Let me tell you how Eric Bibb stomped and clapped his way into my life. It was August of 2014 and I was driving around the twists and turns of Huntington Avenue in the Mission Hill neighborhood of Boston. The crush of cramped apartment buildings, summer afternoon traffic, and the above-ground portion of the subway that shares the street with the cars was bumper-to-bumper and shoulder-to-shoulder. I was picking up my wife from work and had arrived a little early so I pulled into what was probably the only parking spot available in the city at the time. It must have been previously occupied by a clown car as it was two-feet wide by three-feet long. By some dimensional miracle, I was able to fit our blue Honda within its constraints.
I was flipping through the radio and landed on a college radio station. I’ve always appreciated the variety of non-mainstream music that those stations tend to play. In a way, college radio is the father of Pandora. As I sat in the car, boiling in the summer sun on a crowded city street, I was suddenly pulled into the speakers by a friendly yet commanding voice that heaved and growled with the huskiness of a trail boss singing to his cattle on the trail in the 19th-century western frontier. With a guitar that played like a rodeo with an attitude, Eric Bibb had wrangled me far away from the city and into his soundscape.
I find this song captivating for a couple of reasons. The first is that it makes me feel content. There’s a certain excitement about it that makes me want to join in with his infectious invitation to “come on, clap ya hands”right around the 1:50 mark. I heard a quote once that went along the lines of, “People will forget what you did but they will never forget how you made them feel.” I think the same is true of music. What does this song make you feel? It’s probably a feeling you’ve felt before although in a different context. Our emotions are important to our life experience and music is a powerful vessel with which to contain and convey them.
But this song is deeper than emotions. There’s something else I find captivating about this song that I believe ties in perfectly with Eric’s declaration that he is “building a new home.” This song is a bit of an anomaly in that it is built on the foundation of a familiar musical principle but with a subtle yet important difference.
There are many technical nuts and bolts to music that are often neatly hidden underneath the seemingly spontaneous creativity of the craft. Just like a painting, the canvas often starts out with sketched lines and shapes that get erased, redrawn, analyzed, only then to be covered with layers of life-giving paint. As the audience, we like to deal mostly with the finished product because its beautiful, pleasing, and complete. The prototypes, rough drafts, and sketch-ups don’t usually get put on display. However, a great product is usually preceded by great preparation. And in the case of this song, I think Eric Bibb prepared marvelously.
This song has the form of a “12-bar blues.” A song’s form is a road-map that describes the order in which you will hear the different parts of a song. In a 12-bar blues, you will typically hear a section of music that lasts for 12 segments of time, then repeats. Within this form, there are certain chords that are usually played in the same place for almost every 12-bar blues you’ve ever heard (it’s a very common form of blues music). Those chords are represented as “I”, “IV”, and “V” in written form. Chords are like the scenery you see while driving along a road that prompts you to say things like, “What a nice neighborhood”; they provide context for the rest of the music (the road in the case of this analogy) that allows the listener to emotionally interpret the musical content. Usually, the “V” chord is very pivotal in the 12-bar blues.
And this is exactly where Eric Bibb comes in and messes it all up…in the best way possible. Instead of the usual chord pattern, Mr. Bibb plays the following (chords are written above the lyrics to display where they occur; note that there are 12 chords, one for each bar of the 12-bar blues):
I I I I
I’m building a new home, ‘cross the county line.
IV IV I I
I’m building a new home, ‘cross the county line.
vi IV I I
Up on a high hill, where the view’s so fine.
Right there, during “up on a high hill” is where the magic happens. Normally, at this point in the 12-bar blues, the chord that is commonly played is “V.” However, Eric breaks with convention and plays a “vi” chord instead. I don’t know why he did it. Maybe its because it fit better with the melody he was singing or maybe he just plain wanted to. In either case, this little moment changes the song for me. This would have been a fine song without this change, but it wouldn’t have been this song.
One small change made all the difference. That’s what it means to build a “new home.” It’s almost an oxymoron: A home is something that is familiar; something new is unfamiliar. When you take something that is “same-old, same-old” and tweak it ever-so-slightly, you might end up with something fresh.
I think there’s an important life lesson here for all of us. Some of us may have the rare opportunity to make a big splash in life by performing some grand heroic gesture or taking an absurd leap of faith. But all of us will have the opportunity to change one small thing that will lead to a lasting change. I’m confident that we have those opportunities daily and that they are so abundant that they can be easy to miss.
I take the subway to and from work. All together, that’s about an hour each day when I risk falling asleep on the shoulder of the commuter next to me, drooling all over their suit. Recently, I was inspired to do some reading with that time. I’m typically a slow reader. Starting a book is like laying the foundation for a house; it’s gonna be a good while before it’s done. I decided to bring a book with me on the train and see what would happen. Last month, I read through three books almost exclusively during my commuting time. I felt inspired and productive with that time. I was energized for what would come next in my day. As a result of what I had been reading (a few Donald Miller books), I started this blog. Most of what you read on this blog started out as scratchings in a notebook written on morning and afternoon trips through Boston in the subway. I’m not moving mountains, I’m just changing one small aspect of my life: instead of sleeping on the train, do something else. And it has made all the difference.
I once worked at a facility for troubled youth. The professionals there abided by a central philosophy to their work: These are normal youth responding to an abnormal amount of trauma. That’s a game-changer. That changes how those youth are viewed, treated, and engaged with on a day-to-day basis.
How many other “perspective shifts” are pending in our lives? How many small details are just begging to be tweaked so that we can see and do things differently? They’re out there. Go and find them. Build a new home.