From the Citiot Desk

Three Chords and the Truth


Harlan Howard gets credit for this summary of country western music, but its simple wisdom has been validated by many over the years, from Johnny Cash to Van Morrison. 

Harlan knew what he was talking about. He wrote some of the classics; probably most popular was Patsy Cline’s lament, “I Fall to Pieces,” which you probably can’t just say in your mind even now. You hear it, and it makes you stop and breathe while the guitar part trickles down.

If you play a little music, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but if the radio is your instrument, you may not have heard our little secret. Nearly all American music is kind of the same song, with variations (jazz is the very important American exception, and all of us musical hacks just wonder at its beautiful complexity). Folk, blues, rock, in all their glory, can often be boiled down to three chords.

Which chords depends on the key that you like to sing in, but the pattern is 1, 4, 5. If you want to sing in A, you can count off on your fingers. If A is your thumb, then your index finger is B, next is C, ring finger is D and pinkie is E. The simple song is usually 1, 4, 5, in this case A, D and E. If you like to sing in C, count ’em off: thumb is C, then 4 and 5 is F and G. If you have any instrument handy, you’ll hear the pattern clearly.

And then there is “the Truth” part of Harlan’s claim about country music lyrics. Steve Goodman comically proposed that legitimate country music has to be about one of six things: divorce, drinking, mothers, prison, trucks or trains. He wrote “the perfect country song” that has all six. Go ahead, Google it, it’s in your phone right now and it’s pretty funny. 

Country music is always familiar, and always feels true. Folk music, including the blues, also shares common themes of hardship or injustice, and when we listen we feel the truth flowing from the musician’s heart. When Patsy cried that she was falling to pieces, we didn’t doubt her. We didn’t try to fix her up with another man, we didn’t tell her she’ll get over it, or that she needs to toughen up. We just nod and share her grief. When Dolly or Whitney wailed that they would always love me, I believed it, and cherished the belief. I am a slice of white bread soaking in a plate of milk, but when I sing along with Brother James, I got soul, huh, and I’m super bad.  Our purple mountain’s majesty deserves our hats off, and our shared commitment. If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning too. 

Great songs make us want to believe. 

Why? Our world is struggling with the concept of belief and truth in ways I never anticipated. I’m not sure whether there is more lying or less integrity, but there is a lot more doubt, even angry disbelief. We need to understand how ideas flow from the world into our hearts.

Truths that have been proven over and over are valuable. Experience can be a great source of wisdom. The challenge arises when the world changes, and I think we can all agree that it’s changing pretty fast. We can of course ignore or resist the changes, clinging to truths that have given us comfort. Many truths are simply timeless and continue to serve us. 

But some “truths” are just wrong, and we need to find the courage to see them for archaic beliefs that are holding us back from recognizing and managing modern problems. Slavery used to be normal, women used to be worth less than men, the land used to be abundant and cry out for unlimited harvesting. How do we bring new truths into our common understanding without fear or folly?

Maybe we can sing it. Music has always been a medium of expression, especially including expression of deep emotions and of new ideas. Maybe it’s time to tune up our guitars, take those piano lessons we’ve been talking about for so many years. We need another language to talk about truth so that we can face our troubles together. Maybe it can be as simple as 1, 4, 5.

Jack Dunne lives gratefully in Lakebay.