My parents kind of fell into the demographic crack between the Beats and the Hippies, but my dad was keen on folk music. That never really changed, either — he eventually got into bluegrass, even buying a banjo and going to jam sessions at a nearby church on the occasional weekend night.
One of the consequences of this was that I grew up with a whole bunch of Kingston Trio LPs, all of which are now in a closet about fifteen feet away. Of those, the one I listened to the most was the group’s Live from the Hungry i album (1959), which both my dad and my cousins’ parents had. As I was born in 1965, the album was dated even by the early 70s when I was old enough to listen to it (rather than simply hearing it), and references to John Foster Dulles were rather less topical than they had been at the time. But being a kid, I got a huge charge out of “Zombie Jamboree” and “The Merry Minuet.” Even as a nine-year-old, I had a dark sense of humor, fed by MAD magazine (which is also where I learned show tunes, in order to understand the song parodies.) Later, I would realize that “Merry Minuet” would appear in a book by Madeleine L’Engle, symbolizing the cynicism of one of the young characters.
In any case, I listened to the album for the first time in at least two (and likely three) decades, and you know what? It’s still pretty good. The original KT were tight, with voices that worked well together. Some of the song choices seem a little odd (“They Call the Wind Maria” as a folk song?), and there’s a fair amount of ain’t-we-clever in the between song banter. For me, the worst example of that is the condescending Appalachian dialect in the intro to the “Shady Grove/Lonesome Traveler” medley. At that point, there’s a whiff of Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess, and we’re reminded that two-thirds of the Trio had been prep school kids — having attended the same Punahou school that would one day produce Barack Obama.
But the performances are lively, and I actually have more of an appreciation now for songs like “Tic, Tic, Tic” and (especially) “South Coast” than I used to. They may have been a nightclub act disguised as a folk combo, but 61 years after the album’s release, I can hear what so many folks dug about them.
And one last note. In the process of burning through an inheritance in 1990, I went to San Francisco for a vacation, and to see the Mad Dog, who was stationed at Monterey at the time. I was wandering around the City one day, and remembering the album and the club’s legendary role in the history of stand-up comedy, I wanted to find the Hungry i. And that’s how I learned that the venue had ceased being a venue when I was five years old, and was now a strip club, which it still was as of 2017.
Somehow, that seemed emblematic of something to me when I was 24. Maybe it still does.