Refining a song

I posted earlier about a song I’d recently written, “I Didn’t Know Them at All.” A few years back I read a news story and thought it had the makings of a song. Finally after we returned from music school in Augusta I started to work on it in earnest.

I knew that I wanted it to address the fact that we simply don’t know what is going on in the lives and minds of other folks. The story of the preacher and his wife became the first verse. And a story I had heard recently from the clerk at our local post office became the second. I also wanted to highlight the fact that what we know can sometimes be better than what we assume, and thought of a variation on the parable of the Prodigal Son for the third verse.

Here’s the earliest version, before there was any melody for it.

The preacher and his wife locked up the church on Wednesday night
Then walked down to the railroad crossing in the pouring rain
They stepped up to the tracks, stood and held each other tight
And turned to face the oncoming train

     At times I was sure I knew some folks so well
     Never once thought that they’d ever fall
     But life has a way of reaching deep inside
     And it turned out I didn’t know them at all

My folks built a marriage that would stand the test of time
Stone by loving stone the foundations they laid   
Then an old flame came along and lured my mother away
And left my dad alone and afraid

     At times I was sure I knew someone so well
     Never once thought that she’d ever fall
     But life has a way of reaching deep inside
     And it turned out I didn’t know her at all

I talked to my boy on the phone just last week
The first time we’d spoken in almost fifteen years
He told me he missed me, he wished he’d never left
And I was fighting to hold back my tears

     At times I was sure I knew someone so well
     Never once thought that he’d ever call
     But life has a way of reaching deep inside
    And it turned out I didn’t know him at all

The ideas are there, but I wasn’t close to satisfied. Too wordy, too touchy-feely.

A few days later I happened to listen to Doc Watson sing “I Saw a Man at the Close of Day”, and thought it would be a good traditional melody to use. The lyrics above had too many syllables to fit, so I started paring down and ended up with this.

The preacher and his wife walked down
To the station in the pouring rain
They stepped onto the tracks, stood and held each other tight
And turned to face the oncoming train

    I always thought I knew them well
     Never thought that they could fall
     But folks can hide what they want to hide
     I didn’t know them at all

My folks built a marriage oh so strong
Deeper love I’ve never known
Then an old flame lured my mother away
Left my father all alone

     I always thought I knew her well
     Never thought that she could fall
     But folks can hide what they want to hide
     I didn’t know her at all

I talked to my boy on the phone last night
First time in fifteen years
He told me he wished he’d never left
And I couldn’t hold back my tears

    I always thought I knew him well
     Never thought that he would call
     But folks can hide what they want to hide
     I didn’t know him at all

Much better. I liked that well enough to record it.

I sent it to a friend who is a really good songwriter, and he liked it but thought the second verse was too vanilla after a very powerful first verse. He had some suggestions on how to fix it, which I may try at some point. But my next idea was to put the second verse (and its story) on the shelf for now, and to expand the first and third stories to bring out the point a bit more strongly. Here’s the result.

The preacher and his wife walked down
To the station in the pouring rain
They stepped onto the tracks, stood and held each other tight
And turned to face the oncoming train

    I always thought I knew them well
    Never thought that they could fall
    But folks can hide what they need to hide
    I didn’t know them at all

We searched but never found a note
Our hearts they wished to spare
But it hurts to know that they took their lives
For a reason they could not share

    Their children thought they knew them well
    No sorrows they recalled
    But folks can hide what they need to hide
    We didn’t know them at all

I was raised to keep doubts to myself
To carry the weight alone
Never burden my loved ones in any way
My troubles were all my own

    My family thinks they know me well
    That I’m too strong to fall
    But folks can hide what they need to hide
    They don’t know me at all

I talked to my boy on the phone last night
First time in fifteen years
He told me he wished he’d never left
And I couldn’t hold back my tears

    I always thought I knew him well
    Never thought that he would call
    But folks can hide what they need to hide
    I didn’t know him at all

Note that “what they want to hide” is now “what they need to hide”, and that the choruses change a bit more during the song.

I still like the earlier version for being extremely spare, but I think this new version is clearer, and perhaps easier to digest. Here’s how it sounds.

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