'Breaking Bad' Music: Walter White's Barrel Song

Monday, 16 September 2013 06:18 AM Written by 

As Walter White rolled his $ 10 million barrel away from the shootout sight that removed his brother-in-law Hank (definitely) and Jesse Pinkman (maybe) from his life for good, in Episode 14, "Ozymandias," titled ssss a lilting folk tune played behind him as he struggled to keep it going (remember, the cancer is back and the coughing's increasing).  I was startled for a second at the tune, then realized who it was when I recognized the voice of the lead singer. It was Glenn Yarbrough singing with the Limeliters, one of the most respected early 60's Folk Revival groups, alongside the Kingston Trio.

Both the group and the song, recorded 53 years ago, have an interesting pedigree, as you might expect. And the Breaking Bad producers used it brilliantly.   This is the entire tune, recorded for their first album on Elektra Records in 1960, when Elektra, later a rock mega-label, was just a tiny folk music record company in Manhattan. The song's title on the album was "Take My True Love By The Hand (Times A-Gettin' Hard)."

The song, also known as "Times Are Gettin' Hard," is credited today to Lee Hays, one of the Weavers, the pioneering liberal folk group that included Pete Seeger and Ronnie Gilbert, Gene Raskin and folksinger Oscar Brand.  Later adaptations aside, the song predates all three composers since it showed up in American poet Carl Sandburg's 1927 compendium of folk song lyrics The American Songbag. So much for that.

So...who the hell were the Limeliters?

They were a folk music trio who organized in 1959, naming themselves for the Colorado club where they were playing. Lead vocalist was guitarist Glenn Yarbrough. Bassist and bass singer was Lou Gottlieb, who'd just gotten a Doctorate in musicology., Alex Hassilev was banjoist and baritone vocalist.

Like the Kingston Trio, the Limeliters were never really part of the "folk protest" movement of Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and others. They were mainly an apolitical cabaret act in their prime. That made their singles and albums highly popular in the early 60's. Gottlieb, in fact, had done arranging work for the Kingstons.

Can't imagine the group was mainstream? Check out this 60's commercial, promoting a  legal addictive substance, long before such ads were banned on TV.

Yarbrough left the group in 1963, replaced by Ernie Shelton. The trio remained together until 1965. After that first Elektra album, they made a dozen albums for RCA from 1961-65, a measure of their mainstream popularity.  

This is the complete Elektra album.

Yarbrough walked right into a 1965 solo hit: the theme for the movie "Baby The Rain Must Fall" that starred Steve McQueen. He's singing it here on the LA dance party program Hollywood A-Go Go. Note Yarbrough starting to sing live until he catches himself, realizing he's supposed to lip-synch.

Hassilev went into acting; Gottlieb became a cutting edge hip comedian for a time and founded the Morningstar Commune, one of the early rural hippie communes in California as the hippie movement took hold.

Early in the 1980's Gottlieb and Hassilev re-formed group reunited with Red Grammer replacing Yarbrough, though on occasion they did joint concerts and other appearances with their former lead singer. Gottlieb died in 1996. Eventually Grammer left and Hassilev retired, though the group continues today (much like the Kingston Trio) with new members.

That's the story of the song, and serves as a comment on the extraordinary care Vince Gilligan and the Breaking Bad team put into every molecule of this show. Did they pick the right song for that pivotal moment? Absolutely.

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