Reviewed by Johan Palme on 16th December, 2015
The Kingston Trio is, quite straightforwardly, the most important band in the history of music that people don’t normally know about. Oh, they might know the name and a couple of hit songs (“Tom Dooley”, “Greenback Dollar”). But they’re generally not included in the transmitted history of music as more than a footnote. When they should be a chapter.
They were hugely popular. In their top year, 1959, they had four albums on the Billboard top ten at the same time, a feat no-one has paralleled before or since. Capitol records may be called “The House That Nat Built” but it was The Kingston Trio that earned them the most money for several years. And their impact is equally phenomenal: The entire folk boom of the 60s was made possible by their popularisation of the genre and record companies suddenly wanting folk acts. Without them, no Bob Dylan, no Joan Baez, no Peter, Paul and Mary. Their championing of the acoustic guitar made an almost dead instrument chart-topping again and made sales explode. They practically invented the US “college circuit” of performance venues, an important nurturing ground for hundreds of artists. And by issuing only albums and no singles, they cemented albums as the most important music format.
And yet, perhaps because they don’t fit established narratives, their clownish, square image and because later folkies hated them, they still are largely left out. A pity, because they’re also quite amazingly good. On their Christmas album, they take fantastically well-selected, often rare songs, ranging from medieval carols to spirituals, and reimagine them, giving them timeless, unique, Hawaiian-inspired settings. As much as folk, this is just very beautiful Christmas pop music, well-recorded, deceptively gentle and engaging. Without that pop sensibility, The Kingston Trio would never have broken all those barriers they did.