Monday, March 10, 2014

SpinTunes 8 Round 3: The Ballad of Abraham Lincoln

The challenge:
Misleading Melodies - Write a disinformative song with false facts or otherwise confusing information, presented academically. (2 minute minimum) (your submission is due Sunday, March 9th 11:59PM)
The name I'm using here for the song is "The Ballad of Abraham Lincoln", but that's dis-informative. The True, Secret Name of the piece is "A(n) Historical Account Of The Life And Accomplishments Of Abraham Lincoln Of Which Every Word Is True I Swear", mainly because I wanted to set a record for the longest SpinTunes title.

The song bio is after the lyrics.



The Ballad of Abraham Lincoln

When Lincoln was a little child 
His mother built a boat of reeds 
And sailed him down the river Nile 
That flows through Mississippi 
(oh! Mississippi!) 

A child of Negro slaves 
Lincoln taught us wrong from right 
His every photograph 
Integrated black and white 
(oh! black and white) 

A man without precedent 
He became our 14th President 
He discovered that slavery was wrong... 

The Emancipation Proclamation he signed into law 
Such dedication to a nation no one ever saw 

He built an army great and strong 
And he marched them down South to face the pharoah 
And there was Jefferson Davis 
On his throne upon the Pyramid 
And Lincoln said...LET MY PEOPLE GO! 

Then he built an underground railroad 
With a shovel he made from a skull 
And the timbers he split with his hands 
And the steel of his resolve 
And Lincoln said...LET MY PEOPLE GO! 

And there were plagues upon the South 
And it burned with Sherman's Fire 
And the conflagration rose 
It was fueled by Lincoln's ire 
And the firstborn were devoured 
By gators from the swamp 
And Tar Baby, he said nothing. 
Yeah, Tar Baby, he said nothing! 

And there in the Dust Bowl 
Davis was laid low 
And he bowed his head to Lincoln 
And he let the people go 
As they danced into Ford's theater 
To celebrate the day 
Lincoln stayed behind and then he quietly stole away 

And somewhere in the wilderness 
Stands a cabin made of wood. 
Yes, right now in the wilderness 
Stands a cabin made of wood. 
With a stovepipe hat upon a nail. 
And a fence made of split rail


Lyrical Notes

First of all, let's look at the last part of the challenge: "presented academically". We asked for clarification and were told, "Presented educationally. So as though you have information you're trying to teach / present to someone or some group."  Now, this doesn't specify a classroom setting, only that the song should be educational. That would allow songs in the form of the many "Schoolhouse Rock" numbers that are educational, but not told in an academic setting.

This one is narrative: a(n) historical ballad.

Well, obviously the song had to be wrong, but specifically it had to be dis-informative. But here's a basic principle to consider:

Every great lie is anchored in the truth.

The trick is taking real names and events and putting them in places that are plausible if you're almost completely ignorant. Other techniques would be to tell only the truth in a confusing way, or to make everything a lie. This last pretty much always is incomprehensible. You have to have a really, really compelling earworm of a tune that doesn't even benefit from lyrics in the first place. That's a tough thing to count on, so the approach here is to lie about the little things and leave the big ones alone. It's as if it were being told by someone who's really just bad at history, has never been to church, and has his facts muddled. It's obviously a mash-up of Abraham Lincoln and Moses. They both freed slaves, so why not?

Most people know a few facts about Lincoln... he was a president, he freed the slaves, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. They know what he looked like. Past that, it's fair game. So here Lincoln gets Moses' infancy story (and his calling). People know there's a big river in Mississippi. They know the Nile is a big river. So believe it or not, it's plausible that the Nile is in Mississippi... for some folks. And the Nile flows through Egypt, so Egypt must be nearby, in the South. Egypt's hot, so that makes sense. That slavery story had some kind of plagues; and though nobody remembers them all, they all know that the firstborn are in there somewhere. The South is full of alligators: they probably ate the kids. And people remember the name "dust bowl" though few remember what or when it was. Sounds like a nasty place to lose a battle.

And so forth.

There are a few lines I really like:
  • "The steel of his resolve".The man is so resolute you could build a railroad from the strength of his will alone. Now that's an alpha-male! 
  • "It was fueled by Lincoln's ire". A temper so hot it could burn Atlanta. You wouldn't like him when he's angry.
  • "Tar Baby, he said nothing". I could tell you how clever it was to put the Uncle Remus character here as a passive-aggressive stand-in for the Black population who quietly watched with some internal satisfaction as their former owners got their come-uppance, but the truth is... hell, I don't know what the truth is.
  • "Lincoln stayed behind and then he quietly stole away". He really didn't deserve assassination, so in Dr. Lindyke's history he doesn't get it.
There is some "Yoda-speak" like, "The Emancipation Proclamation he signed into law", but I don't think it's egregious, and properly scanned sometimes trump natural speech. If Heather Miller were judging I bet she'd notice, though.

Musical Notes

It's Blues. It might be in the key of F. Percussion at 60 bpm, and everything else at 120. What more is there to say? There are more big, high-energy notes than I'd normally like in a Blues number, but this is a song about Big Things. So it gets big noise to go with it.

Production Notes

Absolutely nothing went as planned, except the drums.So I play everything but the drums. That's a track from Jim Dooley, ruthlessly cut up and arranged (sometimes down to the single hit). This piece was tricky to do that with due to the hi-hat running all through it, but I like the result.
  • The lyrics originally weren't going to be about Lincoln, but the Kennedy assassination, but I couldn't make those work with this challenge. We can add this to the many "eerie parallels" between Kennedy and Lincoln
  • Instead of having three days of vacation from work, I wound up working overtime.
  • I'd hoped to enlist someone to play lead guitar, but no dice. 
  • On Friday, my first opportunity to record, my guitar strings broke on the first strum
  • On Saturday I got replacement strings and a sore throat. Nevertheless, I got a safety track done with the help of several Sucrets and enough time for them to numb my throat.
By Sunday I was dissatisfied with everything. My kids took a listen, and they had some great constructive criticism. I fixed the problems with timing and the percussion arrangement in a key part, then replaced my backing vocals with some provided by Denise Hudson, and added some acoustics (at Denise's suggestion). I'm sort of faking a banjo with the acoustic guitar. This would totally have banjo in it if I had a banjo. Instead the acoustic guitar is mic'ed and picked really close to the bridge.

Also, at my kids' behest, I added distortion to the guitars which were in their view "too clean". And there you have it.

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