Thursday, December 17, 2015

I'll Take a Melody

I was listening to a little Allen Toussaint playlist I made for myself and the original(?) recording of "I'll Take a Melody" came on, sung by Frankie Miller on his 1974 album Frankie Miller's High Life (groan), which Toussaint produced, arranged, and wrote the bulk of the material for.

It's a great song, and one of the many things I like about it is that it slyly makes reference to its own chord progression -- "I'll take a melody and see what I can do about it / I'll take a simple C to G and feel brand new about it" -- a small testament to Toussaint's cleverness as a songwriter.  My discographically sensitive brain is drawing a blank on other song lyrics that refer to their own chords [edit: got one! "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen], but it's not exactly a common songwriting device.  Given that, it was always a tad disappointing to me that the chords aren't actually C or G: the verse and chorus are an A, D, E.  Just now, however, I noticed that the Frankie Miller version has the line: "I'll take a simple D to E and feel brand new about it."  Hmm.  Given that Garcia was singing the lyric and playing the chords, you would think he'd have noticed.  I wonder what was up with that?  Maybe his poet's ear was pleased more by the consonance of "see what I can do ... simple C to G" than the clunkier sounding "simple D to E"?

The other slight lyric change that I'd never noticed before was that Garcia sings "I understand why the old fisherman sail along, sail along [etc] / someday he'll be gone," while Miller sings it, "someday you'll be gone."  I'm not sure which one I like more, but both are appealingly opaque.


  1. Hey there!

    Another thing about the "C to G" lyric: singing "D to E and" creates two problems for a singer. The double consonants ("D t") are tough to sing and articulate cleanly, especially since singers in this tradition aren't specifying "toooo" but rather use a "tuh" sound.

    Those sounds blur the entire line and lead right into a diphthong ("E a") which is also hard to sing clearly. In contrast, the sharp "C" and tail end sound of the "G" come out clean and set up the flowing sounds of the second half of the line. Garcia was always concerned with the line's rhythm, and since he'd sung so much by this point, he had a sense (intuitive or conscious) that changing the text to reflect the harmony wouldn't work.

    I prefer the "he'll be gone" version. That way, the entire couplet is about the fisherman (and associated imagery), while the other changes subjects mid-line in a way I hear as clunky.

  2. I always thought it was "I understand why the old fishermen sail alone, sail alone, sail aloooone / someday he'll be gone" Seems more poetic that way.