How Wrong Is Right: The Leading Tone in “Dixie Chicken” (Little Feat, 1973)

Leading toneI hated it.  Then I still hated it.  Then I grudgingly accepted it as a price to pay.  Then I learned to recognize it as a great song’s gateway.  Long years after first acquaintance, somehow, at some point, I finally came over, and now I love, as I ought, the high chinking piano sevenths by Bill Payne at the start of Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken,” just as essential to the song as the marriage mirage in its storyline.

Beginning of “Dixie Chicken”

What makes those sevenths hard to take is that they’re on the wrong seventh, not the flatted seventh that’s a full step down from the tonic but the regular seventh that’s just a half-step down, too close—when you lead with it, it sounds like you meant to hit the tonic but missed.  A flatted seventh would sound nice and tart in a perfectly normal way for blues or rock (and it’s the flatted seventh that’s included in the signature wordless lick after each verse in “Dixie Chicken”).  Now, a repeated regular seventh would sound okay if a cool young woman sang it in a bossa nova—but then it would belong to a major-seventh chord and we’d be on a different continent.

Why would the “regular” seventh be the wrong-sounding seventh?  This is an odd thing.  The reason I call the seventh that’s just a half-step down from the tonic “regular” is that it’s prescribed in the major scale, and also in the minor scale ascending; only when you descend in the minor scale do you start by dropping a full step.  Thus, in most situations, you’re supposed to hit that close-neighbor seventh if you hit a seventh at all.  But it’s also considered that the point of that seventh is to lead into the tonic; that’s why it’s called “the leading tone.”  It’s not supposed to be a stable place.

The flatted seventh answers the question, What if being a little off the tonic were a place to be?  Shoving off by a whole step, it gets enough distance from the tonic to stake its own claim.  Being a lower place, its character is, naturally, depressed—minor and blue.  We’re so used to this blue seventh in all modes of popular music that it sounds more right than wrong even in major-key harmonies and ascending melodies.  The bluesy transgression in flatting the seventh hasn’t entirely lost its flavor, but we can hardly consider it a transgression any more.

Post-bebop guru Thelonious Monk once said “Wrong is right.”  I won’t try to recapture the original meaning of his remark, not wanting to spoil my own point, but what I’ve always taken it to mean is that in playing music you can try something dangerously new, or you can simply mess up, but either way, it might come out great if you have enough guts as a player and listener to carry on living in the new world you’ve made.

“Wrong is right” is a fabulous all-purpose motto but ultimately puzzling because of a philosophical problem it raises.  As Plato would tell you, the same thing cannot have opposite attributes at the same time and in the same respect.  So if “wrong is right” is ever true of, say, a note, it must mean that the note goes from being wrong to being right, or that it turns out to be right in one context while wrong in another.  The blues scale is a great standing example of “wrong is right” in both senses:  its flatted third and seventh are right all along in a different key that’s implicitly superimposed on the main key (like the key of Eb on the key of C), and its flatted third and seventh come to be heard as feasible landing spots in a C scale (we get a wrong-to-right thrill insofar as we’re always coming to hear those notes as okay rather than simply hearing them as okay).

This interpretation of “wrong is right” is reasonable, I think, as far as it goes. But it weakens the wolfish intensity of Monk’s declaration.  It misses how he and maybe also Bill Payne are being bad boys.

So let me ask this:  Is a wrong-is-right event right because it is now right, that is, because the wrong has been rectified, or is it right because you’ve been reconciled to something wrong even as it persists in its wrongness?  Is wrong right as right or as wrong?

In this case I come down on wrong (I mean wrong as right as wrong).  Those opening sevenths in “Dixie Chicken” are very persistently wrong to my ear.  They’re not just randomly wrong; their deviance is strategic; they’re reinventing something analogous to the blue seventh by ragging the normal expectation of a flatted seventh.  This interpretation implies that I have become a bad boy too by welcoming the wrong sevenths on those terms.  And a smart one.

* * *

Jumping decades and musical worlds, here’s another great wrongful appearance of the leading tone (the non-flatted seventh) in Elastica’s “Love Like Ours” (2000). It’s in the synthesizer response after each line of the chorus and last verse. The sweetly sour effect captures how these lovers are really committed to each other – ha!

“Love Like Ours,” last verse


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Ways of Starting and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How Wrong Is Right: The Leading Tone in “Dixie Chicken” (Little Feat, 1973)

  1. Jim Harris says:

    This from a musician who now lives in Picayune: Monk was one of the leading proponents of what became known as the “Wrong Note “school of Jazz. It is my understanding that Monk was referring to those notes or harmonic lines which, though unintended, were more interesting than the intended. Miles did not like Monk to comp behind him because some of Monk’s lines would really confuse him. Monk would realize harmonic lines that revealed a structure that was obviously there after it was heard, as in “Tea for Two,” “Lulu’s Back in Town,” and of course “Ruby My Dear.”

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