Trigger warning: suicide.
The more I read about Stephen Foster, the more I think that he killed himself. Foster was one of the most prolific popular composers of the 19th century and has remained popular well into our own era. Songs such as "Camptown Races," "Oh! Susanna," "Beautiful Dreamer" and many, many more are still standards. But Foster had a tough life. His marriage fell apart pretty quickly, and, while his songs were favorites of theater troupes and minstrel companies, he was not always well-paid for his efforts. (Any songwriter can relate to this last part.)
By the end of his life in 1864, Foster was living in the New England Hotel on the Bowery in New York City, estranged from his wife and having trouble writing another hit song. His official cause of death was an accident -- he allegedly fell and cut his neck in his hotel room. That is to say, he DID cut his neck in his hotel room, but it might have been intentional. It was a sad end to a dynamically creative life.
When he died, Foster had a note in his pocket (included in the video) that said nothing but "Dear friends and gentle hearts." Was it the beginning of a song or the beginning of a suicide note? We’ll never know. At first, I thought I would write a song with that title, but one of my all-time favorite Stephen Foster songs is "Hard Times Come Again No More." So, I took the piano phrasing from the chorus of that song and built this one around it. My "Hard Times" attempts to act a bit like a Cubist painting -- it is simultaneously told from Foster's own point of view and that of Jane, his estranged wife. It is also, at its core, more universally about being pummeled by grief.
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When I started this project, I said I was going write, record, and release a new song a week. But self-imposed rules are made to be broken (right?) and so this week we have our first (and perhaps not last) cover song: "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" by the late Gordon Lightfoot.
I didn't listen to much Lightfoot when I was a young guitar player, though "Sundown" and "If You Could Read My Mind" were staples of 70s radio. However, when I started playing out in bars and restaurants on Maui, people would often come up to me and say, "You sound just like Gordon Lightfoot." I didn't hear it at first, but I accepted the compliment and I started weaving the above songs and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" in my set lists. "Edmund Fitzgerald" has the ability to sound fresh and as if it's a century-and-a-half old all at the same time, which is kind of my thing, and it always brought out an enthusiastic response when I played it live.
In this recording, I tried to sound ethereal, an effect achieved through layers of synthesizers and by using auto-tune on the vocals. I'm not much of an auto-tune aficionado -- I use it for the occasional sour note -- but I think it lends a ghostly quality to the proceedings here.
RIP Mister Lightfoot -- thanks for the music.
PS: There's no lyric video because securing the rights to that would have been beyond my meager budget. But CDBaby, my record label, put out this non-lyric video. And, of course, click on the links on the menu bar to stream it on Spotify, Apple Music, etc.
Believe it or not, this started as a country song. Welcome to Week #13 -- we have completed 25% of the "53 Songs in 53 Weeks" project! This week might be subtitled: "More proof that A.I. isn't ready to take over the world." As you probably know by now, one of the hallmarks of these songs has been to see the ways that artificial intelligence can help (or hinder) this songwriting project.
This song started by me asking ChatGPT to give me 10 tropes used in country music. If you listen to contemporary country, you'll recognize that the resulting list checked a number of familiar boxes, including family, patriotism, small-town life...and drinking.
I then asked ChatGPT to take those 10 tropes and weave them into a song. The result was awful. (Awful is being charitable.) I had originally thought I'd record it as a lark, but it was just so bad that I had to jettison any idea of putting the A.I.-generated words to music. However, I did like one line about drinking whiskey, and that became the genesis for this song. When it came time to set the lyrics to music, I veered in an entirely different direction, going for the sort of Paul Weller-esque, British white soul sound that was a big part of my musical life in the late 1980s.
A.I. was also not doing very well generating images for this lyric video. In part, that's because the protagonists in this song are having a fight, and the safeguards around many A.I. programs don't want to depict images of harm or violence. So, a number of images it produced were just of coffee. (And not just coffee, but barista-made lattes, which says...something.) However, the title is a nod to the song's country roots -- it's an homage to the great Dwight Yoakam LP "Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc."