Emily's song for aging punk rockers, played on a Cigano GJ-15


Emily Dickinson

This month is a song that steals its verse from a poem by Emily Dickinson, its chorus from a song by Nick Lowe (by way of Elvis Costello), and in the end was stitched together by family poet Aurora during a long car trip to Iowa . The song constructs its melody using a chord progression that runs like a Moebius strip continuously modulating between an inner and outer key. I play it on an inexpensive gypsy jazz guitar that I purchased with the Bush tax credit, which was supposed to kick start the US economy, and in a very small way did in this case, but in a way that is certainly slant, and worth thinking about.

About the song

As readers of this blog know, I struggle with lyrics, and I have been known to desperately pilfer material in order to move my songs along and get beyond singing "cave man" lyrics. I love that term "cave man" lyric. I heard it during an internet based interview with Bob Mould as he described his songwriting process to Ryan Adams (who may have supplied the cave man descriptor), and I knew exactly what he meant. I always have chords and melodies. I never have lyrics. Yet I REALLY want to sing my songs, so as part of the process I often just blurt out whatever comes to mind, or simply string together vowel and consonant sounds that seem to work with the rhythm and melody I am playing. This process can go on for years and this song was in serious cave man state and in desperate need of a lyric, even though I had already blurted out the first line "Where is the love, the love without which we will never rise above?". I thought this was a pretty good start for a song, but that was as far as the muse was taking me, and there was a whole lot more music available that wanted to be sung, and I was tired of merely grunting, moaning, and howling vowel sounds. Compounding the situation was/is my belief that this chord progression is really original and awesome (I like it, anyway, you can think what you want) . I was really intimidated/worried that I wouldn't come up with anything lyrically that would do my serpentine chord progression justice. It's very rare for me to create something melodically that isn't highly derivative. This progression isn't (IF IT IS DON'T TELL ME!!!). So I wanted equally creative lyrics. What to do?

Fresh off the success of Hinterhof, I thought "Why should I write a mediocre lyric? What I need is another lyric poem!" So I opened a book of poems and started thumbing through it. Bingo! I happened on a little gem by Emily Dickinson which has no title but has a first line that reads "Tell all the truth, but tell it slant". It's a great little zen koan that I quote in its entirety, although I twist the order of the lines around (and a gender to a heart) to suit my purpose, which is to bump Emily's beautifully articulated plea for subtlety, and, frankly, elitist subterfuge, smack into Nick Lowe's equally beautiful plea for the masses to engage in anything but subtlety. With punk passion Nick wants the elite and the smug and the cynical to answer "What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding?" While Emily insists we elites can't give that answer directly, that " the truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind". I tend to hold these contradictory viewpoints simultaneously. Emily, god bless her, is charmingly cynical and smug and pragmatic. Not adjectives you typically associate with the precious recluse, but I mostly agree that the telling of the truth is a difficult proposition, and one that often calls for lying. Meanwhile, I totally get the populist, punk ethos that jambs a middle finger at folks who insist that they know what's good for us, treating adults like children facing lightning, "eased with explanation kind".

I think communication is hard. I think it is a high wire act that should be direct and obscure in equal measure. The aim of the communication matters far more than the rhetorical technique. And on this point both the poet and the punk agree: It's about truth! I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea and perhaps an inkling of why I chose to share this song, at this particular moment in history as we teeter between populism and elitism run amok. Where is the love?

For those who pay attention to such things, the song shifts the melody a half step down when the vocal begins in G, then a half step up, then a half step down, then a half step up, resolving to an F sharp major chord at the end. I wasn't sure how to stop. The modulations loop on themselves. I didn't try to do this. It just happened. It sounded right. And simply going to the F sharp major in the upper octave, instead of an F sharp major seven in the lower seemed to give it the hopeful finality I want. I am an optimist at heart. Humans are actually fundamentally good. Despite appearances to the contrary.

About the guitar

It is a "cheap" Chinese knock off of the famous Maccaferri Grande Bouche (big mouth) gypsy jazz guitar. This is the guitar that started my second life as a guitarist, so it holds a special place in my heart. With this guitar and the internet and a Mel Bay book of Django songs, I began to actually learn to play the guitar instead of bludgeoning it. The guitar is made by Saga, a California based company that started out making kits for building banjos. They make a variety of different guitars under a collection of different names, all manufactured in China. So my Bush tax credit went to a music store in North Carolina that I found on the internet. The store sold a Chinese manufactured guitar, marketed by a California company, that is a copy of a guitar designed by an Italian, originally manufactured in France, and popularized by a Belgian gypsy. The guitar arrived in a case made in England. My money is well traveled, and supports a Global economy.

I loved playing this guitar when I first got it. I was unaccustomed to the way a trapeze style bridge can produce a sort of natural reverb effect, for example. And the neck is delightful. Wide, like a classical guitar, yet thin, like a shredder's electric. Probably not true to the original, but it was a great transition style for me. I often would imagine the Chinese craftsmen who must have worked on the guitar. I thought that this might be a very nice job, and that the craftsmen might take pride in the work, and might daydream about the musicians that played their instruments, and the joy that their efforts would bring into the world. This is perhaps naive. But I struggle to understand how a Chinese instrument factory cranking out guitars to fuel this era's version of catalog consumers (the internet) would be any different from the Harmony, Regal, Danelectro, etc guitars I so love that came from Chicago, or the Gibson's from Kalamazoo, or the Fenders from LA in the different eras. All created jobs for craftsmen seeking a trade with which to support a life. Maybe raise a family. Maybe develop a mastery of luthiery and move on to making more sophisticated instruments. Yes, some of these US places and brands created iconic instruments that define sounds and styles.Something still not evident in Chinese instruments. But Harmony mostly made cheap knock off style guitars. Serviceable instruments at an affordable price, employing people who presumably found some satisfaction in the work. It is skilled labor. And a nice use of skills at that. I would think a person skilled with their hands might take some pride in such a job.

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