Townes Van Zandt and the Meter of Mental Illness

Steve Earl once famously said, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that” (McGee, The Guardian, 2008). Considering Dylan’s Pulitzer Prize in Literature awarded for his lyrical prowess, these are significant words. Van Zandt’s album High, Low and In Between was released in 1971. As would likely be expected of a country album, the rhythmic and metric characteristics of the songs on High, Low and In Between are somewhat straight forward. Each song is heard in a meter of two or four beats per measure. Straight forward examples include “Two Hands” and “To Live Is To Fly,” both of which can be counted in four beats per measure. The final track, bearing the same name as the album, “High, Low and In Between,” conforms, at least initially, to this metric regularity. If you count in groups of four while listening to “High, Low and In Between,” as with “Two Hands” and “To Live Is To Fly,” the song fits within the structure of four regular beats per measure. While this four-beat counting exercise works with “High, Low and In Between,” I suspect you’ll find something unsettling about your experience with this metric organization. There is something present in the music that lends an unevenness and irregularity to this otherwise simple metric structure. We have learned cognitive expectations that a certain regularity should be found within musical phenomena in coordination with these metric beats. Such musical phenomena—harmony, melody, and drums, among other things—don’t have to occur in perfect coordination with the strong beats of each measure. Especially in popular music, strong representations of these phenomena often line up between the beats, on the off beats as with the tambourine in “Two Hands,” but they do so with a regularity that gives us something perceptible to latch onto as we listen to the song. That regularity is among the reasons we are so physically moved by music, especially with popular genres such as rock, rap, EDM, and country music. The regularity of rhythmic and metric phenomena gives us something perceptual to latch onto and furthermore compels us to actively participate in the music-making process by singing, dancing, or playing along.

As you likely discovered, there is something within “High, Low and In Between” that disrupts any four-beat metric regularity, particularly regarding where and how salient musical features line up with these metric beats. The lyrics and melody are the most prominent phenomena to disrupt any regularity of metric expectation. The first melodic line of the song enters just after the first beat of the measure, established by the guitar and piano on the downbeat. We are immediately given an expectation of the next melodic line to enter in a similar metric place, just after beat one of the next measure. If you return to a previous example, “Two Hands,” the first track on the album, this expectation of regularity is provided and then immediately fulfilled. In “Two Hands,” each line of the melody conforms to the expectation set up in the first line. Each line follows this initial set up and enters just before the first beat of the measure, followed by a prominent word in each line set strongly on the downbeat of the measure. This metric expectation and the regular fulfillment of that expectation are among the features of the song that urge us to accept the invitation from the lyrics and to clap along with those same “Two Hands.”

“High, Low and In Between” is different. After the opening expectation established with the entry of the melody just after beat one, the next line enters in a somewhat different metric location within the next measure, roughly coordinated with beat three of that measure. The last line of that opening lyric statement, “same as you,” also doesn’t conform to the pattern of either of the first two lines. Rather, it enters even later within the metric grid of four beats, sounding noticeably after the third beat. These opening lyric and melodic gestures are finally tied together by the occurrence of the word, “you,” on the downbeat of the next measure. This coordination of the salient final lyric of the opening phrase with that strongest of metric positions provides some respite from the disorienting metric pattern, but the next line again disrupts this brief moment of relief. “High, Low and In Between” continues with this same disruption of metric regularity characterized by establishing expectation and then denying the fulfillment of those expectations.

The question then arises, why might such an odd metric structure be found on an otherwise straightforward country music album? What musical meaning might we draw from this setting of the lyrics? Townes Van Zandt’s tumultuous mental state has been well documented. He lived a life filled with alcohol and drug addiction, but also was diagnosed as bipolar after spending some time in a mental hospital in Galveston, Texas (Hardy 2008, 39-42).

The album, High, Low, and In Between, was released just a short time after these dark days of Townes’s mental state. The disruptions to the metric regularity in “High, Low and In Between” can be viewed as a picture into the state of his psyche. Such projections of our innermost struggles are common in music and art alike. Along with the disruptions in metric regularity noted in the titular song, “High, Low, and In Between,” The lyrics reinforce this picture of a mental status disrupted and unsettled. One might even posit that Townes saw his life much as other’s have noted, as having swings that were often high, low, and in between, swings that mirror his bipolar status.

–Nathan Fleshner, Assistant Professor of Music Theory, University of Tennessee, USA

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