block of Mississippi, looking north toward Ozark.  The lot in the foreground is one of the few I saw where the rubble had not been cleaned up.  The two houses in the background are brand new:

I've got a few more pictures from my Joplin trip to share with you, but I'll save those for the next 2 or 3 lines.  Let's move on to our featured song.

The Brothers Four met at the University of Washington in 1956, where they were Phi Gamma Delta fraternity brothers.  After college, they went to San Francisco and signed a recording contract with Columbia Records.  Their first (and eponymous) album made the top 20, and their single, "Greenfields," made it to #2 on the pop charts in January 1960.  

A lot of the folk music from that era tries too hard -- the musicians grin, and nod their heads in an exaggerated way, and virtually beg the audience to sing along.  It's all a little phony.  

But "Greenfields" is about the quietest record I've ever heard.  The first two lines of each verse are sung in unison at a very low volume.  The boys crank up the volume a little and break into harmony for lines three and four, but there's a gradual decrescendo, and the last line of each verse is as soft as the first.  

The instrumentation is a simple as it gets -- acoustic guitar and bass violin, playing on the beat.  There are no cutesy little riffs or lead-ins -- just the metronomic, on-the-beat chords.  The tempo is that of a slow walk, like the person walking doesn't really want to get to his or her destination.  

A few years later, the kids started listening to much edgier music and the Brothers Four fell on hard times.  The group recorded a cover of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" in 1965, but the release of Dylan's version of the song was delayed, so he refused to approve the release of the Brothers Four's (Brothers' Four?) version.  In the meantime, the Byrds recorded the song and the rest is history.

The Brothers Four weren't the only ones whose version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" was left in the dust by the Byrds.   Judy Collins, the Four Seasons, Johnny Rivers, Odett, and Dino, Desi, and Billy (remember them?) also covered the song in 1965.

Here's "Greenfields":

You can use this link to buy the song from Amazon:

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