The Road Through The Woods Poem by Rudyard Kipling, adapted with music by Cindy Mangsen
Co-writing can be a great way to move forward with our songwriting. But even in the absence of willing collaborators there's another form of co-writing that can be productive, and it is a form that can provide some advantages. In choosing a poem from literature you have the opportunity to work with a lyric that captures your imagination, and gives you inspiration to respond from your musical/emotional vocabulary to a work that is already complete.
Just make sure that you are not violating a copyright. This is not a problem with poems written before 1924, or poems for which you have permission from the author or the publisher if the author is no longer living. This song is a collaboration with Rudyard Kipling, the great English short story writer, novelist and poet; the first English speaking author to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
Kipling was born in India, traveled the world and lived for a time near Brattleboro, Vermont. He was the author of The Jungle Book, Kim, Captains Courageous, Gunga Din, The Man Who Would Be King, and The White Man's Burden. He became a controversial character, especially later in his career. He was not shy about his enthusiasm for the ambitions of the Empire, and became a jingoistic voice for the Rhodes / Milner Round Table leading up to the first world war.
His famous poem "If—" was written around the same time as the poem which is the subject of this article. In discussing "If—", Wikipedia reports, “Kipling said that, in writing the poem, he was inspired by the character of Leander Starr Jameson, leader of the failed Jameson Raid against the Transvaal Republic to overthrow the Boer Government of Paul Kruger. The failure of that mercenary coup d'état aggravated the political tensions between Great Britain and the Boers, which led to the Second Boer War (1899–1902). As an evocation of Victorian-era stoicism —the "stiff upper lip" self-discipline, which popular culture rendered into a British national virtue and character trait, "If—" remains a cultural touchstone.
Cindy Mangsen took one of Kipling's poems and adapted it with only slight changes according to her vision of what the poem was about and what it might say to her contemporary listeners. She brought to it her experience with classical music as well as the British tunes and songs that are a part of our recording and performing repertoire. Here's what Cindy has to say about the song and her process:
I first came across this poem through Peter Bellamy's musical setting. Peter was a phenomenal singer and Anglo Concertina player who set many Kipling poems to music. There are stories of Kipling humming or whistling as he wrote, perhaps as an aid to fostering the lyricism of his work. Kipling lived in Sussex for the last 40 years of his life, and it's pleasing to imagine him humming songs from the likes of the Copper family.
The poem was titled "The Way Through The Woods" and was published in Kipling's book Rewards and Fairies, consisting of stories based on Sussex history (some factual, some fanciful). A poem bookends each story, and "The Way Through The Woods" prefaces a story called "The Marlake Witches."
Peter Bellamy set the poem in 6/8 time, and when I first sang along to his tune, something didn't settle comfortably for me, although I found the poem very appealing. I wanted the feel to be more melancholy (jig time is so jaunty), and eventually settled on slowing the tempo and singing in 4/4 time. This did lead to some slight adaptation of the words (which Mr. Kipling may or may not have approved). The original poem does fall better into 6/8 time, so there was reason behind Peter's choice, but my feeling was that the mystery and uncanny nature of the poem wasn't served well by the more sprightly tempo.
Still, I believe there are some bones of Peter's tune in my setting, particularly in the first line of each verse, where the melody begins confidently on a 1-5-1 chord progression. The two stanzas fall naturally into three sections of four lines each, and I return to that initial 1-5-1 progression at the beginning of each section, and then branch off in a different direction for the remaining lines. Peter sticks with major chords and a simple repetitive melody throughout the song. I bring in some darker, minor chords beginning with the third line (Em, the relative minor to the key of G in my version), and a four-minor chord in the fourth line: C-Cm-D, where that lush Eb of the Cm chord serves as a slightly ominous passing tone.
I'm fond of melodies and harmonies that weave through and around each other, rather than feeling that they're slavishly built around chords. If I compose with a guitar in hand, the blockiness of chords (and my limitations as a guitarist) is difficult for me to overcome. I'm quite sure I came up with most of this tune by noodling around on piano, where I am more likely to unearth interesting musical elements. I should point out that most of this process is intuitive for me, and only now am I analyzing what happens in the melody.
Once I had settled on the shape of the tune, I knew I wanted Pete Sutherland (who would modestly describe himself as a “minimalist” pianist) to accompany the song. I sent a rough (guitar) version to Pete and, as always, he added subtlety to my notions. We didn't have a chance to go over ideas before we went into the recording studio in Brattleboro, but a few run-throughs with Pete is always enough, he is so quick to grasp the essence of a song. I believe it was his idea to leave out the ending words of the penultimate line, which originally read “As though they perfectly knew the old lost road through the woods.”
By leaving out “through the woods,” space was created to let the minor chords have their moment of reverie. That's why I love working with Pete. He always asks if it's okay for him to make changes in the chords, and we've learned each other's tastes and limits over years of working together. I have learned a lot about arranging and harmony from him, and have probably exploited his good will on more than one occasion.
The final touch on the arrangement was my writing an oboe part for my niece, Jennifer Weeks, to record, adding one more eloquent voice to the track. After the fact, I studied the recording of Pete's piano and learned to approximate it myself, and very occasionally, when there's an in-tune piano available, have played the song in concert.
Here's a video based on the song:
Cindy's recording of "The Road Through The Woods."
Video by Steve
Cindy's recording of this song is available on our Being There CD in our online store here.
Here are the lyrics and chords:
There was a
There was a
There was a
Turnaround: C G D Em C D G
C G D Em C D G
© 2006, Compass Rose Music, BMI