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Sunday, June 13, 2010

87. "I Saw Three Ships" by Unknown Instrumental Group

The last time The Machine selected a Christmas tune for me, I recoiled from its unseasonal holiday cheer and insisted on remaking it completely. But I've matured since then. "Matured" is a word that means you tried something and it turned out to be hard and you don't want to do it again.

The title on the "album" from which this original comes is Unlabeled Cassette of Instrumental Christmas Carols Found at the Rexrode Residence, which is exactly what it was. My mom ended up with it when cleaning out her mother's house a few years ago; I found it along with some cassettes of old radio programs (which I digitized along with the carols, because that's what I do) and a pair of old Hohner harmonicas, which had belonged to my Grandfather Rexrode. I hadn't known he'd played harmonica or any musical instrument until then (although he was responsible for one of my earliest magical musical memories, a demonstration of a cylinder gramophone, which I wrote into the lyrics of the Skates & Rays song "Fort Ashby")... my mom was passing all of these items on to me.

So it seemed natural to reunite these tokens of my grandparents for today's cover, and making Granddad's harmonica the lead instrument on the recording. That meant playing harmonica with a little more precision than I'd ever attempted before. For the unitiated, most harmonicas are in a particular key, so if you're playing in C major and you're playing a C harmonica (like Granddad's), it's hard to play a "wrong" note, and with just a little experience you can learn how to blunder through melody lines that resolve more or less sensibly and you're okay. However, because of the way the instruments constructed, with certain notes only occurring with exhales and others with inhales, it's actually kind of hard to learn to play the "right" note at the "right" time in a prescribed melody like this familiar Christmas song. I tried pretty hard and got close enough in the limited time available to me. It sure isn't perfect, but it marks a step forward for my harp playing... not that that's saying much. Hopefully Granddad would have thought it a fair effort.

Personnel: Rex

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