Using Chord Lines to Chart Songs

In recent years, I’ve become ever more frustrated with charting songs for guitar. For a long time, that’s consisted of simply writing lyrics with the chord changes above them. If I’m familiar with the song, I can usually get by with this method, and I have for many, many years. The band I play with also uses song charts, which consist of listing the basic structure of the song and the chord changes. It’s not bad, but in the past few months, I’ve wanted a little more. When learning new songs, I seemed to miss the big picture, the conceptual whole of the song I was trying to play. One solution I’ve found helpful is using chord lines.

What are chord lines, you ask? Well, several months ago when I started using them with greater earnest, I scoured the internet looking for some kind of guide, but to my surprise found nothing. Turning to paper and print, I scanned my book spines and found an undersized book with its black spiral bound pages. Rise Up Singing. Compiled by Peter Blood and Annie Patterson, the book contains lyrics for over 1200 songs. An indispensable classic, in my opinion. It’s the place where I first learned about chord lines.

Chord lines are a method of charting the chords for a song developed by Peter Blood. Rather than writing the chord changes above the lyrics, which is the typical way we often see charted songs or fake sheets, a song charted using chord lines isolates the chord progression for a verse or chorus, recording the basic pattern of chords and beats for one line of lyrics. The break for a new grouping of chords, as well as another line of lyrics, is marked by a slash. For repetitions of chords, the method uses dashes, and if a whole measure of chords is to be repeated, there will be an empty space between a pair of slashes. Using this method requires much less space when charting a song, and the simple markings and grouping of chords communicate the basic structure of song in a way that can be quickly understood by the musician.

An image of the Wild Rover from Rise Up Singing
from Rise Up Singing by Peter Blood & Annie Peterson, p. 237

I like the method because I struggle with rhythm sometimes. It’s nice, therefore, to have the chords and beat of the song illustrated in a way that’s easy to understand. That helps me get a feel for the song much faster, and more importantly, conceptualize the overall structure of the song. When I’m charting songs for myself, I often use this method because it helps me account for the correct number of beats in each measure or line of lyrics. Granted, it looks a bit strange at first, but once I became familiar with it, I felt quite at ease using the method.

The genius of the method is that of saving space. Whereas traditional songbooks might become quite large with only a few dozen songs, the 1200 songs in the Rise Up Singing take up far fewer pages. In fact, there are usually about four songs on each page of the book. To me, that’s incredible, and as a guitarist, it’s convenient to have such a great number of songs collected in such a small book.

It really bothered me, however, that I couldn’t find anything more about the origin of notating songs in this method, especially something I think so useful. So back to the internet, and instead of coming away disappointed, I found contact information for the authors, Peter Blood and Annie Patterson. After a couple emails, I had some answers.

According to Peter Blood, he invented the method of chord lines. Although he had been working on a version of the system for several years, he dates the method back to Winds of the People, his songbook self-published in 1979 and the predecessor to Rise Up Singing. Blood writes, “I think I had used a modified version in earlier song sheets that had been mimeographed for groups I was part of, but I don’t think I used the consistent system of relating the chords to the downbeats of the rhythm until we created Winds of the People.” Over the years, he says many people have expressed appreciation for the system while others seem a bit mystified by the groups of chords, dashes, and lines that accompany the lyrics.

Despite those who might be a little lost, Peter Blood cites some of the same reasons I did for using the method. He told me the system seemed the best possible way to show where the chords fall without writing the chords above the lyrics, and ultimately, that saves space. He also finds playing and reading chords from these sheets easier. “It pops out more,” he says, when comparing his charts to the traditional method of notating the chords. I agree, too, that the method seems to declutter the page, stripping away the extraneous to create cleaner, simple song sheets.

For me, as well as many others, simplicity makes a world a difference. The irony is that Blood’s chord lines are a simplification that communicates more than the traditional method of charting songs. To make a comparison, his method acts like a snapshot of the song’s deep structure, and as we have so often heard, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Making Lists & Favorite Books for Teenage Boys

I think I’ve always been a list maker. My wife often discovers scraps of paper with some of my lists. I make them in notebooks and on yellow legal pads, too. I’ve tried writing them on my phone using the notepad app, but there’s something sterile about it. It’s just not as satisfying as pencil and paper.

A few weeks ago, as I began my 17th year as an English teacher at a small rural school in northeastern Pennsylvania, I asked my students to make some lists of their favorite books. I thought this would be a great way for me to get to know my students, and for the past few years, the first assignment for my freshman English classes has been to write a short essay about one of their favorite books. This has served me well, and I’d like to think it’s been good for my students, encouraging them to reflect on themselves as readers and put into words what motivates them to read. And that relates to the biggest challenge of the assignment, which is that they need to avoid plot summary as the content of the essay; instead, they must articulate the reasons this book is their favorite.

Picture of Books

This sounds easier said than done. Oh, you want me to write about my favorite book? Sure, let me tell you what it’s about. No, no. Tell me why it’s your favorite. What do you like about the book? Well, the story is about… No, no. Give me three reasons you like the book. Oh, well, because, I don’t know. It’s good. Yeah. But why? Well, because, it’s a good story.

And that’s the way it goes, despite my every effort to be clear in my directions, and, as usual, provide several models for their writing. Inevitably, a student will ask me for feedback, claiming the essay is almost done, and I’ll have to say, but you didn’t tell me the reasons it’s your favorite. You still have a lot of writing to complete. And sometimes the essay never gets much further. Indeed, I’ve discovered the assignment requires more mental effort than I expected when first adding the essay to my curriculum.

It’s difficult, for many students, to even name a favorite book. That’s my problem, as well, sometimes. My favorite books are always changing. Certainly, there are few that remain in the top ten, but as I continue reading more and more, my favorites shuffle and slide about. In addition, I’m almost loyal to certain books to a fault. I have this same problem when naming favorite albums, because I have my list of favorite albums from my teenage years, but now that I’m older, I’ve listened to so much more. I can list favorite albums from the past ten years or even the past year. A definitive list, however, seems impossible. How could I make any list of favorites without including The Dark Side of the Moon or Nevermind?

The trick for me, I guess, is to narrow the focus in some way. My friend, Jon, does this often. He’ll post lists of his favorite albums each year on Facebook, sometimes dividing the year into two or three parts. I’m always intrigued by his lists, and following his lead, I look forward to December and thinking back on all the new music that was released during the past year. And then I share my list of favorites. Sometimes, my picks even earn a Grammy, as Kacey Musgrave’s album, Golden Hour, did for 2018.

Books are a little harder, of course, but as my students wrote about their favorite books, I decided to make a list of my ten favorite books for teenage boys, a group I often find myself worried about keeping motivated to read over the course of the year. Obviously, I was once a teenage boy, and I remember reading Choose Your Own Adventure and Lone Wolf books before getting to high school and discovering classic authors like J. D. Salinger and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In the past thirty years, however, the market for teen and young adult literature has exploded. There are so many books, so many choices for teenagers. Some of my choices fall into this category while others are simply books I think teenage boys would enjoy. And naturally, now that I have a teenage son, these are books that I’d like him to read at some point in the next few years.

Top Ten Books for Teenage Boys

    1. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
    2. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
    3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
    4. Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
    5. King of the Mild Frontier by Chris Crutcher
    6. Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going
    7. Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
    8. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
    9. Looking for Alaska by John Green
    10. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Now I could annotate each of the books on the list, but that seems too tedious. However, I will say that there’s only one book that I read as a teenager on this list, which is The Catcher in the Rye, the classic coming of age novel. I think that’s something interesting to note, because I expected to have a few more books that have been with me a long time. It’s actually the oldest book on the list, and I still teach this novel to my high school juniors. I also teach The Things They Carried, and I’ve written previously about this novel as well as the important lessons this novel about the Vietnam War offers for teenagers. Fallen Angels is also about Vietnam, and I hesitated to put two novels dealing with the same topic on the list, but Walter Dean Myers is such a good author for teen boys.

In fact, most of the authors on my list are well-known, and I imagine many people will recognize their names. Chris Crutcher, though, might be less familiar. I highly recommend his novels, many of which center around sports, especially high school swimming, which was Crutcher’s sport as a teenager. I remember first discovering Crutcher while in graduate school. My wife, who is also an English teacher, had a colleague introduce her to books like Whale Talk, Stotan, and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes—all great novels for teenage boys. She even met Crutcher at a middle school book symposium. My favorite book by Crutcher, however, has always remained King of the Mild Frontier, which is an autobiography about Crutcher’s childhood and teenage years. It’s very funny, and I’ve often recommended the book to reluctant readers.

The other nonfiction choice on my list is Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. Here again, I feel obligated to put one of my favorite Krakauer books on the list. He’s such a good writer, I could list almost all of his books here, but for teenage boys, Into the Wild rises to the top. As I think about it, I’m reminded of Hatchet, since both books are about surviving on your own; however, Krakauer’s book about Chris McCandless is a true account, which sets it apart. He’s such a compelling writer, and I’ve always loved the way Krakauer weaves his own personal experience into this story about modern adventure and authentic experience. I’ve always wanted to teach the book to my older students, especially with all its references to many of my favorite authors like Jack London, and of course, Henry David Thoreau. Indeed, I thought I could write a post without mentioning old Thoreau, but he always finds a way, the little bugger.

On second thought, nevertheless, that Thoreau might show up in some form isn’t really that surprising. To make any list of favorites, our choices most likely contain something of us, too. Maybe it’s when the writer captures something about the reader, maybe something that the reader doesn’t even recognize before reading the book, that a book gains some extra significance. For me, Jon Krakauer is one of those writers, and making a list of favorite books allows me to understand myself a little more. It’s also one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed assigning this essay to my new students over the past few years. And every year, the best essays, by far, are the ones that reveal the personality of my students more than the contents of the book. Whether they consciously realize it, when they write about their favorite books, they are really writing about themselves.

The Curious Case of Thoreau’s Bean Field

Gardening is a strange pleasure. In Walden, Henry David Thoreau describes his experience in the bean field as a “small Herculean labor” and a long battle, the Trojans taking the form of worms, weeds, and woodchucks. For a weapon, he recounts leveling his enemy with his long-handled hoe, turning dirt and dust over the weeds that fought for water and sun with his rows and rows of beans. When reading Thoreau’s story of his bean-field, which I’ve done several times in the past few weeks, it’s almost always this image of Thoreau, fighting against worms, weeds, and woodchucks, that stands out to me. It may have been a battle, but clearly, he enjoyed this “curious labor,” as he describes being out there all summer in the early morning dew, barefoot in the field, until noon, and sometimes, staying there all day to see the evening birds overhead. There’s a certain magnetism in the earth, he says at one point, and I tend to agree.

Like Thoreau, I have my bean field that I’ve planted behind my barn year after year. At times, it seems to be more trouble than worth. The hidden calculus at the back of my mind tells me I must be losing on time and money. Surely, I’d be better off just making a trip to the grocery store, where I’ll ultimately end up buying my lettuce because my stalks in the garden have gone to flower. And yet I continue my little gardening enterprise year after year, knowing, like Thoreau, that there’s something more to be harvested than beans.

Thoreau standing in my garden

Over the life of my garden plot, I’ve tried many things to satisfy that strange pleasure of gardening—far too many to list here. And usually, I take several pictures over the course of the summer, a kind of photographic journal. There’s a picture, for instance, of the garden’s infancy, our first summer at the house, when the farmer up the road brought his tractor down to break ground for us, creating a rather large plot of land. My work even included a scare crow, but the garden proved unmanageable. In another photo several summers later, the garden includes a discarded snow fence I used to keep out the deer that tarry our plants—no woodchucks that nibble our leaves like Thoreau, but rather deer that feast upon them, leaving nothing but bare branches and curses in their wake. Indeed, I’ve never liked the idea of using that green garden fencing, which reminds me of working in a cage, but I found the red vertical slats that comprise snow fencing to be a rather pleasing aesthetic. Then there’s pictures of raised beds some years, large mounds in others. It’s always changing.

This year was no different, as I enlarged the garden dimensions and rearranged to make room for raised beds, which I had done away with only a couple years ago after seeing a friend’s garden. Maybe I’m fickle. This time around I drew inspiration from some pictures from an article in This Old House Magazine, an issue that I’d tucked away for safekeeping because, well, one day I wanted to build a garden like the one featured in that issue, or at least, to build something similar. No, I couldn’t do it exactly the same. So that was my project at the beginning of the summer, using two-by-fours for the beds instead of scrap hardwood flooring, using red as my color palette instead of green, and using brown mulch instead of pea gravel for the paths. And like most of my projects, it’s about 80% finished at this point, but the plants are in the ground and growing. Tomatoes, basil, lettuce, peppers—lots and lots of them in several varieties—potatoes, squash, broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, and cilantro. My tastes are a little more diverse than Thoreau, but my son did throw some beans in a patch of dirt as almost an afterthought, and ironically, it was the only thing that didn’t come up, the seeds having been leftovers from previous years.

The garden is better than last summer, for sure, but there’s always something that could be better. Thoreau gets this, too, for about halfway through his chapter about his beans, he discusses the desire to change things next time, opining that we all too often do the same thing year after year in both our gardens as well as our principles and actions. For Thoreau, change is good, and to me, that’s also one of the strange pleasures of working the soil. Gardening is about returning to the same place day after day, always looking for little ways to improve, to do things differently. I have plants on my property, for instance, that I have moved a half dozen times, hoping to find the best location. Another small flower garden went through a huge transformation a few years ago, as I hauled away a stone border, installed a decorative fence, and carefully placed a few very large rocks. Of course, there were some new plants, too. I’m happier with this garden, too, but I’m always tinkering with improvements.

That’s the difference between gardening and farming. According to Thoreau, the farmer is concerned with the product whereas the gardener is concerned with the process. The gardener realizes there’s more to be gained from working the soil than the harvest and the feast, which brings us back to Thoreau spending so much time hoeing his rows of beans. There are times he relates just standing there, listening to sounds in the distance or watching the nighthawk in the sky above. People stopped by, seeing him there with his beans, to offer advice for a better harvest in the fall, but Thoreau wasn’t farming. In fact, he describes farmers as robbing nature. No, instead, he was gardening. It should be noted, however, that Thoreau preferred the term husbandry when describing his own activities, a term which today seems almost obsolete. For Thoreau, husbandry was a “sacred art,” an activity that connected us to the earth more as stewards rather than owners, cultivating rather than reaping. The word also denotes a kind of management or conservation of resources, too, that anticipates, perhaps, that nature is not an infinite bounty, but something that could slip into a wasteland. Indeed, the land around Walden Pond in the 1840s was not as we see it today, but more desolate, much of it having been timbered and stripped to the ground. The beans were planted, in part, because other crops wouldn’t grow in such poor soil. It’s no wonder then that Thoreau might see himself as husbandman rather than a farmer. And unlike the farmer, the husbandman carries less anxiety, worrying much less about whether he should lose the rewards of his labor. Instead, the labor is the reward, and again, the strange pleasure.

As for me, I’m all right with words like garden, gardening, and gardener. Much better than worms, woodchucks, and weeds, for sure. But it’s that idea of change, I think, that becomes the key to understanding the difference between the gardener and the farmer. For me, gardens are experiments, little places where change is welcome, even encouraged, as the necessary ingredient to the process. It’s a place where possibility dwells, a place where the imagined comes to life. The words maybe next time and what if grow alongside the cabbage and broccoli. That’s what I like about it, and perhaps, that’s what Thoreau loved about it. This past week, on a trip to Creekside Gardens in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania, that fact was highlighted for me. As my wife and I admired the plants, we struck up a conversation with one of the owners, discussing a miniature garden decorated with fairy houses and little sprites going about their gossamer business. And even as we admired the beautiful little garden, she told us what needed to be changed. “That’s what we’re always doing with our gardens,” she said. I think Thoreau would agree. The pleasure is in the process.