The Highwaymen were a quintet folk group that met in college the late 50's. They modeled themselves after one of their favorite groups 'The Weavers". After signing with United Artists they went on to have a Billboard number one hit in 1961 with their version of "Michael Row The Boat Ashore". The song sold over a million records. They recorded another African-American spiritual song "Cotton Fields" which did very well and reached the top twenty. I caught up with original member Dr. Steve Butts, who holds a PH.D. from Columbia University.
R.V.B. - Dr. Butts, this is Rob von Bernewitz from Long Island. Are you in New York also?
S.B. – Yes, I am.
R.V.B. - Is it raining there yet?
S.B. - (hahaha) I hope it doesn't, we are traveling tomorrow.
R.V.B. - So let me start by just asking you, when you were real young, what was the first music that you were exposed to?
S.B. - I was exposed to a variety of music, but it included Burl Ives, it included the Weavers, and also some classical music, but not so much the pop music of the time, but the classics and some funk music.
R.V.B. - Did your parents play that stuff or did you pick that up on your own?
S.B. – No, they just had a decent record collection and we listened to the radio and so on. You know back in the days of 78's, we had a little record player and I listened to a lot of music when I was growing up. When I was young - 5,6,7 - up to 10,12 and so on.
R.V.B. - I see. I'm a big fan of the Weavers myself. I still collect vinyl and one of the things I look for... I think I have every one of them including the offshoots with Eric Darling after Seeger took his hiatus. They really set a good standard for folk by reviving it early, right?
S.B. - Well they were part of the first stages of the revival. There was The Almanac Singers and Woody Guthrie. In the late 40's and early 50's they were blacklisted unfortunately. It kind of died out. It was The Kingston Trio that came along in the late 50's that helped very much bring it back, but we modeled ourselves after The Weavers very much because we just liked their sound and we liked their musicianship.
S.B. – No. We got together at Wesleyan University and it was an all male school at that time. So there was really no opportunity It started off as just a casual thing... just for fun.
R.V.B. - What were some of the songs that you tackled first?
S.B. – Well, one of the first songs we did was "Michael Row The Boat Ashore". A lot of the songs on the first album we started out with. We began with those. The work of the Weavers - “Cindy, Oh Cindy” and a number of the other things. We were lucky we had two guys who had been raised in hispanic speaking countries. In South America, in Mexico, and in Argentina. They brought along some ethnic stuff from their growing up. With the group Steve Trott and Chan Daniels - so we had a fair number of Spanish songs.
R.V.B. - How did you guys get discovered to record “Michael Row The Boat Ashore”?
S.B. – Basically we had sung together casually for a couple of years and thought, “Well, summer’s coming up and let's see if we can find a job singing.” So we went into New York and auditioned for the three major booking agencies. One of them, General Artist Corporation, was very enthusiastic about us and connected us with our manager Ken Greengrass. He thought we were pretty good and he immediately took us to a recording studio... and that night we did a couple of demos. Over the next few months he got us a recording contract with United Artists and we made our first LP. It went right down the toilet. It didn't sell anything and it wasn't promoted very much. It wasn't until a year and a half later when a DJ in Connecticut named Big Ed Dinello started playing it... because he liked the tune. It became a hit in Connecticut, and then in New England, and then all over the country - and the world.
R.V.B. - Well it's a beautiful song, and it's an old spiritual right?
S.B. - Well no… it's a work song actually. It came from the Georgia Sea Islands off the east coast of Georgia. Black people there would row out and go fishing all day and then come ashore at night. It was actually a work song. It was collected by Guy Carawan. He was a folklorist and worked in the area and he knew a lot of the Gullah people, and that's what they spoke - Gullah. He collected the song and actually… The Weavers sang it in the 50's, but it was just one of the many songs they sang. We used to sing it around the boy scout campfire kind of thing... on retreats. When you used to sing, "Wimoweh", we sang, "Michael Row The Boat Ashore" when we were kids. That's how we knew it - and so it was real easy to work up an arrangement for it.
R.V.B. - Did you tour to support that regionally or did you get teamed up with any other folk artists?
S.B. – In our junior year, we used to get in the car to play more and more around New England. We'd make a couple of hundred bucks and make just enough to pay for gas and the motel. We mostly played alone, but one time we played with a duo called The Simon Sisters. That was Carly Simon and her younger sister. We certainly heard her name. They were just starting out the way we were. They were a duo at that time, but basically we just played colleges, and dances, and things like that... for not many bucks.
R.V.B. - Now let me just ask you a general music question. When you guys were just getting started in 1958, singing groups seemed to be the rage as far as folk and doo wop, even crossing over into some rock. Why do you suppose certain factions in the inner cities went doo wop?
S.B. - Well you know, you go with the music that you feel comfortable with, and you go with the music that interests you. Doo Wop had this great tradition coming out of so called "race music" and the blues and so on. So naturally if you're in that culture, that's what you do. We were in a different culture. We had access to recordings and we were just... another thing is we all played the guitar as kids. I got my first guitar - a $50 Stella guitar - in the early 50's and I just played three chords on it. I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't take lessons or anything, but it turned out I took the guitar to school when I went off to college, and there were four other guys who also played guitar. So it was natural - there wasn't an A Cappella tradition. We started really with playing guitars from the beginning. On the doo wop, you have an A Cappella tradition that probably somewhat came out of the black church. At least melodically and harmonically. That's probably why they went that way and we went our way.
R.V.B. - Would you consider The Mills Brothers a crossover from Doo Wop and Folk?
S.B. - I don't know … they were more popular. They were a crossover between black songs and mainstream. I wouldn't call them doo wop. It seemed to me that they were sort of 40's pop.
R.V.B. - Do you think that the age of recording - when the recording machine came in and started going into rural areas, and recording blues people, and old country people like the Carter family - which you could argue is folk - put a damper on novelty and classical music?
S.B. - No. I think it came up alongside it. There was crossover, but the United States was much more regional 75 years ago, and each region had its own music. Country and country folk was the southeastern United States. The western swing was more to the southwest, and I think that the regional aspect has to be considered. Classical music wasn't so regional, but I don't think it was hurt by these other regional things coming along.
R.V.B. - You think it was just a natural progression of things that just happened... it just widened America's view in music in general?
S.B. – Yeah, I think so - and then you began to get these people of one culture falling in love with people of another culture. A classic example is The Rolling Stones... who really went wild over the delta blues type guys. Then you had people going out in the field recording... just because they loved the music and they wanted to keep it going.
R.V.B. - Were you involved or did you go to any of the Newport shows? The folk festivals where they mixed everybody together?
S.B. - I went a couple of times as a spectator basically. We weren't invited. That was in many ways a closed shop. You had to know certain people to be invited there. We weren't that known, but I went up as a spectator a couple times.
R.V.B. - How did you like it?
S.B. - Oh it was great. I had a great time. I slept on the beach. This was before - when we were poor.
R.V.B. - So you kinda went... you took breaks here and there, obviously you continued you're studies because you got your PHD. How did you choose Chinese Politics?
S.B. - (hahaha) I wanted to... it was 1959, Sputnik had just gone up and everybody was studying Russian. I figured I want to study Russian but the class was full. The only two classes that had room were Chinese and Vietnamese. I never heard of Vietnam in 1959. So I took Chinese, and it kind of snowballed from there.
R.V.B. - Did you think China would be as powerful as they are today, when you were studying them?
S.B. - Well it was powerful ever since 1949. You know they kind of got things organized in a very totalitarian way. They were always powerful, and it was clear that they were gonna be a player. So to learn the language... it wasn't like learning some South American dialect of Quechua or whatever. It was clear... a quarter of the people in the world spoke Chinese. So there was never any doubt. In terms of where they are today - I am amazed that they were gonna be a dictatorship... and a very strict one for a long time. Human nature took over and they've now come a long way from where they were.
R.V.B. - I see. So to wrap up - just a few more things. Are you feeling good? Are you enjoying you're retirement and everything?
S.B. - I am indeed. New York is a wonderful place and we really take advantage of it. We go to a lot of music and entertainment events - plays especially - and I'm still connected with a lot of people in New York with baroque music. I try to catch as much as that as I can. Otherwise. I'm sleeping late, eating well and enjoying life.
R.V.B - You've had a great career as an educator. You taught baroque music correct?
R.V.B. - That's great... so you live in Manhattan?
S.B. - Yes... midtown.
R.V.B. - Great ! Good for you. One other thing that I'd like to finish up with - where do you see music heading in the future with the digital age? Do you think it hurt it or helped it, and do you think any genres are going to fade away?
S.B. – Well, that's a complicated question. I think basically digital has helped everything. I'm kind of a hi-fi nut myself and I really appreciate the quality that the digital - and actually, I was a recording engineer for a while - part-time. I recorded a lot of mostly classical music. The digital just upped the quality so much that it added a beneficial effect. Now, I DO have a problem with today's pop music, because I think we are in a real low period for pop music. The songs aren't very good. They are sort on monotone, monophonic... you know there are three to four notes to a song now, instead of a whole octave and a half. People are much more concerned about the words then they are about music, and I think a lot of them are poorly recorded.
R.V.B. - Not to mention sterile, because they have these machines that can fix the pitch and everything is absolutely perfect and...
S.B. – Yeah, that's part of it. I don't mind that so much if the songs have some kind of content and so if somebody misses a note otherwise the take is wonderful. There was always fixing up back in the tape era -you know- you use a razor blade and you just cut out a cough. I don't mind the editing, it's the general quality of the music that’s narrow now. Everything sort of sounds alike and people are trying to sound like each other. The singer songwriters now... half of them want to sound like Dylan and one Dylan is enough (haha).
R.V.B. - (hahaha) Yeah, good point. Do you think that the internet changed music dramatically?
S.B. – Yeah, I think it has and it will. The model of music distribution now is sooo much changed by the internet. It's all up and down. You can buy ninety nine cent MP3s, that you can carry around in your pocket. Or you can do as I do... you can get high definition... twenty four ninety six, twenty four one ninety two... cuts of great classical music
R.V.B. - The thing is people don't seem to care about the degradation in quality.
S.B. - Well most people don't, but I do. There are enough of people like me that there are places like Linn Records in England, and HD Tracks right here in the city, where you can download all kinds of re-issued master tapes in high definition. We have our tunes on HD Tracks. We put five of our eight albums on there. And since we have the master tapes... they are really good quality. I think there are enough people around who care about that who will spend twenty bucks for an album.
R.V.B. - Do you think that the original vinyl release has less deterioration in the master or you don't think that's an issue at all?
S.B. – No, it's an issue. For example, I had listened to our master tapes off of a serious tape machine and they are really quite high quality. Unfortunately, United Artists cheaped out on the record pressing, and all our LPs are really not of the highest quality. They have some distortion, and some compression and so on... but the master tapes are wonderful. Now, there are a whole bunch of LPs... especially classical LP's - that are originally super - good quality and hold up today... if you don't play them too much or if you play them with the right stylus or anything like that. So I'm glad to hear that LPs are making a comeback.
R.V.B. – I just like the warmth of the analog sound and also the fact that some albums will never be re-released again. Sometimes the master tapes are damaged or not stored properly or just the fact that the piece of music wasn't popular enough to warrant a re-issue.
S.B. - I live in an apartment so I have no space. Actually, I had about 200 LP's and I digitized them all and then sold them. Just because I didn't have the room - but I certainly kept the music and digitized in high definition. They sound almost as great as the vinyl did.
R.V.B. - Well , that's great and I'm so glad to have this opportunity to speak with you. It's an honor, and I know "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore" was playing around my house. You covered one of Peggy Seeger's songs, right?
S.B. - One of Ewan MacColl's. David Fisher sang, "First Time Ever I saw Your Face" and we do a couple of other Ewan MacColl songs. Actually, I saw her live in 1961. She and Ewan came by and did a concert at Wesleyan University. It was just great to see them in real life. I've always liked the way she plays and the way she sings.
R.V.B. - Yea she's a great story also and it's a shame Ewan passed away.
S.B. – Yeah, it was too bad. He was a great singer and a great folklorist... and a writer.
R.V.B. – Again, I appreciate you taking the time to spend with me and I'm honored.
S.B. - Well thank you. I'm glad you enjoy our music.
R.V.B. - Ok have a nice day and enjoy your retirement.
S.B. - You too, Bye bye.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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Photo credit Photo by Mark Swirsky
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