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Song Sources: Won’t Grow Here

December 8, 2022

This is part of an ongoing series about our recordings. To read more in this series, click on the category “Song Sources: Stories behind the recordings.”

I wrote a short story a long time ago about a town under siege for years during a perpetual war. The main character’s mother is killed early on by a hail of arrows and the brother goes over the wall. I used the plot as loose inspiration for a couple songs during FAWM 2014, when (I kid you not) the random words that popped up for me to use as thematic touchstones were “siege” and “fantasy.”

This song in particular when I wrote I knew it was going to be a Midway Fair song. We were in the middle of recording “Most Distant Star” during February 2014 and I felt so strongly about the song that if I’d had more time to rehearse it and a desire to put more than four songs on that release, this might even have ended up on the EP. Two good things came from waiting: Joe made an important lyrical fix, and I think sticking with a the two-guitar version was a better arrangement than it would have been with piano, since it more closely keeps to the folk roots of the song.

Lyrics

I was still young when I drove the plow
Her hair was like fire when we took our vows
Violets in spring, apples in the fall
Tomatoes in summer, and home again all

I made a bed on a pallet on the straw
Raised four walls, then a son, and then one more
Violets in spring, apples in the fall
Tomatoes in summer, and home again all

Chorus
I pulled the cart straight on the row
And I built a fine fire from the coal
We sowed our hearts, but desire won’t grow here and
The wheat burned like gold in the fields

The fallen fall like leaves from the trees
You can talk as you please, but no one talks of peace
Whisky and bread, apples in the fall
Tomatoes in summer, and home again all

Coda
Harden the bone, harden the marrow
Make this body a shield from an arrow
Harden the bone, harden the marrow
Make this body a shield from an arrow

In wars a long time ago it was sometimes necessary for invading armies to destroy sources of food when abandoning an area. Here, someone has to burn the crops on their farm where they and their family made their life. The song ends with a prayer that they’re able to keep their loved ones from harm, even at the cost of their own life.

The song was originally written from the point of view of the mother in the story, which is the subject of the coda, but it worked with the recast story of the father.

During mixing, Chris Freeland noted how unusual the time jumps are in the verses. Sometimes this comes from culling lines or ideas from a song, but in this case it’s simply because the story in my head came through a series of images. There’s no interaction with other people, and I very much imagined the main character just sitting around the fire saying these things throughout the fearful nights.

This album didn’t have a lot of British folk influences, but this song got a burden (“Violets in spring…”), and one based on some old folk lyrics to boot. I chose the word violets because it sounded like “violence”; it disappears when the song starts to talk about violence.

The lyrical fix Joe made was to the line “We sowed our hearts.” The original line was “We know our hearts,” which is just another case of Joe making something unrecognizably better when he gets his hands on it.

This song reuses some lyrics from its sister song that I wrote immediately before, “We All Go Home,” which is more directly based on the short story I mentioned in the opening paragraph:

They arrived on the fields at dawn
and we all fled into the walls
We wait for men from the fort
and the cannon’s report
And the sound of the carrion birds’ caws.

We all go home when we’re scared
Where’s mother and father to go?
She covered my brother’s head with her body
Protection that’s only for show

It wasn’t such a hard life in the fields,
We had apples but they won’t grow here
leaves fall from trees
with no word of release
And no one is talking of peace

We all go home when we’re scared
Birds abandon a nest you upset
I wish I could dream and my mother could sleep
And my brother would learn how to rest

I woke when he climbed out of bed
Walks barefoot on the parapets
Balanced and sings
Arms spread out like wings
his fingers like feathers in wind

Music and Recording

The chord progression is straight forward, and fairly modal (like Celtic music), based heavily around C#m and E, with the chorus ending on an extra bar of a Bsus4. It makes the harmonies very simple, simple enough in fact that even I was able to do them without embarrassing myself on the demo.

The chords and arrangement didn’t change at all after the initial demo. We liked the demo so much that we essentially duplicated it (and added drums of course). I had sped up a little in the choruses on the demo, and we liked that, so we even did the recording without a click track, all four of us live at Chris Freeland’s studio. Joe and I overdubbed the vocals but everything else we kept: I believe this is the only lead guitar track I kept from those sessions, recorded with both the Sakura 5W (on the tweed-style channel) and the Tone King (on clean). It sounds like Chris mostly used the mic from the Tone King to me.

I think this song was the one we were most well-rehearsed on, and it’s the song on the album I most enjoy playing live. The chorus gets me, and if I had the discipline and my druthers I’d probably write whole Midway Fair albums full of songs that sound like this.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. H Stephen Patton permalink
    December 27, 2022 12:19 pm

    Great article. And Sorry but i had a smart alec comment, since it made me laugh right in the midst of the somber mood set by the lyrics just above. By the way that sister songs lyrics are superb poetry even without music. But this was what i found funny:” . . . All four of you live at Chris’Freepand’s studio. That’s one for Eats Shoots and Leaves.

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