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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

I needed the calmness of "Black Water" tonight

I'm stressed as [CENSORED]. This Doobie Brothers gem helped mitigate that a bit.


The start of midterm season is not treating me well mentally. Between three different exams and projects all on a knife's edge, I can hardly find the time to calm myself down enough to sleep, let alone be willing to sleep when there's so much I have to do (or count on others to do — that's exceedingly tough for me).


Music can definitely help me in this regard, but it has to be a very specific type of music. It needs to be something I know, and something that's soft enough in terms of not having too loud a soundscape. That takes out a lot of the music I love, because I tend to be drawn to big sounds... but there's a love deeper within me for the gentler roots sounds of the 70s. Of all those songs, the one I had on loop was from a Bay Area band, but definitely has a Southern-inspired sound at its core: the Doobie Brothers' "Black Water." (This happens to be one of my dad's favorites too.)

As much as I enjoy a lot of the Doobie Brothers' catalog, with this song being my favorite, I didn't investigate it in much detail before I settled on it for this post. Especially in their first half-decade, the band were wont to combine their Bay Area origins and biker flair with Southern rock influences, and I simply expected "Black Water" fell right in line. Au contraire, because it had a more direct inspiration in the opening part of the lyrics: Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Patrick Simmons, the lead singer and songwriter for the song, is fond of Twain, and the Doobie Brothers' musical influences meshed beautifully with his reading habits as he wrote the opening lyrics about "Old Mississippi... calling [his] name." From there, the rest of the song flowed like the mighty river that drew Twain and so many others toward its waters.


Yet as grand as the river is, "Black Water" itself is a calm and intimate number. The instrumentation is certainly a major factor, with Simmons' acoustic guitars leading the way. Personally, though, I'm most drawn to Novi Novog's contribution on viola, especially as it pertains to embodying the lyrics about hearing music from the American South. Dixieland, the main style highlighted in the lyrics, lacks the emphasis on strings, but certain strands of it and "honky tonk" do; additionally, the Southern context of the song also makes me think of bluegrass that continues to thrive in Appalachia and has spread in more recent times. Regardless of what type of Southern music it makes me (or you) think of, Novi's counter line is a complementary, slightly swinging figure that enriches the song's harmony.


Harmony, specifically the richness of vocal harmonies, is what keeps drawing my back to "Black Water." The chorus is largely a call and response between Tom Johnston, Tiran Porter, and Keith Knudsen's three-part harmony and Simmons' lead. The trio comes to the forefront with the chorus-opening line: "Old black water, keep on rolling." Three-plus-part harmony is such a full sound — there's something special about triadic voicings and the richness of those chords — and I tend to love its use anywhere, but the smoothness with which the Doobie Brothers employ and sing their harmonies throughout "Black Water" is something I struggle to get out of my head. Simmons' response, "Mississippi moon, won't you keep on shining on me," plays right back into the harmony and leads to a short cycle. I've had this chorus in my head for more than 12 hours, alternating with one other part of the song, and I don't mind at all.


What's that other part? It's the long final section, which expands the second half of the second verse. The low vocals in the response and the quick harmonies get me singing alone every time I hear it, especially when the instruments drop out for a few repetitions to leave the Doobie Brothers singing acapella. There's so much exposure in acapella that it has the ability to amplify the singers' artistry — and it certainly does here with the four band members' impeccable harmony. Yet even at this moment of full vocals, the song as a whole remains calm because of what was established in its prior sections.


Thanks to how closely I listen to music, the generally placid nature of "Black Water" imprinted itself upon me. Was it permanent? Of course not; I'm me. For the time it did last, however, it allowed me to work more fluidly and get more done. Now I wonder what other songs — and what other types of music — may produce a similar effect. I tend to have a difficult time working while listening, but maybe listening right before working like I did today will keep working for me.

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