The Hook of Foreign Praise: Alannah Myles, “Black Velvet” (1989)

Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth.
—Jean Baudrillard [1]

We feel pride when a foreigner praises our country. Our merits stand out! The world knows it needs us! But we may become uneasy when we notice the foreignness of the praise. Their values are different, after all . . . and their nuances of expression. Did they really understand us? Are they praising us as we would wish to be praised? Heaven forbid, could they be mocking us?

In 1989 a bunch of Canadians made one of the most likeable tracks of all time as an apparent tribute to Elvis, Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet.” The tribute is very odd, the more I listen to it, in that it offers pleasures totally unrelated to the pleasures of Elvis. The heavy slow shuffle groove, the soulful singing with harmonies in the chorus, the magic of the chord changes from verse to chorus and within the chorus—none of this is characteristic of Elvis. It’s as though Elvis is a vast desert, as far as these succulent things are concerned, and “Black Velvet” is an oasis where I find them at last.

Heaven forbid that I should say something important is lacking in the music of Elvis. I would be stepping out of the American mainstream worse than if an American President were to renounce warfare. So please overlook my “vast desert” remark.

I’m especially moved by the chords in “Black Velvet.” A song that sticks to the routine I-IV-V chords never opens certain interior floodgates of passion, never turns the soul on its axis, never tingles the mind with the higher harmony (I mean of multiple schemes, not merely multiple notes).

“Black Velvet” 1

What “Black Velvet” does to open, turn, and tingle is start with the false promise of a trance-like blues in E (here, come to think of it, there’s a connection with Elvis geographically, at least, because the one-chord trance evokes Mississippi hill country blues) and then complexify by changing to a B with an added E at first (the E giving an inflection of what would be the IV chord in the key of B) and then descending to A (plus D, same effect), G (plus C), and then exiting the verse on D with an A root.

“Black Velvet” 2

The chorus now starts with an A minor to D change—

Black velvet and that little boy’s smile

as though it will be in the key of G (since that change usually leads to a final G tonic). Your soul is turning from E to G. But the turn takes longer and goes farther, because after a return to A minor we drop down to F—such a sweet major counterpart to A minor’s use of the same notes—

slow Southern

because the brightening from minor to major feeling offsets and redeems the four-step drop from A to F—and then we end up in C as our new temporary home key.

style

Then we are back to the A minor-to-D sequence to start another key adventure that will end differently, with C not as the home chord but as part of the familiar blues turnaround C-to-B7

Black velvet if you

for our original key of E.

please

So our chorus trip has taken us to the two keys, G and C, that use the notes of E minor for major effect. That’s why we feel boosted despite the general moodiness of the song.

There’s nothing suspiciously Canadian about these chord changes. They’re perfectly good American chord changes. I think. Aren’t they? But there is a touch of extra clarity here, as if the Canadians are doing an American study. Fine! It works. Ça va.

__________________________________________________________

[1] Jean Baudrillard, America, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1988), p. 34.

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About Steve Smith

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

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