Ranting, Regretting & Appreciating
A Commentary by James A Graves, Jr.
Anyone who has paid the slightest attention to my ranting has probably heard me make comments about “Redneck High” – my term for Ponce de Leon School, my high school alma mater. For those of us who attended the historical and unnecessarily razed building that was Ponce de Leon School, it was our school from 1st through 12th grade.
That derogatory term, Redneck High, stems from what I consider the failure of Ponce de Leon High to prepare me for the future that I was shooting for – being a musician.
And it was a team effort. The clueless guidance counselor played a small part. Then there were the arrogant, self-centered teachers, and one in particular, who taught math. I use the term “taught” loosely. Students fortunate enough to have a high mathematical aptitude had a fair chance to pass his classes, assuming they studied and applied themselves. Those unfortunate students, like me, having the math skills of a turnip didn’t have a prayer because he didn’t give a rat’s ass if you passed or not. And he wasn’t about to approach you to discuss seeking a math tutor because that might suggest the truth about his teaching skills - he couldn’t train a pet rock.
Unfortunately, he constantly blew his self-promoting horn, so if a student failed to earn a passing grade in his class, the inference was that it was the student’s fault – they were too lazy to study and/or too stupid to learn. And if there were any questions about that, all one had to do was ask him, he’d gladly point out how his superior teaching skills were being wasted on failing students.
I couldn’t argue with the ‘too stupid’ label, but after staying up way past midnight studying my ass off night after night trying to understand algebra, I had a big problem with the ‘too lazy to study’ assumption.
Of course, he wasn’t the only teacher at PDL that had no interest in investing time in failing students, but most of the PDL teachers cared (Daisy Manning being the shining example) and did their best to cram our heads with enough knowledge to graduate and continue with higher education; the pathetic PDL curriculum notwithstanding.
And that’s where I had my biggest problem with PDL – music, or the lack there of.
In elementary school, I remember my class being given the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument. We were taken to the band room behind the old gym (then the only gym) and told to choose the instrument that we wanted to learn to play. I chose a trumpet.
Back then PDL had a marching band. Seeing the band play was my first exposure to a live band with brass and woodwinds. I thought being able to play music like that was totally cool. Also, I had heard the amazing trumpet playing of Big Band musicians like Harry James and Louis Armstrong, and I wanted to make a trumpet sound like that. In retrospect, I was setting my sights a bit high, but then, one never knows. However, thanks to the PDL School administration, before I had time to learn anything meaningful about playing a trumpet, the whole PDL music program was cancelled, marching band and all. And the fate of my future trumpet playing was sealed.
From that day on, I heard no mention of teaching music or band at PDL. I have no idea what happened to the band instruments. Some years later I used one of the snare drums from the marching band to play in the FFA string band. That band, Marion McMillan, Cecil Hatcher and me, later became The Luv Brigade; my first “garage band”. We didn’t use the discarded snare drum. I had already taught myself to play guitar. And that was the sum total of PDL’s contribution to my “music education”.
In the seventh grade I wanted to transfer to Walton Jr. High School. It made perfect sense to me; we lived in Walton County, Walton taught music theory and band, and the school bus came right by my house every day, bringing the local black kids to and from Tivoli High School - Blacks weren’t welcome at PDL, which was doubtless no disappointment to them since they received a much better education in Walton County, plus many more opportunities to play sports.
However, my father would hear nothing of the sort. He had attended PDL, as should I. Also, there was this; “You ain’t goin’ to school with a bunch of niggers.” And that was that. The fate of my future music education was in the worthless hands of PDL School.
I have no way of knowing how my future in music would have turned out had I been provided the opportunity to learn music theory in grammar school and high school. However, I know painfully well the handicap of not understanding music composition and how to read and write music notation.
Yes, I write songs – lyrics and music. But to put a song on paper, I must write down the lyrics and notate guitar chords above the lyrics. And I must remember exactly the melody that goes with those lyrics. Considering my pitiful memory, that’s asking a lot.
1. I must make an audio recording of the song, otherwise I’ll forget the melody.
2. I must create a lyric sheet, otherwise I’ll forget the lyrics.
3. I must annotate all of the chords on the lyric sheet, otherwise I’ll forget the chords!
When I was younger, and before I owned a tape recorder, I recorded all of my original songs in a notebook. I played all of the songs constantly, so they were somewhat etched into my brain.
I filled up the notebook, and started a new one. I had recorded six or eight new, original songs in the new notebook. Several were complete and the others were in progress. But I hadn’t played the new songs very much when I turned my attention to my band, learning Pop songs, going to band practice and gigs, etc.
Six months or so went by and I had an inspiration to write a new song. I looked for my new notebook but couldn’t find it. I turned my world upside-down searching, but to no avail. It was gone. I tried my best to remember the new songs but never could.
That bothered me greatly until I read a story about John Lennon and Paul McCartney. They began co-writing when they were still in school, and recorded their original songs in a notebook. John lived with his grandmother and kept the notebook in his room. His grandmother was cleaning one day, found the notebook on the floor, thought it was trash and threw it away. It was full of original Lennon & McCartney songs – John estimated twenty or more. After reading that story I didn’t feel quite so bad about losing six or eight of my original songs.
Unlike Lennon & McCartney, I don’t have the ability to chart out one of my original songs on a blank sheet of music manuscript (music staff paper) so that a trained musician can play the song without first hearing the melody. That would also make certain that I could always “remember” the melody, lyrics and arrangement (provided I kept track of my notebook), and also allow charting the instrumentals that I have written.
Unfortunately, my only choice is to make an audio recording of an instrumental. But that doesn’t help me remember each and every chord and note that I play in the song, because I can’t “see” how I play the song on the recording. And neither can other musicians for that matter. Only someone exceptionally gifted, like Stevie Wonder, can hear what I’m trying to portray in the recording and run with it.
If I wanted to have trained musicians, such as a string quartet, record one of my instrumentals, I’d be in a fix. I’d have to teach the song to each musician, trying to show which “voice” of the melody I wanted each instrument to play. Without notated manuscripts, written individually for each instrument, the recording project would likely become a hopeless mess.
Although music theory is vitally important for a songwriter, I was never able to justify the cost of a music tutor; tutors are understandably proud of their music teaching skills. I’ve tried to learn music theory, but, unlike the relatively easy task of teaching myself to play guitar, self-teaching music theory is about as easy for me as self-teaching algebra. You’ll recall my ‘dumb as a turnip’ math aptitude analogy. Since music structure is actually quite mathematical in nature, I suppose when I try to get a handle on music theory my turnip aptitude takes over.
But, as I said, music theory is vitally important for a songwriter, or more formally, a composer. And I have an example of my opinion of what happens when a composer and proper music education come together…
Mykola Leontovych (1877-1921) was a Ukrainian composer, choral conductor, and teacher of international renown. (There’s no doubt I couldn’t afford him)
Leontovych wrote The Carol of the Bells. As you already know, it’s an awesome song, and very popular. One of my favorite versions of the song was recorded by the Christian music group, BarlowGirl.
When it comes to song composition, I’m fascinated with the beginning and ending of songs. Whenever I’ve had the opportunity, like in my Rock Ballads, I’ve included a lengthy intro, or prelude. During the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s, preludes were very common in popular songs, often having a different melody than the actual song.
I think the end of a song is referred to as the coda or fermata. I just call it the ‘resolve’ or ‘resolution’ for obvious reasons – it’s the end. But I like the end of a song because there’s so much that a composer can do with it. In the case of Leontovych’s The Carol of the Bells, especially the BarlowGirl arrangement, at the very end of the song, just before the music fades, the way the orchestra resolves the song gives me goosebumps.
I’ll probably never get a handle on music theory, but Mykola Leontovych did, and knew how to construct a song.
©2017 James A Graves, Jr.
Carol of the Bells by BarlowGirl – listen and enjoy…