“The Three Song”: Pop Fugue

I put a copy of “The Three Song” on a mix once and recall having a difficult time initially verifying the song title.  I remember counting the bands on the vinyl record at least twice to make sure that track #3 on the Smothers Brothers’ 1965 album, Mom Always Did Like You Best, was really, truly called “The Three Song,” since there didn’t seem to be anything “three” about the song, lyrically.  Today I decided once and for all I would find out just why Mason Williams so named “The Three Song.”

The David Bianculli bio on The Smothers Brothers offers this bit of background behind the genesis of the song:   “This was a song that came to me in a dream,” Williams recalls,  “It was so powerful, I got up and wrote it down.”  The book also mentions the “delicate” performance on The Smothers Brothers Variety Hour, along with Israeli singer, Esther Ofarim, of this intricate number written by Mason Williams, “who was getting the chance to work more of his compositions in the show.”  Prior to this performance the three singers (Tom, Dick & Esther) comically explain the concept behind the song – a fugue of sorts – wherein the first voice sings its own lyric & melody, the second voice then sings its own independent lyric & melody, and the third and final voice being a combination of the first two voices.

Wanting confirmation of this fugue concept, I did another search and found a scholarly piece published in 1991 by Princeton University Press – Jazz Text:  Voice and Improvisation in Poetry, Jazz & Song by Charles O. Hartman – which contained this interesting bit:

“From time to time a poem or song makes the multiplicity of voice explicit. John Ashbery’s ‘Litany’ (printed in two [separate] columns ‘meant to be read as si­multaneous but independent monologues’) is a recent example.  Thirty years ago W. D. Snodgrass’s ‘After Experience Taught Me  …’  enacted a fiercer confrontation.

“Among songs, an obscure example is Mason Williams’s “Three Song” (once recorded by the Smothers Brothers).  In each of the three stanzas, a voice sings an apparently self-contained set of lines; a second voice sings a second set; then the two combine their verses into longer melodic and verbal lines.  The gain in completeness is satisfying; even more, the tricky skill is impressive.”

Mason Williams Ear Show

Mason Williams: Music + Comedy + Art

From David Bianculli’s book on the Smothers Brothers’ groundbreaking television variety show, I discovered that Mason Williams was much more than the guy who wrote the million-selling instrumental, “Classical Gas.”   Williams not only recorded albums for Warner Brothers (and Mercury & Vee Jay) but also wrote incisive and edgy sketches for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (as well as The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, The Roger Miller Show, and Saturday Night Live, et al.) and produced a couple clever pieces of conceptual art, most notably an actual-size photograph of a Greyhound bus in 1967.

That same year Williams released The Mason Williams Phonograph Record album with a cover photo that once again explored the intersection of art and Greyhound buses – one of the more intriguing album tracks is a composition in which Williams fuses “baroque” musical elements with a bossa nova backbeat and sunny syllables sung in classic West Coast fashion:

Mason Williams’ Bus Book was a strictly do-it-yourself affair that came packaged thusly:Mason Williams's Bus Book