How can a ‘bad’ song be so good? (Second in a series)
I mentioned last time that my brother Brendan and I are building repertoire for a bluegrass duet project. We’re picking songs: sometimes tactically (gotta do a Louvin Brothers song), and sometimes by sheer intuition…what feels right or gets us off to sing.
I can’t remember which one of us brought up “Lost River”, but we immediately started singing what we could remember, and it was instantly cool.
But this is a peculiar song. Almost everybody first heard it on a Nitty-Gritty Dirt Band album from 1989; it’s a track on the second “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” record. It makes a great impression: energetic and haunting. And no one can figure out the words. There’s a line in the chorus that baffles. Why? Because the human brain is a predictive organ and searches at high speed to identify phenomena in an environment, in this case, a bluegrass song. And since the line is very hard to figure out, it adds to the song’s appeal in a paradoxical way….it gnaws at you.
The line, following the line “Come back, girl, go with me,” is: “You’re my belle, my fleur-de-lis.”
Well, all the Appalachian expectations are thwarted! What’s going on here? From what I can gather, there is an actual Lost River in Quebec. At the time of writing, Michael Martin Murphey, the song’s author, was married to a Quebeqois lady, and he wrote this song for her. Mr. Murphey is a brilliant and wide-ranging musical artist, and the writerly gesture is charming as hell, and, once understood, sets the song apart. And is cool to sing.
(The definitive interview of MMM is most likely at http://www.thebluegrassspecial.com/archive/2009/june2009/murphyfeaturejune09.php )…well worth your time, he’s quite a guy, and there are lots of performance clips.)
So what else is ‘wrong’ with this song?
One of the great axioms of effective songwriting is to create contrast between/among the sections of the song. Compositionally, either by rhythm and/or meter, or by rate of harmonic change, or by voicings of chords, and/or by melodic rhythm (comparative note values), we set the verse apart from the chorus, and the bridge apart from both. In terms of lyrics, we look for appropriate doses of variety and novelty in diction, rhyme words, etc….this is truly a matter of judgment, genre congruence, and taste.
In the case of “Lost River”, not many of these guidelines are observed. The lyrics are repetitive and circular, making the entire song hard to memorize and perform. The rhythms between the verses and the chorus are not strongly differentiated. There is an abundance of half, or “slant” rhyme… winds/pines, back/stacked, return/burned, down/ground, time/mine. The chord-changes recycle phrases from the verse to the chorus, and there is no bridge (in the performance of Michael Martin Murphey with the Nitty-Gritty Dirt Band on “Austin City Limits”–easy to find on YouTube–the band inserts a mini-instrumental bridge, a contrastive phrase after a couple of the choruses, that grates rather than enhances…just my opinion, but the group must have felt the need for another musical color).
But this is a beautiful song!
The reason, I suggest, is that the strengths of the song far outweigh such alleged shortcomings. The opening couplet, with its perfect rhyme, pulls us right into the world of the song. “There’s a Lost River that flows/In a valley where no one goes.” The next couplet, also perfectly rhymed, makes lovely use of alliteration: “Where the wild water’s rush/Rumbles deep in the hush” …note the w’s and r’s; and the rumbling amid the silence emphasizes the “lost-ness” of the river.
Then the singer introduces himself: “Gone far from there now/Lord I’ll get back somehow.” In a flip of mirroring, it is he who is lost, not just the river. And he wraps it up with another burst of alliteration “To where the white water winds/In the shadow of the pines” and introduces a completely different vowel quality in this final half-rhyme, moving from the open “o’s & u’s” to the tighter, more nasal “i’s”. This strikes me as the craftless craft of a writer who has written and worked with so many songs, for so many years, that he can produce this complexity out of instinct. Can’t prove it, but I wonder if this song came forth with minimal re-writes.
I won’t walk us through the entire song…you can find the complete lyric at http://www.classic-country-song-lyrics.com/lostriverlyricschords.html …but there are many instances of these devices, embedded in such a way as to not call attention to themselves, so that this very poetic lyric has a conversational quality. The power of this peaks in a payoff in the last verse, with the ending couplet “And the world was still wild/Like the heart of a child”.
Further, even though the contrast between the chord progressions in verses and chorus is minimal, the melodic rhythm is quite different: in the verses, short note durations (quarter & eighth notes), and moderately syncopated, while the chorus has significantly longer notes and unspools smoothly, with less syncopation. And although the range of the melody doesn’t leap dramatically in the chorus–the mid-pitch of the chorus melody is only a third higher than the verses–the two highest notes in the song are repeated several times in the chorus, versus once in the verse, giving the chorus some “lift”; but, above all, the chorus’ melody allows for wonderful, natural vocal harmony parts. You can fall right into it, like a swimming pool filled with honey…or…well, find your own metaphor. There’s plenty of room up there to stack it up. The great bluegrass artist Rhonda Vincent does a wonderful job singing the tenor harmony on one of Murphey’s solo records. (You can see him coaching her on those elusive lyrics here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JkAoemUNpBM ).
So, touching, haunting, eminently singable…love, loss, and mystery add up to a great ‘bad’ song.
‘Til next time, buckaroos n buckarettes…