Well, I dropped my annual SAD track. At home more and dealing with what this year has been an unusual winter, I have public radio on during the day and got wind of a public domain song contest on WNYC.
I had a song in mind, but couldn’t find it on the list of eligible works, that’s when Vernon Dalhart’s The Prisoner’s Song caught my ear. Released in 1924, it was the first country hit that sold a million copies. It is melancholy in a major key and interpreted by the likes of Johnny Cash and Louis Armstrong. It is cozy, crackly, and plaintive on vinyl as sung by Vernon.
I started checking out a banjo from the Brooklyn Library and got one for this month. Somehow, I gravitate towards minor keys on a very bright sounding instrument. Since the original song is perfect and well-covered as it is, I opted for a different tack. I had just seen The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), and thought a woman prisoner would sing it in a minor key. I thought of James Blake as I laid down an arpeggiated figure with some trap beats. I then added some vocal harmonies to sing over.
After a couple days in GarageBand, it had mutated into something symphonic and worldly. Now I was thinking Massive Attack. I had harp, koto and oud bits that sounded to me very bluesy and opted for a very subby bass. I did a scratch vocal that followed the feel of the track as it changed and wound up keeping it. It was hard to track at home because I didn’t have an iso booth and the ambulances and police sirens are frequent, as is the thunderous amp bleed from my downstairs neighbor. So I had to wait for windows of silence and then just go for it without the luxury of time for extra takes.
For me, this song is sung by an incarcerated woman that could be anywhere in the world, that could be imprisoned for not following the rules or staying in her lane. She could be lonely because she is in solitary, or because she had to leave a loved one, maybe a child behind. She is dreaming of her beloved and freedom to be with them, even if it means death. For death to mean freedom to mean truth is a profound thing. I still am haunted by Mahsa Amini, and others like her, and dedicate this song to prisoners. To be imprisoned is a loss that needs to be lamented.