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Time & Truth
Joel Mabus

fossil 2719

 

Extra Notes to Time & Truth
[click here to return to the Time & Truth CD page]

The liner notes in the "eco folder" for the CD have my essential comments on each track. The limited space and font size required the notes to be economical in length, and thus were compact and somewhat terse. On this page I am afforded the space to ramble on a bit, so dive in if you wish a bit more detail of what went into the making of Time & Truth.

Joel Mabus
January 2019

The Songwriting

I wrote a bunch of new songs in the second half of 2018. I enjoy the creative process of making up a new song. Getting the inkling of an idea, working it up lyrically, working it up musically. Editing, rearranging, trying out new ideas - it is a skill I have worked at all my life. Songs aren't written the way they are in the movies, where there is a sudden flash of inspiration, 30 seconds of fumbling with chords on guitar or piano, and then comes the song full grown jumping out of your head like an adult Athena bursting from the skull of Zeus. No, it is most often a methodical and sometimes painstaking process. While every song has its own creation story a bit different from all others, any good song has had edits, rewrites, melodic changes, and more rewrites, before coming to that "eureka" moment.

There are two "topical" songs on the album, though I made the decision to leave the news story out of the song. I think both songs - "A Special Kind Of Hell" and "Yes Truth" - deserve to transcend the story of the moment.

Somewhere around the time of the infamous Judge Kavanaugh hearings before the senate justice committee, I heard a southern senator invoke for the umpteenth time, "There's a special place in hell for people like you!" And I thought, "Gee, I wonder what kind of hell would that look like, the one made for politicians?"

As I write in the printed liner notes, "Yes Truth" was begun in response to the massacre at the synagogue in Pittsburgh at the end of October, 2018. I really took that as a gut punch, though all the previous senseless hate crimes and mass murders were lurking in the shadows of my memory, too. I began to strum softly and sing "hallelujah" in mourning. Within a day or two, I had this chorus going that echoed "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" but not quite. I realized I had begun a song. I decided it must NOT have the same melody of the Battle Hymn - it is not "a version" of the battle hymn. But I have explored the musical archaeology of that song. It grew from a marching song of Black troops in the Civil War: John Brown's Body. And that song borrowed the tune of an earlier brush arbor hymn: "Say Brothers, Will You Meet Us?" All three songs have a "Hallelujah chorus."

I wound up using little lyric elements of all three of those earlier songs while working on Yes Truth. Tinkering with my own melody all the while, trying out modified chords on my guitar. Describing our mendacious moment in the body politic. It was a painful birthing progress, but it was worthy effort. An act of creation in the face of destruction.

In the summertime, I wrote two tunes on the banjo, and both were instrumentals. One I called "Walking Liberty," after the beautiful old silver half dollar I remembered from my youth, but also because I like to think about the ideal of striding this world in total freedom. And also because there is an old-time fiddle & banjo tune called "Liberty," one I have known more than fifty years. It's one of the most commonly played fiddle tunes among beginners. I kind of took the simple themes of "Liberty" and turned them inside out and backwards to come up with the equally simple motifs of "Walking Liberty." I always liked the idea of fiddle tunes with vocal accompaniment, so I crafted a few simple verses to walk alongside the banjo.

The other banjo tune was a three part thing that I tinkered with for months. My dog, Pepper, is part Australian cattle dog, and has remarkably erect ears, which she loves for me to massage. We both like it when I lightly rub the little "ear lobe" on the inside of each ear. Not a lobe really but a tender little flap of skin. I went online to look up what bit of canine anatomy is called, and I found it: "Henry's Pocket." Clinically known as "cutaneous marginal pouch." Cats have them too. But no one seems to know who Henry was, or what the pocket's function might be. But my tune now had a name.

I was thinking of recording "Henry's Pocket" on the banjo, and possibly doing a fresh take on "Old Blue" with the bottleneck slide guitar. Both seemed like okay ideas, but something was missing in each, and it was nagging at me. One day in my work room I sang "Old Blue" with the banjo, something I used to do 25 years ago. It dawned on me I could really spread out on this song with the banjo, as I did on my Banjo Monologues album, and expand the tale with some new verses. Then I realized that the three parts of Henry's Pocket was the perfect interstitial music to propel the song along and distinguish the different moods in the monologue. Once I had this opus the way I wanted it, I called it "The Exaltation of Blue," as I thought it deserved a new, more regal title.

It is my habit as songwriter to jot down little thoughts for possible future songs. I used to do that in spiral notebooks, but now I type a line or two on a fresh page in my word processor, and put it in a file called "songs in progress." From time to time I comb over these jottings, and see what might become of these little forgettable seedlings of song. I had a page from long ago with nothing on it but "thank a teacher." I don't remember why I saved that, but it now piqued my interest. I began a list of things for which to thank a teacher, and that led to the song on this album. Except that I wrote it with a guitar in a sort of swing style. One day I tried it on the uke, and the skies opened and manna fell from heaven. Eureka!

I wrote a few songs with a lot of time and effort, that just didn't make the grade. That happens, and they will remain "in progress," in whole or in part. And as I say the liner notes, I reached back ten years to another failed song, which I recall had a melody with a fatal flaw - I couldn't hardly sing it. Somebody else maybe, but not me. So I just forgot the old melody, took the lyrics I liked, moved them around and expanded in a different direction with a new melody that I COULD sing, and the first song here was born. I took my favorite line from the song for the title, long as it may seem: "The Moon May Never Shine This Way Again."

I picked up a brand new cheapo guitar last summer for a gig I had coming up in Canada. I own a fair number of guitars, but all of them seemed to contain some little bit of exotic wood or sea shell here or there, and I wished I had a decent playable guitar with absolutely no endangered species involved which might trigger a border incident - something playable that I could throw in the trunk, or on an airplane that would pass all possible scrutiny. I found such a guitar by mail order - a Recording King Dirty 30's model - and when I got it I really liked the way it sounded. It reminds me of an old Kalamazoo flattop I've had for years. But the Kalamazoo has Brazilian rosewood fingerboard and bridge, cheap wood in 1937, but endangered now. I'd hate to see that one confiscated at a border crossing. This new mail order guitar is made of common trash tree lumber, but with a solid top and can freely cross any border. And if broken, it would not break my heart, nor break my wallet to replace. The first thing I did when it arrived was to strum a wide open E chord and play an old blues lick -- the first lick of "Last Train Home" which was written quickly afterwards. I used my old Kalamazoo guitar to record it. I have been since tinkering with the Recording King's bridge and nut to make it more playable - so you may see me with it on the road someday.

 

The Recording

I use two guitars on this album. Tracks 1 & 7 use my beautiful small jumbo maple cutaway ("Spartan" model) made for me by Bryan Galloup's guitar studio in Big Rapids Michigan, and designed by Bryan who also voiced the top. All the other tracks with guitar use another Michigan guitar: a Kalamazoo K-11 mentioned above. The Kalamazoo brand was produced by Gibson when it was at 225 Parsons Street in north Kalamazoo's factory district. As best I can deduce from the experts, it was built in 1937 give or take a year. The Kalamazoo was Gibson's low-budget model response to the economic realities of the Great Depression. Mine is ladder-braced, with a three-piece top put together from small planks of spruce, cut-offs from better guitars. The body is the size of a Gibson L-00, but about two inches are truncated from the lower bout. The fretboard scale is normal length, but there is no famous Gibson truss rod to keep the neck straight. Instead, the neck is a huge, wide triangular baseball-bat of a neck that will never warp. It probably sold for ten bucks back in 1937. Yet the fingerboard and bridge were made of Brazilian rosewood. Cheap enough in '37, but now a rare endangered species that only the most expensive new guitars can include. There is a beautiful vintage sunburst finish to my Kalamazoo, and it has an expressive tone when strummed and when playing blues licks. It has no pickup installed but mikes rather well.

Ian Gorman used a matched pair of Neumann microphones set in stereo to capture all my instruments on this recording. The Galloup guitar has a Fishman soundhole pickup that is subliminally added to the mix. Likewise the Kanile'a tenor ukulele has a pickup - under saddle mi-si that is in the mix on track 3. My Bart Reiter banjo has a 12 inch pot, and I use a Shure sm11 dynamic microphone mounted inside the open-back, for some bass presence. But the two Neumann mics are mostly what you hear here.

I forget the make of the vocal mic we used, but it is the same as the last three albums I did at La Luna, a nice side address ribbon thing. It picks up my voice and also plenty of the instrument too. As to the mix and master, I leave that all to Ian & his racks of subtle devices, but I am there with my tired old ears to judge the sound he conjures up. He is quite expert at his craft, and is himself a fine acoustic musician in his spare time. Despite what "Analog Joe" boasts, we recorded & edited digitally, but with an analog ear for natural sounds.

The basic routine for all of these tracks was to record the song straight through, live in studio. I would typically do two takes, then listen back. Either I would choose one of those two or, if I heard a wrong vocal approach, do another one or two. Then I'd pick the best one and do a little editing to remove any egregious warts. Little warts stayed in. One of these 10 tracks was a first take with no edits, but I don't remember which one. Recording took place on December 18 & 19, in 2018. Mixing happened on December 20. Ten days later, on December 30 we did the mastering after a few modifications to the mix.

Meanwhile, I was working on the design and the copy for the liner notes. Like the Ukulele Crimes album, I had decided on the simple eco folder with 4 pages, and I did the layout and design myself in mockups, and let the art studio at the replication plant follow my design and fit it into their printing requirements. So, come the first week of 2019, the long march of manufacture, promotion, and marketing began.

The Production

At some point I was facing the idea of recording some of these new songs I had been writing. "Getting them out." Making a new CD? I had just done that a year ago with a very different project, Ukulele Crimes. Am I up for that again so soon? The recording process is its own kind of joy - polishing an arrangement, delivering a performance in the studio, editing the corners of the sound recording. But what follows the final mastering is a special kind of hell, so to speak: manufacturing, shepherding the design and artwork, mailing away hundreds of promo copies at ever-escalating expense. The paperwork, the computer work, the planning, the triage of tasks. That whole ordeal wears on me.

But I decided, once I had successfully recorded some of the songs, that a new CD was in the works. And as I look in the mirror every morning before I swallow my daily handful of meds, I realize that, unlike the young Rolling Stones, time is NOT on my side.

There is a first time for everything. We all know when that happens. But there is also a last time for everything, which we are seldom sure of. The last time is established in retrospect only. My last album? I have had that suspicion with each of my last few albums. When I began my last banjo album, Pepper's Ghost, I knew that it was the first of an intended trilogy. And over the next four years came A Bird In This World followed by Different Hymnals. I breathed a bit of a sigh at the close of that endeavor. But then there were all these ukulele songs I had on the back burner for years. So last year I took my little tenor uke into the studio and whipped up a confection I call Ukulele Crimes.

"Going out" with a uke album seemed a little frivolous, although I am as proud as I can be of that recording. But now with this new album, and it's return to focus on my songwriting, I am at peace with the proposition that this might be my last CD production. I might be wrong, but I suspect the time for compact discs is quickly fading in this brave new world of blue tooth tethers and Orwellian devices that choose for us our next favorite song -- delivered on an ever-listening speaker device in our dens and bedrooms. Just call me Analog Joe.

 

The Public Domain

Finally, a few words about "Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening." This venerable poem was written by Robert Frost in 1922, and published in his book, New Hampshire, the following year, 1923. Those are important dates in my world, a world that includes the singing and adaptation of old songs & poems.

The US congress makes and oversees the copyright laws that I have to live by. These laws have changed significantly during my lifetime. Without going too far into the weeds here, I'll keep it short: With a congressional revision of the ancient copyright laws in 1909, from that point on, a work would have copyright protection for 28 years from first registration. Andk at that point it could be renewed just once for another 28. So for many years, copyrights on songs and poems would last either 28 years, or more likely 56. After that, the work would pass into "the public domain" and be free of copyright protections. Congress decided in 1978 to change the length of a copyright to X-many years after the author's death, X being a variable to be set by Congress - it is 70 years now.

But what to do with the older existing works registered under the old law? At the time of the massive copyright revision of 1978, works created in 1922 or before were already in public domain. For works from 1923 and later and already renewed, it was decided to tack on another 20 years to the protection. Come 1998, and that extra time was now about to expire. Enter the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (yes THAT Sonny Bono, singer and congressman) AKA the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act."

Yes, THAT Mickey Mouse. The image of little Mickey was copyrighted in 1923 by Walt Disney, and those early Disney cartoons were about to go into public domain. So Sonny Bono's job as representative from corporate California was to extend that copyright protection another 20 years. So for 40 long years, the clock has been stopped at midnight December 31, 1922 for works entering the public domain.

So here and now in America, on January 1, 2019, the clock began ticking again; literary and artistic works first registered in 1923 are finally in the public domain. Next year will add 1924 works, 1925 the year after that, and so on. Soon will come into public domain the great novels of the jazz era by Hemingway & Fitzgerald, the Gershwin hits from Lady Be Good and later, and yes, the early black & white images of Mickey Mouse. For public domain re-publishers, happy days are here again!

With 2019, then, comes "Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening" into public domain status. Composers have tried to set it to music for years. Some went ahead and did it, ignorant of the copyright laws. They got messages from the estate of Frost to "cease & desist" - no musical setting, no matter how artsy or high-brow, would be allowed. Most of these were "serious" composers using "through compositions" for choir - I have heard some of these attempts at a setting and was not impressed.

Myself, a few years back I was working on my Different Hymnals album and immersing myself in the world of hymn writers and hymn-tune writers of the 19th century. These were two separate jobs, and often the lyric and the music were written a century or more apart. It was the exception - and not the rule - for the writer and composer to collaborate, or even know each other. The system worked because both tasks involved writing to a given regular "meter." One meter was so common it was in fact called "Common Meter" or "CM." In hymnals it is also sometimes described by giving the number of beats in each line: 8,6,8,6. (Think Amazing Grace or Gilligan's Island) This is also called "ballad metre" by poetry scholars.

Next-most used in hymns is "Long Meter" or LM which is notated as 8,8,8,8. As it so happens LM is used for the Doxology, AKA "Praise God from whom all blessings flow" often paired with the hymn tune "OLD HUNDREDTH." Well, one day a few years back, thinking of Frost, I realized that "Stopping By" was in strict Long Meter, even if its rhyme scheme is not the usual ballad style. So, I tried singing it aloud using the Doxology tune. The poem just came to life for me! I shared my discovery by singing it for some friends, who all agreed with shared amazement.

Now, I had heard it sung to "Hernando's Hideaway" once by Garrison Keillor on the radio. But that was just a joke. What I had was a respectable setting! When I read that Frost had written it in 1922, I was thrilled! Public domain! Then I learned that it was published in 1923, and that it was locked up by his estate until 2019, I made a mental note of that date on the calendar. As this new album was in the planning stages to be released in January of 2019, I knew I could legally include it. I have tried it with guitar accompaniment, as I do have a nice guitar arrangement of the tune on Different Hymnals. But a cappella is best, I think, for me. I am pretty solid at staying on pitch without cues. So I sang it in the key of C, and then added the little last phrase afterwards on my old Kalamazoo guitar.

I have pondered whether Robert Frost knew he was writing a Long Meter hymn. By his own account it came to him one June morning after laboring all night on a longer poem in his Green Mountain home, quickly and easily as if he'd had "a hallucination." It was the dawn of the jazz age, and Frost, then 48 years old, was living deliberately in hard-scrabble New England while the 20's roared through America. Writing a little vignette of a lone traveler with a one-horse sleigh on "the darkest evening of the year" - that would be late December - is it any stretch to imagine that it is "God's house" in the village that he refers to in the first stanza? And I cannot imagine that Frost was not intimately familiar with the old Doxology, being a scion of Puritan New England. So I like to think he would be at peace with my setting, and maybe hum along.