J. J. Cale – Magnolia

A song evocative of summer evenings, its laid-back tempo sets the tone that was present in a lot of Cale’s music afterwards, present already on his first album. The husky vocals approach a whisper, suggesting gentleness, as if the situation is too tender to state anything in a normal voice. Maybe it is very late or early in the morning, the singer is missing his beloved, and doesn’t want to disturb the neighbours, yet has to keep on singing.

The lyrics refer to gentle mornings, but the summer breeze and the sound of the music make me rather think of a warm evening. Instruments pop in for a moment, bursts of strummed guitars or bent guitar notes lingering like on a swaying branch. Little birds flapping their wings, these softly moaning notes. The guitar breathes, sings a slow line, then returns to silence, waiting, inhaling deeply.

The chords and melody are simple: for the most part the song uses just alternating tonic and subdominant chords. But simplicity doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. A simple song may approach universal feelings, like here the slight tension and release of the chord functions, but there’s always a risk of sounding trite, evoking impressions of children’s songs and musical clichés. The difficulty in these bluesy sounds is that one must make the song interesting with elements that have been used countless times before. Sometimes the differences are very subtle, which creates a challenge for the listener.

Here I think the song has such a unique style that it transcends the simplicity to create a mood that is at the same time universal and particular. The particularity comes from the sound that creates a sense of time and place, and that is enough to make it interesting. That’s why Cale was a good guitarist even if the lines aren’t fast or complex. However, I find that appreciating such music does require an already existing mood, or at least willingness to dive into this tranquil meditation on summer and the wistful, if happy, longing for a distant lover.

Last week I was picking bilberries in the evening (my freezer is now full, so the season is already over for me), and after listening to the radio I listened to music on shuffle, and this song came on just as I was walking home, still in the woods but close enough to the edge of the forest to see pine trees golden with light, everything turning orange as I slowly stepped toward the setting sun. No need to rush anywhere, just casually traipsing on the rocky path, avoiding roots and fallen trunks.

I don’t know what magnolia smells like, and my impressions of New Orleans or Tulsa, where Cale hailed from, are probably far from reality. But that’s one of the fascinating aspects of music: it can fit the occasion on the other side of the planet. Is the feeling exactly the same as understood in a forest full of bilberries and somewhere in the southern US? Probably not. It doesn’t really matter, and humans still have similar feelings, similar longing and ambitions, finding comfort resting in the summer breeze recalling happy morning greetings.