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30 songs in (almost) 30 days: day 27

June 25, 2011

day 27 – a song that you wish you could play: Bonnie “Prince” Billy: “Cursed Sleep”

There are many songs I wish I could play. I wish I could play the octave mandolin on any number of Sarah Jarosz songs. I wish I could play the Sibelius violin concerto. But lately, most of my wishes have been on the guitar. It’s the instrument for which my ambition least matches my skill level, so there is bound to be plenty of failure.

I can’t, for instance, play a single song by Joni Mitchell. Nearly all of Mitchell’s songs require specialized tuning of the instrument. As a violinist with a well-trained ear, I feel totally equipped for the actual tuning part of the job. I can quickly tune and retune a guitar without the aid of a pitchpipe, no problem. I don’t have perfect pitch, but I do have really good relative pitch, which means that I hear intervals between pitches well and also memorize pitches easily. But getting my brain to understand the way the tuning affects my fingers is a whole different problem. I get accustomed to associating hand positions with sounds.

In this video, of Mitchell’s “California,” she’s actually playing the Appalachian dulcimer, not guitar, but you can see her retuning the instrument at the beginning. And you can see the benefit that alternative tuning gives her – complex harmonies with really simple fingerings. It’s the same idea behind her alternate guitar tunings. And if you watch the video at youtube, the video info section has some good information about her tunings.

Changing the tuning of the guitar really messes with my head. I often have trouble transposing songs that I’m used to singing in one key into another; but Mitchell’s guitar tunings are even worse, because the relationships between the strings don’t stay the same. With straight-ahead transposition, you just bump every note up or down by the same amount. I can always figure it out by thinking, “Okay, this is the note I want to sing and now I need to sing it up a half step.” Or something like that. But Mitchell uses a lot of alternate tunings that preserve the pitch of some strings but change the pitch of others, which means the intervals between the strings are different than in regular tuning. In one tuning, for instance, putting my finger on a given fret will give me, say, an octave above the string below it. In an alternate tuning, the same position will give me a fifth. Or a ninth. Or some other note.

Trying to muddle through Mitchell’s tunings has taught me a lot about how I think about music when I’m playing the guitar, and also that it’s quite different from the way I think about it when I play the violin, or even the piano. Playing guitar is teaching me to think in keys and chords in a way that even piano never did. But I am still not even close to getting it yet. So I’ve shelved Mitchell’s songs for now.

Cat Stevens is another one whose songs I’d love to play. I’ll be able to get his songs before I get Mitchell’s. He uses regular tuning, but his chord changes are fast and his right hand technique is something that will take me a while to master. Fingering the guitar is not that different from fingering double and triple stops (playing on multiple strings) on the violin. The neck is bigger and my fingers have to stretch more, but I’ve got frets to help me out. But picking and strumming is very different from using a bow, or even from playing pizzicato. I may need a lesson or two to get the technique at some point. I’m finding that the right hand is harder than the left for me to figure out. And Stevens uses a mixture of picking and strumming and some complex rhythmic patterns that I find very challenging. And it’s the right hand that makes the songs sound like Cat Stevens, so if I can’t do it the way he does it, it doesn’t sound like the right song.

Also, I’m kind of embarrassed to note that I always thought Stevens was American. I had to go look up his bio after I heard him speak in this video. I’m not sure why I didn’t know he was British.

Lately, though, I’ve mostly been trying and failing to play “Cursed Sleep” by Bonnie “Prince” Billy (a.k.a. Will Oldham).

[I find the video kind of creepy and weird; you might want to just listen.]

I posted this video a couple of months ago, when I was a little obsessed with it in that way I get about songs sometimes where I want to take them apart. I sang all the parts. I transcribed the string parts for playing along. The guitar part still stymies me, though. My hands can’t get around the chords yet. But I keep trying.

Something about this song really gets to me. It’s not about the beauty of the line, like with Mitchell or Stevens. It’s not about any particularly superior quality. It’s partly about the soaring strings, partly about the shifty ground created by the meandering between major and minor. But it’s mostly about the lyrics, or maybe the lyrics as they relate to the whole package. The first time I heard “Cursed Sleep” a few months ago, I felt like it was telling a story that I knew well, that was maybe my story but one I’d forgotten, almost like it was a song I already knew that I was discovering inside myself. I felt like it was meant to be my song. So even though I’m not making any progress, I keep working on it, because I feel certain that I am meant to play it one day.

Last week, at freshhell’s behest, AJ and I watched an episode of “The Adventures of Pete and Pete.” I picked this one at random off of youtube (this is part 1 – you can find the rest of the parts on youtube):

In it, Pete (not to be confused with his brother Pete) is on his way to school when he hears a band playing a song that he is sure is his song. He spends the rest of the episode trying to find the song again, ultimately playing it himself (with the help of a friend, the meter reader and his math teacher) on electric guitar. It’s a quest story – Pete’s journey to his song is not an easy one. (violet wrote about this episode yesterday). I really identified with this episode. It’s exactly how I feel about getting my song. Unlike Pete, I can listen to the song anytime I like, but I still have a long journey ahead to make it my own.

I’ve learned something about passion and ambition from the last few months of teaching myself to play the guitar. Or maybe “relearned” is the better word. I’ve been reminded of the way passion and ambition keep you going, keep you growing. It’s not about how well you do it but that you do it at all. After ten years as a suburban housewife, an unexpected windfall of a job offer has made me confront an ambition that I wasn’t entirely sure I still had anymore. I thought maybe I was done singing that tune. But my persistence at guitar in the face of adversity and even abject failure has just left me wanting more. I call it my “midlife crisis instrument,” and I think that’s right. But it’s not about reclaiming my lost youth. It’s about reclaiming my lost soul. It’s about remembering who I am. I feel so certain that I am meant to play “Cursed Sleep,” that I keep trying even though I’m completely awful at it. I don’t give up. I’m not sure why. It’s not that it matters to anyone but me. I’d forgotten that I had the ability for that kind of commitment, a commitment that may look like stupidity or stubbornness. A commitment that may, in fact be stupidity or stubbornness. So it’s probably no coincidence that, as my family sits in the balance of the biggest decision we’ve ever had to make as a collective, one that is sure to turn our lives upside-down no matter what happens, that I’ve been fumbling through the chords of “Cursed Sleep” over and over again.

What songs do you wish you could play? What are you doing about it?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 26, 2011 4:02 pm

    I wish I could play a lot of songs I’m not even trying to learn to play. And the line that comes to mind is from the movie Love, Actually:
    “I’ve done fuck-all and never will because he’s too good for me.”
    Except I believe this about my place of employment. You know, come to think of it, that’s really sad.

  2. June 27, 2011 2:18 pm

    For some reason, when I bought my tenor uke, I had Shawn Colvin’s version of Robbie Robertson’s “Twilight” stuck in my head and so I ferreted out the chords on the internet and started learning.

    I’m still far from facile with it, but it’s the one I think of when I think of playing.

  3. June 27, 2011 3:24 pm

    Hmmm. Not trying to play anything at the moment. Usually when I’m trying to play something, it’s something that I actually could play fairly well when I was 17, and now can’t play at all. Which doesn’t sound very forward-thinking at all. I am thinking I would like to learn how to draw, though, and I am trying to grown things I’ve never grown and hike hikes I’ve never hiked . . . and learn california wildflowers, which are still strange to me. But mostly I’m here to disagree with your characterization of yourself as a suburban housewife — for as long as I’ve been reading your journal you’ve been working toward and preparing yourself for a job like this one. Maybe the shock is in getting the external recognition? I’m not surprised — I’ve seen this sort of commitment and stubbornness all along.


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