In a Toronto Star article Blake Sennett, of Rilo Kiley and The Elected, is quoted as saying "I'm just a fan of sad lyrics with happy music." This is something that he is quite good at (ex: "So Long", from The Execution Of All Things), and it's got me thinking, as a songwriter who has done exactly that, about what motivates people to write songs with this subversion in mind.
The first example that pops to mind is Hank Williams' "Lovesick Blues," where lines like "I don't know what I'll do/ all I do is sit and sigh." The jaunty rhythm and signature yodeling belie the pathos of a man who's been slighted by the woman he loves. This is interesting because Hank Williams got his yodeling pretty much direct from Jimmie Rodgers, the "blue yodeler." The Blue Yodel had such power because its primitive sound could easily be taken for cries of joy or sobs of pain, usually both at the same time. That Emmett Miller is associated with yodeling in blackface much more than Rodgers (who also was known to perform in blackface) suggests a deeper racial interpretation, or misinterpretation, depending on who you talk to.
So what incites this subversion? Is it originated in some sort of slavery-era musical culture like gospel, where the invocation of a spiritual happiness helps to override the pain of the physical present? Appropriation is the definition of American music, and tracing lineages can bring up some thought-provoking questions as well as crazy theories. For instance, maybe for Sennett and others, the musical qualities correlate with a spiritual language, while the lyrics represent the physical existence. By using our standard language – written word – to express the tangible reality, and juxtaposing it with music that by its very nature is a medium one cannot literally touch, there is some sort of poignant cosmic friction. To highlight something so internal is a special collaboration between things known and unknown, and my speculative powers are losing their ability to focus on what's rapidly becoming way too abstract. Hopefully I've made some sort of sense.
This combination tends to have a different effect on people than a song that sends matching emotional signals in both it's music and words. As a songwriter, I've always said that a song is not just about the words, but that the interplay of the words and music have to work in a way that creates a narrative all its own. Sennett is extraordinarily good at this, my main criteria for judging songwriters.
a review I wrote for The Crutch on The Elected
Their newest album, Sun, Sun, Sun. You have to open the pdf file- it's really easier than it looks.
Love And Theft, the authority on blackface and American culture. Written by Eric Lott, a professor in my old English department at UVA. And Dylan's album was named after this book, 'nuff said. Read it.
Emmett Miller clips
Listen for the "Lovesick Blues," later made famous by Hank, and also the "St. Louis Blues" and "You're the Cream In My Coffee."
Jimmie Rodgers clips
tons of great songs! He was the same time period as Miller, but I don't often see them compared, probably b/c Rodgers had pop success and Miller was still part of the vaudeville circuit. They are so similar.
Hank Williams clips
Listen to "Lovesick Blues" here if you're not familiar with it. Now you may come to understand how the sound changed over time, and what that means about cultural perceptions etc., given that Hank is often referred to as the father of country music.