July 7, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

As we all know, President Obama, at the end of his eulogy for Rev. Pinckney, sang “Amazing Grace.” It was something of a last-minute decision.  The Times yesterday (here) referred to an account by Valerie Jarrett, family friend and White House senior advisor.

“When I get to the second part of referring to ‘Amazing Grace,’ I think I might sing,” he told them, by Ms. Jarrett’s account.

“Hmm,” Ms. Jarrett recalled responding.

Mrs. Obama was a little more pointed. “Why on earth would that fit in?” she asked.

But sing he did.

Much has been written about that speech, but what struck me were two things that few people mentioned. First, the discovery that the leader of the free world has a somewhat uncertain relationship to pitch. Maybe that’s what the First Lady had in mind (“Why on earth . . . ?”)

Many who watched him that day noted that he paused a long time before beginning to sing.

“So later I said to him, ‘Were you thinking about whether or not to sing?’” Ms. Jarrett recalled at Aspen. “He said, ‘Oh no, I knew I was going to sing. I was just trying to figure out which key to sing it.’”

It took the musicians even longer to figure out what key that was.  If you watch the video (here), you can hear that after Obama’s first few bars a capella, they try to come in with some accompaniment, and there seems to be some tacit negotiation between them and the president over whether they can pull him to E-flat, the key he seems closest to.

The other thing “Amazing Grace” reminded me of was the amazing power of the pentatonic scale. Five notes, most easily visualized as the five black keys on a piano. You could play “Amazing Grace” without using your fingers just by rolling an orange over the keys.

You could also play the melody of all these other songs. And note the variety. Some are folk songs (other Scottish and Appalachian tunes, less well known, might be included), but there are also spirituals, pop, and rock:

Amazing Grace
Swing Low Sweet Chariot
Coming Through the Rye
Auld Lang Syne
A la Claire Fontaine
Wayfaring Stranger
Camptown Races (Stephen Foster)
If I Had a Hammer (Pete Seeger, Lee Hays)
Use Somebody (Kings of Leon)
4 Real (Avril Lavigne)
We Didn’t Start the Fire (Billy Joel)
My Girl (The Temptations)
Stay ft. Mikky Ekko (Rihanna)
Bad, Bad Leroy Brown (Jim Croce)

I’m sure there are many others.*

Watch Bobby McFerrin lead an audience in the pentatonic scale completely impromptu. He gives no direct instructions, and yet the audience intuitively gets it. So do McFerrin’s audiences all over the world. As he says, “The pentatonic scale for some reason . . . .”

I nearly forgot – one other pentatonic song: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

* Several songs are pentatonic except for the bridge, i.e., for 24 out of 32 bars – the theme song from “All in the Family,” for example,which adds one more tone, or “Every Little Breeze Seems to Whisper Louise”. I have omitted them.

No comments: