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The Hangman (Down at the Gallows) (Matt Pless cover)

February 19, 2011

Words and music by the wonderful Baltimore songwriter Matt Pless, arranged by Jon Patton.

This was far too cheerful without any minor chords done in 4/4, so I had to add a C#m. Matt’s chord progression is basically just E > A > E > E > B7. Mine is
Verse
E > C#m > A > E
E > C#m > A > B
E >C#m > A > E
E > C#m > B > E

Chorus
C#m > A > C#m(7) > E
C#m > A > B
C#m > A > C#m > E
C#m > A B > E

The instrumental parts are variations on the verse lines. If I were going to arrange this for the band, the instrumental parts would be doubled on an organ and a little more thought-out. I’d stack a few backing vocals in the chorus and put some “ahs” after the second “home” in the chorus. Drums would be a 16th note pattern on the hi hat, one snare beat per measure, bass drum on 1 and 3 with no back beat.

There’s a mistake in the lyrics as I sing them. Matt sent me the lyrics without the whole chorus and I mishead “Far from the fire alone” as “Far from the fire I’ve known,” which really doesn’t make as much sense. (Sorry, Matt.)

I’ve been covering a lot of songs by writers from Baltimore lately – Heather Aubrey Lloyd (from ilyAIMY), Steve Hefter, Joe Scala, Alicia Jo Rabins (Girls in Trouble), and Tim Bracken, though a few of these writers have moved elsewhere. There’s a slew of really great songs out there in the local community. I’ll try to get some more videos of these songs up as soon as I Midway Fair-ify them.

Here’s Matt’s original:

Edit:

Some discussion came up on Facebook about the arrangement.

I mean you’re talking about getting hung here Jon, you have a nice sound but definitely not depressing enough for the set tone of the song.

and

Jon’s version is good; he does maybe sound a wee bit too happy, or not depressing enough for the song, as was said by Jacob. Nice singing and playing, though. Great song, good narrative

And here was my response:

Glad I could stir up some controversy, at least.

So maybe some people are curious or think it was a mistake to pick this unusual arrangement for what seems like a really depressing song.

Matt was good enough not to be too specific about the n…arrator’s feelings regarding the execution or even mention why the guy was being hanged. This leaves the song open to a host of interpretations musically and emotionally. (I considered playing this as a delta blues tune, for instance.)

It’s quite common for death row convicts to be defiant right up until the end, and in the days of public hangings, they would sometimes give the crowd a show at the very end. The term “gallows humor” isn’t an idle use of words. My arrangement is based in part on the granddaddy of hanging ballads, “McPherson’s Rant” (here’s a good version by my favorite Scottish band: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_XFy3K7AqQ), a song that is almost universally played a bit more cheerfully than what I did. McPherson’s Rant was a good song to steal the arrangement from because the chorus has a very similar tune structure, although the chord progression is very different (Rant is just A > E > A > D, basically “backwards” from Matt’s).

All that said, obviously not everyone will like the same arrangement of songs, nor would I expect them to. Some songs just can’t be changed without being grossly inappropriate readings, or because the original arrangement was especially tight, or because the melody is tied too much to specific chords or timing. I think this one was different, and that makes it a good folk song.

Any thoughts about this reading?

-Jon

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