The Secret Life of Songs

#1 - Bring It On Home to Me / Sam Cooke

May 21, 2020 Season 1 Episode 1
The Secret Life of Songs
#1 - Bring It On Home to Me / Sam Cooke
Show Notes Transcript

How does a song make us feel like we want to go home? that we miss someone who has left us at a home that now feels nothing but empty? that they may never come home, though we'll never stop hoping? In this first episode, I look at Sam Cooke's song, 'Bring It On Home to Me', to introduce the concept of the 'home' chord and to explore all the ways Cooke uses melody, harmony, lyrics and more to achieve a powerful expression of missing someone, of longing for their return.

All the songs mentioned in the episode, including 'Bring It On Home to Me', can be heard here

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Bring It On Home To Me

Hello and welcome to the first episode of the Secret Life of Songs - a podcast on the making - and the meaning - of classic pop records. I’m Anthony, I’m a musician who writes and performs music under the name sky coloured and I wanted to write about a certain way of listening to music - a way that tries to take in the whole of a record - its lyric, its musical material and arrangement, its performance and production - to get closer to what these famous songs might mean, which is to say, what they mean to me. It’s an attempt that always fails - there’s always more you can say about these recordings - but I hope it’ll be illuminating to see me try. It’s intended to be for musicians and non-musicians alike, so I’ll spend time along the way explaining bits of music theory where necessary - hopefully only where necessary.

This week, I’m going to be looking at the idea of home, among other things, in Sam Cooke’s 1962 single, ‘Bring It On Home to Me’

Sam Cooke would have only a seven year recording career as a solo artist before his death at the age of 33 but he produced a body of work which encompassed the entire development of the musical style that would come to be known as soul. From his roots as a young gospel star in the Soul Stirrers to his posthumously released civil rights masterpiece, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, his work is emblematic of the close, sometimes fraught, relationship between the different threads of African American music of the mid-20th-century. ‘Bring It On Home to Me’, recorded in April 1962, roughly the middle of Cooke’s short career, is a seminal recording in this story. 

It was his first original recording to consciously incorporate elements from gospel, most notably the call-and-response ‘yeahs’ at the culmination of each verse. 

When René Hall, the arranger from the original recording session, was describing the process of making the track, he said, ‘we were after the Soul Stirrers type thing, trying to create that flavor in an R&B setting’. It was a moment in which Cooke and his team had successes behind them. They would have been confident enough to draw explicitly on the gospel tradition without fear of censorship from either their record label or the gospel music establishment, and to express not only a more adult idea of romantic love but, more significantly, to create a music that not only fulfilled commercial obligations but went further to express something more sincere, something truer to their lived experiences. One of the backing vocalists on the session, JW Fred Smith, said, ‘we felt that light shit wouldn’t sustain him. We felt he needed more weight’. The ‘weight’ that Smith speaks of contains a great deal - and establishing what it might be requires an engagement with the roots of what we might call the ‘musics of the blues’ - what the poet Amiri Baraka called the ‘blues continuum’. 

Cooke was away from home when the idea for ‘Bring It On Home to Me’ first occurred to him. Driving between tour dates in Georgia in early 1962, Cooke had the idea of reworking the 1959 blues song ‘I Wanna Go Home’ by Charles Brown 

Cooke would create a song that inverted the older song’s idea of ‘home’ - in ‘I Wanna Go Home’, it’s the singer who finds himself away from home and wants to get back, having been abandoned by his friends. It’s a song of existential loneliness: no other person exists for the singer, except perhaps us, the listener. One of Cooke’s innovations was to insert a romantic drama - in Cooke’s song, he longs for someone who has left him at a home it’s implied they’ve made together. For the duration of the song at least, the prospect of reconciliation is held out, but never comes, and to understand how Cooke achieves this musically, I’d like to look at the song a bit closer and talk about what musicians call tonality. 

In western music, for nearly five hundred years, tonality has been understood in terms of seven-note scales, the most common of which are the major and the minor. Harmony, which is the aspect of music that looks at simultaneous combinations of notes - chords, in other words, and the relationships between chords - has most often been thought of as involving triads, or regularly-spaced three note chords, like this major triad, made up of a root note, a third and a fifth. Triads can be built up on any note of the scale, and those chords form the basic harmonic building blocks of most classical and pop music.

These building-block chords are how we’ve thought about harmony for hundreds of years and of the seven possible basic triads, three stand out as particularly important. The first, unsurprisingly, is the chord starting on the first note of the scale, which we call chord 1 or the tonic. So in this key, C major, the tonic chord is C. Conventionally, pieces of music of the classical era and in pop start and end on the tonic, which is why it's often called the ‘home’ chord.

If we begin at home where might we ‘go out’ to? Well, in theory we can go to any of the other degrees of the scale, but there are two chords which have conventionally formed the most typical ‘destination’ to go out to and return from. They are the chords we form on the fourth and fifth notes of the scale, called the sub-dominant and dominant chords, or just chord 4 and 5. 

‘Bring It On Home to Me’, like many songs, uses only these chords, and it is a brilliant example of how on such apparently simple harmonic foundations, something of great emotional power can be built, for it’s not simply the choice of chords themselves that the interest is found but in Cooke’s handling of them and in their relationship with the other elements of the track, starting with the most obvious other element - its melody.

In general, a melody that will feel like it ‘fits’ with its harmonic setting will use notes that coincide with those in the triad underpinning it, and a melody that will feel ‘clashing’, or in some way unresolved, will use notes that do not. So attuned are we as listeners to this that we feel a moment of clash followed by a moment of coincidence as an emotional dynamic of tension followed relief, and it’s from this basic principle that Cooke creates so much of his song’s feeling of yearning.

The song’s melody is short - only eight bars - and of those eight, Cooke begins five with a note that clashes with the accompanying chord. ‘If you ever, change your mind, about leaving, leaving me behind, oo oo oo bring it to me, bring your sweet loving, bring it on home to me’. As you might have noticed, each time the melody clashes, it immediately resolves onto a note which does fit. This pairing of clashing note with resolved note, is called a suspension, and they’re how a sense of yearning is embedded deep in the song’s DNA.

But it’s not just the choice of notes in his melody and his chords that we can see Cooke building up the song’s emotional drama. The song’s structure, and especially the way the chords are distributed across the musical form, also plays a role. In the eight bars of the song, the first four have one chord per bar. At that point, the rate of chord change doubles, and there are two chords per bar. It’s not something you’d notice on first listen perhaps, but it’s clear that this change in the harmonic rhythm produces, each time it happens, a sense of gathering momentum, of gearing up towards some sort of culmination, although it’s a culmination that never quite arrives.

To explain why, we need to look at an important convention of tonal music. As I said earlier, tonal music of the western tradition typically begins and ends on a tonic chord - the ‘home’ chord. So typical is this convention that a whole series of harmonic conventions have arisen around it - common chord changes a songwriter will make to take music out of, and then return it to, the tonic chord, often involving, as mentioned earlier, the fourth and fifth chords. Of these, by far the most common is habit of returning to the tonic via the fifth chord - or the dominant. This can be called a V-I chord change, but it’s commonly known as the perfect cadence, and it’s immediately recognisable as the conventional end to many pieces of music in both classical music and pop.

‘Bring It On Home to Me’ has no such final harmonic closure. Each verse ends on the dominant chord - the chord conventionally associated with leading towards to the tonic. The sense of a yearning to return ‘home’, or for someone to come back home, in ‘Bring It On Home to Me’ works through its constant raising and deferring of the prospect of perfect harmonic resolution. This device originates in the blues tradition - the classic 12-bar blues form also ends on the dominant, a residue perhaps of the fact that the blues was an oral tradition, in which songs had no stable, fixed state - blues singers would typically improvise on a traditional song, expanding or contracting it, as much as they wanted - finishing on the dominant chord allows verses to flow into each other.

If you listen to an earlier song of Sam Cooke’s such as ‘You Send Me’ the verse ends up resolving to the tonic - the result is a sense of security, contentment, resolution. ‘Bring It On Home to Me’, in many respects Cooke’s first attempt to reintegrate some of the blues and gospel traditions he grew up with, rediscovers this key bluesy harmonic device, using the musical metaphor of the ‘home’ chord so that the listener feels the pull towards it while simultaneously sensing how its final, emphatic return will never be achieved.

How else did Cooke add ‘weight’ to his music in ‘Bring It On Home to Me’? The most obvious aspect would be the use of his voice, and the vocal arrangement. If you hear this tune alongside an earlier song of his like ‘You Send Me’ or ‘Cupid’ you’ll hear how Cooke relished throwing aside some of his patented honeyed singing style in ‘Bring It On Home to Me’, cutting loose and accessing his voice’s harder, grittier tones. 

The take on the record is the second take from the studio session - the only change Cooke made between takes was to replace the choir of backing singers with just a single male singer, Lou Rawls. The two singers’ voices are left deliberately un-blended, and both singers seem to be given free reign to embellish the melody, so that the performance lends the track a ‘roughness’ specifically designed to signal ‘sincerity’, as opposed to the smooth ‘oos’ and ‘ahs’ of the backing section in previous Cooke pop recordings, and indeed in contrast to other popular male singing duos of the era, like the Everly Brothers, where the focus is on a perfect, seamless blend.

This performative looseness also applies to the lyrics, as in the freely interchangeable use of ‘honey’ and ‘baby’ (as opposed to ‘darling’ in the earlier recordings). And while much of the lyrical content is fairly conventional pop song formulae from the period, the opening couplet in verse two (‘I know I laughed when you left, but now I know I only hurt myself’) feels original to me, and contributes to the track’s deliberate ‘roughness’ through the half-rhyme of ‘left’ and ‘myself’. 

The lasting appeal of the song seems finally to lie in its expression of doubt - you can feel it in those big gaps in the melody (‘if you ever … change your mind … about leaving … leaving me behind’), as well as that interaction of melody and harmony that never gives the listener the full experience of musical ‘home’ and the unresolved nature of its harmonic structure. They all capture the sense of a dawning realisation: whoever the song is addressed to may never come home. The ‘weight’ of the musical traditions that Cooke begins to draw on here, later to be fully expressed in ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, allow Cooke in this song to go beyond the cosy pop sentiment of the likes of ‘You Send Me’ and ‘Cupid’ and express something more open-ended, more plausibly reflecting real life. Often the ‘fade-out’ at the end of a pop recording feels lazy but in this case it feels appropriate: any end expressing resolution would jar with the spirit of the song. There’s a sense the singer will continue calling for his baby to come home, long after the music has faded, perhaps forever.