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In Praise of Harmony Rock

Melodic Milestone Playlist Challenge

By Chuck EtheridgePublished 11 months ago 9 min read
In Praise of Harmony Rock
Photo by frame harirak on Unsplash

I think about music a lot. Although I play a couple of instruments poorly and sing in a church choir, I don’t consider myself “a musician.” I just love music—I pay attention to the sounds, the words, and how they make me feel. My two musical loves--love of rock and roll and love of great vocal harmony--don’t get along very well. Multiple voices singing together—2, 3, 4, or 5 voices singing in harmony creates this amazing, rich listening experience that touches my soul. It’s probably why I’ve sung in choirs since high school.

Rock and roll, the soundtrack of my life, doesn’t provide a lot of this kind of singing. Occasionally you'll have a couple of voices singing together on a song, especially in older stuff like the Beatles, or the occasional duet. Rock and roll usually, though, is about the solo voice, or a solo with backup. Rock and roll rose to success on the star system. You want a person out front-- Jim Morrison or Grace Slick or Scott Stapp or Darius Rucker or Marc McGrath. Rock and roll with great multi part vocal harmonies are pretty hard to find.

However, there is category called “Harmony Rock,” which is exactly what it sounds like—Rock and roll with intricate vocal harmonies. Given my love of this type of music it won't surprise you to learn that my three favorite bands are probably Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Yes, and The Eagles. I have decided to have a playoff championship of great rock and roll harmony songs. My three entries are, in no particular order, “Seven Bridges Road” by the Eagles, “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and “I've Seen All Good People” by Yes.

Entry One: The Eagles "Seven Bridges Road"

First off is the Eagles’ “Seven Bridges Road.” It was actually written by a country songwriter named Steve Young, who was a driving force in the "Outlaw Country" movement. So right away, the Eagles lose points because they did not write the song. Plus the arrangement was by Ian Smith and Mike Naismith (the guy in the Monkees who wore the knit cap all the time), which the Eagles had heard many times. This means their version is less original.

But that opening, five-part, glorious acapella harmony they all sing: "There are stars in the southern sky” is one of the best vocal moments in rock and roll. All five of the voices--including Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Don Felder, Timothy Schmit and Joe Walsh-- just hit every note perfectly. They combine to create overtones and harmonics that you just don’t hear in most rock.

Furthermore, this song was never done in the studio, under perfect conditions, in a sound booth with sound engineers controlling every aspect. It was always sung live. Apparently, the Eagles were just messing around one day before a concert and all singing into the same mike. They realized they had a good sound, at least in the concrete dressing room. Then, they walked out and did it live in front of an audience, and the crowd was blown away. After that, they always opened their show with this song.

The entire song was sung in five-part harmony, unlike the others on my list. The instrumentation is also minimal - - the focus is on the vocal singing. Just a little surprisingly subtly but driving Joe Walsh guitar rhythm after the first verse, and that's it for the instrumentation. Just people who like to make music together, singing for the audience in front of them. Ian Smith wound up loving this version, by the way.

Entry Two: Crosby, Stills, and Nash "Southern Cross"

Second on the list is “Southern Cross,” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash. It was written by Stephen Stills, along with the Curtis Brothers. Actually, it was originally a song called “Seven League Boots” by the Curtis Brothers, which had some nice elements to it but was kind of a mess. Stephen Stills contributed heavily to the song, but it was as much a good editing job of a previously existing song as it was original work on his part. Still, the band gets points for being involved in the songwriting, which the Eagles weren't. This was also an original arrangement, and the Eagles used somebody else's.

However, unlike “Seven Bridges Road,” this doesn't open with vocal harmony, and the harmonies are not even evident until part way through the song. “Southern Cross” begins with a highly recognizable rhythm guitar opening performed by David Crosby, and then Stephen Stills begins to sing in what at first appears to be a pretty traditional rock and roll “front man” situation.

After the first verse, though, the fireworks begin. Stills has been singing about taking an ocean voyage to recover from the heartbreak of lost love. Then, the chorus begins: “I've been around the world,” and the magic happens. Crosby Stills and Nash provide amazing 3-part harmony. Two of the backup singers on the album are Timothy Schmit from the Eagles, who also sang on Seven Bridges Road, and Art Garfunkel, of Simon & Garfunkel Fame. Two pretty serious singers to provide some backup!

The rest of the song is amazing, kind of a call and response between Sills, of the trio of him plus Nash and Crosby, and Crosby's rhythm guitar. It is amazing musicianship, and beautiful singing. The harmonies are the most memorable part of the song, but they fit in pretty seamlessly with the vocals and the instrumentation.

Of the three, I have the most powerful emotional response to the lyrics, especially the chorus:

You understand now why you came this way

‘Cause the truth you might be runnin' from is so small

But it's as big as the promise, the promise of a comin' day

Maybe I react so strongly because I was in the Navy when this song came out, and I remember spending many and night outside on the fantail of the ship thousands of miles from land staring up at the stars and contemplating the vastness of the universe and my own tiny tiny part in it. Or maybe it's because, I have seen the Southern Cross. I was in Zambia, walking back in the dark to where I was staying, looking up and seeing this big constellation that is unmistakable. You've never seen anything like it. Huge. Immediately recognizable. It's actually pretty hard to pick out constellations if no one is showing you how to find them, but you cannot miss of the Southern Cross. And immediately these lyrics came to my head—“When you see the Southern Cross for the first time”--I went back to my where I was staying and immediately called my family back in the States.

Entry Three: Yes "I've Seen All Good People"

Third in this entry is Yes, the only one of these bands I have seen live in concert. “I've Seen All Good People” is the oldest song on the list, dating back to 1970. “Yes” was one of the First Progressive Rock, or ProgRock, groups, which deliberately made their lyrics more like poetry, and used more sophisticated instrumentation techniques borrowed from classical music and jazz.

“I’ve Seen All Good People” is also the only fully original song on my list, meaning that it was completely written by members of the band that performed it. It is written by Jon Anderson and Chris Squires, and it features three part harmony with Anderson, Squires, and Steve Howe.

Like the Eagles’ song, “I've Seen All Good People begins with acapella harmony:

I've seen all good people turn their heads this way

So Satisfied I'm on my way... .

It has a similar effect to the opening of “Seven Bridges”—beautiful, tight harmony, immediately recognizable. Perhaps because there are fewer voices in the opening to The Eagles song, “All Good People” has fewer overtones and harmonics than you can hear with the Eagles. But this is still beautiful, tight singing.

Like “Southern Cross,” there is a call and response between the harmony, the instrumentation, and the lead vocal. The opening harmonic vocals are immediately followed by a rhythm introduction played on a vachalia, a Portuguese guitar-like instrument that has an ethereal sound... Remember prog-rock is noted for its complex instrumentation.

Then, Anderson's lead vocal dances in and out of the vachalia, and introduces the main metaphor of the song, which compares the complexity of human relationships to a chess game...

Move me on to any black square

Use me anytime you want

Just remember that the goal

Is for us all to capture all we want

(Move me on to any black square)

Don't surround yourself with yourself

Move on back two squares

Send an instant karma to me

Initial it with loving care

Of the three, these lyrics are the most poetic. Chess is a wonderful metaphor for human relations, and, there’s some real musical cleverness. The last part of the lyric I quoted... “Send an instant Karma to me”... is a nod to John Lennon. If you listen very, very closely at that point you will hear a tiny bit of the song “Give Peace a Chance” playing beneath it. An early form of sampling. Musical fireworks here.

The Verdict

So there you have it: spectacular, pure acapella singing on the part of the Eagles, call and response vocals and instruments with Rock and Roll Hall of Famers singing backup for Crosby Stills and Nash, or spot on harmonies with musically and lyrically complex work from Yes. How do you choose among the three? I will not cop out, as my students might sometimes do. They say, “It depends on your taste” and don’t answer they question.

Well, I do have taste. It may not be good taste, but it's taste. Here goes.

Number one is Crosby, Stills, and Nash. I just love the way Crosby’s rhythm guitar walks back and forth in between Stills’ solos and the vocal harmonies. Plus the lyrics are the most personally meaning of the three to me.

Number 2 is Yes. There is something magical and otherworldly about the song’s opening harmonies. I just love chess. But you will never hear this full song on the radio, because, like most ProgRock, the song is too long for radio play.

Number 3 is the Eagles, which surprises me, because even as I'm writing this, I acknowledge this is the best singing of the three. Maybe I vote this way because neither the song nor the arrangement was original, or maybe because, despite the singing, the lyrics are the least interesting (There are stars, but they’re just stars—both of the other two songs take their lyrics to the realm of good metaphor).

I hope you will play along with me, and give me your thoughts in the comments section!


About the Creator

Chuck Etheridge

Novelist, Teacher, Transplanted West Texan, Reluctant Poet

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