Johnny Appleseed Words & Music by Steve Gillette
Born in Leominster, Massachusetts in 1774, John Chapman was a true American folk hero. He would travel through our part of the world here in Southern Vermont on his way to tend his small plantings of apple trees as far to the west as Indiana. He's been the subject of stories and films for two hundred years. I wrote this song as part of a project for sixth graders, based on his life and travels.
In my story I envisioned him stopping off at a farm not far from here near Williamstown, Massachusetts. Caretaker Farm is a real farm which was likely a working farm in John Chapman's day. We belonged to the Community Sponsored Agriculture project there for several years before we moved our membership to a farm closer to home.
In my story Johnny stops there to visit and is asked if he will escort a young widow and her child to meet her brother who is stationed at Grand Isle, near Buffalo at the far end of New York State. It's quite a journey, and it gave me ample opportunity for adventures on the way. Near the end of the trail they encounter the Niagara River, and of course, the famous falls. As daunting as this prospect is, it turns out to be the best way to escape from pursuers. More about that later.
Chapman would get seeds for free from the cider mills and set out with a satchel full, planting as he went. He'd clear a small patch of ground and set up crude fences to protect the seedlings from livestock. He left his nurseries in the care of neighbors who would sell trees on shares. He would return every year or two to tend to the young trees. Claiming the land in this way he eventually came to own about twelve hundred acres. He would sometimes sell the land. He sold seedlings for pennies or would trade for food or cast off clothing.
He also carried religious tracts of the followers of Emanuel Swedenborg, creator of what came to be known as the New Church. His writings promoted one church based on love and charity, rather than multiple churches named after their founders and based on belief or doctrine. Religious discussion seemed to be a big part of Chapman's social interactions with people in his travels. His enterprise of apple propagation contributed a welcome benefit for the distant settlers. They had no other source of alcohol and cider was greatly valued.
Without grafting from known stock, the apples produced from seeds would be of unpredictable varieties. Often called 'spitters,' that is bitter, they were still perfect for cider making. Chapman didn't want to graft his trees even though that process was understood. It is said that he found religious objections in addition to the extra labor involved. Legend has it that he lived to be seventy-two years old and is buried near Fort Wayne, Indiana.
As much as he has been portrayed as a bumpkin with a saucepan on his head, it seems he was a pretty good nurseryman and a practical fellow. He took up the elements at hand, seeds and soil, with faith that nature would provide. We may be past the time when it's possible to make our way in the world in just those terms, but I have no qualms about offering him as a role model. As for his evangelism, growing up in New England during what they call the 'Second Great Awakening' I'm guessing that many felt they were blessed with an 'embarrassment of riches' as they set out to claim the raw new land.
A song written for young people can serve as an example of many of the techniques that would need to be handled with more subtlety in the so-called "adult" song. It can be assumed that the younger listener won't be as jaded, and at the same time, might appreciate a little more animated approach. Devices that a more sophisticated listener might find silly can give the songwriter a chance to go back to the first grade and review the things that make songs work.
We use the term 'hooks' to describe all the ways there are to capture the listeners' attention — to engage them in the message of the song. These are devices and choices that can help create a lingering impression, what someone once called 'ear candy' and what has been described as an ear-worm. What are the elements of a good hook? I would list impact, repetition, strong rhyme, a clear character voice, and a sense of conviction. All the elements are present to a greater or lesser degree in the most memorable songs.
A good example of the use of impact can be seen in the song, "Help!" The Beatles employed a blatant shout, the universal call for assistance that has commanded us to drop everything and come running for hundreds of years. Not quite as irresponsible as shouting fire in a crowded theater, it's actually fun in their song, and grabs the ear.
Help! I need somebody,
Help! Not just anybody,
Help! You know I need someone,
I deliberately placed the exclamation points to call attention to the emphasis that is there in their scheme for the song. Repetition too is abundant in this example.
The 'first word' strategy has worked well in thousands of songs. "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing," "Down In the Boondocks," "Give me a kiss to build a dream on," and "Amie, what you wanna do?"
In addition to the idea of a strong initial impact, a line like 'Para bailar la bamba' can create excitement through the machine-gun staccato of the strongly accented eighth notes of the first four syllables. It jangles the ear in a satisfying way so that the listener welcomes its repetition.
"You, you, you," accomplishes a similar calling to attention in a more gentle three/quarter time version. "All Of Me, Why Not Take All of Me?" Again, the shout out, and the repetition. "How Can I Tell You." Some Enchanted Evening," "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," "Stop In the Name of Love," "Beat It" and "My Girl."
I offer the chorus to "Johnny Appleseed" to demonstrate my use of these principles, and hopefully give a sense of the slightly larger-than-life language of folklore and fable. It's the tone of tall tales and that over-the-top energy of songs for younger audiences. It's important to take care not to underestimate the sensibilities of younger listeners, it's good to have something worth saying.
Hey Johnny Appleseed, you really are a friend indeed.
You left a path for me to follow through the apple trees.
Hey, Johnny Appleseed, you taught me everything I need
And I will follow where you lead, Johnny Appleseed.
It the song weren't part of a whole presentation with story and characters, I wouldn't expect it to stand on its own. But I envision it set in a context where it might be the final song of the play, or heard over the end credits of the movie. I have developed story ideas for the play, but so far this is the only song. I'd be glad to hand it off to someone who has the energy and the desire to run with it.
I had opportunities to write songs for some of the Walt Disney productions over the years. For a Disney Channel version of Winnie-the-Pooh and Dumbo, two short songs were needed for each script and they were being broadcast almost daily. A dozen of us would wait our turn for a script and then would have only a day or two to turn in the songs. Many of these I wrote with Rex Benson.
Here's the bridge to one that I think demonstrates the earnest adherence to true rhyme in order to have the greatest impact. It also contains examples of alliteration and inner-line rhymes that, I think, work pretty well. The theme of the episode was a search for buried treasure.It might be the crown jewels of some forgotten kingdom
Or a hundred pieces-of-eight or gold doubloons
It might be a diamond, there's no way of tellin,' or a ruby as big as a melon
Or a box of chocolate coconut macaroons.
Here's a video of our version of the song using the audio track from our CD, "The Light of the Day." George Wilson played fiddle, Mark Schatz played bass and then overdubbed the banjo, Anne Hills and Cindy Mangsen sang harmony and I sang and played guitar. The tune at the end is, "Swingin' On a Gate."
Steve & Cindy performing "Johnny Appleseed"; video by Steve
The CD "The Light of the Day," is available here.
The songbook with the sheet music for "Johnny Appleseed" and 46 other songs is available here.
And here are the lyrics the way we sing it.
Hey Johnny Appleseed, you really are a friend indeed. You left a path for me to follow through the apple trees. Hey Johnny Appleseed, you taught me everything I need And I will follow where you lead, Johnny Appleseed. What a time to be alive, so early in the morning When the warm glow of the summer sunrise set the skies ablaze. We wandered deep into the wilderness and back again A journey I'll remember 'til the end of my days. Hey Johnny Appleseed, you really are a friend indeed. You left a path for me to follow through the apple trees. Hey, Johnny Appleseed, you taught me everything I need And I will follow where you lead, Johnny Appleseed. Down through the years, nothing really changes. Somewhere deep within us we're the same as we were then. If I could see you comin' through the meadow You know I'd gladly go that happy way with you again. Hey Johnny Appleseed, you really are a friend indeed. You left a path for me to follow through the apple trees. Hey Johnny Appleseed, you taught me everything I need And I will follow where you lead, Johnny Appleseed.
© 2000, Compass Rose Music, BMI
Mural of Johnny Appleseed created by John Thrasher in Mansfield, Ohio