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How We Chose the Songs for "The Song Train"

We chose to conceptualize a song we would include on The Song Train project as one that people could effectively deliver with minimal skill on an acoustic guitar. We delivered them all with just a guitar propelling the song along as an example of how it could be done.

It was hard to find some of the songs, and it then it got to be hard to stop finding them, and it was hard to choose which ones to leave out, and how to arrange and deliver the ones we did choose. We have a list of nearly 200 other 2-chord songs that we could have included. We confess to choosing songs that we liked. Why not? The ultimate goal was to infect listeners with our genuine enjoyment of the song, and that is something that we don't feel like we can fake.

Our goals were mostly artistic, and we made a lot of gut-level decisions that we can't readily justify in writing. We also thought that 56 was enough songs, and putting 156 songs on 12 CD's would not have necessarily done a better job of getting the message and the music across.

I'll confess that a few of the songs we sort of forced ourselves to include, and happily ended up liking them a lot. I was never a fan of "Sinner Man"and Joyce did not want to do it, but it ended up being the only song that had an Em chord! When I listened to the dozens of versions on iTunes I started liking it, and now I think it is a cool song. Neither of us was wild about doing "Tom Dooley" because it has so many associations with "uncool" 50's folk music. I learned it when I was too young to know what cool was, and managed to get Joyce to like it, and we were amazed to discover that we really liked it by the time we finished putting together our arrangement. A song does not sell 6 million copies and reach #1 on the pop charts without having some kind of built-in catchiness and appeal. It is a fine song and an eerie story. I did not think I could yodel my way through Hank Williams "Ramblin' Man"-- having barely yodeled a note in the 5000+ gigs in my life. But it is such a cool song, it is so easy to play, and it is one of only 2 good songs we could find that just had Am-E chords, and a lot of very hip artists have recorded it.

We wanted to appeal to a number of tastes and have a cross-section of music. There are strong songs from the traditions of folk, blues, rock, country, old-time, bluegrass, and gospel. We worked extra hard to be able to do a song like "Tulsa Time" because it was made famous by Eric Clapton, and we were understandably thrilled to include a song by such an illustrious musician. We worked hard to try to find a 2-chord song by some other artists we admire (like John Prine), and had to give up. I am cringing already waiting to find out what obvious and great songs we missed, and no doubt there will be plenty. But it does not negate what we feel to be the value of our mission.

No doubt there are lots of 2-chord polkas we could have included, but as far as I can tell, that music is band music, and is played by instruments other than solo acoustic guitar. Many polka bands don't even have a guitar in them. No doubt we could have been multi-cultural, but we as individuals are simply not multi-cultural. Had this project been undertaken by a large organization, I would have lobbied hard to make it multi-cultural, and perhaps something of that sort could be done in the future by someone else. I would venture a guess that there are numerous vibrant 2-chord songs being sung in the Hispanic regions of the country. Neither Joyce nor I knows any Spanish, and we hope that perhaps a Spanish-speaking artist somewhere will make a "Song Train" for that community. Guitar is a big instrument in Spanish-speaking cultures, and has deep roots in the music.

Likewise Cajun and Zydeco music also leans heavily on 2 chords, but I just don't see it as music that a single person would play at a campfire or in a living room with an acoustic guitar. It's band music, driven by accordions, drums and fiddles, and it is more for dancing and partying. "Jambalaya" is an example of a song in that tradition, and our version would have been questionable without Joyce's great fiddling. We know nothing of Klezmer or Eastern European music, and again plead for others to collect and propagate their songs to help keep the music flowing on.

We also chose to include songs that people were actually playing. For example, 2-chord songs like "Puttin' On the Style" as far as I can tell has never been done by anyone except someone making a beginning guitar book. Likewise a number of 2-chord songs like "Fillimeeooriay" or however the heck you spell it, "Clementine" and "Sweet Betsy From Pike" appear to have been "inserted" into the elementary education curriculum in the last century and put into instruction books, (likely because of their musical simplicity and lack of copyright protection) but I just don't see people singing them for real anywhere. So we chose to not do the obvious thing and try to breathe life where there is none. Only "children's performers" seem to do them, and we wanted to avoid that moniker. (See my essay on Children's Music")

We also avoided things that were too dated or "frozen" in time, like the 1-chord song by Sonny & Cher "The Beat Goes On" or "Okie From Muskogee" by Merle Haggard. They were relevant in 1967, but we guessed that we could not get people excited about learning them now. Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" is a 2-chord song, but to me it is unapproachably bombastic, anthemic and huge-- and I have never heard anyone play it at an open mic or a gig. "Heroin" by Lou Reed & Velvet Underground is a 2-chord songs and so are "I'm Black and I'm Proud" and "Sex Machine" by James Brown. We chose to not include them, or "Achy Beaky Heart" by Billy Ray Cyrus. Popular songs make sense to include because many people know them, except that they tend to get unpopular quickly and can cause a negative reaction. "Horse With No Name" by America is one we chose to leave out. "96 Tears" by the Mysterions is a 2 chord song, but the organ part in that song is so vital, that we felt it would be lame if we did it on guitar. In fact, I don't like the rock guitar versions I have heard.

We considered "Tisket a Tasket" largely because Ella Fitzgerald did it, but could not summon whatever it took to get the song off the ground. The reason she did it was the ASCAP strike in the 1930's when no one was allowed by their record companies to do songs licensed through that organization. There is about a 2 year period around 1939 where you found things like Glenn Miller doing "Boll Weevil," and though I approve of them doing these songs I am not sure they did them for purely artistic reasons.

We also chose to not "force" songs like "Eleanor Rigby" into 2-chord versions, even though it is a great song for a beginner. You can do it with Em and C, but our ears could not leave out the Am chord. "Dreams" by Fleetwood Mac is almost a 2-chord song, and some people force it into one, but we chose not to. "Tomorrow Never Knows" is a 1-chord Beatles song from the Revolver album, and I assure you we really wanted to include a Lennon-McCartney song. But in my opinion that song in an excercise in studio production, and it is just not a human song, "boilable" down into a campfire, solo acoustic guitar version. The instrumental and vocal parts are too specialzed and affected. I welcome anyone who can deliver a good version to do so and put it on their album of "2-chord Songs Harvey and Joyce Should Have Done." I'll buy the album in fact.

"Yellow Rose of Texas" hung on the fence and we almost included it except that a significant majority of the recorded versions we studied used 3 chords. (My favorite version was the Willie Nelson/Jimmy Sturr duet that was 2 chords.) Andrew Calhoun pointed out that John Prine sometimes does "Paradise" as a 1-chord song, and we were sorely tempted to try it (actually as a 2-chord, since the 4 chord is fleeting) except for the fact that it is a beloved and much-performed song, and I have never heard anyone do anything but 1-4-5 chords on it. "What Do We Do With a Drunken Sailor" is a fun song, often used in guitar instruction, that we debated long and hard about. We were not wild about the message, and it is essentially the same song as "Sinner Man" which we did include. We wanted an Em song and I can't sing the high note in Em (and Joyce did not want to sing it), and we feel like it is just not a song we could sing with dignity at a gathering, coffeehouse, open mike or such. I used to fiddle it in drunken barroom gigs, and fortunately DUI laws are getting tougher and there are fewer bars full of singing drunks than when I was young.

We left out a bunch of 2-chord gospel songs, like "Good New Chariot's Coming", "Working on a Building,""Old Gospel Ship," "I Feel Like Traveling On" and "Standing in the Need of Prayer" simply because we already had 7 good gospel numbers and had to stop somewhere. It would be easy to make an all-gospel Song Train, and maybe somebody should.

It's my theory that bluegrass music is healthy and alive right now partly because it has so many great songs that only have a couple chords. It's a participatory music and easy to get started playing it, and if you have never seen a jam session at a bluegrass festival, you should. Thousands of people in that world have already gotten on the bluegrass Song Train and are busily playing uncomplicated but meaningful music with each other. We chose "Wild Bill Jones" as a 1-5 bluegrass song, and could easily have done "Katy Daly," "Raleigh & Spencer," "Things in Life," or "Bringing in the Georgia Mail" which we recorded but did not include. We chose "Little Maggie" as a 1-7b bluegrass moonshine song, and could just as easily have done "Darlin' Corey." In fact, bluegrass and old-time fans and players might wonder what all the fuss is about the Song Train, because there so many 2-chord songs that are actively being played by touring artists as well as backporch and campfire pickers, and when people set out to play an instrument, they have some of these in their heads. Which is exactly what we are trying to do with the Song Train, but with a wider vision. In fact, old-time mountain singer Frank Proffitt (we love his CD's which are still in print but hard to find) played frailing banjo and sang dozens of 1 and 2 chord songs that would be great beginner songs. He has the most appealing voice of any old-time singer I have ever heard, and plays and sings in tune and in rhythm. His music should be better known we think.

We had a hard time leaving out a lot of old British Isles a capella ballads that float around and don't really even have any chords, largely because they just aren't the kinds of songs you would strum on a guitar. Songs like "Lass Of Glenshee," "Two Magicians" and even some great Dick Gaughan and Nic Jones songs come to mind, but they just don't sound great until you get some guitar skills and you can't just strum away and sing.

Likewise, there is a whole world of 1 and 2-chord blues songs that we could have included. In fact I expect considerable flak from blues people on this matter. Almost the whole Blind Willie Johnson catalog (such as "God Moves in the Water" and "If I had My Way" are 1-chord or even non-chordal moans and chants that in my opinion would be ineffective and "untrue" to their source if done by someone playing rudimentary simple guitar strums. Many 1 and 2-chord blues songs also require exceptional rhythm or fingerpicking skills to "work" and even though I love this body of music dearly I chose to leave out songs like "One Kind Favor (See That My Grave is Kept Clean" and "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning" which I regularly perform because in my opinion they need more than really simple guitar to be effective, even though they have only 1 chord.

So forgive us our trespasses and omissions, and please know that we struggled hard with a lot of the decisions about what songs to include, and never did we make a shallow or unthinking decision, and we always tried to approach the decisions from the point of view of musicians, and whether we feel like singing the song or if we don't feel like it is in this world a valid way of making a choice.


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