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Harmony On His Mind

Nick Sullivan's picture
5 June 2014 by Nick Sullivan
Trouble On His Mind harmony vocal sheet music (detail)

The harsh discipline of musical life under Walt’s repressive regime does not allow us to pursue every possibility a given song might suggest. We do not provide harmony vocals with our sheet music, for example, owing to Walt’s powerful intuition that singers would rather make up their own.

Whether or not that is really so — Walt tends to be wrong — the policy sometimes leaves behind stray items like the one in the illustration, which is a harmony vocal line for my latest video and sheet music release, Trouble On His Mind. The harmony appears on its own staff above the principal melody. To make things easier, chords and full lyrics are also given. The timing of the notated melody here is a slight variation from the official score, but pretty close. The PDF (which comes in a zip file, like all our sheet music) is available as a free download effective immediately. When you visit your Dashboard page you will see it listed with your other available sheet music downloads, even if you aren’t a logged-in site member.

The performance instruction “Poco honk, molto tonk”, visible at the upper right of the illustration, is in itself either meaningless or profound, I forget which, but it led me just now to Wikipedia to learn what the too-bandied-about term honky-tonk really signifies and where it really came from.

Going in, I had the idea that the “honk” probably referred to horns and the “tonk” onomatopoeiacally meant piano, but the support for this idea in the article was scant: the syllable “tonk” might indeed allude to the piano, but if so it was the name of a family of nineteenth-century New York piano manufacturers, above all one William A. Tonk. Some observers reject this etymology, so we don’t have a final answer, but you can’t really expect one of a word that grew up on the street long ago and only much later made it into polite society, literature, and this post.

Musical styles often have a functional basis in that they exploit the possibilities of instruments that are favored (or resorted to) for non-musical reasons. Economics, that is. Whatever else may be said of honky-tonk as a musical form, one thing is agreed on by all: it started out low, in dives: in whorehouses, gambling dens, saloons, and similarly debased venues. It was the converse of genteel.

This was also true of the pianos provided in these establishments, which often had defects that would have made classical performance impossible: missing strings, broken keys, and the like. The Wikipedia article states that honky-tonk departed from ragtime by emphasizing rhythm and chording at the expense of melody, then makes the interesting point that this was done in order to produce a relatively predictable sound on pianos in an unpredictable state of repair. A melody may be hard to play satisfactorily when a vital note is missing, but in chordal playing the notes that are present provide cover for any that are missing; moreover, the availability of alternative positions allows the performer to avoid dodgy keys.

So much for the good old days. In 2014, a precise meaning for honky-tonk remains elusive. Robert Fortenot, writing in the Oldies Music Encyclopedia at about.com, asserts that honky-tonky music, as the term is now used, “deals almost exclusively with infidelity and drinking”. Perhaps that’s a result of songwriters being too often told to “write what they know”. Nevertheless, no one denies that the form itself is now respectable. Somewhere along the way, it has become identified to a great extent with Hank Williams and his musical descendants. The tremolo piano chords you hear in that kind of music (there’s a spot of it near the beginning of the instrumental verse in Trouble On His Mind, actually) might well be a direct link back to the defensive chording techniques that were used by necessity on the tonkers of yesteryear, probably including some Tonks.

“Tonker”, the singular of “tonkers” in the last sentence, is a brand-new word that we are releasing today. It means “dilapidated piano”, or by extension “any dilapidated instrument”, or by a slight further extension “Walt”. “Tonker” was conceived and created by Nick Sullivan, and features an introduction by the author (see above). Site members may download and use it for free.

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