A Closer Look at “Hitting Rock Bottom”

Here’s to forgetfulness, for without it, life would be dull.

“OK, hold up, buddy,” Mr. Counterpoint says. “Wouldn’t total recall of the grocery list you left on the kitchen table come in handy? Or how about when the beads of sweat are congregating about your brow, seconds away from parachuting onto test question number twenty-eight, ‘Explain polyrhythm using examples taught in class’? Wouldn’t it be nice to simply drop a needle on that mental record player and jot down the perfect answer?”

Sure, but think of what comes packaged with the deal: Art dies. Self-expression falls by the wayside. Every second of every day is cliched, and the needle gets caught in the groove, sounding out the same, old nonsense you’ve heard before. So I say, thank goodness for forgetfulness. [Mr. C. grumbles unintelligibly and walks off stage right.]

As I set out to write “Hitting Rock Bottom,” I couldn’t forget that originality was a fool’s errand. (Note: This kind of pessimism’s not usually my bag, but a few previous whacks at my obdurate writer’s block hadn’t produced much of a crack, or even a chip, so give a guy a break.)

It’s not that everything has already been made. Everyone’s eccentricities offset their natural inclination to be formulaic, and like any kindergarten teacher can tell you, everyone’s unique in their own way. But the influences I’ve cobbled together over the years aren’t necessarily under lock and key, and my penchant for the soft and pensive came out in full bloom here.

What came was a folk song, and the words spoke of the irrationality of relationship wreckage. Considering that a massive portion of songs written are concerned with love, it’s impossible to say no one has thought along these same lines. But, since any sort of hard proof that would have uncovered my creative borrowing is subjected to much harsher elements in my memory than your typical historic document, it has long ago turned to dust. Ignorance is bliss.

Cultural / Historical Background of the Song

In the early 1960s, there cropped up a mostly young, predominantly brazen group of songwriters wielding nothing more than their opinion, an acoustic guitar, and maybe, just maybe, a harmonica. The up-and-coming generation of the time, already hip to the beatniks, caught on, and the so-called folk music revival here in the States was born. Although it came and went in only a few years, ultimately falling victim to electricity, the movement’s own aftershocks are still felt today.

Largely spearheaded by a mysterious twentysomething from who-knows-where, Minnesota, named Bob Dylan, these ragtag bands of truth hawkers stuck out like a sore thumb against the annals of popular song’s history. This wasn’t fluff meant to set the heart aflutter, it cut straight to the point. Dylan liked to call his socially-conscious tunes “finger-pointing songs.”

As per the usual, criticism soon materialized. It was thought by some that the folkies were undisciplined and could not compare to the classical music or jazz greats, or that their cause was ephemeral and destined to putter out. An article from the New York Times dated November 29, 1964, and titled “Folk Music: Pompous and Ersatz?” responds to such denunciation.

“Item: ‘The folkies . . . have not produced one composer the equal of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen . . .’

By championing composers of light music over the folk song-writers, Mr. Lees (the critic in question) is trying to compare apples and oranges, a quick way to destroy the symmetry of any still-life bowl of fruit. Does an appreciation of Gershwin, Porter, or Arlen preclude an appreciation for other types of music? Is there not high artistry in Guthrie’s love song to the America soil, “Pastures of Plenty’? Is there not poetic beauty in Dylan’s apocalyptic view of a tortured world in ‘Hard Rain’ or philosophic validity for his generation in ‘The Times They Are a Changin’? (Shelton 1)”

Was it merely intellectual bias that turned some away from Baez and friends? Were these critics missing the point entirely? This debate over folk music’s real place in the musical chronicles continued to rage throughout the movement’s existence.

Other bones to pick had to do with what the lyrics stood for and how much permanence they held. Johnny Cash’s pioneering album “Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian” spoke out, from the opening track to the closing one, against the oppression of the American Indian. Others served as the mouthpieces of the Civil Rights Movement. Still others voiced anti-war sentiments as U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War escalated.

Would these creations stand up artistically in another context once their causes were resolved? The Times article had this to say.

“Is the problem of our treatment of the American Indian as posited in the songs of Miss Sainte–Marie, Johnny Cash or Peter LaFarge temporary? Is the question of equal rights raised in the songs of the Freedom Singers temporary, or has it existed since the first slave ship landed in America? (Shelton 1)”

After all, the budding songwriters of the movement were walking in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie, who spoke for the downtrodden before it was hip. He composed his own entire-album ode to a theme with “Dust Bowl Ballads,” a record which Dylan would later cite as a major force in his choice to become a folk music writer and performer.

As written in A Change is Gonna Come by Craig Hansen Warner,
Like his descendants in the folk revival, Woody wrote dozens of message songs including ‘Hang Knot,’ a blistering condemnation of lynching, and ‘Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportees),’ written after he’d read a newspaper story about the crash of a plane carrying migrant farmworkers back to Mexico. The news report identified the Anglo crew members by name but cloaked the migrants in anonymity. Adapted by activists working for immigrant rights in the nineties, the chorus of ‘Deportees’ redresses the dehumanization. (Werner 50)

From both sides, a lot of the folk revival was polemic. So how does “Hitting Rock Bottom” fit into all of this? The words aren’t calling for widespread change. Although somewhat introspective, they’re very introverted.

Quite plainly, it sounds like a folk song because the words tell a sensible, everyday story, and because it’s nothing but vocals and guitar set to a steady but slightly shifting chord progression. Folk music encompasses one of the largest number of songs among the other genres partly because of these shady boundaries set by the materials of music.

Musical Mumbo Jumbo

Harmony: At the very start, a descending thumb-picked bass line is introduced along with a mostly-there D chord on the top three strings. This will serve as one-half of the contrary motion that results when the melody comes into play. Once the vocals enter in, the opening motif is repeated for a third time, after which a G chord dislodges the harmony from its needle-stuck-in-the-groove state. The bass descent continues down from G to F sharp, with an accompanying D chord on top, to E, which supports the e minor chord above it. Finally, an A7, the fifth major minor seventh in the progression, ends the phrase.

A second stanza of the verse repeats the steps down of the first exactly until the E chord, which is changed to an E7, and then moves back to the A7. For the climb that leads into the chorus there comes a B minor, an F sharp major (the only non-traditional chord of the song), a G, and an A7. The chorus contains a D, a D major seventh, a D7, a G, a g minor, another D, and an A7.

Lastly, there is a bridge which shifts to E minor then A7, repeats the opening motif, and ends with E minor and A7.

Rhythm: All in all, the strum pattern here is an ostinato, and the only variations that might be noticeable are a small change of dynamics in the chorus from soft to loud and a couple ritardandos, most notably the one as the bridge ends.

In one measure of quadruple meter, the strum is one quarter note, two eighth notes, an eighth rest, and three eighth notes. Accents fall on the first, third, and fifth strums of the rhythm.

Melody: As previously stated, the melody ascends with its first two notes, in contrary motion with the harmony. This is a perfect fifth interval from the home tone of D to A. Over the course of the whole song, it features similar jumps periodically making it, on the whole, more of a disjunct melody. Other parts examined closely, such as the chorus, though, characterize it more as a conjunct.

Texture: Since this is a song composed of only an acoustic guitar and vocals, it is homophonic. The melody of the vocals stands against a harmony played by the guitar.

Style: Generally, this falls in the folk music category. It is as such because of the bare texture and inclusion of a narrative in the lyrics.

Form: With A standing for a verse; B, a chorus; and C, a bridge, the form is ABABCAB. It’s mostly a strophic form with the addition of a bridge.


This is what it comes down to: Does the song work?

At this point, “Hitting Rock Bottom” is the most thorough song I’ve written. It follows a strict form and, though it strays from the lyrical theme at times, it’s centered on a subject and, in my mind, goes along with one man’s elevator ride to the sixth floor as he recounts in his mind the end of his love affair.

I tried to imbue it with some humor, and hopefully the absurdity of the breakup, namely the obvious lack of explanation of why the two broke up, comes across in the lyrics. For some, it could border on being too silly, and the second chorus, with its abundance of censoring, might be too much for others.

Still, I’m satisfied with the musical content. It may be that the song has a novelty that’s obscuring the weaker spots, but for the most part, it doesn’t seem to lag. The verse’s melody is probably more memorable than the chorus with its fifth interval jump, which doesn’t add or detract to the success of the song necessarily, but it should be noted.

Not to be a sympathizing self-critic, but I’m very proud of the way in which the song is divided into three distinct reactions: first, the anger, second, the introspection, and third, the “I’m-moving-on-and-this-did-nothing-to-my-masculine-ego.” Although I’ve never been through a nasty separation, it seems like these three emotions would be common to have.

And secondly, I’m proud of the use of three perspectives: the narrator, his girlfriend, and his ego. As each chorus is a direct quotation, or in the case of the first chorus a direct translation, it makes the form a lot more clean-cut than throwing the different perspectives in haphazardly.

On the whole, I think “Hitting Rock Bottom” is going to be heard quite a bit around my apartment, and I hope it leads to more sturdy songwriting in the future.

Published in: on June 6, 2009 at 4:58 am  Leave a Comment  

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