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Song Sources: “At the Dawn of the Day”

September 23, 2010

Stream of consciousness lyrics about a particularly touchy subject. Much of the song takes place in the Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore, and makes several references to the geography and cultural landmarks in that part of the city.

The Lyrics and the Music

“At the Dawn of the Day” follows the story of a young couple. They meet near Peabody Institute:

And now I hear a sweet clarinet start to play
It’s coming through the twilight, a sweet clarinet starts to play

Walk past Peabody in the late afternoon and you’ll hear any number of instruments being played beautifully by the practicing students. At an early point in the writing process, this was a violin, but I quickly changed it to a clarinet because that was more evocative of urban life. Think of its use in “Rhapsody in Blue“—although I can’t actually imagine having put a clarinet in this song.

It’s blood flow,
static radio,
painting the lights red and gray

I’ve always associated the instrument with 1940s & 1950s jazz, Dixieland, and Klezmer, and even hearing it live it sounds like it ought to be coming out of a wood paneled radio. This is also the world of black and white cinema. The 12/8 feel and blues structure (with call and response) also call to mind older 1950s pop and rock and roll song styles.

And I just feel a little slow, baby when I try to express
My tongue  gets tied, baby when I try to express
It’s like marble so,
it gets hard you know,
when I’m lost in the folds of your dress

I’m not usually good at writing lyrics that have anything to do with sex, but these were obscure enough that I didn’t feel embarrassed singing them live.  It’s not a relationship that’s gone on for very long. We’re not usually tongue tied after being with someone for a while. But this also sets up the communication issues that create trouble later.

A very strong memory of mine from February 2007 provided much of the visual imagery for the song: My wife (girlfriend at the time) and I had gone to the Walter’s Art Gallery because the admission was free at the time. The museum winds through a couple large townhouses, and the African art section has a skylight. We had been inside for a couple hours, and we looked up at the skylight and discovered it was snowing.

I guess I could make some comment about using “baby” in a song for the first time. I had listened to Astral Weeks for the first time, and the album clearly made an impression on me. “Cypress Avenue” contains a similar line (“My tongue gets tied/Every time I try to speak”) and has a similar feel to the final version of this song.

If you need me, if you need me
if you need me, I’ll come round
at the dawn of the day

The chorus will take on a different meaning in a bit. Here it was simply the speaker’s pledge to meet his lover when she needs him.

By the time we move into the second verse, the relationship is a little farther along.

In the lines on your face, I can see how it strained you
In the lines in your hands an face, I can see how it strained you
Cathedral show,
and a heavy load,
how it pained you to carry that weight

And we run catercorner to the sunsets, down St. Paul in the rain
We run past the park, down St. Paul in the rain
evening glow
stepping row on row
and the cobblestones give me pain

What has happened here is an unwanted pregnancy. I debated a bit about whether they should actually be married, but in the end decided that they discussed it but decided not to go through with it. The line “Stepping row on row” is of course from “Marie’s Wedding,” a song whose influence appears elsewhere on the album. (Including in “Fairest of Them All,” although I did not note this song as the probably source of its title in that song’s blog entry.)

(Just to continue acknowledging his influence  on the album, Van Morrison sang it with The Chieftains on their 1988 collaboration Irish Heatbeat.)

This one's not really a cathedral at all. "Cathedral Street" refers to the Basilica.

The geography of Mount Vernon again plays a significant role in setting the scene. Mount Vernon park is a stretch of four blocks in all directions on Charles Street at the Washington monument. The streets surrounding the monument are paved in cobblestones, and the foot of the monument will give you a good view, to the west, just over the rooftops of the buildings on Cathedral street. The “cathedral” mentioned in these lines is not actually a cathedral at all—it’s the Methodist church at the north end of the circle around the monument, which is a beautiful piece of gothic architecture.

One of the things explicit in the lines of this verse is that they didn’t really agree on the solution to the unwanted pregnancy. She’s hurt by her state, and he’s hurt by her decision to terminate it.

Just to head off the question, unlike Ben Folds in “Brick,” I am not the “I” in this song, and this did not happen to me personally.

When the solo comes around again, it indicates a much different kind of “being there”—this time it’s not just physical presence.

A piano solo exists partly as a distraction in the song at this point and a way to communicate contemplation. Jen kept it softer than the instrumental at the end of the song, which is fitting even though she most likely did not know what the lyrics are about. (I did not tell many people before writing this blog post because abortions are such a touchy subject.)

And it can get to the point of self-pity, sometimes when you need to pay your way
like kneeling at the alter, sometimes when you need to pay your way
get to feel so low,
down in your soul,
but it won’t end in fire till judgment day

And now I’m lost on Cathedral, with a dollar and a dime
I’m lost down on Cathedral, with a dollar and a dime
Afterimage ghosts,
faded afterglows ,
None of the cars here run on time

These are more abstract verses than the previous ones, although perhaps their meaning is clearer. The relationship has not dissolved, but the main character is considering it, and regardless of what happens, the relationship will not be as pure and joyous as it was back in the first verse. “With a dollar and a dime” is a pretty standard phrase in folk and rock and roll songs (another case of quoting old folk lyrics on the album) for “down and out,” but I was amused to think that he couldn’t run away from his problems because it won’t actually cover bus fare.

This highlights the root of the problem. The speaker and his partner are neither financially nor emotionally ready for a child. Most people never are.

I’m an atheist, but I spend a lot of time thinking about religious thought and the effect it has on people’s decisions. Unwanted pregnancies are one place where religion can have a devastating effect on decisions. I don’t think it adds any moral value to a person’s decisions in such cases. It just adds dogma. [Edit: to avoid politics, for a while I t0ld people the song was about a miscarriage. This is obviously the sort of issue that provokes a lot of argument.]

St. Anthony, St. Anthony
At. Anthony, I’m lost now
At the Dawn of the Day

St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost things. By the end of the song, the speaker is feeling lost, although one could certainly take these lines to be a prayer for the “lost” child.

We end with another instrumental verse. And although it’s not part of the song, live we also add a jig to the end of the song:

or a more recent live version at the same venue (with an acoustic guitar):

The Recording

The vocals and guitar are actually the original scratch track, meaning that it was intended to be overdubbed and these parts would have been replaced. When we were initially finishing up the track, I asked Chris about it and he thought that the vocals were good enough to keep, and that meant keeping the guitar. We tried overdubbing an electric guitar, and that didn’t work.

Jen’s vocals were recorded over a couple sessions. The melody is not exactly the same every time, so this makes it difficult to sing harmony. She also added a bass part with her keyboard, which added a subtle layer to the song, even though she’s also playing a bassline on the piano. We used an electric piano sound similar to a Wurlitzer to soften the tone and to distinguish it from the piano.

Tim’s drum part in the recording is a little different from what was played live. This was partly a mistake. We couldn’t immediately remember how he played it live; it’s a lot more upbeat than the original drum part and an unusual one to pair with an acoustic guitar.

After we had the basic parts, we started looking for some little interesting touches to add to the recording. We wanted a big rolling sound just as the drums came in, which would have been a tympani if we had unfettered access to any instruments we wanted. Instead we had to fake it by loosening the head of a deep floor tom as far as we could, and then playing it with felt mallets. In the end, we liked the sound enough to use it on several other songs.

Just before we mixed the song, I decided to add one more instrument: a glockenspiel. I have a really nice one in my basement, but the one that ended up on the recording is just a toy, one of the little ones in a plastic case with plastic mallets you might see in a kindergarten. The part is really simple, but like many simple sounds added that final kick to (I hope) keep the long verses interesting.

As with the rest of the songs, here’s all the lyrics together, along with the chords in case someone, somewhere, wants to play it:

G                                  C                                              G
And now I hear a sweet clarinet start to play
C                                             G
It’s coming through the twilight, a sweet clarinet starts to play
D
It’s blood flow,
C
static radio,
D                                                    G
painting the lights red and gray

And I just feel a little slow, baby when I try to express
My tongue  gets tied, baby when I try to express
It’s like marble so,
it gets hard you know,
when I’m lost in the folds of your dress

Chorus 1 & 2

D                              C
If you need me, if you need me
D                              Em   D     C
if you need me, I’ll come round
C           D                     G
at the dawn of the day

In the lines on your face, I can see how it strained you
In the lines in your hands an face, I can see how it strained you
Cathedral show,
and a heavy load,
how it pained you to carry that weight

And we run catercorner to the sunsets, down St. Paul in the rain
We run past the park, down St. Paul in the rain
evening glow
stepping row on row
and the cobblestones give me pain

And it can get to the point of self-pity, sometimes when you need to pay your way
like kneeling at the alter, sometimes when you need to pay your way
get to feel so low,
down in your soul,
but it won’t end in fire till judgment day

And now I’m lost on Cathedral, with a dollar and a dime
I’m lost down on Cathedral, with a dollar and a dime
Afterimage ghosts,
faded afterglows ,
None of the cars here run on time

Chorus 3:

St. Anthony, St. Anthony
At. Anthony, I’m lost now
At the Dawn of the Day

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