Track 4: Henry Lee

Anchor Blog Series:  Entry #4

Henry Lee

A (somewhat unrelated) note about ‘The Sample’ class:

Last fall, I taught a course at Williams College about sampling called ‘The Sample’.  Although listed under ‘Art’, it was a multimedia class focused on sampling and appropriations in 5 categories:

1) Audio  2) Video  3) Still Image  4) Text  5) Objects 

I set up the classwork as follows: Assignment 1:  produce three 'blackout' poems. Assignment 2: write a 3 page paper about a sample based work of your choice (to help develop a language to talk about samples and how they can be used). Assignment 3: sample collections: collect at least 20 high-quality samples from 3 of the 5 categories and compile them in a ‘class library’ (stored in the classroom and digitally online) so that everyone in the class has access to all of the samples collected. (there were 13 people in class so this resulted in a library with about 800 decent samples) Assignment 4: Create a compelling work of art, music or text based on the samples in the collection.  Assignment 5: Create a sample based work of art in the medium of your choice using any sample from inside or outside the library. I brought in my enormous collection of thrift store videos and vinyl from my ‘Books’ days to sweeten the pot, and provided a turntable for the class to use.  I also limited the use of the internet as a sample collection tool, since I find there is a lot more character in physical sources, as everything on the internet has already been pre-curated and digitized.  The class was tutorial style, so we had one 3 hour full class session per week on Monday nights, and another 1 hour meeting in 4 small groups during the week.

We talked a lot about what makes a sample good (and bad) and came up with a list of words that describe the hallmarks of good sample based work:  Alchemy, Subversion, Perspective Shift, Re-contextualization, Serendipity, Synchronicity, Transcendence, Emergence, Zeitgeist etc. All of this was intuitive while working on ‘The Books’  and I came to trust the feeling of ‘not forcing’ the compositions, and rather just letting the sounds find each other as if I wasn’t there.  Samples, within the space of a mind, have a certain freedom to tumble around and orbit each other and form unexpected relationships that make more ‘sense’ than the conscious mind ever could.  I think this is the essence of creativity and it feels ‘right’ when the self disappears in the process.  This was the take home message of the class, and I think we all made progress getting there.  I’ll probably always think in ‘samples’ because of my work in The Books. I may try to do an online version of this class someday (anyone interested?).

Although my process has changed (and will continue to change) I’ll always be sampling in some way.  In the case of Henry Lee, it was an exercise in re-contextualizing an old song and giving it a new sonic framework.

Henry Lee

I like working in pentatonic while sketching out structures for songs since it provides a relatively ‘uncolored’ and ‘uncluttered’ set of harmonics that are easily moved in big chunks.  Later on I can add ‘white notes’ to easily change key and mood in organic ways.  This is how ‘dark and light’ work in this track (and many others on the record).  I’ve started thinking of it as a ‘partly cloudy’ approach to song writing, where there are periods of bright and gloom, and it’s easy to transition between them.  As i wrote earlier, this album was about finding a darker more enveloping sound world and pulling out all unnecessary sounds, leaving cleaner relationships between lines.
The music and structure of the track was more or less complete before I started working on the lyrics.  I tried and failed miserably for several days trying to find good words and melodies for the track, and started to feel desperate and defeated.  The 4/4 frustration started to set in.  So, I started to look to the public domain for inspiration.  I turned to THE SOURCE of modern American songs, which is Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, a 4 LP compilation of songs recorded in the late 1920’s.  And there it was: The first track on the first record.  A ‘murder ballad’ from 1929 called 'Henry Lee' by Dick Justice, based on the Scottish folk standard ‘Young Hunting’.   I love how murder, death, revenge, and scorn were such strong themes in traditional music, and the sentiment fit perfectly with the music I was working on… something unexpectedly dark and graphic was just what was needed.  I tossed the original melody, reworked the lyrics quite a lot, and changed the sentiment so it had more of a ‘good riddance, he deserved it’ kind of vibe, rather than a ‘woman scorn’ story.  Here’s my version of the lyrics:

She leaned against the wall,
He came in for a kiss,
In her hands she held a pen knife,
Stuck between his ribs,
Some of you take him by his cold white hands,
And some of you take him by his feet,
And throw him in the deep, deep well where,
He should be,
Henry lee
Come down, come down now,
Alight upon my knee,
A man who kills his own true love would,
Kill a little bird like me,
If I had my bend and bow, now,
If I had my arrow and my string,
I’d shoot you through your soul and your yearnings,
Would be in vain,
Be in vain,
Lie there, lie there, lie there,
‘til the flesh melts off of your bones,
The shallows don’t know you anymore,
Now the crabs crawl out of your skull,
Some of you take him by his cold white hands,
And some of you take him by his feet,
And throw him in the deep, deep well where,
He should be,
Henry Lee.
I recorded it in my low register and panned two different takes hard left and right to create a large hollow space within the track for the bubbling details of the other sounds to roil.  I recorded Daniela singing the melody an octave above me on my trip to Toronto in February and kept her voice centered and heavily awash in reverb to make it into a kind of female ghost floating between two clear male voices.  I hope this falls under the category of ‘good sampling’, as it felt right to extend the tradition of a celebrated folk song into a new light.  Of course, I’m not the first to try it with this song:  here’s Nick Cave and PJ Harvey’s version.
The bass part and rhythm of this track came from the ‘gear’ experiments I was doing in Sept/Oct to familiarize myself with all of the new capabilities of the studio.  Having the Surachai TR808 samples gave me some juicy vintage sounding electronica rhythms to send through the new gear, so I set up a simple thumpy kick pattern and sent it to the FMR Really Nice Compressor’s sidechain input.  This is the only low cost analog compressor that has a sidechain input (that i’m aware of) and it’s in stereo to boot.  So useful.  Side-chaining (or ducking) compression is a common way to get a kick drum and bass to work together without low end dissonance or ‘woofiness’.  Basically, the kick drum signal tells the compressor to drop the sound of the bassline whenever the kick drum is there, which gives a nice clean kick sound and heavy bass at the same time.  This has been around a long time in high-end mixing/mastering but bands like Daft Punk and many others started the trend of using it as a compositional tool, and now you hear it everywhere in pop music.  It’s interesting because it’s a subtractive technique that allows you to cut into a ‘wall of sound’ in a rhythmic way.  The bass in this song came from Polyevolver played through the compressor sidechained to the 808 kick.  I also applied it to some higher synth notes and took that recording and shifted it against the original rhythm to provide a subtle counterpoint. 
The strummed-harpy synth sound that comes in in measure 3 is also Polyevolver sent through the ‘Butler’ springs, as well as the PE ‘mellotron flute’ sounds in the rest of the track, which I noodled in pentatonic and perfected digitally.  I also set up a dark drone using the ‘flute’ sound through an ‘infinite’ reverb patch on the Lexicon pcm81. The drums were recorded similarly to track 3 (Hegemony) and post processed in various ways to achieve a range of drum textures that all interlock.  Again Sean Dixon proved his creativity during these sessions.  It took us a while to get beyond my original bad ideas for the drums, and finally he hit upon a few amazing poly-rhythms.  Somewhat like in the track ‘Shape of Things to Come’, he managed to play two syncopated patterns of different lengths against each other while having left and right hand switch roles now and then.  I’ve always been a big fan of the Police, especially Stewart Copeland’s adventuresome playing, and I often hear parallels in Sean’s approach.    I also love the bold mixes on police records, with the hi-hat way out in front.

Thanks for reading, tomorrow Track 5: Need Some Sun.

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