hunting the whale

folksingers wordbook

Lately guitar lessons have veered off into the theoretical, and I’ve not been sure what to do about it. My ambition and creative understanding of what this instrument can do has far outpaced my ability. I find that I’ve learned a lot over the last three years, but if you sat down with me and said “let’s play a tune” I’d be hard pressed to actually do this. I can play a 1-5-6-4 chord progression, or a 12-bar blues all day long. Additionally, I can hook up to a few effects pedals and a looper and improvise with pentatonics and modal scales until my fingers bleed. But it’s weird to me that I don’t really just know many, or any, songs.
So I’ve recently pulled out a book I found last year called The Folksinger’s Wordbook by Irwin and Fred Silber. There are about 1100 songs inside, but in all cases they’re printed only as lyrics and simple chords. There is no sense of melody, or any rhythmic guide. So with words and chords, you’re on your own.
And I think this is just great. I’ve decided to learn a ton of these and apply what I know from my lessons. Furthermore, I want to arrange them and play them on my various instruments. Even furthermore, it’s good fodder for working on engineering and recording. And then maybe if I’ve had a drink or three, I’ll sing something one day.
So the first tune I picked out was in the chapter on sea songs. There are a lot of whaling tunes, and I found a simple one called The Coast of Peru. It’s written as just Dm to C, and then Am to G. So, I guessed, key of A-minor. Or maybe C Major. Or maybe D Dorian since it keeps landing on D…
I flailed around with this for a few days until I was in lessons and my instructor, Lou, decided we should look at YouTube and see if there might be something there that could give us a launching point.

It’s in a different key, but at least we were able to figure out some of the melodic points. Especially in the second line where he goes up an octave. It also confirmed that it was in 3/4 time, as I’d assumed.

Here’s my take on it, roughly and simply. I transposed the song to D (E Dorian, actually), and worked out a little melody that somewhat follows the one Martin Hugill sings in the video. I plan to work on this some more this week and next, and hopefully soon sit down and flesh it out with a few verses. If you want I should sing, you could bring by some bourbon…

(Also, it’s worth noting, this blog and my output will likely not veer into the country western and folk section of the music store. Except for the occasional foray into the soundtracks I make for my children’s books, I’d like to think that to some extent, “experimental” will always somehow fit in iTunes genre category. Yeehaw.)

way hey and away we’ll go

I keep apologizing and making excuses for the recent foray into the waters of things of an acoustical and guitarical nature. I mean, even the title of this blogsite here says it’s about music electronica. Alas, the adventure continues and, frankly, I have a feeling that this trend will continue. In my head, the music I hear is a good mix of all of this. Guitars and overdrives, synth bleeps, delay pedals, droney sounds and filed recordings, drum machines and even ukuleles, banjos and accordions. I have no idea where this will lead in the end.
But for here and now, it’s leading below the surface of the sea. This is a melody called “Hieland Laddie” that I found in a book called The Folksinger’s Wordbook, compiled by Fred and Irwin Silber. This wordbook is what it says, which is about 400 pages of lyrics from various periods and locales. The chords for Streets of Laredo were found there, in fact. Folk songs can be corny, but they can also be a rich source of melodies and ideas. Hieland Laddie is a traditional Scottish tune to which there are about a million variations of the lyrics. When I first played it a few months ago I imagined a storyline where a woman is missing her love as he is out to sea, and stands upon a tower looking over the horizon. The song is in Dm, and the first part, Dm, Am, Gm, is melancholy and full of longing. Then the verse kicks in, all in major chords, and I imagine seeing a ship come over the horizon. “Is that the ship I wait for? Is that the ship that will carry my love back to me?” Alas, as the minor chords kick back in, of course, it’s not, and as we can imagine her love is more than likely dead and at the bottom of the ocean. After standing there for years and years and waiting and waiting, she loses hope and drowns herself. Going a bit further, she’s now dead but her ghost still haunts the tower and still waits for her love.

When I was in Maine a few weeks ago, I took some field recordings at Nubble Lighthouse in York. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with these, but it’s always good to have twenty minutes or so of waves crashing and gulls making noise in one’s archives. So tonight I’m walking the dog and listening to Ugly Casanova’s Sharpen Your Teeth and thinking about that recording of the sea. Like these things do, it just suddenly made sense to put this Hieland Laddie tune over it with plenty of reverb and whatever else I could find that would work.
The thing came together in about an hour. I recorded the guitar and laid it down in Ableton over the field recording. I added a low verby bass with the Teenage Engineering OP-1, which I’ve been playing with a lot lately, and which is really such a versatile little gizmo. I added the bass drum last, and it took some work to get it to sit in the mix nicely. As with most of the stuff I post, I see this as more or less a sketch. I’d like to work on this some more and add an accordion and some modular synth somewhere.
Enjoy the tune.