SONGTRAILS: "If I Were A Carpenter"

Hi, my name is Larry “Fuzz-O” Dolman, your host for Songtrails, where each week we look at the journey a particular song has taken through our collective landscape. Only on National Public Ra… psych! Just kidding! But seriously, here I was working on an already way-too-long Studio One 12” Singles Roundup (not published yet or possibly ever), which had me listening to a great 1968 version of “If I Were A Carpenter” by reggae singer Ernest Wilson, and I was like, man, what a great song, in fact what a true standard from the American songbook. Got me thinking about two other great versions I knew of, the Bob Seger System version from 1972 and the heavy 1969 solo version by Tim Hardin at Woodstock that didn’t make it into the movie and is (hopefully still) embedded above. I thought about a fanciful Mount Rushmore of “If I Were a Carpenter” interpreters, consisting of the carved visages of Hardin, Wilson, and Seger, which made me look for the fourth honoree, a process that quickly revealed the composer of the song to in fact be Hardin. I guess his visage should be in the middle, and larger than the others, huh?

This actually surprised me, because it seemed like a song that could’ve been written and sung a couple hundred years ago, or at least recorded in the 1920s or 1930s in a rural area and later included on the Smithsonian Anthology, maybe with a more upbeat banjo arrangement, which Hardin had presumably taken and slowed and darkened, after filtering it through his notoriously troubled and addicted personality. But nope, he actually wrote the damn thing, which explains why he performed it so authoritatively in that Woodstock clip.

Of course now that I’ve really listened to the song, I get that the lyrics are actually just as modern as they are old-timey, like you’ve got both right there in that super-strong and straight-up-sexy opening stanza: “If I were a carpenter/And you were my lady/Would you marry me anyway?/Would you have my baby?” And the song overall really does feel huge and timeless; for example, the opening verse/vamp is just three chords, the three most common guitar chords there are, D major to C major to G major, and when it gets to the chorus, it takes two of those three chords and puts them in a different order (C major to D major), and somehow that simple change hits like the discovery of a new continent, the singer an emotional explorer finding a new realm inside the heart and mind. It doesn’t hurt that he sings a pretty heavy philosophical hook over it, “save my love for loneliness/save my love for sorrow,” and after this brief glimpse of new vistas, the song promptly returns back to the original changes to finish out the rhyme with a couple lines that are pretty awe-inspiring themselves in their concise poetic capture of the monogamy contract: “I give you my onliness/Give me your tomorrow.”

So I’m writing all of this, basically a reverie on the Hardin at Woodstock version, while listening to the Ernest Wilson reggae version, and get the crazy idea to type “If I Were a Carpenter” into Sp***fy to see just how many cover versions were out there, because maybe I’d listen to all of them too. There were frankly way too many for that, even though the Wilson and Seger versions weren’t on there at all, but I was at least able to hear Hardin’s original studio recording from his 1967 album Tim Hardin 2, a superb stripped-down arrangement for his guitar, a bass guitar, and some fantastic hand drums by, well, someone uncredited. (Anyone know the player’s name?) I want to like it even better than the live Woodstock version, for the hand drums alone, but interestingly, Hardin hasn’t quite perfected that awe-inspiring chorus hook, singing instead “Save my love for sorrow/Save my love for lonely/I’ve given you my tomorrow/Love me only.”

I also listened to an improbably excellent version by none other than Bobby Darin, live at a nightclub in 1971, also with perfect hand-drums. In fact, it’s pretty much a carbon-copy of the Hardin 2 arrangement, but Bobby sings it splendidly and not without his own stoic emotional heft. (A mustachioed Darin and a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder also ripped a passionate duet version on some sort of variety show back in 1969, check that out too.) And finally, for this column anyway, I discovered what might be the most haunting version of them all (the ones I like do all share a kind of ‘beatnik coffeehouse raga’ vibe), the one by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott that kicks off his 1968 album Young Brigham. I really don’t think I’d ever actually sat down and listened to Elliott before, just seen his name a lot in Dylan bios, but Young Brigham is a great album, and his version of “Carpenter” has a really subtle nice arrangement, his intense raga-cycling acoustic guitar fingerpicking augmented only with more of my beloved hand-drums (in this case, alerting all headz, tabla played by Bruce “Hired Hand/Tambourine Man/Brother Bru-Bru” Langhorne himself, who in fact produced the whole LP) and spectral drony organ (played by none other Bill Lee, father of Spike Lee).

EDIT! THIS JUST IN!

An astute reader writes in: “There’s a good ‘If I Were a Carpenter’ by Grant’s Blueboys, as featured on the High all the Time 2 comp.” Good indeed, maybe even a little jaw-dropping in its post-Vanilla Fudge psych bombast mode:

While grabbing that YouTube, I also came across a version by Herbie Mann with his sick late-60s band with Sonny Sharrock on guitar and Miroslav Vitous on bass… turns out these are both on Sp***fy too, I just didn’t dig too deep…