Friday, March 30, 2012

Covers: Seven Bridges Road

So there you have the earliest version of "Seven Bridges Road." It was written by Steve Young, and recorded by him for the first time for his 1969 album Rock Salt and Nails. As far as I know, Steve Young hasn't had any major hits of his own performance, but he has written some famous songs--other than this one. For example, "Montgomery in the Rain," which was recorded by Hank Williams Jr., and "Lonesome Orn'ry and Mean," recorded by Waylon Jennings.

Some technical stuff about Seven Bridges Road. This original version is in the key of B major. It's in 3/4, or at least some kind of triple time. The tempo is about 87 bpm, and it runs about 3 minutes and 40 seconds. The key the song is pitched in isn't really that important, though, because the artist usually pitches a song to his or her vocal range. So what I mean is, the key isn't usually a part of that artist's interpretation, it's more a matter of practicality. But as we get on down the road we'll find one artist who made a major change to this song and turned it into what we usually hear today if we're listening to classic rock radio. But we'll get to that later.

"Seven Bridges Road" was released three more times during the following four years. In 1970 it was released by the Manfred Mann of folk music, the woman who can't stand to let a good song go unruined, that's right, ladies and gentlemen: Joan Baez. From her 1970 album One Day at a Time.

For the most part, the lyrics of these various versions weren't changed in any significant way, except for this one. So, whereas Steve Young says, "There are stars in the southern sky, southward as you go. There is moonlight and moss in the trees down the seven bridges road," Baez says, "There are stars in the southern sky, if southward as you go. There is moonlight and moss in the trees. On the seven bridges road I go."

This is nit-picking, I guess, but since it's my blog I get to nit-pick. Baez' version loses some strength and coherence. Her first statement makes sense, but then she says, "There is moonlight and moss in the trees. Period. On the seven bridges road I go." Okay, Joan? Where are we now? Is the moonlight and moss here? Or is it on the seven bridges road? Do we follow you on the seven bridges road to get away from the moonlight and moss? What's going on here? Anyway, she ends every one of these stanzas with "On the seven bridges road I GO" which just annoys me. Another small change she made was to the verse, "like some lonesome child." Ms. Baez sings it, "like a motherless child," which I suppose resonated more with her folk audience who were already familiar with the song "Motherless Child," famously performed by Richie Havens at Woodstock.

The male accompaniment vocals are by Jeffrey Shurtleff, who performed with her often back then (also taking the stage with her at Woodstock). He recorded a few albums of his own but never got really famous, and at present doesn't even merit a page at Wikipedia.

Technical stuff: key of A, 3/4 time, temp about 99 bpm, a little faster than Steve Young's original. "Countrified" by adding a steel guitar, most prominent there at the beginning and again at the end, which I must admit I kind of like.

So for a little more technical stuff before we go on to the next recording. You may have heard the old saying "three chords and an old guitar." Well, this song is written in only three chords, although they aren't the same three the old saying refers to. The basic chord progression is from a I chord to a flat major VII chord, to a IV chord, and back to I (which gives the whole song a kind of "falling" or at least "going down the stairs" feeling--a mood of sweet resignation). Unlike many old country and folk songs, there is no V chord anywhere to be found in this song. The middle bridge ("Sometimes there's a part of me") part simply goes back and forth between I and IV, if my ears don't fail me. But, the different artists didn't always do it exactly the same. It got a little more interesting in 1971.

That's Rita Coolidge from her 1971 debut album Rita Coolidge. She slows it down even slower than the original at about 77 bpm, but still keeps it in 3/4 time. Her version is the longest I know of: a combination of the slower tempo, the orchestral instrumental breaks, and a long fade out during which she repeats the title line several times, finally finishing up with a tenor sax solo on the fade-out, which I also like. I think this version moved the song more out of the country/folk category and toward more of a pop sound.

Steve Young re-released the song in an almost identical version to the original in 1972 on his album Seven Bridges Road. Same key, same tempo, same time. The biggest difference I can hear is that the string accompaniment was lowered an octave and is a little more prominent throughout the song than on the original.

This one probably sounds more familiar to most folks. It's from the 1973 album Valley Hi by Ian Matthews. Here we have the pattern that most of us are familiar with: an a capella beginning and, perhaps more significantly, the time has been changed to 4/4. Matthews sings it in the key of D with a zippier tempo of about 97 bpm. This is my own personal favorite version. I like the atmospheric spaciness of the guitar (played by Michael Nesmith, by the way) and the way Matthews' voice often "falls off" at the end of a phrase.

And then no one recorded this song for a while...

Until the Eagles performed it live and recorded the performance for their 1980 album, Eagles Live. Although in their introduction to the song they claimed to have learned it from Steve Young, their rendition is a near carbon-copy of Ian Matthews' version. Same key of D, same time of 4/4 (like Matthews and unlike Young). The a capella parts at the beginning an end are close to Matthews' tempo of 97 bpm (Eagles tempos of about 94 and 96 respectively), but with a slightly faster internal section of around 115 bpm, perhaps more fitting for their rock-oriented audience.

Several others have performed it since then. I don't know if any of them have actually committed their performance to a recorded album and I mostly don't care to find out. You can look them up on YouTube. Alan Jackson, Keith Urban with Sugarland, Keith Urban with Lady Antebellum, Keith Urban with Julio Iglesias,* G-d knows who else. All of them who I've heard are essentially just copies of the Eagles version, which itself is a copy of the Matthews version.

There's only one more version that I know was recorded and released as part of an album, and here it is.

From Dolly Parton's 2001 bluegrass album Little Sparrow. Pitched in A♭ for Dolly's vocal range, once again in 4/4 time. A quite slow tempo of 87 or so bpm for the beginning--reflecting Steve Young's original--which rockets up to a flying 150 bpm for the rest of the song. Anyone who reads this blog for very long will soon know of my penchant for bluegrass and I have nothing to complain about regarding this version of the song.

So...that's what I've learned about this song because a long time ago I heard Ian Matthews' version on the radio and liked it more than the Eagles version, and went hunting for information about who sang it and what they did.

*For the humor-impaired (and I know you're out there): that was a joke.


  1. Thank you for this lovely review of many interpretations of a great classic song.

    I would like to add Tracy Nelson and Mother Earth's rendition (1971) as well--this is the version that I knew first and still love. But Rita Coolidge's is awesome; thanks again for that.

    1. My firstintroduction too, and I came here because I couldn't remember who I first heard it by. Thank you for filing in my failed memory! I've always loved Tracy's beautiful rendition of this song. And now I've heard Steve Young's original and it truly lovely as well.

  2. For me, the original is the best. This is the only comment I've even seen on the changing from 3/4 to 4/4 time. I thought maybe nobody else had noticed. That alone makes it for me a foot drag instead of a waltz, and the Eagles version seems just a showcase for show-offy harmonization.

  3. I have heard a short clip of Brad Pitt singing this,it was either from high school or college.They only showed a few seconds of it,but I was knocked out by the fact he was singing that song.Anyone know if the video is around anywhere?
    Any of Steve's versions are the best,but Ian Matthews does the best cover.

  4. awesome info ! late to the party on this post but I like all the versions you posted. Rita's version was just too slow for me to love and the Ian Matthews version seems to hit the sweet spot for me. I do really like the Eagles version and I love knowing where the original came from. Thanks

  5. Eddy Arnold did a pretty faithful cover in 1970 on his Standing Alone album. A more involved arrangement with greater crescendo in the middle. Pretty powerful!

  6. I like Joan Baez, but I think her problem was that she was really an opera singer. Taking her voice and vocal stylings to folk, pop, rock was always going to be a weird marriage.