Barbara Allen (Joan Baez): Hearing and articulating differences

As we near the end of the semester and a written exam, I always find myself focusing harder on error detection. Error detection is a hugely practical skill for musicians. Working on it and testing it in the classroom presents all sorts of opportunities for dialogue and written work. What it boils down to, though, is being able to hear and articulate differences between what you think is supposed to happen and what is actually happening. Those skills are transferable to many settings, draw on vocabulary essential for a musician, and build on the course’s work on rhythm, pitch, meter, details and nuance. Today’s work on error detection concludes with something that has no mistakes but plenty of differences: Joan Baez’s rendition of Barbara Allen.

In our previous class, we worked with The King’s Noyse‘s version of Barbara Allen, focusing on the use of the vi chord. Therefore, the students already know a version of the song. Today, I’m providing them with notation for the version they already know and a lot of blank space to articulate (where/when, what, how, and maybe why) the differences between the two renditions. This activity engages their ear, eye, and critical thinking. I’m planning 10-15 minutes for it, but actually have no idea if that’s long enough since this is the first time I have done this type of activity.

So the extreme-ness of the differences between the two recordings made 10 minutes the wrong amount of time to spend on the activity.  Either I should have had a few directed questions prepared (such as describe changes to the meter) and spent less time, or I should have had several directed questions prepared (including changes to harmonization) and spent a lot more time on it.  It might have bee interesting to give them as a take-home dictation where I ask students to vertically align the two versions. An aligned comparison would illuminate a lot, I think.

I still love the tune and love both renditions. This activity is one that I’d like to do “major revisions” on and try again.

One interesting change connected with something that happened in the King’s Noyse class: many students put downbeats on the longest notes, even through those notes typically belonged to a (duration) accented second beat (of three). Joan Baez’s version places all but the last of these long notes on the downbeat, in a sense regularizing the meter for more modern listeners.

The Baez version also has a curious metrical feature: it’s an 32- (or 64-) beat cycle, but it’s divided unevenly. The prevailing 4/4 meter is disrupted twice by a 2/4 bar occurring in bars 3 and 7 of the sung tune. This shortening is offset by a bar of “vamp” occurring before the tune starts.

I’m sure there’s more to discover and look forward to working on this tune more in the future.

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