I have an occasional practice of covering… recomposing?… arranging?… songs by favorite songwriters. The latest essay is this set of five songs by Martha Scanlan, which I call A Following Wind.
(the title is from The Odyssey, Robert Fitzgerald translation: “Grey-eyed Athena stirred them a following wind, soughing from the north-west on the winedark sea, and as he felt the wind, Telemakhos called to all hands to break out mast and sail…”)
This was a fairly similar approach to what I did with Bob Dylan songs for The Moon Was Just Coming Over The Hills. In both cases I started with the lyrics, copied by hand onto a blank sheet of paper. I sang the melodies more or less as is, while creating new music at the piano. The level of reinvention varies. My Charlemagne Palestine/Velvet Underground drone cover of “Going to Acapulco” features some pretty standard chords on the chorus; “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” gets totally fresh harmony.
Perhaps most dramatically, in 2014 I arranged Townes van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” for soprano Carrie Henneman-Shaw and Spektral Quartet. I wound some pretty out-there harmony and complex rhythms into that cover. (The groove shifts between 19/16, 15/16, and 11/16.)
Actually, though the music is simpler, I think the Martha Scanlan project is a more radical reinvention. Because removing the acoustic guitar from her music sort of violates a premise, and trading piano for Rhodes accentuates the ghostliness.
There are two big payoffs in this process. For one thing, I’m able to more precisely locate my own musical personality by taking a preexisting thing I know and love, stripping most of it away and then seeing what’s still there. I try to do very little. So I also end up getting at what’s essential in the song. In these three instances that means separating the singer-songwriter’s performance practice from the “composition”—whatever that is.
I’m thinking of an interview with producer Jon Brion in which he drew a distinction between a “song” and a “performance piece.” The idea is that a song’s distinct identity is in its melody and chord changes, which are limber enough to be reinvented in a different musical context. A “performance piece” is compositionally bare-bones, merely a scaffolding for a dynamic performance situation.
As examples of proper songs he offers George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” and Nirvana’s “Lithium.” Melody, chord change, and lyric are out front. He demonstrates them at the piano. No singing, no other instruments, and you still have a satisfying musical experience. Example of a performance piece: Led Zeppelin—he doesn’t name titles, but one supposes he’s thinking of a tunes like “Rock and Roll” and “Immigrant Song.” He’s not denigrating the Zep—he loves them too—but he suggests that what we love is not the song but the specific performance on the record.
Of course, like all sharp artistic distinctions this one is an oversimplification if not truly a lie; there are obvious critiques to be made. In these examples, he is ignoring differences in the notions of composition, text, and authorship that exist between the Euro-American songwriting tradition (from Schubert to Gershwin to Cobain) and the complex set of performance practices that comprise the blues.
But is it a useful oversimplification? Is it true, sometimes? Can text vanish into performance until it isn’t a composition anymore, in any meaningful or transferable sense?
By subjecting Martha Scanlan’s songs to this process, I’m asking the question. Are these songs or performance pieces? My work is figuring out how to answer “songs.”
And it isn't the chord changes. One of the easiest ways to make these songs mine is to jettison the chord progressions. This isn’t a surprise; much acoustic, folk, country, western music is built on pat harmonic structures that are not, in isolation, much of a hint at the deep meaning of the performance. For these songs and my process, it’s the lyrics—and the melodies that make them recognizable. That’s what I keep. Then the harmony and rhythm I get to have fun with.
I’ll give you my own comparison, not between a putative song and a “performance piece” or anything textually lesser, but between two songs I love for very different reasons. One is Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s incomparable “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” If the word “perfect” can ever be applied to a song, surely it is appropriate here. The song is so beautifully structured, with that bass line that creeps up chromatically, that melody that swings between a rising chromatic line to a sultry static “Ti-Do”—and then in the bridge, the line shifts to falls downward—a step down followed by a leap down, the isolated Fa resolves down to Mi in the next bar (“He is COLD, I ag-REE”) and it all ties up pretty nicely, contrapuntally speaking, before the stepwise swing up to an apex at that Re (“Although the LAUGH’s on me”) that we revisit at the very end (“bewil-DERED am I”). Tie it up in a fucking bow. Perfect.
Then there is Martha Scanlan’s “Hallelujah,” which features no similar harmonic or melodic subtlety. If you wrote out a lead sheet it would look pretty dull. We’re in I-IV-V town—but Martha happens to be the sheriff. She empties her six-shooter each verse, and every time, the bullets of those six lines hit the center of the target as three beautiful couplets. These are incendiary lyrics. They give you as much you need to tell a story to yourself without providing that extra detail that would prove it isn’t about you. And I’ve found that even when I remove her singing—when I sing this song with other people, or when I sing it by myself with the Rhodes—there’s still enough there. It doesn’t take you on a journey like “Bewitched.” It floats. I, IV, and V are the click, the clickety, and the clack of the train wheels, and the train isn’t stopping until it reaches the coast—or home, wherever that is.
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues