A Revolutionary Anthem

The logic of the revolutionary is based upon two imperatives. First, there must be masses. Then, they must be liberated. While the latter of these is obvious, not much thought is given to the former. However, it is this first step which is the most important, for without the discontented crowd at his back the revolutionary is nothing more than an irritable lonesome crank. Unfortunately, the progressive revolutionaries have done a smash-up job of creating a seething disaffected sea of individuals cut loose from tradition, doing their diluvial damnedest to sweep away the courtesies and institutions that have formed the West.

Jean Rohe’s song “National Anthem: Arise! Arise!” is typical of the propaganda of the Left in its inordinate fixation with the darkest corners of America’s past. To hear Miss Rohe sing it, our nation’s history is nothing more than one long litany of slavery, genocide, labor exploitation, and botched back-alley coat hanger abortions. Class struggle is the name of the game as the protagonists of her anthem come to America “with hungry hearts and hands” to be exploited, “at the auction block or the darkened mill.” They came to our land only to struggle and die in the factories and fields, in rooms with a coat hanger, on the trail of tears or in the electric chair. They came here to die under the oppressive hand of the United States of America.

But, lest we lose all heart and faith in our home land, bright-eyed Miss Rohe lets us know that all of this will be set right on that glorious day when the oppressed peoples and classes of our great nation arise to form the “more perfect union” and the “tyrants bow to the peoples dream, and justice flows like a mighty stream.” All this after the completion of the revolution, I suppose. Miss Rohe presents us with the harsh dichotomy of the revolution, either stand for justice with the oppressed masses or be counted among the petty tyrants to be brought to heel.

The genius of the revolution is in its formation. It does not have a positive identity except for the image it projects of itself as a champion of the oppressed. Because of this, the revolution is incredibly malleable in the forms it assumes as it forges a common cause with just about any group that claims it has been treated unjustly. In this manner the revolution creates a coalition which is constantly in a state of flux but is consistent in its political and cultural struggle against the perceived oppressor. Over the years this coalition has shifted and grown from workers struggling against their employers, to blacks rising up against unjust and discriminatory laws, to women fighting for equal opportunities in education and employment. In recent years the revolution has gathered homosexuals and gender confused individuals unto its bosom to fight for their right to be socially accepted as homosexual and gender confused individuals.

Some of the causes championed by the revolution have arisen out of truly unjust conditions. Many other causes are mere fronts and fabrications. Whether the injustice is real or perceived is not important. All that matters is that the cause disrupts the institutions and traditions that are set against the revolution. In Miss Rohe’s anthem, it does not matter who the disparate disenfranchised individuals are as long as they can be coalesced into the masses that march under the revolutionary banner. All are summoned to join in the struggle, African Americans and Native Americans, factory workers, the mothers of unwanted children and the convicted felons on death row. All are called to take to the streets as guardians of liberty marching to loose the waters of the river Justice that it may flow forth and baptize with a spirit of freedom the unwashed and undefined masses of the modern state.

For reference purposes only, here are the words to Miss Rohe’s song,

National Anthem: Arise! Arise!

Atlantic and Pacific floor,
The Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico,
The land between sustains us all,
To cherish it our tireless call.

Chorus: Arise, arise! I see the future in your eyes.
To one more perfect union we aspire,
And lift our voices from the fire.

We reached these shores from many lands,
We came with hungry hearts and hands.
Some came by force and some by will,
At the auction block or the darkened mill.

Chorus

We died in your fields and your factories,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,
With an old coat hanger in a room somewhere,
A trail of tears, an electric chair.

Chorus

And our great responsibility;
To be guardians of our liberty,
Till tyrants bow to the peoples dream,
And justice flows like a mighty stream.

Songwriting: Birdsong and Melody

Some thoughts I had on melody and songwriting taken from correspondence with a friend,

Some more thoughts occurred to me this morning while I was listening to a mourning dove outside the kitchen window. As I listened to the bird’s song I started trying to mimic his call. The more I imitated him the more I noticed the subtleties of his song. It was intriguing to discover the depth of his variations upon one or two themes(or perhaps there were two birds).
Later, I was discussing with my father how I’ve been beginning to find inspiration for melodies within the natural world. I demonstrated what I meant, first whistling my approximation of the bird call and then riffing a melodic structure from musical intervals within the call. The result was a satisfactory fiddle tune which borrowed from the bird song and melodic devices I’ve heard in other tunes.
I don’t listen to as much music as I used to; when I’m working I prefer quiet and solitude since it allows me the space to think about music and words. It occurred to me that a hundred years ago it was still fairly easy to find peace and quiet for there was far less droning and racket in the world. There was space to hear natural patterns and no doubt these patterns readily imprinted themselves upon the mind of the songsmith; a veritable treasure trove of melodic intervals and rippling rhythms. The old songs are mined from this stock. They resonate with the inherent melodies of the world around them. When the fiddler gave his melodic nod to the mourning dove’s song his audience would recognize the reference, just as we recognize when a guitarist pays homage to an older hero with a riff or lick. The old songs spring naturally from the soil they were formed in.
In our generation, and for a number of generations before us, we have become so inundated with recorded music that it has become our only melodic reference. The best music nowadays comes from those who recognize that there is something fresh and alive about the old songs, even if they don’t know what it is. The worst music stalely rehashes old trick and trinkets clumsily ripped off of better men.
Of course, at it’s most basic level music will always be shaped by the world it emerges from. Ours is a mechanical industrial world. Flawless and unvarying repetition forms our soul. Gone is the subtle variations of the mourning dove’s theme. In its stead is the chicca-chicca-clank of the steam engine or the machinegun-blast of a guitar and drums. There is very little space for the old songs to grow.

Songwriting: Songwraiths

A popular technique often used today in commercial songwriting is avoiding the use of unique concrete details in order to broaden the appeal of a song. The thinking goes that if you write a song about a specific place or people the song will not be as marketable outside of that region. This has lead to a rise in songs that generally stick strictly to universals and avoid the particular as much as possible. When it is done right a leanness of detail within a song can lend it a haunting quality that seems to transcend capture by any particular time or place. However, there is always the danger that this wisp of a song becomes something of a wraith, so disconnected from the particulars of the world that our imagination finds within it little to grasp and hold onto. Such songs quickly fade from the popular memory. Earlier, I wrote of how the song “Travelin’ Soldier” used small but significant details to create a world that was human in scale, but also much larger than just what was described by the lyrics. In the Carrie Underwood song “Just a Dream” we are provided with an excellent example of what happens when songwriters choose to focus more on the action of the song then the world it unfolds in.

“Just a Dream” was written by Hillary Lindsey, Steve McEwan, and Gordie Simpson at a Nashville songwriting session. Their intent was to write a song where it seemed like a woman was going to her wedding, but it ended up she was going to her husband’s funeral. The over all action contained within the lyrics is quite brief, basically describing the woman driving to the funeral and the funeral itself. The first line of the song is practically a direct echo of the opening line of “Travelin’ Soldier,”

It was two weeks after the day she turned eighteen
All dressed in white, goin’ to the church that night
She had his box of letters in the passenger seat
Six pence in a shoe, somethin’ borrowed, somethin’ blue

Once again, the first four lines of the song allow us to begin to imagine the world the story exists in, a young woman dressed in white driving to a church with what we assume are a box of love letters and some keepsakes on the passenger seat. The description immediately calls to mind a wedding but there is something amiss in her driving alone in a car with just a box of letters and keepsakes.

The next few lines mimic the movement of a wedding, as the woman arrives at the church,

And when the church doors opened up wide
She put her veil down, tryin’ to hide the tears
Oh, she just couldn’t believe it
She heard the trumpets from the military band
And the flowers fell out of her hands

However, while we imagine a bride entering a church in her white dress and veil, the tears seem a little out of place. When we hear trumpets from a military band, and we know something is wrong, especially when the crying young woman drops her flowers. At this point the chorus of the song comes in, spoken from the young woman’s perspective, as she grieves the loss of her husband.

Baby, why’d you leave me? Why’d you have to go?
I was countin’ on forever, now I’ll never know
I can’t even breathe
It’s like I’m lookin’ from a distance, standin’ in the background
Everybody’s sayin’, he’s not comin’ home now
This can’t be happenin’ to me
This is just a dream

While it is apparent that the woman must be going to her soldier husband’s funeral, we still have very little to go on about the world that all of this is occurring in. We know that it is a world in which people drive cars, military personnel are dying, and funerals are held at churches, so we can assume the action is taking place sometime in the last sixty years during a war. Other than that, there is very little in the way of details to flesh out the world of the song. The second verse essentially reinforces the details of the dramatic situation set up in the first verse while providing us with little new information about where or when the action is occurring,

The preacher man said, “Let’s bow our heads and pray”
Lord, please lift his soul and heal this hurt
Then the congregation all stood up and sang
The saddest song that she ever heard
And then they handed her a folded up flag
And she held on to all she had left of him
Oh, and what could’ve been
And then the guns rang one last shot
And it felt like a bullet in her heart

In the second half of the verse we are reminded of her husband’s military service and probable combat death through the image of the folded flag and the shots of the rifle salute, but aside from a neatly played simile in the last two lines, these details accomplish little in furthering how we are to envision the world of the song. Once again, all we can imagine from the lyrics is that sometime in the last sixty years or so a young bride’s husband died at war and she was distraught at the funeral.

The other great weakness of this song is the lack of depth and perspective in how it describes the action. The immediacy of the description doesn’t allow us to see anything beyond the sorrow of the young woman. While it could be that the songwriters were trying to communicate her isolation in her sorrow, it’s hard to imagine her alone when her perspective is all you can see in the song. The chorus continues directly from the young woman’s perspective as she demands to know how her husband could have left her, ending with the words, “this can’t be happening to me.”

Baby, why’d you leave me? Why’d you have to go?
I was countin’ on forever, now I’ll never know
I can’t even breathe
It’s like I’m lookin’ from a distance, standin’ in the background
Everybody’s sayin’, he’s not comin’ home now
This can’t be happenin’ to me
This is just a dream

While one can understand her sorrow at her loss, the overall emotional scope of the song is curtailed by a lack of perspective that borders on self absorption, as if her becoming a widow was a greater tragedy than a young soldier dying. This effect is heightened by the dearth of knowledge we have about the young soldier. Within the lyrics of the song his character has no presence whatsoever, there is nothing there to even begin to imagine what he was like or provide us with some way in which we could emphasize with him. He almost comes off as a prop for her sorrow. It is her personality within the song which demands all of our attention.

In contrast to this, Robison’s “Traveling Soldier” presents us with a wider world in which we can emphasize with the love the couple has for each other, the soldier’s fear of dying young and alone, and the young girls tragic sense of loss when she discovers that her love has died fighting overseas. Robison creates this larger perspective by allowing for the interplay of multiple characters and emotions within the arc of the story. The world he creates through his lyrics is large enough to allow for multiple perspectives and the telling details he intersperses through out his song draw us into a familiar world we believe in and recognize. “Just a Dream” gives us but a brief glimpse of a moment with few details to recollect it’s passing. It is a fleeting wraith of a song.

Hillary Robison and Gordie Simpson sing “Just a Dream
Bruce Robison singing “Travelin’ Soldier

Songwriting: The Devil’s in the Details

One of the most important elements of songwriting is fashioning a world that is both believable and intriguing. The good songsmith subtly achieves this effect through the placement of seemingly accidental details in a song, which, when drawn together, coalesce to from a distinct impression of a time and place. A good example of this technique can be found in Bruce Robison’s “Travelin’ Soldier,” a song later recorded by the Dixie Chicks on their album “Home.”

The first stanza sets up a situation which provides us with a number of clues about when the song occurs and what expectations we should have of that world,

Two days past eighteen,
Waiting for the bus in his army green,
Sat down in a booth in a café there,
Gave his order to a girl with a bow in her hair.

The world the songwriter created is a world where buses are a common form of transportation, a young soldier wears green, and the girl waiting tables at the café wears a bow in her hair. From this we can readily deduce that this world exists sometime in the twentieth century, most likely sometime from the Second World War on. We can stretch a bit and assume all of this is occurring during a war, since even mentioning a soldier suggests a martial tone somewhere in the action. To demonstrate how important these seemingly small details are, let’s change up a couple things and see where it takes us

He’d been eighteen for just one day
Waiting for the train in his army gray
Sat down in a booth in a café there,
Gave his order to a girl with a bow in her hair.

All we’ve changed is the color of his uniform and the mode of transportation. Its still a young soldier talking with a girl in a café. However, the world that this action now exists in is probably going to conjure up images of the 1860s, with a young Johnny Reb talking to a southern belle in a hoop skirt. While changing the bus into a train doesn’t do this by itself, the gray uniform suggests the image of a confederate soldier. Mentioning a train supports this conjecture as trains were a popular method of troop transport during the 1860s. The world that is imagined through these first four lines is important, because outside of mentioning a letter as the preferred method of communication, there is little else to give a hint about when the action is taking place until the second verse.

At the beginning of the second verse we are given two concrete details that tell us when and where the events are occurring as the young soldier sends letters back from California and Vietnam. Coupled with the images of buses and green uniforms we now know for sure that the world this song exists in is America during the nineteen-sixties or seventies.

So the letters came from an army camp
In California and Vietnam.
And he told her of his heart, how it might be love,
And all the things he was so scared of.

Continuing with our little experiment, though, lets change a couple of details and time travel a bit, while keeping the general action the same,

So the letters came from the battle sites,
From the Wilderness and St. Marys Heights
And he told her of his heart, how it might be love,
And all the things he was so scared of.
He said when its getting kinda rough over here
I think of that day sitting down at the pier
And I close my eyes and I see your pretty smile.
Don’t worry but I won’t be able to write for a while.

By switching out the geographic location of two places mentioned in passing we have once again seamlessly shifted the action by a century. The importance of the geographic locales being mentioned, while seemingly a minor detail in the overall movement of the song, is actually a keystone in how we imagine the action occurring.

The last verse of the song conjures further images of nineteen-sixties America as the songwriter places us in the midst of a small town high school football game.

One Friday night at a football game
The Lords Prayer said and the Anthem sang
And a man said won’t you bow your heads
For a list of the local Vietnam Dead

Crying all alone under the stands
Was a piccolo player in the marching band
And one name read and nobody really cared,
But a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair.

Setting the action of this verse at a high school football game is especially poignant when one considers the juxtaposition of the strong young men on the football field and the very same sort of young men who were dying in the war. Of course, the main movement of this verse of the song could have just as easily been captured at the local First Baptist,

Sunday morning at a church in town
The bells they rang, folks gathered round,
And the preacher-man said won’t you bow your heads
For a list of the men from here, now dead.

Sitting all alone in the choir loft
Was a girl in a dress crying real soft
And one name read and nobody really cared,
But a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair.

The main difference between these two places in our current discussion is how the high school football game is a scene played out sometime in the last hundred years or so, while our hypothetical church service could have happened at any point in time from the 1605 founding of Jamestown up to the present. Another advantage of the high school football game is how the religious and civic spheres of American life are invoked with one line, “the Lord’s prayer said and the Anthem sang.” It is a subtle reminder of a soldiers duty, fighting for God and Country.

All of this is to demonstrate the power and importance of the small details that support the action. While they appear singularly inconsequential within the general movement of a song, it is these details which draw us into the world in which the song resides. The likelihood that the movement and message of the song will be believable to the listener is directly correspondent to whether the listener believes in the world in which the song unfolds.

Here is Bruce Robison singing “Travelin’ Soldier.” And below is our time-shifting nineteenth century rewrite (for educational purposes only, cya).

1st Verse:
He’d been eighteen for just one day
Waiting for the train in his army gray
Sat down in a booth in a café there,
Gave his order to a girl with a bow in her hair.

He’s a little shy so she gives him a smile
He said would you mind sitting down for a while
And talking to me cause I’m feeling a little low.
She said I’m done in an hour, I know where we can go.

So they went down and they sat on the pier
He said I bet you got a man but I don’t care.
I’ve got no one to send a letter to
Would you mind if I sent one back here to you?

Chorus:
I cry
Never gone to hold the hand of another guy
To young for him they told her
Waiting on the love of a traveling soldier.

Our love will never end.
Waiting for the soldier to come back again.
Never going to be alone,
When the letters say the soldier coming home.

2nd Verse:
So the letters came from the battle sites,
From the Wilderness and St. Marys Heights
And he told her of his heart, how it might be love,
And all the things he was so scared of.

He said when its getting kinda rough over here
I think of that day sitting down at the pier
And I close my eyes and I see your pretty smile.
Don’t worry but I won’t be able to write for a while.

Chorus:

3rd Verse:
Sunday morning at a church in town
The bells they rang, folks gathered round,
And the preacher-man said won’t you bow your heads
For a list of the boys from here, now dead.

Sitting all alone in the choir loft
Was a girl in a dress crying real soft
And one name read and nobody really cared,
But a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair.

Chorus

The graves of Confederate dead in Lancaster County, Virginia.

The graves of Confederate dead in Lancaster County, Virginia.