Cabins, murder ballads, and grain temperature analysis

Chris JonesThis is the third and final part of a four-part series on description and categorization of music, and the challenges of counting the number of parts in a series.

We had been discussing ways to describe your own music or band, and then to attempt to assign it a sub-genre. I discouraged the use of verbs found on chain restaurant menus, like “drizzled,” “steeped,” and “infused.” Or, if Waffle House is your chain restaurant of choice: “smothered,” “covered,” “chunked,” “topped,” etc. Instead, I recommended using the “Item A meets Item B” system of music description: “Our band is like Mac Wiseman meets Cher,” or “We sound like Alison Krauss meets the Muppets” (wait a minute; Alison Krauss did meet the Muppets).

We can easily extend this categorization to bluegrass songs. We tend to think of the bluegrass repertoire as consisting mainly of lost-love songs, murder ballads, and cabin songs, with the occasional natural disaster ballad thrown in to lighten things up. That’s way too general, though. I think if we apply ourselves we can subdivide these into different kinds of lost love songs, and different kinds of murder ballads, etc.

Let’s take cabin songs, as an example. We have numerous kinds of cabin songs, and we can divide them based on where the cabin is located. Is it on a hill? Well, then it’s a “cabin-on-a-hill song.” Examples are: “Little Cabin Home on the Hill,” “My Rose of Old Kentucky” (because “She bloomed for me near a little village, in a cabin on the hill”), and of course the ultimate cabin-on-a-hill song, “The Cabin on the Hill.”

These are in sharp contrast to the “cabin-in-a-valley” songs, like Hank Williams’ “Mansion on the Hill” (the mansion might be on the hill, but the cabin is “down here in the valley”).

Likewise, lost-love songs have a number of potential subcategories. What about the “passive-aggressive-heap-on-the-guilt” lost-love songs? In this category we have such standards as “Will You Be Loving Another Man.” After being concerned about her faithfulness while he’s gone, he says “when I return don’t say you’re sorry, just keep on lovin’ another man,” i.e. “don’t worry about me. I’m fine over here, just me and my dying dog ‘Frank.’ You just enjoy your new love. Have a good time.” The best example in this guilt-heavy sub-genre might be “Bury Me Beneath the Willow”: “Then she will know where I am sleeping, and perhaps she’ll weep for me.” The message: “Yes, you’re out courting with another right before our wedding? Maybe if I’m dead you’ll feel sorry, but probably not. That’s okay. Don’t worry about me, or anything.”

What about “lost-love-with-vision-issues” songs? I can think of “20/20 Vision” and “I’m Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open,” just off the top of my head.

Murder ballads, too, have their unique sub-groups. There is, for example, the “gratuitous-violence murder ballad.” These are the ones that feature excessive use of force, or multiple murder methods for the same victim, like “Down in the Willow Garden,” with its poisoning, stabbing, and drowning; or “The Knoxville Girl” which is just brutal, bordering on yucky.

“Pretty Polly” and “Little Sadie” belong to the “murder-with-clumsy-escape-attempt” sub-genre. In “Pretty Polly,” Little Willie stops by the jail house to confess, and to announce that he’s “trying to get away.” In “Little Sadie,” the murderer is just walking around town, and when the sheriff stops him and asks if he’s “Brown” and if he remembers shooting Little Sadie, he replies “yes sir!” and proceeds to clarify his name for the sheriff, so there’s no confusion about who the guilty party is.

Let’s not forget some other sub-categories of songs, like the “fiddle-playing-uncle” song:

  • “Uncle Pen”
  • “Uncle Will Played the Fiddle”
  • “Uncle Billy Play Your Fiddle For Me”
  • “Sawin’ On the Strings” (or “Fiddlin’ Will”)

If the last three all turn out to be the same fiddling uncle, I’m going to be very disappointed in this song sub-genre.

There is of course the perpetually swelling category of “things-that-are-blue” songs, from “My Blue Tears” to “Blue Heartache.” This can easily produce the subcategory of “blue-state” songs (not necessarily corresponding to their leanings in 2016 election polling), which would include “Kentucky Blue,” “Carolina Blue,” “Blue Virginia Blues,” and one I recently wrote, “Rhode Island Blue.”

Remember that it really only takes two of something to start a new sub-category. What this means is that if you’re a songwriter, all you need to do is write a song about a “Sea of Emeralds” and this would then join “Ocean of Diamonds” in the “large-bodies-of-water-filled-with-jewels” songs. You could also write a song called “Lukewarm Wheat” (and I don’t think it’s been done yet), and it would join “Hot Corn Cold Corn” in the “temperatures-of-grain” song category.

I hope this has been a small help to you in categorizing your music and possibly your whole career. Perhaps I’ve even given you some songwriting inspiration. Maybe you’re  ready to write the next “hitchhiking-girl-ghost” song. Now If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a craving for some lukewarm wheat.