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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Songwriter's Navel: Week 15, Which Involves Procrastilaxing in a Nerdly Manner

Procrastilaxing is a perfectly cromulent word.

This week's assignment was to pick a historical figure and write a song to him/her or from his/her perspective. Easy, right? Except that sly, sly Kernel then casually dropped, "Oh, and the music should somehow reference or be relevant to that person."

So, yeah.

I have work coming out of my nostrils, as it is the end of the semester. Partly as a result of this, I didn't get to work on the song until quite late Sunday night, and I knew that Monday my time would be limited because I was going to see my friend S. play a set. So, naturally, when I went up to my songwriting lair to get to work, I wound up reading chunks of several biographies.

Let me 'splain. I really hadn't given an iota of thought to whom I'd write about, but my eyeballs happily fell upon my copy of Amy Kass's American Lives: Cultural Differences, Individual Distinctions, which I picked up about 3 years ago, not coincidentally when I was thinking a lot about writing and had just started songwriting.

I spared a sigh or two for poor Henry Adams, whose absence is partially, if not entirely, my fault, and started to flip through the book. It's organized with paired autobiographies related through some theme of self-creation/invention. Individual's entry is introduced by an essay, followed by several excerpts from the autobiography itself, and that's followed by "thought questions" tying the individual to his or her partner.

I only realized in retrospect that I was looking almost exclusively at works by women, which I guess implies that I was intending from the start to write in my character's voice and thought that would be easier with . . . someone putatively of my own gender? Who the heck knows what goes on in my mind!

Certainly not I, because before I knew it, I was curled up reading the section on Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Her childhood "origin story," which centers around three memories related to her father that made her aware of her status as a second-class citizen and taught her that this was unchangeable. The autobiography itself breaks down nicely an has great language to mine, so after a couple hours of reading . . . well it was practically time for me to go to bed.

But before I did, I got a bit down on paper. I think I must only write songs in 3/4 or 6/8, strangely, in pairs. Other than a lullaby that was explicitly required to be in 3/4, I only have 2 other songs written in that time signature, and I wrote them in back-to-back weeks last summer. Last week's was in 6/8, and pretty much immediately, this week's started coming out in 3/4. Also in E-major again. What's up with that? I freaking hate that key. Stupid B chord.

Ok, I'll tell the truth about the key. Remember that the spectre of the music having to be "relevant" was hanging over me. Well, CONVENIENTLY, Ms. Cady Stanton wrote her autobiography in 1895, which CONVENIENTLY was the year that Katherine Lee Bates's poem "America the Beautiful" was first published. Of course the music is from a hymn, but I decided to see what that chord progression looked like.

It's simple as pie: Lots of I, IV, V, with the occasionally 7 thrown in. (And mysteriously, an Uncle Henry, which is a II or a V of V for those of you not in on our hipster Kernel Shibboleths.) The sheet I'd found was in G, I think, but I was just not feeling the love. I played around a bit, and a refrain-ish thing presented itself over I-V-IV, in 3/4 time. After fiddling with keys, it was obvious that this wanted to be in E.

I got the first two verses together before bed Sunday night:

[E] Four years of [A] fear, [B] night after [A] night by the
[E] Fire of the [A] everlasting [E] no [B] Such a
[E] Pity, they [A] say, such a [B] shame, can't they [A] see your
[E] Face in the [A] January [B] cold, I [A] see you [A]
[E] O, [B] beaut - [A] iful
[E] O, [B] beaut - [A] iful [E]

Seven years on, every frame draped in white, just
A looking glass stranger on your knee. I'm
No son of Adam, I know, can't I be your
Child can't I be all he was, can't I be
O, beautiful
O, beautiful

Most of the struggle with these was getting the words to fall around the chords in 3/4. "The everlasting no," though I hate to admit it, is Cady Stanton's, not mine. These two verses correspond to two of the three memories in which she grounds her origin story: Her younger sister's birth, at which time everyone's congratulations were mute by condolences that the Cadys had had yet another girl, and 7 years later, Elizabeth trying to comfort her father after her only brother had died, and her father's response that he wished she'd been a boy.

Before my lesson on Tuesday I worked somewhat feverishly to get down a third verse and a bridge. What I had by the time of my lesson was a third verse with some pretty punk-ass lyrics (and E totally called me on it, yodeling "block that metaphor!") and a bridge with some dodgy chords and a shaky melody.

I went back to the drawing board on verse 3 after my lesson. Most of the first part of it stayed the same, and it's so-so. The second half changed substantially. It's better, but I'm still not crazy about it. Although I'd finally worked out the melody of the bridge after my lesson, I naturally forgot it completely when playing in class.

The fourth verse is, again, so so. For Stanton's 80th birthday in 1895, Susan B. Anthony had organized a massive women's congress to honor Cady Standon. Her autobiography more or less ends with the congress and her reflections on where women had been and where they were going. The "star after star" line is a cheap one, but the fourth state in the union—Idaho, no less!—had just granted women suffrage, and she talked about this being a star added to the flag of American women. I like the image, I don't like my line, though.


First woman, now wife, now a bright, silent mind, now an
Ocean away from my home. Now
Mother now guide, discontented, alone
Sheltered by tyrants of old
O, beautiful
O, beautiful
O, beautiful
O, beautiful

My [C#m] mind, I have [C#m] honed, I have
[A] Tempered my [G#m] will with my
[F#m] Ear to the [A] door of the [G#m] world,
[F#m] I would [A] know

Eighty long years, eighty and more. Raise my
Face to the new day that dawns.
Star after star after star after star I
See, though the road will be long, I see
O, beautiful
O, beautiful
O, beautiful
O, beautiful
O, Beautiful [E]

The bridge position is wonky. I didn't really think about, because it's the right place for the conceptual break in the song. But it's definitely the wrong place for it in terms of form. Although the Kernel backed me up and said I'd made the right call, he also suggested that it would probably need to be arranged as a sort of slow build to make its placement work.

I gave myself fits trying to pull that off in recording, and what I basically ended up with is a mess of tempo and dynamics with a giant, obvious guitar error that I just couldn't bring myself to spend more time getting rid of.

This probably should have cowriting credits for both Cady Stanton and Kass. I won't tell if you won't.

O, Beautiful.

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