Measure For Measure: Major Melancholy

otis redding

Place: San Francisco
Date: August, 1967
Weather: Tangerine skies, with a continued chance of magic on into the night.

It’s the Indian Summer of Love. In the Haight-Ashbury, ocean breezes tickle dreamcatchers and wind chimes in the porticos of painted ladies and head shops, carrying vague hints of incense and peppermints, patchouli and hashish down neon streets where paisley-clad gypsies roam. Guitars and tambourines keep the beat in Golden Gate Park by day. After dark, the Fillmore Auditorium hosts advanced seminars in psychedelia, courtesy the likes of The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Donovan, and Country Joe & the Fish. Vietnam may be raging and draft cards burning, but a visionary spirit of optimism fills the air.

Across the Bay, Stax recording star Otis Redding — also headlining the Fillmore — has another take on things. Sitting on a houseboat in Sausalito, the 26-year-old soul icon opens his notebook and writes, “Sittin’ on the dock of the bay, watchin’ the tide roll away.” Redding, with a string of hits and an acclaimed performance at the Monterey Pop Festival under his belt, is flush with success, so it’s hard to say what prompts him to gaze out upon the picturesque beauty of San Francisco Bay and see reflections of failure and loneliness where Scottie McKenzie beheld a love-in. Whatever’s brewing inside, he’s about to turn it into an immortal hit.

“(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” belongs to a select group of melancholy songs in a major key. “Lodi” by John Fogerty and “Red, Red Wine” by Neil Diamond are two others. “Dock Of The Bay” may sound simple, but subtle poetry lies beneath the surface. Let’s consider just one aspect: rainbows. A rainbow is an arching melodic phrase. “Dock Of The Bay” is a series of rainbows nested within a single overarching rainbow that peaks in the bridge.

In the breakdown below, “Low-HIGH-Low” points on the arcs are shown in boldface. Important melody notes are referenced by solfa syllables. (For more on rainbows, see eBook 2 and the Nov/Dec 2012 column, “Making Rainbows.” See eBook 3 for more on solfa singing. Just email and write “Request Measure for Measure eBooks” in the Subject line.)

VERSE 1 comprises four four-measure rainbows reminiscent of rising and falling tides:

1) | Sittin’. . . sun__ | __ I’ll be | SITTIN’. . . evenin’ come_ | __ || High note: Fa. Redding had just learned a new guitar tuning from cowriter Steve Cropper (open E), and set the lyrics to a gliding succession of major chords created by sliding his hand up and down the neck.

2) | Watchin’ the ships roll in | Then I | WATCH … a-gain_ | __ || Same arc, implying “Stuck on a merry-go-round.”

3) | Yeah, I’m | sittin’… bay | … watchin’ the TIDE_ | __ roll a-way __ | __ || This arc hits a new high on La in “TIDE”.

4) | Ooh, I’m just | sittin’ … BAY | __ wastin’ | time __ | _ || High note: Re. The ornamental “La-Sol” on “Ooh,” echoes “TIDE” above. “Time” shivers through an Em chord, an emotional cry ending in “Do-La,” a minor-3rd motif that returns an octave higher in the bridge.

VERSE 2: Same as verse 1.

BRIDGE: Falling lines are often sad. Redding uses three falling half-rainbows and repeats the sad “Do-La” motif four times, generating a cathartic climax.

1) | LOOKS like | NOTH-in’s gonna change. || Highest note in the song, and the “Do-La” motif hammers it twice. The steep, descending interval implies stormy emotions.

2) | EV’-ry-thing | still … same. || High note: La, backing off the peak.

3) | I can’t do … | TEN people … to do. || The Do-La motif strikes again, hitting the highest note twice.

4) | So I guess … | the SA – me. ____ || High note: Ti. The bluesy b7 on “So” glides up a half-step to the leading-tone on “SA-”, signaling a return to the verse.

VERSE 3: (like verse 1)

CODA: Repeats the Do-La motif offhandedly. Redding whistled because he forgot the words.

These are the short rainbows. The overarching long rainbow climbs from Do up to La in verses 1 and 2, then peaks on high Do four times in the bridge before coming down again in verse 3.

Creative Challenge: Write a melancholy song in a major key. Highlight the minor-3rds in “Do-La” or “Sol-Mi” in the melody. Using a series of rainbow arcs,

build to a high note three-quarters of the way through. Use descending half-rainbows to accentuate the high note.

Melancholy outro: Back at Stax, “Dock Of The Bay” gets a cool reception, but Redding insists it will be a hit. Released in January, 1968, it soars to No. 1 and stays at the top of the charts for four weeks. Sadly, he never lives to see his judgment validated. On December 10th, 1967, three days after recording “Dock,” Otis Redding’s Beechcraft H18 crashes in frozen Lake Monona in Wisconsin, silencing a great songwriting voice forever.

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