Anatomy of a Great Song II
Sometimes it takes listening to a cover of a song to realize how good the original is. Not because the cover is a bad version – certainly not the case here – but because it highlights what might have passed you by in the original.
All week, I listened to The Gift, a tribute to Ian Tyson that was released in 2007. I’m not sure why, because I have a lot of new stuff I should be getting into. I think it had something to do with the fact that the weather was horrible, a lot like Alberta, and that I needed some comfort on my new, yucky commute that involves waiting for streetcars in a skirt and the strange streetcar human behaviour that I’m not yet used to.
The Gift is a good collection of covers; whoever put it together found friends of Tyson’s, or artists that would do something good, but not something crazy, with his tunes. With the exception of the rather horrifying and awfully busy Blue Rodeo version of “Four Strong Winds” that I always skip, I like the choices. They aren’t all from the known Tyson canon (there are some surprises) and all the artists took their tasks seriously.
So, the one that stands out for me is Chris Hillman’s version of “What Does She See”. Naturally, it’s heavy on the mandolin, and the appearance of the little instrument in the original, or the lazy waltz feel might have appealed to him. His is a cheerful rendering that maintains a lot of Tyson’s original delivery. I’m not sure what he did to make me notice the phrasing in the chorus, but this is where I figured out why Tyson stands above so many others in the craft of songwriting.
The two things most that most grab my interest are music and language, and when those two intersect, or where someone can twist language around to work in a fascinating way, especially in lyrics, I’m all boi-yoi-yoing. Here’s the chorus:
What does she see, what does she see
In that old cowboy
He’s no longer young, the battles he’s won
Are all in the past
She could have so much more, when he walks through the door
Her eyes never leave him
It’s plain to see, to fools like me
She’s happy at last.
Looks relatively benign, right? Look closer. The fifth line makes no sense, but that’s how it’s sung, as a phrase on its own that ascends and descends, and that is answered by the sixth line. Grammar dorks might call “She could have so much more” a squinting modifier, something that belongs equally (and unclearly) to the phrase before it and the phrase after it. Musically, it belongs to the following phrase, but it might linguistically belong better to the end of the previous phrase. Basically, it just sits in the middle on its own, maybe more appropriately labelled a dangling modifier. Ok, I’ll stop with the grammar stuff. Look at the way Tyson not only weaves that phrase in, leading you towards something that you have to think about a little harder than usual, and then he goes even further with the chorus and totally internally rhymes that bad boy! Four effing times! Alright, so the first one doesn’t really count because it’s the same word twice, but then we’ve got young-won in one line, more-door in the next, finishing with see-me. Meanwhile, in the bigger structure, the two sections rhyme at the end.
Then, if that weren’t enough, there’s the whole is it autobiographical question. Oooh. This song was released in 1978 on One Jump Ahead of the Devil, so I don’t know where Tyson was at in his romantic life, nor am I going to investigate that, because I like the uncertainty here. Is he the first-person hapless fool watching the girl he loves from a distance, or is he the old cowboy laughing at said fool? Who knows? Probably one of the reasons this song jumped out at me was because only on Tuesday, I was having coffee with a friend and we were laughing (or he was) at the fear women my age have, especially if they are involved with an older man, that they’ll soon be traded in for a younger model. And we women know it happens, because we were once that younger model…then suddenly the old cowboy is looking for something a little, well, let’s just say better. Tyson captures the varied perspectives on this subject in a short, simple song, and he even throws in pretty little lines like “well-read and well-bred and lovely as sunrise”.
So, there’s a catch with this song. If you want to hear it, you’re going to have to buy it. So much for my explanation, right? It’s nowhere on youtube that I can see, so get One Jump Ahead (or Old Corrals and Sagebrush where it also appears) or The Gift to hear it for yourself.