When the First Leaves Fall Words & Music by Steve Gillette
The autumn is a very special time in New England. People travel from distant places to view the colors and experience that crisp bucolic splendor that follows the September equinox each year. Part of the beauty is the mixture of different kinds of trees and a varied landscape which seems to enhance the display. There is also the sense of a people connected to their heritage of traditional farms and a pretty unified culture. Not quite representative of the greater American mix of colors and cultures, but that may be a topic for a different article and a different song.
With nature as a background, you already have the passages of time, day to night, Spring to Fall, birth to death, slumbering under the gentle tempo of the song. As the images are connected by a scheme of thought, the song moves from setting the scene early on to getting toward the point, the argument, the 'what am I saying by what I'm saying' part. For me this is usually at the midpoint of a song. That means that it can be revisited, maybe even from a different perspective, and there may be room for a bridge to intercede and refresh the ear to prepare for that revisitation.
For these articles uppercase Roman numerals (such as I, IV, V) are used to represent major chords, while lowercase Roman numerals (such as ii, iii, vi) are used to represent minor chords Building simple chords on each scale degree produces a I-major, ii-minor, iii-minor, IV-major, V-major, vi-minor and vii-diminished. If there is a major chord built on the third degree of the key which would normally be a minor chord, this chord is said to be 'borrowed' from another key.
In this song, the verses are in two parts, much like traditional tunes with an A part and a B part. The first half of the verse uses chords from the normal key, the tonic or I major, the ii minor, the vi minor and the V. But then in the second half of the verse there is a departure from the normal scale bringing in a 'borrowed' chord which in this case is a major chord built on the third degree of the key.
This major chord acts as a 'borrowed dominant' which 'leads,' or 'tends' toward the vi minor on the way to the IV. This is similar to the use of a borrowed dominant that we talked about in the article on "Bed of Roses" but based on a different note of the scale. From here the last phrase starts on the I and goes to the V and then to the IV for the false ending on the phrase 'I want to be there' before resolving to the I.
There's an awkwardness in the way the last line ends. It requires the listener to accept a stutter-step in the meter for the rhyme to work. It's not as if I didn't try to improve on it, but I came to believe that it lends an innocence - an amiable clumsiness to the character, and have come to accept it. It's a good thing that I didn't have a co-writer on this song. That's just the kind of nit-picking issue that can be a pain in the neck.
This scheme allows the song to establish the sense of the key with some harmonies based on major and minor chords in the first half of the verse, but then in the second section to ripple the waters with a more provocative idea introduced with the unconventional assertion of a chord borrowed from a different key. Same in the second half of the second verse, where the song really wants to double down and recognize 'Eternity stirring in the air.'
The bridge also uses borrowed chords. These might be best accounted for in their relationship to a borrowed key. In this case, it's as if the song has moved to the key of the fourth scale degree of the original key. At the end of the bridge the song returns to the original key by way of the V of the new key which is the I of the original key. The bridge also returns to the nature imagery, giving a chance to reiterate the seasonal turning and setting up the second half of the verse form and the final affirmation of love, "Yours is the yearning that gives meaning to my own, in the silence when the wish becomes a prayer. When the first leaves fall, no matter where you are, I want to be there."
It's important that the singer not be heard to harp too stridently on his point. This is especially true in a romantic serenade. The young Baron Christian might blurt out his desire to win the love of the fair Roxane, but Cyrano makes it happen with respect and poetic understatement. There's an old line about the young radio announcer asking the veteran broadcaster for advice. "It's all about sincerity, my boy. If you can fake that you've got it made." But what if it's just too important to take the chance of being disingenuous?
This song is a sentimental exploration of what it is like to be in a place of beauty and to be in love in that place. It's a love song to be sure, and no denying it, the song employs many of a songwriter's most reliable devices to proclaim its troth. But there is another element that's harder to pin down. It has to do with personal philosophy or, for want of a better word, religion.
In this song, I use the word prayer. It's the only time I have used the word. It's chosen with care to communicate the reverence, the sanctity, the absolutely sacred nature of ardent commitment. I try to make the distinction between something that is merely desired, or even demanded, and the thing that confronts the lover at the ground plane of his existence.
Some would say that place is inhabited by his god, but then even that would fall short of the idea that somewhere in the core of his being, a man knows his soul and his allegiance to something even more primary than a religious commitment. Many will say that there is nothing more primary than a religious commitment, while missing the point that even that commitment must be a conscious choice. It may not be 'I think therefore I am,' it might be more like 'I think and I am.' But whatever it is, only I can say what is in my own heart. Somebody said that when the waitress asked Rene Descartes if he wanted more coffee and he said, "I think not," he disappeared.
Back to the turning of the leaves. If all you get is a few pretty pictures and an expression of romantic love, that's fine. But if I could only be heard to say one thing for all time, then this song is what I would say. I will keep trying to do better; there's always a way to do better, but I'll let this one stand for the rest.
Dylan Jones has written an article about Jim Webb's masterful song, "Wichita Lineman." In it he writes about what can make songs memorable. He says:
"Some neuroscientists believe that our brains go through two stages when we listen to a piece of music that we like: the caudate nucleus in the brain anticipates the build-up of our favorite part of the song as we listen, while the nucleus accumbens is triggered by the peak, thus causing the release of endorphins."
"Wichita Lineman" certainly does that. I believe Jim Webb's real genius is in the melodies and unexpected chordal features of his songs, and "Lineman" is such a good example of that. But Jones' article focuses on the couplet, "And I need you more than want you / and I want you for all time" He feels that it expresses the inexpressible in such a memorable way, and I agree. It's the kind of thing I'm trying to express in my song.
Webb says: "I was trying to express the yearning that goes beyond yearning, that goes into another dimension when I wrote that line. It was a moment where the language failed me really; there was no way for me to pour this out, except to go into an abstract realm, and that was the line that popped out."
It's a coincidence that 'yearning' is a word that he would use to frame the issue. I had not seen this interview when I wrote my song, but I did land on, "Yours is the yearning that gives meaning to my own," and it functions in a similar way. Great minds, I guess.
Webb concludes the interview with, "Good songwriting is still important, it is a continuing miracle that an art form so potent and influential in the emotional lives of human beings is available to virtually anyone who wants to enjoy it. There's a subtext to classic hit songs, and that subtext is the common experience. By its nature, it isn't very easy to explain the intangible hook that fastens on to everyone."
The complete article can be found here.
I've made a video of our song with local scenery:
"When the First Leaves Fall" by Steve Gillette
Audio from Steve & Cindy;s CD "A Sense of Place." Video by Steve.
And here's a live version with Cindy and me at the Rose Garden Coffeehouse:
Steve Gillette & Cindy Mangsen perform "When the First Leaves Fall."
Our album "A Sense of Place" is available for purchase here, on CD or as an MP3 album.
Here are the lyrics as we sing it:
There is a moment when the dark spell of winter Is broken by the promise of the Spring When we walk the mile woods in the first hours of the morning And arrive with all the world awakening. I am nurtured by your presence, root and branch and blossom, And the soft rain shining in your hair And when the first leaves fall, no matter where you are, I want to be there. There is a moment in the high green summer When the long sweet days give way to shadow Where we lay together beside the open window And watch the fireflies like stars upon the meadow. And there's an unspoken wisdom in the motion of the trees, Eternity stirring in the air, And when the first leaves fall, no matter where you are, I want to be there. I want to be the one you turn to when the frost is on the fencepost And the cold traveler moon stands alone. When all that remains of the warm rains of summer Is the mist on the millpond below. Yours is the yearning that gives meaning to my own In the silence when the wish becomes a prayer. When the first leaves fall, no matter where you are, I want to be there. When the first leaves fall, no matter where you are, I want to be there.
© 2000, Compass Rose Music, BMI