Music education always & always looking forward.

Winding Waters in 5/4 Time: Asymmetrical Simple Meter in Nick Drake's "River Man"

I've had this song stuck in my head all Wednesday evening.  Maybe it's because it's been raining all week here, all across Florida.  (Welcome, Summer!)  While working on my DIS, this was a song I would not play too late at night, otherwise its examination of life and its meaning or lack thereof would burrow into my brain and kind of wreck me for the evening.  While discussing what songs outside of 4/4 sound like to my students during the last week of school, I played this song, and the kids found it relaxing.  

Meanwhile, especially at the right point in the evening, this song scares the crap out of me.  I feel the same way about Sonic Youth's "Tunic", while other SY fans contend that it's just a beautiful song.  Either way -- if you need cheering up, don't turn to Nick Drake, but nonetheless this song is a great example of asymmetrical meter, being in 5/4 time.

"River Man" – Nick Drake

Intro: An unusual figure in folk rock, Drake’s career began in England when he was 20 and literature student at the University of Cambridge and ended with his death at age 26. He released three albums, his latter two only selling approximately 5,000 copies each. “River Man” appears on his first album, Five Leaves Left, released in 1969 and like much of his songwriting, it contains bleak imagery and the influence of literary poets. Drake’s lack of mainstream appeal also stemmed from the fact that Drake was hesitant to perform in public and appear on film, hampering Island Records’ ability to promote him.  In the years after his death, however, he became a musical cult figure and amassed a much larger following than he had during his life.  As a testament to the musical longevity of Drake’s work, “River Man” was re-released as a single in 2004.

Analysis: This song is entirely in 5/4, putting forth the imagery of following down a river. The note grouping is especially prevalent in the guitar line.  The asymmetrical meter creates a dreamlike feel, matching the mythical, macabre imagery of the song.

Considerations for Teaching: The song contains no inappropriate language, but some students may find the thematic material disturbing. Some of the lyrics seem to discuss the song’s protagonist, Betty, contemplating suicide. Some of the imagery presented in the lyrics seems apocalyptic - “Betty said she prayed today / for the sky to blow away.” Although the music can be matched with analysis of literary poets, including William Wordsworth, its use as a classroom listening example should be approached with some caution.

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