Thursday, October 2, 2008

a bag of rainbows - Bill Staines 1966


a bag of rainbows
Heritage Records 1966
John Synnott
Bill & Renee

In the world of folk music, there are few as legendary as Bill Staines. Perhaps the last and greatest of America's true troubadours, he ceaselessly tours the country, driving thousands of miles a year. He's written and recorded a massive body of work, including modern classics such as "The Roseville Fair," "A Place In the Choir," "River," and "Hauling In the Wood."

Staines got his start with this record - a private release, purported to only be 200 copies total. He came out of the folk revival of Cambridge, MA, where he grew to be a local legend by playing at venues such as The Sword in the Stone and Club 47, which later became Club Passim. At some point early on, he paired up with Renee, and recorded this album as the duo "Bill and Renee" along with John Synnott. It's a rare glimpse at the early career of a master songwriter. The work on the album is divided in roughly three equal parts, with the songwriting falling more heavily to Synnott. Staines has only two originals on this album, but you can already see his lyrical gifts coming into play. The cadence, the rural imagery, the gentle irony, are all Staines trademarks.

This album is ridiculously rare, probably the hardest to find in the Staines discography. That alone makes it a coveted collector's item. I don't want to overemphasize his role, however. He is only a third of this record - the rest belong to the mysterious John Synnott and Renee Goodwin. I've never come across anything else by Synnott, and his name produces no hits in google that can trace back to other albums or songs. I've heard that he now lives in Cape Cod with his wife, dealing Eskimo art. Renee is still around, playing mostly in Maine where I assume she probably lives. She and her performing partner released an album last year. One of the songs, "Midway" is credited to another performer of this era, a man named Paul MacNeil. Paul was an active member of the Cambridge folk scene, who released one album called "If it Rains." I haven't heard it myself, but he seems to have been a very respected songwriter, and was covered by Bill Staines more than once, and also by Chris Smither. On this record, he is credited as "Paul McNeil," but this is a typo. It should be MacNeil. Apparently he now lives in the Philippines and still makes music. He is NOT the same guy as "Paul McNeill," who was a British folksinger, early friend of Paul Simon, and at one time was in a duo with Linda Thompson. I was somewhat confused who was who by the spelling error on the Bag of Rainbows credits. Stay tuned for a post with Paul MCNeill's final album, "Children of the Storm."

I wonder at the story of this album - how they came together, if these three ever stayed in touch, what caused them to drift apart? It seems like such a fragile moment in time, and yet they each played an important part. The songs are good, but not revolutionary. In a way, it's better that way. It's the perfect glimpse at a turning point in folk music history, the moment where traditional songs of the past met the new urban songwriter, and began to apply those warm aesthetics to contemporary issues and stories. It is the moment where folk music had to decide whether to always look back, or look forward to create a new body of work that spoke to a generation's awakening. Some of the people who took part in this community decided to only look back, and became the traditionalists. Others chose to abandon the past and became the modern singer-songwriters. The best learned the lessons from both paths.

The link below is to a zip file containing the digitized album, with photos of the front and back, and a rough transcription of the liner notes by Linda Kalver, the credits, and lyrics to the songs. All work is (C) the respective authors and no infringement is intended. This is only on here because it is an important album to listen to, and there is no doubt that it will never be made available commercially again. Please support the artists. Folk musicians do not make a lot of royalties, and survive only through our direct support.

  1. Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues
  2. That's the Way It Happens All the Time
  3. Midway
  4. Manuel
  5. Spanish is a Loving Tongue
  6. Wreck of the Old 97
  7. It Don't Matter Now
  8. Railroad Boy
  9. Ten Rivers
  10. Empty Blues
  11. The Words You Had to Say
  12. Rainbow Child

Download A Bag of Rainbows here

Renee Goodwin's Web Site

Bill Staines Official Site