Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors”

Album cover for Coat Of Many Colors

I’ve been listening to Dolly Parton’s album “Coat of Many Colors” from 1971, this week. This was her eighth solo album, just four years after her debut album. During that time, she also recorded six albums with Porter Wagoner. That’s amazing, especially considering her work also on The Porter Wagoner Show tv series. The audience of that show apparently didn’t like Parton at first, since she replaced a former star on the show. Parton is an amazing singer, songwriter and guitarist. Her personality is undeniable and impossible to not love. She went on to become one of the most famous, prolific, and influential country artists of all time.

I don’t recall ever hearing any of the songs this album before. Of course, I know some of her later hits like “Jolene” and “9 to 5.” That last recorded for the great movie starring Jane Fonda, Lilly Tomlin, and Dolly Parton. I’ve been looking forward to this week and it was worth it. With the single exception of the Wagoner penned “The Mystery of the Mystery,” this album holds a tremendous collection of songs. The second track song humorous “Travellin’ Man” is a joy to listen to and I almost chose it as one of my featured three. However, instead I’ll talk about “Coat of Many Colors,” “Early Morning Breeze,” and “Here I Am.”

Coat of Many Colors

In the title track “Coat of Many Colors,” Parton tells a true story from her childhood. Born in a one-room cabin on a farm in Appalachian mountains of eastern Tennessee, Parton grew up with little money and many siblings. In Parton’s words, they were “dirt poor.” This song shares how her mother made her a coat from “a box of rags someone gave us.” In 2015, the story was shown as a tv movie with the same name.

The song opens with a great acoustic guitar-picked rising arpeggio. Parton’s voice, electric bass guitar, and a hi-hat join in for a short intro verse and then the first verse. An organ join for the second verse, padding with extended chords. Backing vocals then contribute to the chorus.

The chord progression is a folk-country I-I-I-V-I-IV-I-V-I. Though the verses do not end with a repeated refrain, musically the verses have a ballad-like quality. The last line of the lyrics provides the only rhyme of the verses, which is worth two lines previous (love/of, happiness/kiss). The chorus rises up with a IV-I-IV-I-V-I-IV-I-V-I. After the first chorus, the chord drops down to the major VI, which serves as a pivot for key change, that’s major VI becomes the major V of the new key.

The rising key change goes with the hope Parton felt as a child of proudly wearing her new colorful patchwork coat to school. However, when she gets there, the other kids laugh at her. Even when she tells them about how her momma lovingly made the coat, they just roll their eyes and make fun of her.

But they didn’t understand it
And I tried to make them see
That one is only poor
Only if they choose to be
Now I know we had no money
But I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me
Made just for me

Early Morning Breeze

The second song on the second side, “Early Morning Breeze” caught my attention immediately. This idyllic description of morning in a beautiful country meadow takes the listener to where the speaker goes walking and to pray. Musically, it leans more towards psychedelic folk than country. There’s a taste of Irish folk music mixed with hippie blues. At the end of the chorus, I almost expected a Led Zeppelin style break-down to happen.

An electric bass opens the track with sparse drums, to be joined by vocals. Then a picking and strumming on an acoustic guitar. For but a bar, the drums and bass pick up for the chorus, but that’s it. There’s a lot of space between instruments, making the song sound light and airy, much like that early morning scene.

Rainbow colored flowers kissed with early morning sun
The aster and the dahlia and wild geraniums
Drops of morning dew still lingers on the iris leaves
In the meadow where I’m walking
In the early morning breeze

Here I Am

With “Here I Am,” the album provided another surprise to me as Parton took a very soulful turn. Considering this was a country album from 1971, that started off with a very traditional country feel, I did not expect the variety on side two. This song would not be out of place on a record by Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, or Dusty Springfield. “Here I Am” is some gospel soul offering love and hope. The spirit-filled backing vocals emphasize the message. Dry punchy tight drums keep the song rocking, doubling up on the kick drum at times with a march feel. A clean electric guitar and clean electric bass playfully interact with each other, building musical phrases between verses that are truly amazing.

I love that guitar riff that happens during the post-chorus leading into the verses. It’s a simple blues-rock melodic clean dry guitar, instantly enjoyable and totally memorable. The bass guitar completes the phrase, in a modest but wholly necessary way. It’s a counterpoint that enriches that guitar, by bouncing up and down between the lead-melodic parts.

Here I am, reaching out to give you love that you’re without
I can help you find what you’ve been searching for
Oh here I am, come to me, take my hand because I believe
I can give you all the love you need and more
Oh here I am, oh here I am, here I am

Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life”

album cover for "Songs in the Key of Life"

I’ve been listening to Stevie Wonder’s 1976 double-LP “Songs in the Key of Life” this week. After spending a time with his 1973 album “Innervisions” back in August, I was looking forward to this one. Overall, this proved to be another great album by Wonder, serving up more of his unique blend of funk, soul, pop, and jazz. That said, I liked “Innervisions” more. My main complaint is that there’s too many songs and many of them are too long. This could’ve been two fantastic albums, but instead it is one overly long album. Many of the tracks have unnecessarily long codas. Still, I had difficulty picking just three tracks to dive into here, because there’s so much good stuff to choose from.

Sir Duke

I’ve known the song “Sir Duke” for a long time now. Several years ago, I got curious about the source material for the song “Let’s Get Busy Baby” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Of course, I also first heard “Pastime Paradise,” because of Coolio’sGangsta’s Paradise.” “Sir Duke” begins with a dry kick drum hitting on every beat, with horns on the the first, second and third beat.. and just before the fourth. Then the next few bars mix horns on beat and syncopation. This mixture of percussive hops on the beat and then grooves on the upbeat is on the main ingredients of funk. Wonder users it expertly throughout the album.

Very dry bass and drums in the center channel emphasis the downbeat, while providing additional rhythm interest at the end of each measure. A clean electric guitar bounces in the right channel. An electric piano plays chords and syncopated arpeggios through a slowly rotating speaker on the left half of the stereo field. The chorus and break feature horns playing rhythmic melodic blasts in unison.

I especially like the rhythm of the pre-chorus, with instruments stacked in staccato eight notes, with a little hop during the 4th beat of each measure. This section, perhaps, pays the most musical tribute to the song’s name sake, jazz legend Duke Ellington. In a broader sense, Wonder sings in praise of swing. He mentions Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald in the second pre-chorus:

For there’s Basie, Miller, Satchmo
And the king of all, Sir Duke
And with a voice like Ella’s ringing out
There’s no way the band can lose

Summer Soft

“Summer Soft” follows the winter and summer out-of-touch with each other. Summer is represented by a female character that leaves in October, while the male October leaves in April. I’m not sure I understand what he’s trying to do with the lyrics with the two characts/seasons always leaving. It reminds me of 14th century poetry with its combination of simplicity and metaphor. The music is relatively upbeat, but the focus seems to be on confusion and loss.

The track combines pop-soul with jazz. The generous use of seventh chords contribute to the jazz-feel. Except for the intro, a swirling mixture of instruments play throughout. They contribute to a general sense of atmosphere, mostly padding out the background during the verses. However, during the chorus and the outro, these instruments all come alive. They pick up in energy, brightening and moving forward in the mix. I particularly enjoy the parts where subtle synths play smooth pulses like Morse-code echoing across the left and right channels.

I Wish

The side two opener “I Wish” quickly became my favorite song on the album. I found the song lends itself well for walking on the sidewalk. It has a forward-driving bounce and a city heartbeat that feels good. On the show “Classic Albums,” Stevie Wonder gave an informative demonstration on how he wrote and recorded the song. He played the majority of the instruments, including drums, keyboards and vocals. The bass in the song is also keyboard, played by Wonder.

Wonder is a very capable drummer, and he demonstrates that in this song with its amazing percussive groove. There’s no flash, he’s not showing off on the drums. The kick drum mostly hits on the down beats, with occasional hops on the upbeat. The 2nd and 4th beat of each measure usually has a snare drum, sometimes accompanied or replaced by handclaps. The hi-hat taps along keeping the tempo, a cymbal crash introduces the start of each section of the song. During the chorus he opens the hat giving some funk the drum groove. Then for the post-chorus, the hat opens giving a forward-pull to the upbeats.

Plucky bass synths dance in the left and right channels. This is fairly unusual, because producers, especially in the 70s, would keep the bass in the center. This is because having bass panned off-center could didn’t always work well with the needle of record players. But here, he has two basses, that will balance each other out. There’s also a bass guitar that usually mimics the bass synths, but draws attention to itself by adding some funky slides up and down the neck. During the chorus, the 2nd and 4th beats are strongly emphasized by the horns shouting out between Wonder’s single-syllable vocals on the downbeat. Man, this song really makes you want to dance. It’s impossible to sit still.

Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers”

album cover for Sticky Fingers

I’ve been listening to the Rolling Stones’ 1971 album “Sticky Fingers” this week. It’s no secret that I’ve become a fan of the Stones over the past year, listening to these weekly albums. I already loved “Exile on Main Street,” but have since fallen also for “Let It Bleed” and “Beggars Banquet.” From this album, I had heard a few songs before, but only really knew “Brown Sugar.” Of course, by the end of the week, I’d found another favorite album. I finished the week by watching the excellent film “Sticky Fingers Live At The Fonda Theatre” of the band performing the full album in 2015.

The first track “Brown Sugar” cannot be denied, kicking off the opening with one of Keith Richard’s most iconic and representative guitar riffs. Jagger compared the groove to rock n roll classic “Tallahassee Lassie” by Freddy Cannon. The lyrics are a different story, though. Jagger sings about a slave-owner raping slaves “just around midnight.” The chorus of “Brown sugar, how come you taste so good? Just like a young girl should.” makes us question the opinion and intentions of Jagger. A couple decades later, he thought better of it, stating “I never would write that song now.”

Wild Horses

“Wild Horses” is one of the Stone’s most successful anthemic country-rock ballads. The writing is credited to Jagger and Richards, however Gram Parsons worked with them. A bright strummed acoustic guitar opens on the track, joined by a second acoustic guitar. An electric guitar plays a simple melodic line to lead into the vocals: “Childhood living is easy to do…” This electric guitar and amp are set to just under the “breaking point” for the sound, so it’s a clean sound with a slight touch of warm distortion.

After the vocals begin, that first acoustic guitar begins to play muted individual high notes, plucked seemingly randomly. It’s really an odd thing for what started as the rhythm guitar to do. The second guitar picks up the role of rhythm strummed chords. These are the only instruments we hear throughout the first verse and chorus.

The verse follow a chord progression of iii-I-iii-I-ii-IV-V-I-V-IV. The first line and second line of each verse has the iii-I-iii-I pattern. The third and fourth line of each verse begins with ii, and then a hop of IV-V to resolve to I, then hops in the opposite order of V-IV to leave close the pattern. This means that the second line ends with V-IV to continues on to iii at the beginning of the third line.

The chorus stays in the same key, however, it FEELS like a key change. This is a change UP, though from major to minor; so it has that anthem feel, but without the joy. This is enhanced by the addition of drums and bass for the chorus. It feels like a change from G major to A minor. This progression for the chorus is: ii-IV-V-I-VIIā™­-IV-V, again using that IV-V hop to move to the tonic chord.

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking

The song “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” just blew me away. At first, it was the rhythmic interweaving of the two electric guitars with the vocals; But after about 2 1/2 minutes, the rock stops and the track rolls into an extended jazz-soul mid-section. The groove becomes gradually more Latin; Mick Taylor’s guitar solo that takes us out feels a little like Santana. Put simply, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” is a 2 1/2 minute rocker that’s capped by an atypical but brilliant jam.

Richard’s guitar kicks open the song with a great guitar riff. He frequently uses open-G tuning (aka keef tuning), and that’s likely the case here. Marty Schwartz gives an good demonstration, make the importance of open-G. This also gives visual to what we hear: some stylistic slides up and down the neck between notes. This sliding technique played a major role in the guitar work of one of my heroes: Johnny Thunders. I assume that Richards picked it up from Chuck Berry.

Drums and bass join in the center, punching through the spaces left by the rhythm guitar. The guitar drops down to a lower pitch to signal the start of the next section. Jagger jumps in between the drums and guitar, “Yeah! You got…” A second rhythm guitar in the left channel, matches the first. This one with a little more bite.. And then the two guitars begin to rapidly trade riffs back and forth, left and right. “…satin shoes! Yeah, you got nasty boots.”

This back and forth weaving of guitar riffs full of bursts and riffs runs through the verses. For the choruses, the guitar join together in strumming chords that ring out in a fully overdriven wash of guitar. It’s a totally rock n roll sound. The chorus lacks the punch of the verse, due to the lack of rest and the softer upper-range singing. But this allows the chorus to grow in intensity leading up to the jam.

Moonlight Mile

“Moonlight Mile” closes the album; It became one of my favorite Stones songs this week. It has the unique distinction of being mostly written without Keith Richards. He created a short guitar riff years previous that he called “Japanese Thing” but hadn’t found a use for. Jagger and Taylor stayed up late, after Richards had gone, writing “Moonlight Mile” around “Japanese Thing.” I suspect the Richards bit may be the motif that opens the song and forms the basis of the verses. The remaining music and instrumentation hints at the sound of Japanese music.

Again, they open the track with a single guitar panned hard right. This is joined by an electric guitar playing high notes picked close to the bridge to get a Japanese-sound. This playing of this guitar switches back and forth between this sound and harder strummed slide guitar lines. Watts plays a nearly orchestral drum beat primarily on the toms.. The second chorus, glissando strings provide a lush that enhance the Japanese sound during the bridge. A loosely-played piano drums along in the center channel.

The lyrics talk of estranged life on the road, it’s vaguely lonely and homesick. This sentiment was part of the original idea for “Wild Horses” as well, though narrative elements related to Jagger and Richard’s relationships filled the verses.

Oh I’m sleeping under strange strange skies
Just another mad mad day on the road
My dreams is fading down the railway line
I’m just about a moonlight mile down the road

John Lennon’s “Imagine”

Album cover for John Lennon's Imagine

This week, I’ve been listening to John Lennon’sImagine” from 1971. “Imagine” was Lennon’s second solo album after leaving The Beatles. My friend Mike Frost in High School listen to this CD a lot. He frequently played “Oh Yoko” for me, because it was my favorite. That was a couple decades ago, so I’d actually forgotten much of the album.

I was at first excited to get back into it, but on the first day I was underwhelmed. It seemed this album was overrated just because it was by John Lennon. The overly long “I Don’t Want To Be a Soldier” and the generic blues of the cheeky “It’s So Hard” failed to impress me. I mostly skipped the song “Imagine” simply because I’ve heard it a million times. Shame actually, because it’s an amazing song.

At the end of the week I was still saying the album was overrated, but realized upon reflection that I was wrong. The majority of the album is very good, even if there are some duds. It was actually difficult to narrow down which song I would focus on here. I opted to exclude “Jealous Guy” even though it is a beautiful tune; I also did not include Oh Yoko!” despite that fact I’ve loved it for years. Much of what I’d have to say about it can also be said about “Crippled Inside”

“Crippled Inside” dances like a jaunty country-western pace on a vaudevillian stage. The song opens with finger-picked dobro guitar with slap-back delay, somewhat consistent with the delay Lennon often uses on his vocals. After that melodic intro, the guitar is joined by drums, honky-tonk piano, upright basses, acoustic guitar and slide dobro.

The verses follow a I-I7-IV-IV7-I-VI7-II7-V-I progression; simplified this is a I-IV-I-VI-II-V-I. The bass walks down that VI7 – II7 change to descend with the lines “One thing you can’t hide”, which is answered with the gently ascending “Is when you’re crippled inside.”

Each verse has the couplet refrain rhyming “hide” and “inside”. The first two lines of both verses rhyme “hymn/skin” and “face/race” and the third line has a long I vowel (“tie” and “die”) for a slant-rhyme with the refrain “hide/inside” rhyme.

The melody lines of the vocals are continued by trills on the piano and slide guitar. These keeps a constant flow going through the track while maintaining that country-western feel. I really love the sound of that dobro and piano combination.

The vitrolic track “All I Want Is Some Truth” jumps into Lennon protesting hypocrisy, politicians, critics, and bigotry. Or really, just about anything that grinding his gears. They’re well-written, pointed, lyrics; though, I can imagine an on-the-street interview with a young person on the streets in 1971: “Why you are gathered here today?” ” I’ve had enough of reading things by neurotic psychotic pigheaded politicians. All I want is the truth; just give me some truth.” And that’s part of why the song is so perfect for it’s time. I also really like Lennon’s vocal delivery, which has the same bitterness to it as the words.

The music however gets tiresome as it repeats the same short phrases over and over. The vocals are really what carry this song, with the accompaniment providing a beat and mood. That’s the basic job of accompaniment, but I feel it should provide more. The best part is the slide guitar, which was played by former Beatles bandmate George Harrison.

George Harrison also plays on the best song on the album that’s not “Jealous Guy”: “How Do You Sleep.” It seems odd to me that Harrison would play on a McCartney diss track. While it’s wholly inline with Lennon’s personality, it doesn’t seem like Harrison’s style.

As with the rest of the album, we’re hearing traditional rock instruments: drum, bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, electric piano, and vocals. There’s also some unobtrusive strings providing background padding, and occasionally between vocals lines giving some Indian motifs. For the most part, these instruments are with very minimal effects. There’s a little overdrive and reverb, plus some tight delay, but otherwise a very clean sound.

Again, one of the best parts of the song is Harrison’s guitar playing. You can watch him play in recently released outtake footage on Youtube. The bass played by Klaus Voorman, especially during the chorus, gives the song great movement and bounce. Each of these instruments are interacting with each other in a united conversation. The conversation goes back and forth, each reacting to the other.

There are some incredible tracks on this album, but overall I think it is a little week, especially in the middle. It opens with three great songs and closes with three great song, then there’s four songs in the middle that I could mostly do without. Oh well.