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Song Sources “Fairest of Them All”

June 19, 2010

This is the first in series about the songs on our new album, currently scheduled for release in the winter of 2010/2011.

Most of the tunes I’d been writing after completing “Fireworks at the Carnival” were either very lyrically dense (“Two Crows”), in minor keys (“Two Crows” and “Tomorrow I’m Gone”), or very long (“Don Quixote’s Deathbed Conversation with Sancho Panza” was as long as its name: it clocked in at 6:30 when we debuted it, and “At the Dawn of the Day” wasn’t much shorter once we wrote the jig at the end of it). Jen remarked at the time that “These songs have a lot of lyrics.”

We needed to reign things in a little. Something three minutes long, with a simple rhythm, and a nice major-key melody. These were much more deliberate goals than I normally have with songs, but I’d been trying out some new ways of writing this time around (including stream of consciousness and rewriting folk ballads) instead of just sitting around waiting for inspiration.

This was the first candidate for a song to try and get radio play with, then, too. That added a tiny bit of pressure to the writing process. Fortunately I’d recently heard some good advice for artists everywhere.

Lexa and I had recently seen folk singer/crooner Miché Fambro at Perry Hall Folk Music Night. Peter Gabriel had heard a song of Miché’s in the 80s and said, “The singer needs to find what makes him unique and exaggerate it.” Miché passed on this advice, which I think can be applied to all kinds of writing. Writers are the sum of their experiences. The best writing is often a larger-than-life reinterpretation of all those experiences. If became so important, in fact, that I made it the theme of our “Poets and Lyres” set at the Hostel in Feb. 2010.

Most of my stuff comes out sounding traditional and a little Celtic. It’s just what I listen to and what I like. So I was going to take that influence and exaggerate it.

The Lyrics

Ramblers are common in Celtic music. Rambling round was a profession if we’re to believe songs like “Tramps and Hawkers” (click to listen):

Come all ye tramps and hawker lads and gatherers of blaw*
That tramps this country round and round come listen ane and all
I’ll tell to ye a roving tale of sights that I have seen
Far up intae the snowy north and south by Gretna Green

Scavenging is a common profession for the extremely impoverished of the world, but it’s not romanticized the way it was among the singers of the British Isles and, later, America.

Bittersweet love stories are also common. Boy meets girl. Girl gets horrible devoured by zombies. Or something like that.

Our dreams they have never come true, Maggie,
Our hopes they were never to be
When I first said I loved only you, Maggie
And you said you loved only me

The first line came to mind pretty quickly. “When I was young I wandered.” So things are likely to change. Let’s flesh it out a bit first.

When I was young I wandered
strayed from where I should dwell
Gave no care to my lodging
Broke many’s a heart as well
Broke many’s a heart as well

This allowed me to get right to the sentimental stuff in the next verse. But I immediately felt I wasn’t putting enough of myself enough in the song. I’m not from Scotland or Ireland. This has to be about my home. I thought about some interesting places in Baltimore before jotting down the next line.

But I met a girl by the gardens

This actually refers to Ednor Gardens, a neighborhood in Baltimore. Okay, so it’s not the prettiest place in Baltimore, or anything special, but it’s got an interesting enough name. To avoid any potential embarrassment, let’s say that it really refers to The Rawlings Conservatory, where my wife and I had our wedding. No one’s ever going to know. The title came to me at this point, too, and “Fairest of them all” was going to end up in this verse. After a bit of a brainstorming session to get the awkwardness of “Ednor Gardens” out of my head, I had

But I met a girl by the gardens
So clearly do I recall
And I could not bear the parting
From the fairest of them all
From the fairest of them all

Then I wrote out the last verse. I wanted it to mirror the second verse in some ways, but to play with the idea of parting. Here, he’s setttling down. But there’s another way people leave each other, and even if it’s more heartbreaking, it results from something much more important than the desire to see what’s over the next hill.

But in the sunset’s golden weaving
We all hear his weary call
And I could not bear the leaving
Of the fairest of them all
Of the fairest of them all

This isn’t quite as sad as it initially sounds. Two people spent their whole lives together.

The song still needed a chorus, and I didn’t want to overuse the title line. I set the song aside for a day while I thought about some unusual ways to express how important it was for people to be together, and in what ways it made them better or stronger. Then I took the laundry into the basement and spotted Lexa’s bodhran hanging from the rafters.

Play your harp and I’ll play my drum

I liked the line from the start and ran back up stairs to write out the chorus, which came to me in its entirety in the time it takes to type this:

We all need a song to guide us
Or who knows what we’ll become?
We all need someone beside us
Play your harp and I’ll play my drum
Play your harp and I’ll play my drum

The Tune and Music

I had part of the tune in mind just from writing out the words, but I had to make sure it captured the overall mood of the song and that it didn’t sound like I’d just copied a traditional tune.

One tweak was to vary the tune on the first line of verses. You’ll notice that the last note of the first line goes up a little. I imagined the narrator tilting his chin up, with a slightly defiant gesture, bragging in a pub about how he goes from town to town, gets the girls, and then slips away before morning. It’s a major key melody even though the line ends on a minor chord. The melody of the first lines of the second and third verses, however, is in a minor mode, and I think communicates a bit more of the emotional ambiguity the narrator feels about first being tied down and finally of saying goodbye to the love of his life.

The music was slightly unusual in that the verses were five lines, too. Before we sat down to record it, the last line was also only three bars. I fixed that to make room for the little tin whistle riff, but you can hear the original “mistake” in the video from the Hostel.

The basic chord structure is similar to what I used in “Danny, They Say I’m a Coward” from Fireworks, which in turn owes a lot to “The Lakes of Pontchartrain.”

This is the tune the Chieftains used on their version of “The Lilly of the West” when they recorded it with Mark Knopfler. (However, Wikipedia notes that the tune to “Lakes of Pontchartrain” is actually based on that of John of Hazelgreen (Child ballad 293).

The Recording

This was the first recording I’ve ever done where we used all 24 tracks in the studio. There are a lot of instruments that aren’t obvious, including sleigh bells, an accordion playing just the root notes of the chords, and a bass guitar that appears only on the chorus, and . . . a shaker that Chris and Tim made out of peas in a can. “Peas in a Can” promptly became Tim’s new nickname. Some of the tracks are doubled. We used 10 microphones on the drums alone and we split the guitar signal into two amps simultaneously for the rhythm guitar. It all adds up quickly.

Chris was the one who suggested the tremolo effect on the guitar in the chorus (which is a separate guitar track), one aspect of the recording that received a strong but mixed review.

I’ll also be the first to admit that we took as much advantage of digital recording as possible, and not just by punching in to fix mistakes or mediocre notes. There’s a lot of tin whistle, accordion, and backing vocal parts hidden in the track, and we moved around some of the whistle parts so that they would appear where we wanted them (and not necessarily where Mark played them). We even copy and pasted some of the background parts. (The peas in a can is a loop, for instance, and Jen sang the “oohs” in the chorus only once, perfectly, and then we copied it into the second chorus.) This might sound inorganic or even “dishonest” to some people, but I think that when you’re recording a background sound, there’s little that can be done to humanize the part without making something sound sloppy or, worse, distracting. If you think of an orchestra, you want the violins to play what’s written, not to have them all be soloists. When orchestrating your track, you want listeners to focus on what’s important.

We were extremely happy with the guitar tone, which was probably the best we’d gotten. Chris recently got a new (and very good) Royer microphone, and I’d recently gotten my Tangerine Squeeze compression pedal, and they combined to make a warm, huge sound without as much of our usual tweaking in the recording.

Here’s the recording credits:
Jon: Guitars, bass, and vocals
Jen: Keyboards and vocals
Tim: Drums and percussion
Mark Wall: Tin whistle
Engineered by Chris Freeland at Beat Babies Studios, Woodstock, MD
Mastered by Matthew Leffler-Schulman at Mobtown Studios, Baltimore, MD
Produced by Midway Fair and Chris Freeland

Here’s the full lyric, with chords in case someone, somewhere, wants to know how to play the song.

Eb      Bb          Cm
When I was young I wandered
Ab                                                Eb
Strayed from where I should dwell
Ab                               Eb
Gave no care to my lodging
Ab           Bb          Cm
Broke many’s a heart as well
Ab           Bb          Eb
Broke many’s a heart as well

But I met a girl by the gardens
So clearly do I recall
And I could not bear the parting
From the fairest of them all
From the fairest of them all

Cm                        Eb
We all need a song to guide us
Ab                             Eb
Or who knows what we’ll become?
Eb/D           Cm
We all need someone beside us
Ab            Bb                Cm
Play your harp and I’ll play my drum
Ab            Bb                 Eb
Play your harp and I’ll play my drum

But in the sunset’s golden weaving
We all hear his weary call
And I could not bear the leaving
Of the fairest of them all
Of the fairest of them all

(Repeat chorus)

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