Deconstructor: The Eagle and The Hawk

John Denver is often thought of as being a slightly corny, nature-loving folkie. Fair enough. But he was also a brilliant songwriter whose song forms, rhyming schemes, and time signatures did not always follow music's well-worn trails. He was just as apt to wander unguided through his own musical woods. A perfect example is The Eagle and the Hawk.

Let's deconstruct this magnificent tune and see what makes it tick.

The cool thing about John Denver that transcended so many other artists was that despite his quirky, nature-boy personae he always came off as real and genuine. There was no pretense or facade. He was what he was, and you could always believe that about him. That honesty also came through in his music. When he sang about loving the mountains, or having a sense of wonder at the stars, or being content among friends, it was real and people were moved by it. He remains one of the very few artists that can make me cry.

The Eagle and the Hawk isn't one of the songs I cry at, but I do marvel at it every time I hear it. The music truly evokes a sense of soaring high in the air and looking down upon a dramatic landscape below. How did John accomplish this? Let's take a look:

Throughout the song there are no verses and no choruses. It is a single, continuously building melody. Despite this, it never sounds forced, and never comes across as being written in non-traditional form. The song begins with a long musical intro, taken up first by a single guitar, and then joined by strings. The time signature is slightly odd: 6/8. During the first half of the song there is a very strong pulse on the 1 and 4 of each measure. It is beautifully constructed to create a sense of motion and flight, like the beating of powerful wings.

Eventually the lyrics arrive, in first person. Not that unusual, except that he is speaking as an eagle. But two short lines later he breaks a basic tenant of lyric writing and proceeds to speak in first person from a different character's perspective: that of the hawk. Then, after two lines as the hawk, the song continues through a third couplet in first both voices. What a brilliant literary device!

At this point the urgency of the rhythm gives way to a flowing, restful half-time feel. This is in stark contrast to the rhythm that preceded it, and is a purposeful move that invokes the feeling of effortlessly soaring with open wings. The song moves forward this way through four more lines of lyric, after which there is a strong climb back to the earlier pulsing beat.

I cannot say this strongly enough: this song is a tremendous example of music supporting a lyric. As John sings, one gets a perfect sense of powerful beating wings, then soaring, then wings beating again, climbing to an even higher altitude. I don't use this word often, but it truly is sublime.

To recap: long musical intro, 6/8 time, lyrics that switch between different characters in first person , no verses, no choruses, and no other repeating patterns. Plug that into your Nashville songwriting machine and see what it get's you!

The Eagle and The Hawk is not a lone exception. John wrote many powerful, moving songs that colored way outside the lines. It's like....prog folk!

*photo by David Offf


Dave Tanner said...

Great article, thanks Aaron.

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