By Richie Unterberger
Fifty years ago, in the early days of the LP, it was far more difficult to find recordings of what we now call "world" music than it is today. Sometimes the most readily available versions of songs from other nations were not on recordings actually done by natives of those countries. Elektra Records was quick to recognize the market for such material, and one of the label's first artists, Cynthia Gooding, became a musical polyglot of sorts, recording folk songs in Spanish, Italian, and Turkish (as well as English). Indeed, her first two releases on the label -- the ten-inch LPs Turkish and Spanish Folksongs and Mexican Folk Songs, both issued in 1953 -- were in non-English tongues. And both were among Elektra's first releases of any sort, Turkish and Spanish Folksongs bearing the catalog number EKL 6, and Mexican Folk Songs the number EKL 8.
In 1957, Elektra decide to combine the material from those two ten-inches into one long-playing record in the newly standardized twelve-inch LP format. "I like ten-inch LPs," says Elektra's founder and president Jac Holzman. "I thought they were a nice size, and for folk music they were appropriate. But when dealers decided to get rid of ten-inch LPs, I knew I had to convert my catalog over, to keep the catalog going. I tried to keep everything in print, always did." There was nonetheless a little confusion about how to title the new presentation of the four-years-old material. Though the title read Cynthia Gooding Sings Spanish, Mexican and Turkish Folk Songs on the front cover, the spine read Cynthia Gooding Sings Turkish, Spanish and Mexican Folk Songs, and discographies have listed the LP under both billings.
Remembers Holzman, "I met Cynthia Gooding and her husband at one of those folk parties in Greenwich Village, which I sometimes describe as one of those places where there were a lot of wing chairs, candles, bullfight posters, and cheap wine. [In fact, a bullfight poster appears on the cover of the LP.] People would pass the guitar around, and it got passed to her. I was pretty impressed. And then her husband, Hassan Ozbekkan, did a real sales job on me. She was one of the earliest artists I recorded."
Adds Jac, "I remember being leery of someone not indigenous to those cultures singing those songs. I certainly knew the Moorish-Spanish connection, but I was unsure about her accent. I went to a couple of people and they said 'she's pure Castilian,' so that was okay with me. She did everything well. It was fun recording with her." In Holzman's autobiography (co-written with Gavan Daws), Follow the Music, fellow early Elektra folkie Jean Ritchie also praises Gooding's skills, observing, "Cynthia sang songs from different countries, but highly arranged and very elaborate. Great sort of flamenco licks on the guitar. She didn't sing them like a peasant, but they were ethnic songs to begin with. And she was very good as a singer." Yet, Holzman reveals, "I think the lasting memories of those albums" -- in their original ten-inch versions -- "are the covers. They were done by a guy who couldn't get any work illustrating. It was Maurice Sendak. He got paid, which was rare for him. And they were wonderful covers. His talent was obvious even then."
In the manner of many early folk LPs, Gooding herself scrupulously documented the sources of the seventeen tracks on the back cover. Her notes testified not just to her diligence in combing many available alleys to find her material, but also to the unusual ways in which folksingers could find and learn such songs back in the days when there weren't bulging CD racks of the stuff on Main Street. While one of the Turkish songs ("Eminem") was learned from a Turkish musician, for instance, others had been learned (or at least first heard) directly from men and women of Turkish ancestry, though Gooding confessed that she'd mastered "Yahsi Meral" "by listening to an already ancient record several hundred times." "Tres Moricas-Anda Diciendo" came her way when a man in the audience at a small club in Greenwich Village taught it to her at the bar; he then "straightway went back into the night," and Gooding never saw him again. She learned two of the Mexican songs, "Rosita Alvirez" and "Que Linda Esta La Manana," from the same street singer. By far the most famous of her Mexican songs on the record was "La Bamba," whose origins long predated its adaptation into a classic early rock'n'roll hit by Ritchie Valens in the late 1950s. Her version, she admitted, "is somewhat bowdlerized because it is felt in Mexico that a woman may definitely not sing suggestive verses, even in the interests of pure scholarship."
After the initial 1953 release of this material, Gooding continued to record for Elektra over the next few years in various languages. Another ten-inch LP of 1953, The Queen of Hearts, was devoted to English folk songs; a 1954 ten-inch ventured into Italian Folk Songs. A couple of years later, she was paired with another Elektra artist who got a lot of mileage out of singing in several languages, Theodore Bikel, for the duet album A Young Man and a Maid.
Oddly, however, she
most famous to the rock generation for an unofficial recording on which
she doesn't sing. As the host of the Folksingers Choice program
on New York public radio station WBAI in the early 1960s, she
a then-barely-known Bob Dylan. The tape of that interview, on which
also plays a few songs, has long circulated as one of the more popular
of the bootlegs taken from Dylan's early career. She certainly must
got around on the folk scene, as she refers in that interview to having
first heard him in Minneapolis when he was a teenager. "At that time
were thinking of being a rock and roll singer, weren't you?" she asked.
Dylan -- then eager to reinvent himself as a folkie, long before
rock'n'roll and going electric -- replied noncommittally, "Well, at
time I was just sort of doin' nothin'. I was there." While Dylan would
soon surpass the renown of his host and help take folk music into
new dimensions, Cynthia Gooding Sings Spanish, Mexican and Turkish
Songs -- or Cynthia Gooding Sings Turkish, Spanish and Mexican
Songs, if you prefer -- is a reminder of a more innocent time, when
folk was more about the song than the singer. -- Richie Unterberger
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