my little town

I was walking the dog a couple weeks ago when the title popped into my head for some reason. It's been a while since 1975, and so I decided to see how much I could remember of "My Little Town." I'm sure I must have heard it now and then since the 1970s, but it wasn't a big hit and I haven't spun the Still Crazy After All These Years LP since at least the early 1980s. "If this is a masterfully-wrought song," I thought, "I'll be able to bring back most or all of it," and so I did -- but only the words. The words, because of their inherent emotionalism as well as, I suppose, some random and distant memories they evoked, brought a chill to my neck. It's a beautiful and exquisitely sensitive American landscape, a picture of every boy's life in every small town, drawn by Norman Rockwell with Charles Whitman lurking behind the trees. 

For all that, though, parts of the melody escaped me. The contours I pretty much retained, but without a guiding instrument, I was led into some dead ends where I had clearly aimed too high or too low. Once home I picked up a guitar and tried to tamp down the bumpy spots -- "And he used to lean upon me" and "Flying my bike," for instance. Couldn't nail it down, put the guitar away and forgot about it for awhile.

Sometimes when I'm working on a song and hit a wall I sneak away from the notebook and do other things that are related to music and so in some way justified activities, but are really just time-killers delaying my return to the dreaded page. In fact that's why I'm writing on my blog now! Last month I was stuck while songwriting in a hotel room and I suddenly decided to chart "My Little Town" off of youtube. The results are very interesting. The Nashville number system wasn't made for songs like this but I'll include it (omitting compounds and altered bass roots for simplicity) with the chord names below just to buttress a point. Here's the first 1:42 of the song:

E (II)                

In my little town...

Em (ii)        Asus A (V)          

I grew up believing

D (I)                 Bm (vi)    Am (v)

God keeps His eye on us all

F (bIII)               C (bVII)         C+                  E7  (II)                  A (V)

And He used to lean upon me as I pledged allegiance to the wall

Bm (vi)   E (II)                A (V)

Lord I recall, in my little town

                        A/G#  F#m (iii)          

Coming home after school

Am (v)     D (I)                                  G (IV)       E (II)      F (III)

Flying my bike past the gates of the factory

Bb (#V)                   F (III)  F+                 A7 (V)                   D (I)

My mom doing the laundry, hangin' our shirts in the dirty breeze

                   G (IV)                                                                    D (I)

And after it rains there's a rainbow, and all of the colors are black

      A/E (V/II)                         D (I)

It's not that the colors aren't there

                  G (IV) Dmaj7 (I) E (II)

It's just imagination they lack

                           Em (ii)      A (V)            D (I)

Everything's the same back in my little town.

Hello, Berklee School of Fucking Music! First off, look at the numbers. The system presupposes a stable key center but nothing stays stable for more than several seconds here; calling C flat-7 when it's really -- briefly! -- the new I or at least quasi-tonic, et cetera, makes an absurd hash of the numbers. People (like me) who lean on numbers or at least have them somewhere in mind at all times while composing are thus at a disadvantage in some styles of writing; the system, too ingrained, can be a roadblock. I've always tended to think of popular-music compositions that baffle the number system as veering away from the guitar, as likely having been composed at the piano, but that's not obviously true here; in fact my strong suspicion is that the song was written on a guitar, using two nice tricks that facilitate all this modulating. And by the way, just how much modulating? The key center in "My Little Town" changes 6 times in its first 1:14!  Since Barry Beckett's intro takes a little time, that sums to 7 key centers in 49 seconds. (Specifically: E to D ("God keeps"), to C ("lean"), to A ("wall"), to G ("factory"), to F ("laundry"), back to D ("breeze").) It has to be a record. $20 to any intrepid reader who finds a song with as many or more in a shorter span.

One of the tricks I'm referring to is easy -- changing a major I to a minor that becomes the supertonic or ii of the new key (formerly bVII, now I). That's exemplified in the first mod: piano chord on E; vocal "in my little town; piano chord E-minor; we're off to the new key of D. The other trick is extremely fantastic and not nearly as often used. ($9 to any reader who....) This is modulating I to VI via the augmented-fifth over the first of the keys. We're in C at the "lean upon me" lyric. Now the G# is added to the C to augment the 5th. At this point the chord is composed of three tones: E, G#, and C. Do you see the genius here? We are a hair's breadth away -- a half-step, which in western music is a hair -- from an E triad (E, G#, B). E serves as the V to the A, and voila, we're now in A. (Making the E an E7 is only slightly less subtle, and the whole-step and half-step parallel shift are crazy-beautiful.)

The above is less than half the song in length but is the section that delivers the point, and the point is -- where is the popular music of similar complexity and harmonic ambition these days? I resist these old-man outbursts and try to recognize them as a perspectival limitation, almost a neurological flaw...but in the case of elaborate harmony invention I think a lot has been lost in the sphere of -- let me stress -- commercial popular music. As the above illustrates, the era from Revolver to punk music might have been if anything more harmonically adventurous than the Great American Songbook era. With Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, and Brian Wilson at the wheel, a lot of radio music in the late 1960s started sounding less like rhythm changes and the blues and more like symphonies. Then it stopped. 

I really should get back to my writing now. More on "My Little Town" in a day or two. As usual any terminological clunkers or blind-spots in my reaches for a technically precise language are attributable to my complete lack of formal education, and I welcome corrections.