Measure For Measure: Lucinda Williams’s Lightning

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There are many reasons to like Lucinda Williams. For one, there’s her knack for telling imagery, as evidenced in her song “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road.” In this song we meet a 5-year-old child with a “little bit of dirt mixed with tears,” a remarkably telling image. You can also immerse yourself in Lucinda’s clear but weathered voice and emerge with your soul cleansed. With finely crafted vocal nuances, she routinely breathes new life into aging standards, such as “Gentle On My Mind.”

This column is about nuances of another kind — not in singing or in wordsmithing, but in harmony. Examples are easy to find in Lucinda’s songs.

In January, we explored the basics of phrase structure in “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” by Hank Williams, one of Lucinda’s influences. But we left a basic question unanswered, namely “What is a phrase, anyhow.”

As a practical matter, phrases are easily recognized by the musical punctuation marks that separate them. In songs, these marks often coincide with grammatical phrases — the literal commas, periods and dashes in the lyrics that give the singer a moment to catch her breath.

Music theory, however, likes to define phrases by cadences — harmonic formulas found at phrase endings. This is where music and natural languages diverge: English has only one comma, but music has a dozen or more. Theory has a bewildering set of terms for cadences — authentic (perfect and imperfect), plagal, half, deceptive, to name a... Sign In to Keep Reading

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