The Tale of A Four-Part Harmony or I Finally GOT It!

This weekend my son and I went back to my hometown for two reasons: the Art in Autumn Festival in Weaverville, NC (check out the KILLER T-SHIRT above) and a family reunion. It was so nice to be home! My family has owned the same farm for more than two hundred years. Our family reunion has been at the same location, on the same Sunday, since 1939. As most of you know, I grew up in the high mountains lining the North Carolina-Tennessee border and I’m very proud of my Scots-Irish heritage. Family get-togethers in the Appalachian Mountains always include several staples of our unique culture: food, storytelling and music, lots of music, much of which can be traced back to Scotland and Ireland.

Even though I’m raising my son in the South Carolina Lowcountry, nearly 300 miles and several light-years, from where I grew up, I try very hard to make sure he understands his mountain heritage. I sang Go To Sleep, Little Baby to him when he was teething. I sing Keep On The Sunny Side to him when his heart gets broken. Traditional music ala The Carter Family and Bill Monroe has been part of his experience since the moment he came into the world. And he loves it. For the past several months, he’s been enthralled with an old Bill Monroe song called Fox on the Run. The recording I have is a three-part harmony. And even though he knows all the words, and even though we listen to it several times a day, he couldn’t sing it to his satisfaction. UNTIL. . .
At the reunion on Sunday, after a great meal, someone picked up a guitar. The banjo and the mandolin were next and soon we were well on our way to an impromptu concert. My son requested Fox on the Run, the pickers agreed on a key, decided to divide the vocals into a four part harmony, and we were off—dozens of similar voices harmonizing. I looked down at my son’s face and he was enthralled. His face was aglow with enlightenment. When the chorus came along, he slid into the fourth part of the harmony like it was made just for him.
What does this have to do with writing? My son has heard, practiced and worried with this song’s vocals for months. He plays it over and over. Hums it. Taps his foot to it. But he just couldn’t get it right—until he heard it in a different way.

The same goes for writing. Sometimes you can work on a scene, or an entire manuscript, and you just can’t get it to work. But if you keep working, learning, trying . . .eventually the missing piece will show up and everything will make sense. You have to keep at it, even if the answer or the solution is not immediately apparent. All that work equals something. It’s not a waste. And sometimes it takes all that work to get to the solution.

If only I’d played a four-part harmony version of this song, maybe my son would’ve gotten it sooner. And then he wouldn’t have worried over it so much. But maybe not. Maybe the worrying was what he needed. Now, because he had to work at it, he knows every part—the vocals, the rhythms and counter rhythms, the melody. If he hadn’t spent so much time on it, he might have only known one part, not the whole song.

Writing is one of those skills that requires a lot of practice. With music, you rarely get it to sound the way you want the first time you play (or sing) it. You’ll hit sour notes, forget a sharp, mangle chords. In your manuscript, you’ll create flat characters, write dialogue that sounds silly, and overuse adjectives. It’s okay. Really. It’s okay. You’ve learned a lot just by virtue of spotting these problems. And eventually, just like for my son, you’ll hear that fourth part and realize just what you’ve been missing.

More about ART IN AUTUMN later this week.

If you’re curious about the song, here’s a link to a vintage performance by the Country Gentlemen. And yes, it’s a four-part harmony.

OR, if you require a Hipper version, in three-part harmony(or something like it), check out Bare Naked Ladies doing the same song

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