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  The Making of 'Answer Ballads'

Introduction
1. Mrs Jones' Song
2. Maggie's Song
3. Daniel's Song
4. Roxanne's Song
5. Pearl's Song
6. Billy-Joe's Song
7. Marie's Song
8. Bobby's Song
9. Lucille's Song
10. Mrs Avery's Song/Sylvia's Song
11. Dino's Song
12. Jolene's Song
Final
 
 

In spring 2012, I embarked on making an album of 'answer songs': in which hitherto silent characters from other people's songs are given voice. This blog is an account of the songs that I picked, and of how I went about writing and recording my 'answers'.

Original Song:
"Me & Bobby McGee"
Composed: Kristofferson/Foster
Released: 1969, and many times subsequently
Performed by: Kris Kristofferson, Janice Joplin, The Grateful Dead

"Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waiting for a train
Feeling nearly as faded as my jeans
Bobby thumbed a diesel down just before it rained,
It rode us all the way to New Orleans"

Answer Song:
"Bobby's Song"
Composed: Rotheray
Released: 2013
Performed by: Naomi Bedford & The Rotheray All-Star Moose Collective

"You and I rode the red metal rail
On a trail from the south to the north
We were way too old just to chase our tails
But too young to sit on the porch"

WRITING THE SONG

'Me & Bobby McGee' is to me, one of those wonderful American songs that somehow isn't just about America, it IS America. Other examples might be 'American Pie' or 'Pancho & Lefty , or 'Desperado' or 'Route 66' (see footnote 1) Great songs that, for me, immediately conjure up an America of myth- as vivid as the Americas of Sergio Leone, Jack Kerouac, Raymond Chandler, or James Ellroy.

Hence, in writing a song from the perspective of Bobby McGee, I decided to ignore the 'story', such as it is. Instead, I thought of Bobby as someone waking up from the American Dream. Someone who had pursued this dream like a gap-year student, only to realise that at some point in life you have to go home. Hence my working title was 'An American Screenplay' (2).

Once I had the screenplay idea, the lyrics poured out quite naturally, along with a tune. I went down to visit Naomi Bedford in Brighton, played her 2 or 3 song ideas, and she picked on this one immediately. Quite happily, I think: it turns out her voice has just the right twist of ancient pain to carry a song like this perfectly.

RECORDING THE SONG

naomi

Naomi Bedford

Here is a mercifully short clip, recorded on my phone, of me and Naomi singing the song together in her front room as I teach her the song:

When we got to the studio, and played it with a full band, it sounded like this:


Rod Clements

This was OK, and this is the take that I decided to use. But I was unhappy with the main guitar part- which is basically the same as the one I was playing in Naomi’s fromt room, but transferred onto a baritone electric guitar. It sounded a bit leaden. My solution was to replace my guitar part with a slide guitar riff, played by Rod Clements. Incidentally, Rod was only in the studio for half a day, but he made a big contribution, and his fingerprints are all over quite a few of these recordings. Here’s how the song sounded with Rod’s guitar:

This was the version I took home with me. Later I added percussion, backing vocals and some other bits and pieces. Here’s how it ended up:

 
PS I tried to get a 'train wheels' sound to play along with the drums in the track, but couldn't make it work..had to settle for a train whistle instead! C'est la vie.

FOOTNOTES

1 These are all great songs which you probably already know. But if you don't know it, check out the Langley Schools Music Project version of 'Desperado' - one of the most honest and moving vocal performances I have ever heard.

2 I was partly influenced here by the brilliant song 'Theme For An Imaginary Western', by Jack Bruce. A wonderful tune. Though, personally, I prefer the Greenslade version, to be found on their 'Spyglass Guest' album.