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Song Sources: “Wolves and Children”

January 26, 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.”

Every album needs a pretty waltz, right?

The lyrical content of this song is some of my strangest, but this was one of my favorite recordings to make, ever, because I got to watch someone play lute.

The Lyrics

My mother gave milk to Rome
My father swallowed the sun
They tied me to a stone
But the harm was already done

The title of the song refers to the two myths reference in the first verse: Romulus and Remus being raised by a she-wolf, and Fenrir of Scandinavian mythology. Technically it was Fenrir who was tied to a stone, and his son who swallows the sun, but I never let the facts get in the way of a good story. The last line, “The harm was already done” is a fatalistic view of birth and parenthood that applies to myths and real life pretty well: You can’t put children back into nothingness.

But children will love their fathers
Less than they’ll love their own
Chords will come untangled
And ties will come undone

The second verse is told more from the parent’s perspective. Children will rarely love and care for their parents in the same way and with the same intensity that they care for their own children. Fathers have an especially hard time if they’re the disciplinarians. The second third and fourth verses are more cynical.

Children are always thankless
So pick your fights with care
Don’t shame those you’ve drank with
When they’ve gone off in pairs

Take care when you take their hand
Kindness won’t go too far
Hide away your hunger
Don’t show them what you are

Eventually children go off and live their own lives, and parents approach a second childhood-like existence, which they often face alone.

Wolves are social animals that will nonetheless fight over a kill in winter, but they still care for their elderly and sick. Modern humans in the U.S. often lead too busy a life to do the same for their own elders.

Gather round you daughters, gather round you sons
Little is done we ought to, more is lost than won

Originally, these were the first lines of the song. This song, otherwise so baroque with lutes and bowed strings and pretentious with its mention of Roman and Nordic mythology, really has its roots in one of the most enduring and common of folk forms, the come-all-ye, also known as broadsides, and known, too, as “vulgar” ballads.

These are commands; the words are not “your sons.” The human race perseveres despite frequent inhumanity.

The Music

I wrote the tune on a piano at a party while everyone else was outside eating dinner. I wanted, from the beginning, a very strong classic waltz feel, with a sparse arrangement. We wrote the drum part that appears in the instrumental for the whole song but cut it to let the arrangement breathe more. (As a side note, the pretty waltz on the first album has no drums on it at all.)

The only really interesting thing for people who like their music to be especially complex or odd is the chord sequence at the end of the first and third verses. I’m told that the E minor chord there is very unsettling to anyone who knows classical harmonic theory.

Well, good. It’s unsettling subject matter.

The Recording

This was one of the last recordings of the 10-month recording process for the album. I did the scratch tracks in August, then passed them around, and we finally started the final recording in early October, at which point we were already in the middle of final mixes for much of the earlier tracks.

Casey Smith (formerly of the chamber folk group Amy & Me) agreed to do an acoustic guitar lead on this, and showed up to his recording session with a lute in one hand. I was already ambivalent about playing acoustic guitar, and the addition of another midrange stringed instrument pretty much guaranteed that I wouldn’t be adding it. I had invited the other members of Casey’s band to play (cellist Alexandra Sia) and sing (Amy ) on this song, but Amy and Alex unexpectedly moved to Georgia in the intervening months.

Instead I tagged Kristin Jones (most notably a recent addition to the band ilyAIMY) to play cello. Kristin’s an equally wonderful cellist, and she’s been popping up on a bunch of recordings in Baltimore. We used a total of three microphones on her cello to get a nice full chocolatey sound, then had some fun with reverb to deepen it even further. It may be the best acoustic instrument sound on the album.

Jen used the upright piano for this one and nailed it in a couple takes; Tim came in after work and couldn’t have been in the studio for more than 15 minutes, even though he found out unexpectedly that we had cut his part down to a mere minute and a half.

Then I spent a good hour or two trying to get the vocals good enough for Jen to harmonize. This is not an easy song to sing, as the melody covers the G two octaves below middle C (basically the bottom of my range except early in the morning) and scales all the way up to an F above middle C on one of the trills in the chorus, basically the top of my range. For those who don’t speak music-ese: Most folk and rock songs cover a range about half this size, and I am not a good singer.

Then, the next Saturday, Jen came in and worked her choir-y overdubbing magic, and that was that.

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

“Wolves and Children”

Words and music by Jon S. Patton, arranged by Midway Fair, Casey Smith, and Kristin Jones

C                                F
My mother gave milk to Rome
Am                                              C/E
My father swallowed the sun
F                                  C
They tied me to a stone
Em                             G7          Em/B       Am
But the harm was already done

C                                F
But children will love their fathers
Am                                              C/E
Less than they’ll love their own
F                                  C
Chords will come untangled
Em                   G7             C            G
And ties will come undone

F                                    G                    E7                              Am
Gather round you daughters, gather round you sons
C                                 Am     G     F           Em              C
Little is done we ought to, more is lost than won

Children are always thankless
So pick your fights with care
Don’t shame those you’ve drank with
When they’ve gone off in pairs

Take care when you take their hand
Kindness won’t go too far
Hide away your hunger
Don’t show them what you are

Credits:
Jon: Vocals
Jen: Piano and vocals
Tim: Drums and percussion

Casey Smith: Guitar and lute
Kristin Jones: Cello

Engineered and mixed by Chris Freeland at Beat Babies Studios, Woodstock, MD
Mastered by Mat Leffler-Schulman at Mobtown Studios, Baltimore, MD

©2010 Pattunes/Walkin’ Shoes Music.

Cheers,
Jon

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