In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Anytime a folk song shows up in this column, I suddenly turn into John Goodman in Inside Llewyn Davis.
That’s because most of the folk music that crossed over in the late ’50s and early ’60s was absolute bullshit mediocrity. You certainly could make something powerful and inventive and fiery out of this music. Bob Dylan did. But Dylan never hit #1, at least not as a solo artist. (He got there as a songwriter, with the Byrds’ version of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and he got there as part of the mass of singers on USA For Africa’s “We Are The World,” but “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Rainy Day Woman # 12 & 35” both stalled out at #2.) And the folk musicians who did make it to #1, at least during this era, were bloodless patricians who sang slave spirituals and Appalachian murder ballads like they were sweet little lullabies. And so: “Michael.”
“Michael” was a slave spiritual, first heard on St. Helena Island, off the coast of South Carolina, around 1863. Pete Seeger and Harry Bellafonte both recorded their own versions of it. Lonnie Donegan took it to #6 in the UK in 1961. But the version that made it to #1 in America came from the Highwaymen, and not the outlaw-country supergroup of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings. (That could’ve been great.) This Highwaymen started out as a collegiate group at Wesleyan, and they sounded like it.
The Highwaymen hadn’t yet graduated when their version of “Michael” hit #1. Their version is soft and strummy, built on whistling and white-church harmonies. It does not sound like the song of desperate people, working to stave off death while dreaming of the moment when they could finally rest forever. It sounds like college kids attempting to impress girls by being deep.
The Highwaymen only stuck around for a couple of years after graduation. (Tim Robbins’ father Gil joned a later version of the group.) By 1964, they broke off when the members all went off to various Ivy League grad schools. They were hobbyists. Hobbyists with a total snore of a #1 song.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the richly orchestrated version of “Michael” that the Beach Boys released in 1976: