The Story Behind the Song – Three Days in July (Part 2)

Mark SimosOn Monday, July 1, we posted part one of the story behind the song Three Days in July.

In the course of compiling the feature Mark Simos, one of the co-writers, mentioned that he had spoken in some detail about the song for a presentation that he gave at the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism in Boston in March 2009.

Here we share that presentation in the hope that it will provide some inspiration for song writers.

Three Days in July

This song, a collaboration with Jon Weisberger, is one of the more successful narrative songs I’ve written or co-written. There are a few points of interest in the song, some having to do with the structure, some concerning the process by which it was written.

Focusing on structure first: on the surface this is a fairly traditional ballad form song. It proceeds in regular stanzas of four lines, further grouped into pairs using some melodic and harmonic signposts. Beyond its surface adherence to traditional ballad form, however, the song is unusual in some respects specifically relevant to the question of narrative.

First, it begins with a kind of introduction:

I was born in Pennsylvania in 1851
Grew up on my father’s farm, the youngest of three sons

The Civil War was raging the year that I turned twelve
My father joined the ranks of blue and left us by ourselves

Then there is a brief refrain or chorus:

Boys I’ll tell you true
I learned things I never knew

This was intended as a ‘non-commital’ refrain which deepens in meaning throughout the song without intruding itself on the narrative flow.

A lot of traditional ballads begin this way – situating the “singer” in a specific place and time. There is a sense that by “penning” a song in this way the singer is inscribing their experience in a great collective accounting, the shared body of ballads. Now other singers can sing this song, singers from different backgrounds, even singers of different gender; and the separation of performer and “singer”—a fundamentally narrative concept—allows the song to remain relevant and powerful and even to grow in power. For this is our chance to hear “testimony”—someone from a historical period choosing some aspect of their experience to render unto the world’s conscience. Many ballads that would begin this way would go on to essentially tell the life story of the singer. This form is almost “biography” or “life story” in song form. Here, we are setting up the description of a singular, specific incident. But the historical placement is critical to get the import of this event.

We thought long and hard about how to convey all the information needed in the flow of the song. By the end of the first verse, we know that the singer is a man born on a Pennsylvania farm who was twelve in the midst of the Civil War. And we know that the story is being told from a different, later vantage point: “the year that I turned twelve” is something an older man would say in looking back at a past event. (In fact, we never reveal the “present tense of the song” anywhere and, for our purposes, it wasn’t necessary here. That is, we didn’t need a verse like: “Now I’m old and sitting on this front porch, looking back…”) We also know he had two older brothers, that his family was on the Union side, that his father was off fighting as a soldier so that they were alone. And, with our first use of the refrain, we have an oblique reference to the difficulties they must have faced: “I learned things I never knew.”

With the second set of verses, the tone and language of the song change in a deliberate way. Now we are actually going for language and a pace and style of description that is much more like short story writing than traditional ballad construction. There’s little use of formulaic language, a lot of use of description and imagery to set the scene:

In summer heat we prayed for rain
The first day of July
Far off thunder rumbling
No storm clouds in the sky

My brothers grabbed their rifles
Stay, my mother urged
Mama, that’s the sound of cannon
Up by Gettysburg

Here we’re using description, metaphor, and irony. Hot summer and they wanted rain, what they get instead is the thunder of approaching battle. (We tried to check facts here; while writing the song, we actually looked at maps on the Internet trying to determine if the sounds of battle from Gettysburg could have been heard from far away.)

Two fearful days and sleepless nights
We waited with no word
‘Till the guns fell silent
On the morning of the third

My mother watched the road all day—
And kept me there close by
‘Till dusk was hard upon us
And the water jug was dry

Though it’s not said, we realize the two older boys have headed off to the battle leaving the mother and twelve-year old boy alone on the farm. And here we are attempting to get at a description of the impact of a battle from a peripheral view. The battle is never witnessed, only the distant thunder of guns and the absence of the brothers.

Here’s a point where we start using some extra musical techniques to serve the narrative, while still preserving restraint. First, we introduce an extra pause—what some traditional singers call a “dwell”—on certain words. “Watched the road all day…” is musical echoing of the suspense of the long day’s wait. (We use this dwell at a few other spots later in the song, for the same reason.)

The other musical change is a little more technical to convey. As I mentioned, this is a traditional ballad form, which means a repeating melody over a progressing narrative story line. But this is a contemporary song, and we are writing it with contemporary listeners’ sensibilities (and limitations) in mind. There is an inherent drama in the story; a pure traditional ballad would be designed so that the lyric carried that drama entirely implicit within it. Here, we give it a little extra help: since our base melody is an archaic, pentatonic tune, it is capable of being harmonized in several different ways. In effect, you can keep singing the same melody while apparently changing key. (This is a type of “modal re-harmonization,” one of my trademarks as a songwriter, something I learned from accompanying traditional Celtic music.) We introduce this change on the word “dry…” It’s a way of signaling that the narrative will continue without the expected refrain; I like to think it also musically conveys the passage from daylight to dusk, a key dramatic shift in the story at this point. The rest of the story unfolds in this one evening, the evening of the third day.

This musical shift has done something else structurally. Up until this point we’ve had pairs of four-line XAXA verses (or couplets, depending on how you want to hear them and transcribe them) punctuated by the refrain. But there is still a lot of ground to cover in the narrative. By introducing this musical change, we convert pairs of XAXA verses into groups of four of these verses, gathered in a kind of AABA structure. The musical shift acts as the “B” section, the return to the original key the final A of this larger structure. This helps avoid the song being experienced as static, and also decelerates the pace and, by implication, the flow of time. The narrative has moved from “life history” in verse 1 and 2, to “describing the flow of a few days’ events” in verse 3 and 4, to a much more dramatic and visual pace of storytelling for the next section:

With bucket and a lantern I crossed the field alone
Heard the sound of snapping twigs, and then a quiet moan
Captured in my lantern light, his face an ashen grey
Huddled in a bloody coat a Rebel soldier lay

Boys I’ll tell you true…


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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.