Six Back to School Songs
Six songs with built In music lessons.
It’s always comforting to hear that Thomas Alva Edison was a poor student. That gives me hope. My academic career was spotty, to say the least and though I liked music and art, I tended to wander off to a secret place in my mind when less appealing topics demanded my attention.
I got about two years of college in before I ran out of reasons to plow through and make something of myself. A diploma might have been a good idea, if only for that Wizard of Oz effect it might have had on my confidence. Luckily, while I was there, I did stumble into a music theory class that was the best single learning experience of my life.
I already had a decent ear, being mostly self taught, but I was curious about what happened deep down in the secret architecture of songs. I sensed there was a place where mathematics became emotional in a very powerful way and damned if I didn’t get a glimpse of it for the first time in my life. That little bit of arcane knowledge has allowed me to experience music in a whole new way. I could now look at songs through the x-ray lens of tonal harmony which gave me a much larger toolbox with which to craft songs. That made the work much less random and mystical.
The other bugaboo of would-be studious musicians is the fear of mystery evaporating as they delve deeper into the principles. They say music is math and that is mostly true, but it is a living breathing discipline that never sheds beauty no matter how much you learn about it. That it should be that way is an even bigger mystery. If they ever learn to teach music in a way that strips the joy from it, classrooms will be deserted.
In honor of September and all things academic, I looked for songs that have built in lessons, some musical, some a little more general. They teach simple concepts, either by design or example. This is all painless, because the ones I found are entertaining and nobody will be tested on today’s material. Let’s do the most obvious one first.
Julie Andrews: Do-Re-Mi
THE SOUND OF MUSIC? I know, I know..how could I possibly ask you to listen to such hokum? At the very pinnacle of all things kind of square-ish, this song is both irritating and brilliant. (Sometimes they’re the same thing — for instance Pee Wee Herman. I bet he loves this song.) It’s a simple and memorable exploration of the major scale, the foundation of western music. There are more exotic scales, ranging from eastern modalities and microtonal, but here is the big daddy of them all, the one that has produced metric tons of your favorite music. It’s as sturdy as an I-beam and from it flows simple major and minor chords, almost all melodies we sing and, frankly, most of your record collection. So put up with a little hokum and let the delightful Maria school you.
Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, Van Dyke Parks: Do-Re-Mi
Let me wander off from my premise early with this great Woody Guthie song performed by an unlikely trio in a tribute to the folk legend. This came up in the search for Miss Andrews’ tune and I had to insert it. Built around a lovely descending figure, this dust bowl lament still packs a wallop. No, it’s not about the first three notes of the major scale and about as far from The Sound Of Music as you can get. Is it really a lesson? I think we can find one that probably says more about the music business lesson than anything, but beyond that you learn that, when you have a great title, put it in the chorus and repeat as often as necessary. It’s called a hook, even though that term wasn’t being used in Guthrie’s day, without it, your song is just filling space.
NRBQ: 12 Bar Blues
If you’re a fan, and I most definitely am, you think of this band, which missed the brass ring by this much, as the American Beatles. As solid a foursome as ever seen, each member had a distinctive instrumental style — there are some who could listen to a couple measures of any one of them playing and tell you it’s them. Then there were the songs and voices. With a wild and wide range of styles, mostly American, they crafted funny and beautiful pop songs with two singers, Joey Spampinato and Al Anderson, as good as anyone at the top of the charts and a third, madman Terry Adams (who carries on the brand with a new, revitalized lineup) adding anarchy and droll humor.
This song is simple and happy. It celebrates one of the great inventions of all time, the 12 bar blues. It came from the poor side of town and went on to conquer the world. This song will teach you how to (literally) count measures as we move toward our advanced degree in music appreciation. (Note: The video, an essential piece of live mayhem, is cut short.)
Astrud Gilberto: One Note Samba
Of course there is more than one note, but for a long stretch it does stay with just one and then jumps to a second before returning to the original. Don’t sue him for false advertising, instead just relax — you are in the hands of a master. If one writer of songs ever gave the impression of being in a conversation with God, I would say it is Jobim. His heavenly melodies and uncanny structures seem to waft down from the ether with the sole purpose of making mankind happy. What’s the lesson in this song? It’s a simple one: The chords may go hither and yon, but the melody can stay right where it is, floating above the fray, paying no attention to all the busyness the chords are creating. Music is interesting in it’s contrasts, in this case, a static melody plays against a dynamic progression. Sometimes they agree and other times the don’t, but the dialogue creates an interesting whole. Or at least it does when you fall, like Antonio Carlos Jobim, into the genius category.
Van Dyke Parks: Ocapella
This is an Allen Toussaint song, but trying to find a version by that undersung New Orleans Jack of all trades is nigh impossible. The brilliant arranger and singer Parks (Who co-wrote all of Smile with Brian Wilson) does a nice job on this oft-covered tune. Like the multi-note Jobim song above, the first thing that stands out in any version is how it ignores it’s own title, starting incongruously with everybody playing. I do love self-cancelling concepts like that, in fact, they probably give me a bit too much secret glee. But there is more than one tricky little twist to this song. It is, as are most of Toussaint’s songs, thoroughly unique and unforgettable. This is the guy who wrote “Yes I Can,” after all, and many more too numerous to name, all of them hooky and sweet.
Is there a lesson in this song? Or am I at the point where I’m stretching it too far? Probably the latter, but here goes: Acapella means no band, just voice. You can conquer the world with a simple idea and this song remains, despite the modest ensemble underlining the words, very simple and affecting. Another lesson might be, who gives a damn what the title says?
Robbie Fulks: Fountains Of Wayne Hotline
Speaking of don’t give a damn, Fulks, a lanky, demented Opie gone bad, is a guy who has made a career of it. I’ve known and admired him for over twenty years and even spent some time writing with him. I’ve seen him divide an audience with a sense of humor that sometimes strays beyond polite norms. When we first knew him, he stayed with us in Nashville and spent most of the day writing a song called Eggs Are Good. My son had suggested the title, but he had an excuse, he was only three at the time. The lack of a real premise didn’t slow Robbie down, he quickly created about twenty verses — all of them coming down resoundingly pro-egg. This was kind of our introduction to his twisted world.
In this song, which is part corny radio drama, a Nashville hack is calling the hotline because he is stuck in the studio and running dry. The two employees of the massive Fountains Of Wayne consortium give him very specific advice on how to construct a perfect pop song. They take him, step by step, from “radical dynamic shift” to the stunning conclusion. It’s a dead on parody wrapped around a none-too-secret a tribute — and it works like a champ. Oh yeah, the lesson! Stick to the formulas and you will never distinguish yourself, stray from them and you’ll never get a hit!
Now hit those books!