Tuesday, November 30, 2010

1. "Uncloudy Day"

Vocal version by The Staple Singers (Vee-Jay, 1959); instrumental version by John Fahey on Blind Joe Death (Takoma, 1967); original composer unknown

The classic 1959 version of this song by the Staple Singers is about Heaven, because there is no weather there. Pop Staples’ tremolo-heavy guitar is the only accompaniment to the voices of his adult children, who harmonize so closely that the chords would be dissonant if all the notes occupying the same instants were transcribed together, but do not sound that way because the time of the song and its singers shifts constantly. Halfway through, Mavis Staples completely throws out the previous rhythm by reentering with a deep “WELL, well, well . . .” that initiates a coda that might be in three. John Fahey’s version of the song for solo guitar (I know the 1967 version best) recreates every note in the Staples’ vocal lines exactly, but the song is played in three-four time throughout, except for a skin-prickling intro in four with nothing but plucked harmonics. It is impossible to tell which version is faster. Fahey uses the Staples’ most dissonant note cluster as a refrain at the end of each verse. Fahey’s version of “Uncloudy Day” is not about Heaven, but it appears to have more than a little to do with what being dead is like.

Note: For Advent, 25 secular essays about 25 songs, one per day from Dec. 1 through Dec. 25. Each essay is exactly 200 words long.