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Song Sources: “Tomorrow I’m Gone (500 Miles)”

March 19, 2011

This is part of an ongoing series about the recordings on our new album, due out in March 2011. To read more in this series, click on the category “Song Sources: Stories behind the recordings.”

Although not my favorite song from the album, this my favorite recording I’ve ever made, and a lynchpin for the album. It’s the one song that really hammers home the folk music deconstruction I pursued throughout the project. Take a listen:

The Lyrics

Many lines in this song are stolen. I spent three years trying to write an updated version of “John Henry,” and nothing usable was coming out. Finally I just decided to see what would happen if I started grabbing a bunch of lines from folk songs and find out if I could create a different story, a process commonly referred to as deconstruction, although really the process of repurposing more well-known, tried and true material is one that dates back to bardic/epic tradition. This is something that was squelched during the 20th century, when copyright law came into its own, which was itself a reaction to the rise of middlemen and deceptive practices among artist support workers (like managers, publishers, labels). There was money to be made, and artists have always been easy to exploit.

I think that the internet accelerated a resorting of everyone’s notions of artistic ownership, really a regression to the older form of artistic support known as “patronage.” You can find almost all music for free and the danger of getting caught doing so illegally is so low that the only reason people buy music anymore is that they either feel a moral obligation or they really want to support the artist. Frankly, I’d rather it was the latter. But I think things have also changed in how they view the ownership of the intellectual product itself. There are some things that just become part of the cultural consciousness (these are called “memes”), and attributing plagiarism or piracy to the use of them can be selfish and misguided.

Art became far more widespread and easily available in almost every form during the 20th century, and I don’t think that the development of deconstruction as a critical technique during the explosion of artistic consumerism in the 1960s is a coincidence.

There were certainly a couple of recent projects that were in my mind when I was kicking around the theme of deconstructing folk songs. Local poet and publisher Christophe Casamassima wrote a really interesting collection of poems (published by TwentyThreeBooks) that uses a similar process about the same time I was recording this. It’s called Ore, and it’s a collection of 100 poems constructed from lines taken from 100 other poems. I’ve previously mentioned the influence of The Gaslight Anthem’s The 59 Sound and Okkerville River’s Our Life is Not a Movie, or Maybe. Bob Dylan’s Modern Times, in a twist, reuses obscure material instead.

The first verse actually contains very few stolen lines (except the obvious reference to the song “500 Miles”). The rest of the lines in the song are very mobile, meaning that I could move them around without really harming anything.

You can call on me today but tomorrow I’m gone
The moon’s just a ghost riding on a roan
One, two, five hundred miles from its home

And I could sleep tonight but tomorrow’s in doubt
Sun’s like a freight train crawling from the south
I woke this morning with her dust in my mouth

Tomorrow I’m gone 500 miles from my home

I was working from an image of a guy dying in the desert, which was what Chris Freeland said “End of the World” from Fireworks at the Carnival reminded him of. I was in the middle of recording that track about the time that I wrote this song.

You can take this hammer when you go to hell
It rings like silver and it rings like a bell
If it broke my heart, it could break yours as well

Everybody’s veins run with the same blood
Everybody’s fagile or haven’t you heard
I’d fly instead of running if only I could

Take this hammer 500 miles in the mud

This was the first part of the song I wrote, and I moved it to delay the blatant lyric lifting for later. “Take this hammer” is more than just a line from a John Henry song, it is a John Henry song:

There was a better version somewhere on YouTube, where Knopfler appears to have . . . had a few, but I couldn’t find it. (Also, there are numerous other versions of the song that I could have chosen, but there’s no sense making any bones about which artists I admire.) The “rings like silver” and “fly . . . running” parts are from the same song.  “If I could” is of course a Peruvian folk song made famous by Simon & Garfunkel on Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Go tell Marie to listen for my call
Morphine in the summer and apples in the fall
If I don’t have her now, I won’t have none at all

Don’t need a gun ask anyone who knows
Don’t need a gravestone to talk to the crows
Don’t need a weather vane to know which way it blows

Go tell Marie I’m 500 miles from myhome

I suppose the “know which way it blows” line is technically plagiarism (it’s taken from a Dylan song), but to be honest, Dylan’s Modern Times, another deconstruction album, proves that Dylan himself wasn’t picky about the exact amount of original content in his songs. The second line and its partner here, of course, is usually “Peaches in the summertime, apples in the fall/If I can’t have you all the time, I won’t have none at all”.  At some point breaking all these down starts to feel like an Easter egg hunt, so I’ll stop, because what I really like about this song is in the recording itself.

The Music

The guitar pattern is a simple repetition of F#m, D, and A on low strings on the guitar, followed by a sequence of chords found in a lot of old minor key blues songs, here a little pattern of C#7 to D7, which hits the “blue notes” in the chord progression. Here’s a song you’re probably familiar with that uses some similar chords:

Besides being the first song written for the album, this also happens to be the first song I wrote after getting a delay petal. I usually shy away from writing anything that can’t be duplicated with an acoustic guitar with no pedals, but this is one song that simply doesn’t sound as good without the effect on.

After we sat down to fully arrange this song for recording—which I’ll admit was a couple months after we started practicing it and playing it live—Jen’s part became much more focused on expansive, padded chords, and this helped the song breathe more. Tim’s drum part is another nod to Zeppelin, and one of the drum parts we wrote that I really felt pushed us past standard rock-and-roll and folk-rock fare. I’m not the most creative when it comes to drum parts, and it took a long drum arranging session in which Tim must have tried every possible combination of a small kit available to find what we wanted.

The Recording

The reason I was so happy with this recording is that so much was done via subtraction. We tend to do the “everyone play at once” thing in a lot of our songs, common in folk music and older rock-and-roll. Here, the focus is on several percussive parts: the drums, the kickback from the delay on the guitar, and the mandolin.

The mandolin doesn’t sound like a mandolin for most of the song. It’s the clock-like sound you hear. I used a palm mute (that’s where you partially mute the strings with the palm of your hand to prevent them from ringing out), and the natural woody percussive nature of a mandolin becomes very apparent when you don’t hear some pretty notes from the strings.

Unlike the delay in “(It’s Not) 1962,” the guitar delay here is not meant to sound like a doubling or cascade but is used purely for drama. So it was fine to use the actual delay pedal in the studio, although we did try to get the delay as close to the click as possible so it wouldn’t mess up the timing.

Analog delay pedals, unlike digital, work by essentially refeeding a note back through; they do what’s known as “self-oscillation,” where you can create an endless loop. The pedal will get continuously louder as this happens, but you can control it by fiddling with the dials. We didn’t use it for endless looping, but you can hear very clearly when it’s done a kind of “knocking” noise that is always present in the delay. Here’s a youtube video of a delay pedal similar to mine that demonstrates very clearly this effect so you can hear it:

This effect added a little more “tick tock” sound.

After laying down Tim’s drum parts, it was a matter of overlaying the remaining elements in a way that didn’t distract from these essential bits. The second guitar solo was originally twice as long as it is now, but we edited it down (and distorted it quite a bit) so that we could have a section that was nothing except the drums and mandolin.

Jen sang an operatic “ghost” part in the first solo, which for the most part the guitar doubles an octave below her. It’s buried in the mix, but it’s her singing. When I asked her to do this I was unaware that it was essentially several notes above her normal vocal range, and she practiced for a few days to be able to hit the final notes.

Chris did a great mix job and added a few surprises, including some ambient sound from outside the studio. There’s a plane flying overhead. I will give you a home-made cookie if you can tell me exactly when that happens.

Here, as usual, are the chords, in case someone, somewhere, wants to play it.

Verse pattern:

F# m    |      F#m     |     D                     | A x3
F#m     |      F#m     |C#7 D7 – C#7 |F#m

Picking pattern in each measure is (all palm muted, capo 2)

F#m
D———2——|–
A—–2——2–|–
E–0————-|–

You can call on me today but tomorrow I’m gone
The moon’s just a ghost riding on a roan
One, two, five hundred miles from its home

And I could sleep tonight but tomorrow’s in doubt
Sun’s like a freight train crawling from the south
I woke this morning with her dust in my mouth

Chorus

Bm                                             D   F#m
…..Tomorrow I’m gone
C#7  D7                        F#m        D    A
500 miles from my home

You can take this hammer when you go to hell
It rings like silver and it rings like a bell
If it broke my heart, it could break yours as well

Everybody’s veins run with the same blood
Everybody’s fagile or haven’t you heard
I’d fly instead of running if only I could

Take this hammer 500 miles in the mud

Go tell Marie to listen for my call
Morphine in the summer and apples in the fall
If I don’t have her now, I won’t have none at all

Don’t need a gun ask anyone who knows
Don’t need a gravestone to talk to the crows
Don’t need a weather vane to know which way it blows

Go tell Marie I’m 500 miles from my home

You can call on me today but tomorrow I’m gone
The moon’s just a ghost riding on a roan
One, two, five hundred miles from its home
One, two, five hundred miles from its home
One, two, five hundred miles from its home

Track credits:
Jon – Guitar, mandolin, and vocals
Jen – Keyboards and vocals
Tim – Drums
Chris – Loop sequencing, ambient noises, desertification . . .

© 2010. Words and music by Jon S. Patton
Arranged by Midway Fair
Produced by Midway Fair and Chris Freeland
Engineered and mixed by Chris Freeland at Beat Babies Studios, Woodstock, MD
Mastered by Mat Leffler-Schulman at Mobtown Studios, Baltimore, MD

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