She brought the C# and the mint
This post takes a look at "Julep", a song from the album "The Phosphorescent Blues" and nominated for a 2016 Grammy for Best American Roots Song. The lead-sheet transcription can be found at the bottom of the page.
This song was one of the simpler ones to transcribe as it is fairly repetitive, doesn't have any crazy modulations, and doesn't have any wicked fast gestures (I hardly used Audacity's tempo-slowing function at all). One thing that did make me say, "what the punch?!?" was the surprising C# that first appears in the melody on the word "down". C# does not live in the land of G major or minor and yet the C# doesn't really stand out as something terribly out of place since the melody carefully descends to the pitch. As a raised fourth scale degree, the C# implies G lydian (a major scale with a raised fourth scale degree). As one of my theorist friends put it, the raised scale degree "brightens" the melody, conveying the "buzz" of drinking a mint julep on a porch.
The verse remains in the "G" tonality thanks to the repeated bassline (or ostinato) of G-B-E; each two-bar phrase begins on the G, giving metric stress to the pitch and suggesting, when the bassline is harmonized, the progression I-iii-vi.
One interesting development in this song is the modulations that occur in the transition and bridge. The transition that follows verse 2 moves directly to D major (a perfect 5th away from G) via a phrase modulation. The key is solidified by the repeated D in the bass and the plethora of C#'s in the banjo hook. In considering this modulation, one could think of the C#'s that appear earlier in the verse as foreshadowing the eventual move to D major (key of two sharps: F# and C#).
The transition leads to the bridge in the key of A major (a perfect 5th away from D). The bridge, with it's freer sense of time and choral harmonies, place the listener in a serene place where time stands still and we can drink our fill. The song ends back in G, snapping us out of our daydreaming as the material from verse 1 reenters.
In looking at the overall harmonic direction of the song, from G to D to A and then back to G, it becomes clear that the song is built on a pattern of ascending fifths. It is as if we travel back in time with each modulation away from G, growing more nostalgic with each drink (or key change).
A point about counterpoint - The instrumental section of "Julep" features a lovely round, or canon, between the mandolin, banjo, and acoustic guitar. Each new entry of imitative counterpoint occurs two beats after the earlier iteration. In the excerpt below, you can see the three different mandolin entrances and the subsequent imitations by the banjo and guitar.
One last thing - as pointed out by another theory friend, an interesting aspect of the verse's melody is that its highest note is an F# - the leading-tone in the key of G. As the leading-tone, an F# is a highly unstable pitch since its tendency is to rise up a half-step to the tonic (G in this case). This leads to an understated tension within the song since the highest, and climactic, note of the melody is an unstable pitch.
Here's the lead-sheet transcription of Julep.