On that autumn afternoon in 1963 when I first walked into my freshman dorm at the University of Maryland, College Park, I heard my brand new roommate, Joe DiPersio, playing a guitar and singing aloud just like Bob Shane.
Shane, the last of the original Kingston Trio, goes to his grave this week, at 85, but his music lingers with the generation that heard it on their jukeboxes and their LPs and their pals’ acoustic guitars. It’s the soundtrack of a soaring, harmonizing piece of Americana from long ago.
For a while back there, the Kingston Trio was a musical earth force. Somehow, against the tidal wave of rock ‘n’ roll, they broke into our transistor radio culture late in the summer of 1957 with an ancient ballad called “Tom Dooley.”
While Tom hung down his head and cried, the song sold six million records.
As the music critic Bill Bush wrote 25 years ago, “What ‘Tom Dooley’ did cannot be minimized. Only ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ can legitimately claim to have had a greater impact on the direction of American popular music since World War II. Just about every person who ever made a living with an acoustic guitar owes a debt to the Kingston Trio’s recording of ‘Tom Dooley.’”
The trio opened the door to a modern style of folk, and a musical culture that began mixing pop and politics. Such folk icons as The Weavers and Pete Seeger and Odetta had come and pretty much been muted by the late 1950s.
But then came the breakthrough commercial success of “Tom Dooley,” and right behind it came Peter, Paul and Mary, and Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, and Joan Baez and Judy Collins, and the Chad Mitchell Trio and the Brothers Four and Ian & Sylvia, and a little later Simon & Garfunkel and their generation of folk-rock, and millions of kids lugging around guitars everywhere.
Would you call the Kingston Trio’s offerings “folk music”? As Shane goes to his grave, you can still hear music purists debating whether to call them “folk” or “pop.”
It doesn’t matter. It was the sound of America, and a big step away from the bubble gum pap that was monopolizing jukeboxes and Top 40 charts.
They sang of the Boston subway and made you laugh with “M.T.A.” and made you weep with “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” They celebrated John F. Kennedy’s arrival with “New Frontier” and mourned his passing with “Song for A Friend.” They gave us “Greenback Dollar” and “Oh, Miss Mary” and “The Reverend Mr. Black” and so many others.
They were a harmonizing force in a discordant time. The trio turned out hits from the civil rights era through Vietnam and Watergate. College campuses were ablaze with passion — and with actual fire.
When I walked into the Harford Hall dormitory my first day of college, I knew almost no one. But then, in my new roommate Joe DiPersio’s singing and strumming, the two of us –- a Jewish kid from Baltimore and an Italian kid from Aberdeen — found immediate common ground.
Soon, from down the dorm hallway, came a kid out of West Baltimore named Ron Jones, and Mike McCoy and Steve Stine out of Aberdeen, and Bill Jacobs and Denny Donaldson out of Sparrows Point, and Steve Miller and Barry Markman out of Northwest Baltimore.
Night after night, everybody was joining in, voices all over the place, in this tiny dorm room, strangers only in our first few moments — but quickly at ease because we knew each other through car radios, and transistors, and 45s, ever since Bob Shane and the original Kingston Trio brought us “Tom Dooley” and the rest of their repertoire and gave us a place to find harmony.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.