Making ROOTS AND BRANCHES: “Travelin’ Man”

I wrote “Travelin’ Man” in the mid-1970’s for the band Harlequin, which I co-founded with violinist Joel Zifkin while we were students at McGill University. It was a mainstay in the band’s repertoire during the mid-period of the band’s lineup.

“Travelin’ Man” segued into an unnamed instrumental written by Joel and me. The entire dual-song performance clocked in at about 10 minutes. I subsequently titled the instrumental “Travelin’.” Harlequin played a number of extended song structures like this one featuring extended composed instrumentals. 

We played a medley composed of Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me,” followed by the Zifkin/Klingaman instrumental “Snarf in Za,” then “Know You Rider.” I found “Know You Rider” fit thematically more closely with “Travelin’ Man,” and so created a new medley in the form it inhabits on Roots and Branches.

“Travelin’ Man” was loosely based on my life living in New Orleans and touring in Tennessee and Florida prior to my life in Montreal. Eventually I grew dissatisfied with some of the verse lyrics, finding them too “poeticky” and off the point of the underlying narrative. 

So after Harlequin I put the song in mothballs and didn’t play it for a long time. But it was wasn’t just the issue of the lyrics. The harmonies that occurred throughout the song, and especially in the chorus were essential to the intentions of the song. Without them, I couldn’t see the point—not until the concept for Roots and Branchesarrived.

Reimagining the Musical Setting

The instrumental thrust of the song is fingerstyle acoustic guitar, or Travis picking. My style at the time was heavily influenced by Leo Kottke, who I followed since high. I saw him play a couple of times in St. Paul while I was in college there. I adapted his style to 6-string guitar (he played 12-string) and used metal fingerpicks and a plastic thumbpick. I used them to accelerate my playing and for greater projection in an era when acoustic guitar amplification was problematic.

I wrote the song on my Mossman dreadnaught guitar, which was my acoustic throughout the Harlequin era. I still have it, and after much restoration it was the guitar I used to record the medley on the record.

The only problem was I had stopped fingerpicking a long time ago and the sound of metal fingerpicks didn’t work in close-mic recording. So I had to reteach myself how to play that fast again and do it without fingerpicks.  It took a while. The entire 16-minute medley employs the fingerpicked Mossman in drop-D tuning. The dropped-D 6thstring gives the song a little more gravity on the tonic chord.

The key musical motif in the Harlequin version of the song was Joel Zifkin’s violin. As a musical feature it’s induplicable. The part was never written down, it was all head arrangement, and he varied it along the way. So, in my mind, no violin could duplicate it. And on guitar, it was impossible.

I probably have two recordings of live performances of the song made from God-knows-what kind of cassette deck, and I used those to recreate the vocal harmonies and to set the stage for my new lead instrument, the nylon string guitar. I had wanted one for years but had only recently acquired one at the time I was arranging the song. This was the first and only song I ever used nylon string guitar on in a recording. Another departure was that I used an overdriven electric to punch up the driving rhythm of the chorus.

Harlequin almost never used a drummer. Our musical structure was almost a little bit like bluegrass, and speed provided a lot of the impetus to keep the rhythm driving. With John O’Reilly Jr. on drums for the recording, I could slow the song down a bit to a tempo that allowed vocals to shine. His trad take on the song didn’t really use a trap kit, it was more like the sound of Steve Amedee of the Subdudes (not that we copied him—it just turned out that way).

Vocal Moves in the Dark

I had originally hoped to have Harlequin singer Linda Morrison reprise her vocal part on the medley but given that she lived in Montreal and after Morris Apelbaum closed his Silent Sound Studio there I didn’t really have a way to pull it off, so I never had the means to ask her to participate.

I sang the melody in the band. Howard Engle, my dear friend (he was dear to all in Harlequin), who sang the male tenor part in Harlequin had passed away. I had put Lenne and Eliza in unison for his chorus part in the song. And I recorded them before I realized I didn’t have a viable strategy to record Linda Morrison. I was just stuck and shelved the song until Mark Christine arrived on the scene. I asked him to sing her part as a male harmony. 

Mark has sung a lot of styles, everything from boy band 4-part harmonies (as a teen!), lots of musical theater, to taking requests as a piano-bar man, but with me I think he found a new sweet spot with an echo of a Timothy B. Schmidt high harmony on this song and Know You Rider. So, for these final two vocal songs on the album we went to four voices in three- and four-part harmony. I think it does make for a soaring hook on the climax of the chorus here.

The song sports an unusual structure in that while it clocks in at 5 minutes, it only has two instances of the chorus. The fifth verse (“She left me like a shadow in the sun…”) forms a kind of narrative climax of its own, segueing into an outro that is an overlapping round between the lead vocal and the three back-ups, culminating in a single unison line that makes a sharp cut on the song. 

It was a pleasure to add a male voice to the two songs of the medley; on indie projects you never know what turns your arrangement may take.

I thought it was a shame that Harlequin was never recorded anything in its heyday. I am pleased that “Travelin’ Man” finally made it  to record, and that the song carried forward echoes of its prior life.

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