Sunday, June 26, 2011

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 26: A Song That You Can Play On An Instrument

Yesterday, I noted that I couldn't believe I made it 25 days without picking a Johnny Cash song. Today, I can't believe I made it 26 days without picking a Bob Dylan Song. Something must be wrong with this Challenge.

Bob Dylan's songs were the first songs I learned to play on the guitar. I got my first guitar almost 20 years ago now. I had dropped out of college after my second year and was living in Boston at the time with a group of ne'er-do-wells, several of whom were in a band together. One of my roommates gave me a guitar in exchange for some rent money. (I still have that guitar, which I love dearly, though it's in significantly poorer condition after all these years.) I never really played any instrument as a kid-- I mean, I did massacre some songs on the recorder in grade-school music class, and I think I reluctantly took piano lessons for a short time when I was small-- but when I got my first guitar, I couldn't read music (still can't) and I didn't really know anything about it. But I wanted to play, and so I picked and strummed and winced and built up callouses, and eventually I got to the point where I could rightly pass as a guitar player.

By the time I moved back to Memphis (the first time), I had learned enough guitar to semi-justify joining a band. Which I did. Then I started writing songs. For the next ten years or so, I played in various bands (of various qualities) all over Memphis. The bands I was in played at some of the very worst places in Memphis and sucked it up pretty badly, but my last band was quite good and had a regular Thursday night gig on Beale Street. (That last band even opened for Dr. John once at W.C. Handy Park!) All in all, it was a good run, a fine way to spend one's 20's, and something that I don't think I'll ever regret.

That whole time-- in every band, at every campfire, during every pickers' night, even to this day-- I've been playing Bob Dylan songs.

Most of Bob Dylan's songs aren't that difficult to play on the guitar, so it's not that much of an accomplishment to say that you can do it. But this song is one of the more difficult to play and it's the one that I'm most proud of being able to play well. It's also, not for nothing, one of his BEST songs. Here's Bob Dylan (né Robert Allen Zimmerman) doing "Don't Think Twice, It's Allright" from his 1963 The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan:



The story I always tell about this song is that my good friend, Prof. Grady, once convinced me that this is the Saddest Song Ever. (You can read that story here.) Since I've said about all a person can say about the lyrics in this song, I thought today I would note the one musical moment that makes this song so great. In the lines right before "don't think twice, it's alright," there's a chord progression from the G to the G7 that is just soooooo perfect. Go back and listen to it again. Dylan's move from the major chord to the 7th exactly reflects the sentiment in those moments when it occurs. The story of the song is going along fairly predictably, when all of the sudden the 7th chord gives you a sonic hint that something unusual is about to sneak up on you. (Namely, the "don't think twice, it's alright" line.) For some reason, going from a G to a G7 always causes me to cock my head sideways. It's almost as if the very sound of it is like saying "hooooold on just a sec" or "wait a minute, whaaaaat?" or something like that. I suppose if I had any kind of technical knowledge about music, I could explain it better, but I don't. I just know it sounds right.

The fact that playing this song made me think a lot more about how music and words should go together is one of the reasons that I like it so much.

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