In January, I had been revisiting some of the melodies I had tracked for Janine. Still no luck moving forward. There were new compositions in the queue without a voice. The project was shelved. A few days later Janine shot me an email. She explained that her grandfather was a poet and that she’d like to make a song with his poem. Her words were “I wanted to be able do this for him, it would mean a lot to him.”
Oh my, his song has great meaning to someone already! I couldn’t refuse. “Alright, send it over!”
The next day I received the poem. I was touched. It is a poem about a dream. The dream involves the act of being baptized…a very intimate, personal moment in a person’s life. I tried to imagine this older (than me) gentleman writing this down. We’ve got to do this.
I created a first iteration….just a simple chord progression that had been bouncing around my head. I laid down a vocal track and sent it over to Janine. She liked it and also mentioned something about country music or something. Dwelling on that, I produced another composition. This time it was a simple three chord blues-type.
And, it just worked.
It fit the song so much better, and Janine liked it. She was coming down (from L.A.) to visit her family so while she was in town we recorded it (we also met for the first time)! Janine did great! We made a few tracks and it was done. Her voice is still very “pure”. It resonates simply…and is real. I could tell she had been practicing it before she came over.
So there it is —full circle. I was looking for a blues singer to sing blues. We ended up with a blues-centered foundation with a very personal, impassioned story. Who would have thought?
Best of all, Janine made a loving connection/tribute to her grandfather. He was very happy over her efforts she tells me. Nothin’ better than that.
Seven years ago I started collaborating with a blues poet (Richard Leach). We are about the same age (60 something) so we share the same influences. Since then I have put music to eighteen of his poems. We have also collaborated with one of his poems that he recited and I mixed with visuals and audio. It has worked well for both of us.
Six months ago I had this big idea that for our next arrangement, I would find a female voice to sing the song and surprise Richard! Well, I started looking and found a number of good candidates (at fairly reasonable rates). Before I could reach out to any of them, I was conversing with a co-worker who mentioned that his daughter sings. So, I asked…”do you think she could sing for my next project?” He thought for a few seconds and said, “well, I can ask”. I said, “Yeah, all she can say is no, right?”
Then it dawned on me that I had never heard this person sing before! What if she isn’t right for the raw nature of blues? Of course by that time, I had already committed. Whatever happened next would just have to play out the way it always does…one step at a time.
Upon receiving email information, we started to correspond. Her name is Janine, a twenty-something young lady living in Van Nuys (L.A.). After a couple of weeks of correspondence, she sent me a link to some songs she had performed on stage. Her voice is “pure”. That’s what I told her, and I meant it. When I hear it, I think of a child searching for answers. There is a certain longing to it. Not sure if that makes sense.
Well, I knew that the traditional blues approach wasn’t going to work. I suggested that she give me some time to work on an appropriate composition that would fit her voice. During the next four months I created several melody lines, but just couldn’t seem to push through with lyrics. I had hit the wall. It’s ok, sometimes it happens. It was time to back away, let it rest, and come back to it with fresh eyes later.
Then something very cool happened. (More on that tomorrow)
Arguably one of the most beautiful melancholic true American pieces of music you will ever hear. It belongs to the U.S. and has been sung around the world….and as such, belongs to all people. Like many of us U.S. Americans, this song is a blending of many cultures and stories. There is the story of first nation man Shenandoah who aided the new republic in defeating the British. Though he was true and valiant, he saw his people and lands ultimately diminish. It is said he stood 6’5″ and was a great war chief. The story in the original version alludes to a seven year courtship a trader held for Shenandoah’s daughter. He brought the chief a canoe full of gifts, but was rejected. Later, he brought liquor, and thus, when the chief was under the influence, he stole her away. Shenandoah’s life existed far away from the Missouri River. So how did this river become a part of the song? Well, this song was a well used shanty sang by sailors who worked the boats from the Missouri, down through the Mississippi, and eventually onto the ocean faring ships….which made it a global song. Apparently, this is where the marriage of the river, the native princess and the men came together. The story of a man’s love and his willingness to risk his life for that love was just too much not to sing about. It was a man’s song about a man, his desire and unfulfilled love. The river and its unrelenting power gives a beautiful metaphor for leaving, adventure and the power of love.There are many versions. The original likely carried a medium upbeat tempo. The meanings behind all of the versions take on a certain abstract interpretation that transcends any one simple story. But no matter the version, the tune stays constant, and sends the listener to distant places. Like a great river, this song is a confluence of stories that by themselves are wonderful, but together make for something words cannot describe. It is a song for the world.