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Song Sources: “Edward Cain” and “The Unmated Swallow”

December 19, 2010

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.”

“Edward Cain” has the deepest roots of any on the album. There are two versions of the song, both based on a pair of songs written in 2003 and 2006 and on traditional ballads and song forms. The dark version, more closely tied to ancient British folk ballads, is the one that made it onto the record.

“The Unmated Swallow” is the name we gave to the jig composed for this song.

The Lyrics and Music

The lyrics to this ballad are based partly on the structure of “The False Knight on the Road” (Child 3). The ballad’s motif is that two people meet on the road; one is a stand-in for the devil and the other is saved by their steadfastness. The story in the song itself is more closely related to a related ballad, “The Elfin Knight” (Child 4) (which in turn is closely related to one of the oldest ballads in English, “Riddles Wisely Expounded”) where an elf tries to abduct a woman; she gives him a list of impossible tasks to perform before he can carry her off, thus avoiding rape.

In this story, a highwayman named Edward Cain meets a young woman named Helen when she’s on her way to the church. He chats her up, offering to play music for her on his violin, and she blows him off. When he meets her again, enraged, he tries to strangle her, but she pulls out a knife and stabs him through the throat.

Nonesensical refrains are common in old folk ballads, though they occasionally fit the theme of the songs. I thought about just lifting one wholesale, but in the end I couldn’t find something I was satisfied with. There’s a refrain in the major key version, “Blow, oh blow, you cold north wind / But my love and I won’t part again), a mix of the most common burden in “The Elfin Knight” (Blaw, blaw, blaw, wind blaw / The wind hath blown my plaid awa), the bridge in my Dad’s song “Sweet Island Girl” (Blow oh blow, you southern trade wind / blow me on back to those sweet arms again) (which I recorded in 2003), and another common folk burden “I’ll be true to my love / If my love will be true to me” (which Tom Waits used for his version of “The Two Sisters”). Adding a chorus to the minor key version would have made the song overlong. But it also added very little musically and nothing lyrically, so I think it was a prudent choice to forego it, despite my usual reticence to declare a song “complete” when it has no chorus or refrain.

Perhaps as befits a song with such ancient source material, it also goes pretty far back in my own songwriting. I mentioned in the last entry in this series that one thing I learned this time around was not to give up on a song and to work through lackluster material. Sometimes what’s needed is a new way of thinking about the song.

In my first fall semester back to college after I got home from San Antonio, Texas (in 2003), the first paper I wrote was about the violin lessons I took down there with Jim Fox. These are the only music lessons I’ve ever taken in my life. (I took keyboard in high school, but there was very little teacher instruction, so it was just more self-teaching for me.) The violin is a frustrating instrument for me. My ear wasn’t very good (and still isn’t), and my pitch was awful. Of all the instruments out there, this one still holds the most mystery and magic to me. I spent the better part of a year hanging out at the weekly session, able to follow chords on the guitar but not really able to lead anyone in anything. Toward the end of that time I took maybe six lessons with Jim, then my deployment was over and it was time to pack it up and go home.

My violin on the way down had acquired a layer of lacquer where the rosin had melted in the same car heat that destroyed the hat in “1962” when I was on my way home. Now it’s acquired a layer of dust. I kept up playing it for a little while, but I haven’t touched it in years.

In the paper I wrote for class, I said I had a sort of religious experience when I was playing along with Jim and really understood how to really play music, not just the mechanics of how to play a song.  This was a complete and utter lie. I don’t understand any of that. I often wonder if maybe the really great ones do, or if, like me, they always feel that they’re wandering blindfolded in a dark cavern.

So concurrent with the paper I wrote a song about a guy named James who sells his soul to the devil for skill on the violin. He hides out in a small town, living alone in a house above the sawmill, and plays for quarters and booze in the local pub. He squanders his talents—a sort of anti-Faust. Then, one night, the devil, in the form of a train at the railroad crossing, comes for his due.

Faust is still one of my favorite stories. It’s a trade I think more people than will admit would make given the choice. Selling one’s soul might as well be how anyone acquires real performance skill, beyond those things that can be practiced like tunes and pitch. There’s a reason such myths have survived, from Orpheus to Robert Johnson: The desire for divine or devilish inspiration is almost enough to make an atheist a theist.

The computer file with the lyrics and music to that song were lost a long time ago. I recorded it on a 4-track cassette deck and transferred it to digital with the help of a friend sometime in 2005, but that’s been lost, too. It wasn’t particularly good, but two things stuck with me: the inspiration for the story and how to play the ending, which I resurrected for the final recording.

Later, in 2006, after I started really reading the Child Ballads, I came to understand what made the stories tick better. I rewrote the song and removed the devil for another human, Helen, renamed James as Edward, and made him the bad guy. It was more an experiment than anything else, and I shelved it for years while I worked on the songs for Fireworks at the Carnival. But the song dovetailed with the process of reworking folk ballads and motifs in with many other tunes on what would become The Distance of the Moon at Daybreak, especially “Tomorrow I’m Gone (500 Miles)” and “Two Crows” (which is a rewrite of “Twa Corbies”).

Shut inside with no access to my car during the worst snowstorm in my memory in February, 2010, I had very little to do but work on some songs and record them on our little digital camera. I wrote a couple songs to avoid going stir crazy, and when I couldn’t think of what else to write, I went through the files on my computer and found this song, and spent two days working the lyrics and music into something appropriate for Midway Fair.

Here’s the original minor key version, in a different key (but the same chords), with an improvised instrumental section. The ending is intact, but the song itself is much shorter.

And for the curious, here’s the major key version:

The Recording

We split out “The Unmated Swallow” onto a separate track, which you’ll get a chance to hear when we release the final album. (I can’t spoil all the surprises just now.) Originally it served as the intro.

The main part of the song was one of the simplest arrangements on the album. Tim’s part was just some cymbal swells in the beginning, a bodhran part bolstered by our tympani floor tom, and a Waterboys-esque syncopated drumbeat for the doubletime part at the end. Jen’s piano is the only instrument for much of the song. The guitar comes in substantially only for the jig sections, although there are a few volume swells and random notes—in all honesty, I wasn’t sure what to do there, and some of it is just noodling that we tinkered with in the mixing process, squishing some notes and muting others.

We got a good piano sound simply by sticking a ribbon microphone just to the treble side of the back of the piano, and using one of the drum mics, facing away from the piano and about 10 feet from it, as a distance mic. The second microphone was an accident. Chris turned on the wrong one. But we liked how it sounded so much that we used it on three more tracks (including one that did not end up on the album). This is an unusually simple setup for micing a piano. It gets as crazy as having 24 microphones on the piano alone (the maximum number of tracks available in most studios at any one time) for classical recordings. The minimum is usually close microphones on the bass and treble sides, with the piano open, and then a third above it. This is best if you have a really good piano, but the one in Chris’s studio, although it sounds perfectly fine, is not exactly a world-class instrument.

Chris’s studio is just in a basement, and for the most part there is no room “sound.” Some studios are constructed to give a particular quality to the recordings, like a woody sound (most common) or a reverby bathroom sound like at Rhapsody Street Studios, where I recorded part of my solo disc. Abby Road, though, was just a big warehouse. Given the sophistication of digital mixing, I think that a recording with very little room character is more desirable in the end. You can always add something; it’s hard to take things out. For the piano, though, we rolled it in front of the basement stairs, which added a little reverb kickback. (We also miced the stairs when recording the drums sometimes. Thank you, Led Zeppelin.)

The only really interesting thing about the guitar is that it was the only lead track on the entire album where we used a completely clean sound. I don’t play with a ton of distortion, but most of the lead tracks in the studio used more than I typically use even at shows. The clean sound on my amp pops a little more than the drive side, and I wasn’t used to the new string setup on my guitar, so we ended up needing to use a little more compression on the lead guitar than I usually like. But Chris did a good job on the mixing board and made it sound natural.

The ending, as I mentioned earlier in the post, survived from the original version of the song, in the same key and everything. (The main difference is that a cello is used here instead of the violin in my original vision.) There’s a lot of noise going on here: Five different guitars, a mandolin, the drums, a glockenspiel, a bass (playing the tune, although it would have been smart of me to play a regular bass line, too, come to think of it), Kristin’s cello (she wrote her part on the spot in five minutes), and multiple pianos (the second is just playing the tune). I was glad everyone thought this worked once they heard it and didn’t just dismiss it as me being self-indulgent.

As a final note, the very last measures of the song reference “Tomorrow I’m Gone.” I think that will be the next track I blog about, since it was one of the thematic hinges of this project.

As usual, here are the lyrics and chords in case someone, somewhere, wants to play it:

Edward Cain

Jig chords: (a) Em – Em – G -Em / D – Em – D – Em. (b) Em C – Em – D G – Em / Em – G – D – Em

Em                                 G                        Am                           Em
On a bitter night in winter, when Edward came to town,
C                                       G                   D                                    Em
He met a girl named Helen in a poor girl’s banded gown.
Her hair was bound in silver threads, and so he spoke his mind,
“A prettier girl in all the county I think Ill never ever find.”

“I cannot wait, and I cannot talk,” said Helen tall and fair,
“I’m off to church to meet my John, who’s waiting for me there.”
“And does your John does he call you fair, or does he call you plain?”
“He only calls me what I am,” she said to Edward Cain.

Then Edward brought from his pack a fiddle and his bow
and said he’d play a tune for her sweet and soft and low.
“Your singing may sway the ear of every other girl,
but I would not forsake my John for any in this world.”

One cold October evening, they met at last again.
The rain blew through in patches and the crosswind turned the vane.
And in one hand, he took her throat, and his voice turned hard and mean:
“I’d have given half the world if you had but agreed.”

But Helen drew his knife and drove the blade through Edward’s throat,
and ’fore she saw him breathe his last, she left him by the road.
She pulled her coat around her and waited for the train.
Lit another cigarette and flicked the ash away.

Ending: C –  –  Csus4 – G – – G6 / Am – – C Csus2 C x8 (last two chords are E7 – Am)

© 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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