"Brown Shoes"

It was his yearly trip to the city store:
rows and rows of boots and galoshes
This one’s too loose
That one’s too tight
This one’s too cheap
but that one’s not right
Big decision keeps him looking for more:
can he find one pair from so many choices?

Let me be your brown shoes—
the ones you always choose
your brown shoes
Make you feel so fine
We fit together soul to sole
You’ll say: “I’m so glad you’re mine all mine”
Brown shoes

They were a perfect pair—
easy to wear
Nice support
Room in the toes
Courting was short
He had a proposal:
lace on up with a golden tether
Buff the shine with lots of care
At the end of the day go home together

We’ll travel the miles no matter the weather
All we need is some good shoe leather
Jump over puddles
Run in the rain
Kick up dust on a country lane
Brown shoes

The tread is worn, but the boots are still here
He’s loved these shoes for many a year
Color’s faded, scuffs on the heel
A brand new pair might seem like a deal
But he’s not seduced by a fancy label
He’ll stick with these shoes as long as he’s able


You’re my brown shoes—
the one I always choose
my brown shoes

Love: wanting it, losing it, regretting it, lusting after it; it's a favorite subject for songwriters. And yet most of us, if we are lucky, spend a lot more time experiencing the steady, daily work of a relationship not flying in the highs of a new passion or thrown to our knees by it's loss. I have been married a long time, so I wanted to write a song that paid tribute to my husband and to a love that has been steadfast over the years. Not much of a story arc, though, so how to make it interesting? At the time I was trying to write this song I was meeting regularly with a group of songwriters. We would spend time each session doing a free-association writing exercise about a random subject. The idea is to write for 10 minutes without picking up your pen or stopping to think--and to use as much sense-specific detail as possible: see, hear, taste, smell, touch. It was my turn to throw out a topic. I glanced at my friend's feet and blurted out "brown shoes". We started the timer, I put my pen on the paper, and this is what came out (transcribed from my notebook exactly as I wrote it with only a word or two added for clarity):

My mother-in-law tells the story of taking her six-year-old son (my future husband) to the big city to pick out shoes. As the "neglected" middle child of 5 (two older brothers and twin sisters), he took full advantage of the day and talked incessantly to anyone in ear-shot including the shoe attendant at the department store who was patiently trying one pair after another of brown shoes on him. If the present gives insight into the past, he would not have chosen the first brown shoe he came upon. This one too tight here; that one too roomy. This one the wrong shade of brown, the other something uncomfortable in the heel. I can relate to the growing exasperation of the salesperson: "It's just a damn brown shoe! Choose a pair. Your feet will make the shoes adapt to it!" But he knows that you have to choose shoes carefully. You spend your whole day in them with the weight of your body dependent on the careful construction. Through mud puddles, across dirt roads, the linoleum floors of middle school, hot sticky pavement of parking lots, lush carpeted floors at home, feet on the coffee table, couch and sofa. He will travel miles in these shoes and the wrong pair--rubbing a blister here, a bruise there--can ruin a day. It could cause you to decline the walk to the store with a friend, miss the dodge ball game at recess, make you too grumpy to ask that cute girl for a date to the bowling alley.

So it's important to take your time and choose those simple things well. But this was no consolation to the shoe store attendant who--according to my mother-in-law--finally looked at her in exasperation and declared: "He must be an only child." To which my mother-in-law defiantly responded: "Well, he is today!"

It was only after the exercise, reading back over my notes that I realized I had the beginnings of a song. It was a little odd to realize I was creating a metaphor in which I cast myself as a brown shoe. (And a little tricky to make sure it doesn't sound derogatory.) And do you get the proposal ("lace on up with a golden tether--a ring like a shoelace?"). It's not a normal love song, I'll grant you, but it's turned into a fun, upbeat song to play.

The other fun thing to know about this song is that there is a key change that happens at the bridge, but it's so subtle a lot of people listening probably don't even catch it. When I was working on the music for the song, the chords began to feel too repetitive. I added a bridge to try to give the song a lift, but it didn't help. Then I remembered a Johnny Cash song.

Cash's "Walk the Line" only has 5 chords in it and sounds simple--even repetitive, but each of the verses have a different sound. The reason is because he changes keys at every verse (5 verses, 4 key changes, 3 different keys). You can hear him do it if you listen closely. He sings the verse and then pick some notes going up (or down) and then he hums. For non-music theory people the note he is humming is the new "starting note" for the melody each time. He uses similar chords but their relationship to each other changes. (For people who know some music theory, he lands on the 5 chord and makes it the new tonic note.)

In my song the bridge telegraphs that a change is ahead, but I come back to the same chord I started the bridge with (a B--which is the tonic in the 1st two verses). By the time I reach the end of the bridge, however, the B chord is functioning as the 5 chord. I don't really understand exactly why it all works. It has something to do with math and the cool way that 4ths and 5ths relate to each other: if you are going up the scale the distance between an E to an A is a 4th, if you are going down the scale it is a fifth. And since most songs use 1, 4, 5, it's a cool trick to have up your sleeve.) I do know it has been one of the hardest of my own songs for me to memorize because I keep getting lost in the song--similar chords but the patterns are constantly changing. And that's kind of like a long-term love, too, isn't it?