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Song Sources: “Two Crows”

March 7, 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.”

“Two Crows,” a rewrite of an old British ballad, was one of the first songs written for The Distance of the Moon at Daybreak.

The Lyrics

Two Crows, sumi ink 1986, by David Watson Hood. (Used with the kind permission of the artist, who also has an interesting writeup of "The Twa Corbies" on his web site.)

Two crows sat beneath a crown of olive trees. One said to the other, “You know this hunger’s a disease. Easier to eat the wind than to try and find a wage. It rattles my bones and blows right through my cage.”Shadows are marching black across the leaves. One said, “Go west,” but the other said, “It lies east.”

“All right,” the second said. “Maybe we’ll just take the one you like least. I swear sometimes you can be so goddamn hard to please.”

One said to the other, “I think I saw him fall into the chase. Happens all the time these days, it don’t seem so out of place.”

The second said, “This bird might be worth two in the hand, but the one I left behind is worth more than I can stand.”

The first said, “I can’t be the only one who’s never killed a man. I swear there was a dog with him, but it must have up and ran.” The first said, “I bet his wife will wonder where he’s at.”

The second said, “I bet she’s the one who stole his hat. That dog must have gotten back to his house by now. I can tell you right now this is more time than I’ll allow. You take his eyes. I’ll take the part that’s in between. There’s a phone across the road if you find this so obscene.”

“I thought we swore to each other we wouldn’t do this anymore?”

The second said, “I bet he was another child of a whore. You’re gonna wait here all night if you’re waiting for absolution to arrive. You can’t send me to hell just for trying to survive. Can’t send me to hell just for trying to survive.”

In the original folk ballad, “Twa Corbies,” itself a variation on the ballad “The Three Ravens,” two crows come across the body of a fallen knight, who has died during the hunt, in a chase (a groove or trench), and they discuss eating him. It’s every bit as gruesome as my version. The story has a lot of ambiguity and is open for interpretation. In some versions, the knight is guarded by his hound and hawk and mourned by his wife; in the version of “Twa Corbies” I first learned,

His hound is to the hunting gane,
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady’s ta’en another mate,
So we may mak our dinner sweet.

Generally, the interpretation in this version is that the crows are just determining where to get an undisturbed meal. No one else has found the knight yet. But the line about the lady taking another mate is peculiar and leaves open a whole range of possibilities, including the idea that she’s the one who killed him. But the lyrics that have come down the centuries don’t really explore the back story, being more interested in the crows and the circle of life and all that.

In my version, the crows aren’t crows at all, but a pair of men, out of work and starving. They’re hitchhiking around, looking for work, and fighting about where to go next. Around nightfall, they see a man walking his dog trip and fall into a roadside drainage ditch. Rather than helping him, they chase the dog away and kill the man to take his money and possessions. The first crow protests while the second rationalized their actions. He taunts his partner to go call the police if he thinks what they’re doing is so wrong; and then goes one step further and suggests that the entire moral basis of his reticence is irrelevant, and that anything you do to survive is justified.

My views on religion ought to be pretty well known to our readers at this point. I’ve always been fascinated by the saying “There are no atheists in a foxhole.” Desperation frequently turns men to immoral actions, but so many people see religion and belief in god to be a moral action. If murder and prayer are likely to happen when your life is threatened, why do we assume that one is good and the other evil?

I don’t pretend that what the crows in the song did is right by any stretch of the imagination. It’s clearly horrible and wrong. But how many things do we (as individuals and as a society) do because it’s do or die, all the while assuming that doing is the better, more moral choice?

The Music

The structure of the song is a mash up of 12-bar blues and a fairly standard ballad Dorian chord progression that appears in many ballads, including “Twa Corbies.” Crows repeats turnaround, whereas a blues song would just go into the next verse. There’s actually a way to play it in the relative major key (A) with the standard blues progression . . . where it would sound a lot like, say, this:

The “Dorian” chord progression is used elsewhere on the album, on “Edward Cain,” which falls right after this song on the album. (That song is not a rewrite but sounds more traditional than “Two Crows.”)

The bridge does a sort of “circle of fourths” sequence of modulation, going first to the “real” major key for the song (E, not A, since Dorian starts on the ii, with apologies to my nonmusician readers for the mumbo jumbo in this parentheses), then to A, then to D, then ending with a few very ugly chords before resolving back to the verse pattern. This was one of those guitar solos I had to work out note by note. I don’t have the video from the CD release party for Fireworks at the Carnival—we debuted this song at the CD release for the last album, which shows how much time we put into it before recording it—where the solo was almost entirely improvised over the chords, but here’s a video from the Baltimore Hostel that shows the halfway point between improvisation and the finished product:

I usually try to retain some essential feeling of improvisation even when I hammer stuff out note by note. (And as far as I know, Jen’s piano solo is entirely improvised, which makes more sense over the bluesy chord progression in the verse pattern).

The Recording

This was certainly one of the more straightforward recording sessions. We did the drums over a scratch track, then Jen and I played the guitar and piano together a few days later. I made an effort to get the lead vocals a little more laconic (talky) for the recording. To punch them up, we added the tiniest bit of distortion in the mixing process in places. Then took it right back out because I already sounded gritty. The guitar was also a little more heavily distorted in the studio than the setting I use live. (We’re the only band I know that tends to use more distortion in the studio than at our live shows.)

The mandolin is really the only tricky thing going on in the track. It’s a doubled part, panned hard left and right, but rather than just being a duplicate of a single track, I actually played it twice. We cut the acoustic rhythm guitar from the track after recording these. The mandolin helped with the really dreary nature of the song, but also adds a little extra percussive attack to the track, as well as some high-end sparkle to fill out the sonic landscape.

No excessive or tricky overdubs, no stacked vocals, no loop sequencing, no flashy special effects. This is the most organic track on the album: Just some electric and acoustic instruments, and only one more instrument than we can reproduce live (the second mandolin, as long as Andrew Luttrell is with us). It doesn’t make it onto our set list very often, though, because the bridge is really tough to get right.

Oh, and I managed to play an acceptable bass line. I feel like I need to mention those times when Chris didn’t take the bass away from me.

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

Two Crows

F#m                                          E                           F#m
Two crows sat beneath a crown of olive trees
E                                                                          F#m
One said to the other, “You know this hunger’s a disease
F#m                                                   E                          F#m
Easier to eat the wind than to try and find a wage
A                                              E                     B5(sus4)      F#m [%]
It rattles my bones and blows right through my cage.”

Shadows are marching black across the leaves
One said, “Go west,” but the other said, “It lies east.”
“All right,” the second said. “Maybe we’ll just take the one you like least.
I swear sometimes you can be so goddamn hard to please.”

One said to the other, “I think I saw him fall into the chase.
Happens all the time these days, it don’t seem so out of place.”
The second said, “This bird might be worth two in the hand,
but the one I left behind is worth more than I can stand.”

Bridge:
C#m |          |  B      | E
A       |          |  D      | A
Bm    | G      | E       | Edim
A/D  | D+*| E7 | F#m

The first said, “I can’t be the only one who’s never killed a man.
I swear there was a dog with him, but it must have up and ran.”
The first said, “I bet his wife will wonder where he’s at.”
The second said, “I bet she’s the one who stole his hat.

“That dog must have gotten back to his house by now.
I can tell you right now this is more time than I’ll allow.
You take his eyes. I’ll take the part that’s in between.
There’s a phone across the road if you find this so obscene.”

“I thought we swore to each other we wouldn’t do this anymore?”
The second said, “I bet he was another child of a whore.
You’re gonna wait here all night if you’re waiting for absolution to arrive.
You can’t send me to hell just for trying to survive.
Can’t send me to hell just for trying to survive.”

Ending: A/D  | D+*| E7 | F#m

Track credits:
Jon: Guitar, vocals, bass, and mandolin
Jen: Piano
Tim: Drums

© 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

*AKA Daug, “Aug” being the sound you make when you hear it. Actually, it’s a D augmented suspended 2nd (D+59) most of the time when I play it, but who can keep track of these things?

Thanks for reading,
Jon

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