Music/Popular Culture

The many lives of Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”: a great song lives forever

Some songs take on a life of their own.

It’s not clear to me—perhaps not to anyone—what turns a tune into a standard. I was reminded of this recently when I finally bought a CD of Jeff’s Beck’s Wired, which includes a remarkable version of Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” Mingus wrote this as an elegy to saxophonist Lester Young, who died two months prior to the release of the seminal Mingus album, Mingus Ah Um. The album is a deserved classic, with any number of strong pieces—the opening track, Better Get It in Your Soul, alone would make the album a classic.

But “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” has maintained a life of its own since then, in a way that few other jazz tunes of the post-war period have done. It’s right up there with Miles Davis’s “All Blues.” Mingus himself recorded several versions of it, in fact, and one suspects it was one of his most played numbers in live concerts. Here’s the original from 1959. And here’s a concert version recovered at Montreaux a few years later. It’s a soulful work, composed in part to capture some of the sadness that characterized Young’s music.

The first non-Mingus version I ever heard was a version by Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, redoubtable guitarists both, from their first album, Bert and John, issued in 1966. Here’s that one. This was before they went on to form Pentangle, which produced a live version on their Basket of Light album in 1968. Here’s a Pentangle version from 1970. And here they are on the 2008 reunion tour (shortly before Jansch’s death), doing it again—or some of it, since the video is cut off for whatever reason.

Over the years the song has become an established jazz standard, and even a fusion one, recorded by a wide range of jazz artists. Particularly among guitarists—there have been a number of wonderful versions by jazz guitarists. Here’s John McLaughlin’s take, one of many. Here’s version from Ralph Towner and Gary Burton (on vibraphone) in 1974. Here’s one from Larry Coryell and Andy Summers, which has a totally different feel. Mingus may or may not have approved. And here’s one from John Renbourn (again) and Stefan Grossman.

It’s probably the case that Jeff Beck’s version is the most widely known, however.

Beck is one of the three or four seminal electric guitarists of the late 1960s-early 1970s, whose collective work pretty much every guitarist since then has been a footnote to. His albums from the 1970s—particularly Wired and Blow by Blow—are legitimate classics. And he seems to capture Mingus’s intentions quite well, I think. Andy Summers has done a number of versions as well. Admittedly, it’s hard to do an electric version of this that doesn’t sound like Beck—Beck’s version is that powerful, and that seminal—but Summers pulls it off.

And the song goes on—people still record it, and perform it. Here’s a solo version by bassist Dave Holland. And here’s Ralph Towner from just a couple of years ago. There are lots of others.

It’s a wonderful story, when you think about it. Songs take on lives of their own. They grow over time, sometimes preserving the spirit in which they were composed, sometimes becoming something entirely different. But it’s still somehow the same song. I’m sure this one has many more lives ahead, and I’m looking forward to hearing them all. I’d love to hear Jan Akkerman do a version.

Categories: Music/Popular Culture

9 replies »

  1. I love this song too. Note that in your Ralph Towner version, that’s Gary, not “Larry”, Burton on vibes.

  2. I had heard the Pentangle version years ago. I love Bert Jansch, as I’ve noted, and this version sings for me. I finally re-bought “Wired” (on cd) simply to have Jeff’s version. Love your comment on his influence. Too under-appreciated.

    What Clapton should do for his Crossroads guitar festival is invite as many of these guys as are still whinnying with us and devote an evening to nothing but versions of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” And of course let Beck close the evening….

    I’d pay to see that….

  3. Give Beck a rest. Let Coryell and McLaughlin close out the evening. They can actually play jazz.

  4. There’s also Joni Mitchell’s lyrical version homage on her Shadows and Light album. The first few lines:

    When Charlie speaks of Lester
    You know someone great has gone
    The sweetest swinging music man
    Had a Porkie Pig hat on
    A bright star
    In a dark age
    When the bandstands had a thousand ways
    Of refusing a black man admission
    Black musician
    In those days they put him in an
    Underdog position
    Cellars and chitlins’

  5. Never really cared for these, I have to say–they sound a bit forced. A noble effort, I suppose, especially since she worked with Mingus himself on that Mingus album. Still, I prefer it without lyrics.

  6. what makes a great tune a standard … great question. This one? great melody, and harmonies – that give musicians plenty to think on, practice on and get inspired on. The harmonies of this one are so interesting – at first they seem impossible and arbitrary, but when you live with them for a bit, they take on a kind of beautiful inner logic that has, indeed “a language of its own”. Everything grows out naturally from that odd altered turnaround in the first two bars …

  7. Well, who would have known?
    2 of my favorite musicians involved in this classic.
    Had only heard the Jeff Beck version & assumed it was his & in a sense it is- just a great, I thought, blues number by one of the true guitar maestro, but an original of one of the bass & jazz geniuses.
    Just interpretation +