I first got the storyline of this song stuck in my head maybe eight years ago. But I didn’t have music for it, and that meant I also couldn’t write it down fitting a melody.
I finally shaped it into a lyric right around the end of 2012, when the guitar part came to me in a noodling session. It was thanks to a chord progression that is somewhat unusual for me (I rarely go from the I to the V, I find), though set in my go-to key of D. I pulled out the bass line that made the progression work, and doubled it on the mandolin, and shaped the melody around it. Add a dash of strings, and recorded a vocal (if I recall, I had a cold at the time… but ended up liking the tentative quality it gave) and here it is. I figured, it’s been a year, I should let it out into the world.
I put this together today. I think it’s going to end up as the guitar part for a song with lyrics, but I liked it enough as a guitar part that I’m posting it up as just an instrumental. Nothing fancy here — I recorded it with a single mic, did a tiny bit of reverb and EQ, and left it at that.
It’s a capo monster — standard tuning, but capo’d at the second fret, and then again with a partial capo at the 6th fret, covering only strings 3, 4, and 5. I use a Kyser short-cut capo for this. You could use just a single partial capo at the 4th fret to play it a full step lower, of course, which would move it from the key of F# major down to E.
Other than that, it’s all in the picking pattern. The trick here is that you finger less than it seems — almost all the chords are only two finger stops. The rising part is actually played in between the two capos.
We chop the poor trees down, then stick them in embalming fluid to keep them alive for a few weeks while we use them as our helpless servants; then we throw them away to wither in a landfill. If that isn’t a zombie, what is?
This little ditty came about because of something my daughter said — I don’t remember what exactly. But she rolled her eyes a lot when I said that it gave me this idea. If you like, you can think of it as a spiritual sequel to “Dead Cheerleaders.”
I just wrote this yesterday and recorded it in a few hours today. I play it up at Capo VII, fingerpicked, but in the recording I added a couple more guitars to give it body and it sort of turned into a 70s country rock song. Sorry about that. The fingerpicked line is on the Baby Taylor, and the rhythm parts are on the Blueridge, and I just doubled it through an amp simulator to get some crunch and space in it. And added a bass part and a fake Hammond organ.
I wrote this song quite a long time ago, for one of my favorite webcomics, entitled Alice! The comic hasn’t updated since 2006, but I actually own the print collection that was available for a while. The vibe of it was somewhere between Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes — except it was about an overimaginative teen or tween girl. Glancing at it now, it makes me think of my daughter, who similarly dives into roleplaying and doesn’t come out for days.
An Alice comic strip
The tablature and sheet music have actually been posted up for ages and ages in the Music section of the site. It’s in standard tuning, but uses a partial capo on the 4th fret covering only three of the strings — strings 3, 4, and 5, numbered from the high E as the first string.
Recently some colleagues at Disney gave me a few gifts in thanks for giving a talk to some folks internally. Apparently Warren Spector picked out one of the gifts: a harmonic capo (he knows I play guitar, you see; been a few years, but we’ve jammed together). This little beastie sits on the 12th fret and presses down very lightly on the strings with rubber feet. Unlike a regular capo, though, it does not depress the strings all the way — instead, it sits lightly enough to cause an open pluck of that string to play a harmonic note — those bell-like tones you hear sometimes out of a guitar. But you can play under the capo, and still get standard notes. The result is that you play a regular chord, and any time you play an open string, you get a harmonic instead.
Well, I had to try it out. Beautiful on the Baby Taylor; didn’t fit on my Blueridge (the heel on the neck is too thick)… and just barely fit on the 1962 Gibson, which is what you’ll hear if you click the link. Because once I had it, I started to noodle about in open G, and, well… got this done in the last couple of hours:
I just learned that one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Bill Morrissey, passed away from heart failure a few weeks ago, at the age of 59. The news was drowned out in the hoopla around Amy Winehouse’s death, that very same day.
We started listening to Bill back around 1991 or 1992; I had seen a review of his album Inside and we were feeling adventurous and interested in trying out some new music. We didn’t have lots of money to spare at the time — starving college students — so taking a flyer on someone was a big deal. If I recall correctly, the same batch of tapes (no CDs for us, they were too pricey) led us to other favorites like Patty Larkin and Greg Brown.
He had a gravelly voice, and his lyrics were like short stories — narrative poems that weren’t afraid of emotion and honesty, but also some truly hilarious songs you could only call “ditties” — hummable silly things that were just great fun. Above all, they were stories of ordinary life for working class Americans. As a 19 year old, he left college to work on a fishing boat in Alaska, gig across California, and ended up working in a mill in New Hampshire. When he sang “who knew it got this cold in Barstow” he was writing from experience.
We ended up seeing him live at least three times — at Birmingham City Stages, at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, and in the intimacy of the Cactus Cafe in Austin. I got to talk to him a bit after that Cactus gig, and got his novel Edson autographed. It’s a Raymond Carver-esque novel about working class people in New Hampshire, with a singer-songwriter who never made it big at its core. Bill himself did make it big, for a folk singer — two Grammy nominations! But like most folk singers, he never saw significant commercial success. But many who worked with him did — backing vocals on his early albums were from Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega, and he produced one of Ellis Paul’s albums.
It was impossible to ignore the undercurrent of songs about alcoholism that ran through his work; he was upfront on his website about how much it had impacted his life. He was also later diagnosed as bipolar. Both took a big toll on his career, I think. But the albums, though they slowed, kept coming. He died of heart disease, quite unexpectedly — but he was on tour.
I have a lot of his songs in my fakebook, and I played several of them at the concerts I did live on Metaplace. Here are my versions of three songs of his, taken from those concerts.
– Robert Johnson
A song about the bluesman who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads. Morrissey had a lot of affinity for some of the older bluesmen, though not so much with Johnson — more with Mississippi John Hurt; he did a whole album of covers of Hurt, in fact.
– Waiting for the Rain
One of the most chilling songs I have ever heard, about a farmer family facing a drought, and a storm, and maybe more.
I picked one of his songs in particular, “Birches,” as the closing song when the service shuttered. It’s a song about a married woman whose husband no longer seems to be on the same wavelength. He wants to put oak in the fireplace, because it will burn long and steady. She kind of wants to have a glass of wine, and dance to the flickery exciting light of birch wood, even though it will burn out and leave the house cold that night. He goes to bed, and she drinks her wine, puts “logs as white as a wedding dress” in the fireplace, and dances with herself. The final lines are amazing: “She thought of heat, thought of time, and called it an even trade.”
I think of that song every time I miss something that I didn’t get to have nearly long enough; and every time I think about how lucky I am to have lasting love and warmth in my life. Really, skip my version, and go for the real thing. In fact, hunt down all of his work.
We already know how Bill’s doing now, fortunately, because he told us, in his song “Letter from Heaven.”
“And me, I couldn’t be happier. The service here is fine. They’ve got dinner ready at half-past nine. And I’m going steady with Patsy Cline. And just last night in a bar room, I bought Robert Johnson a beer. Yeah, I know, everybody’s always surprised to find him here.’’
I am very much going to miss that sense of humor, and that to-the-bone sense of story. Word is that he had finished a second novel; I hope it sees print, because I don’t want to have heard the last from Bill Morrissey.
I wrote this in 1994. We were living in Alabama at the time, while we went to grad school. A lot of the stuff I was writing back then was kind of like “short stories as songs,” very under the influence of folkies like Bill Morrissey; this song in particular is one of those.
Needless to say, it’s entirely fictional; I was seven years old in 1978. It’s supposed to be a tale told from the point of view of a man on New Year’s Eve in 1990, looking back at 1978 and looking at where his life is on that day.
This was one of the tracks of an album called “The Land of Red Barns,” all of which had that short story vibe, pretty much. I have never recorded decent versions of most of them, and I am making it a project to get all the couple hundred songs I have written recorded and maybe even out there somewhere, so here’s this one.