What follows is overt gushing fanboy-ism disguised as pompous musings on music. Pitchfork doesn’t OWN that, okay? Some spoilers follow.
When hearing the musical work in Patrick McHale’s much acclaimed animated miniseries Over the Garden Wall, I seem to mull over the same word consistently: Reverie. I admit, this word is fairly new to my vocabulary, but it’s definition of “a state of being pleasantly lost in one's thoughts; a daydream” seems to fit this soundtrack to a T.
Upon my first finish of the series my number one fanboy priority was finding and securing a copy of this soundtrack, only to find it impossible to get my hands on, legally. So I settled on studying the music itself.
The soundtrack (expertly written and performed by The Blasting Company) has some pretty broad but pointed influences that intrigued me. Everything from turn of the century folk music to referential music to older pieces of animation, to 70’s glam rock are used as sources of inspiration that perfectly communicate the tone of the overall work.
What follows is a list of several OtGW songs and their apparent, or outright stated influences.
1. “Old Black Train” vs. “Little Black Train”
This is one of the more obvious and intentional correlations I’ve found. The song “Old Black Train” is used at a pivotal moment in the series, that being the moment where our heroes Greg and Wirt dodge an actual train, leading to their tumble into a nearby lake. This event precedes all things that happen in The Unknown, and presents the greatest argument that the two boys are actually spending the bulk of the series navigating some sort of afterlife or purgatory.
The song is a very clear adaptation of Woody Guthrie’s “Little Black Train,” probably intended to skirt licensing costs while retaining the same folksy style and subject matter. Both songs deal directly with the idea of mortality, and the inevitability of death. They each equate death to a black train that comes for all people, in time. This too adds credence to the idea of OtGW being a parable of life and death.
Guthrie is known best for being one of America’s first recognized protest singers, constantly signing in favor of justice for the poor, specifically in a Dust Bowl Era political context. His most famous tune, “This Land is Your Land” is widely regarded as a quintessential American tune. Which perfectly aligns with the sensibilities of OtGW, as a conduit of early American art and music influences.
The Blasting Company’s “Old Black Train” does it justice, keeping a similar low-fi feel, while side-stepping some of Guthrie’s more yodel-y attributes. It might be my modern sensibilities, but I think this is for the better, as such elements seem silly in the context of this massively important moment in the series.
2. “The Fight is Over” vs. “Ballrooms of Mars”
Another license-skirting duplicate of a song, The Blasting Company’s “The Fight is Over” is perhaps the only major use of late 20th century music, as opposed to the frequent use of early 20th century influence. This song is played over a similarly important moment in the series, where our lead protagonist Wirt opens an episode in an entirely new setting, for the viewer. That of a late 80’s to early 90’s teenager’s bedroom. At no point in the series are we directly approached with the idea that the events of the show happen in any other date range than perhaps 1900–1940, at the latest.
The impact of this moment is immense, perhaps my favorite in the series. It is in this moment that you realize as a viewer that Wirt isn’t just a gnome-like young boy in an era of steam engines lamenting over a failed courtship. He is much more similar to the viewers than they could have imagined up until now. His overly flowery discussions about his would-be love is easily attributed to the language of that era. It abruptly becomes clear that this isn’t a lost tale from your grandmother’s children’s books but is actually a story of an anxious and charming dork, who likely loves Morrissey and The Cure and all those other sad-sack bands that so many (myself included) have turned to in their pubescent angst.
I just love this moment so much, you guys.
The tune is a direct lift in tone and style of the song “Ballrooms of Mars” by English Glam Rock band T Rex in 1972. It is a very poetry-laden tune. If I can hazard a guess to what that poetry is addressing, I’d say it was about fear of what something beautiful hides beneath its outward appeal. Maybe even what dark selfish drives hide beneath the author’s good intentions and impulses.
If I had to guess it’s relationship to the scene, and why it was chosen as a source of influence for OtGW, I would say simply it’s somber, self contemplative nature wrings the angst right out of our lead, Wirt. Making his fear of approaching the (until now, unseen) Sara. It brings the unrequited love angle hard, and displaces time so abruptly without losing the barely-submerged darkness that the show is rooted in.
3. “The Highwayman” vs. “Minnie the Moocher”
Ah, the Highwayman. The very person that brought OtGW to my attention in the first place. His self-titled song describes his profession, and an immensely seedy one it is. He outright states that he attacks solitary people on the roads and steals their shoes. The finger-across-neck motion made during his song also suggests that he is not above murder, but it is all in service to a pathos that allows such behavior, because he “works with [his] hands, just like any man.” And interestingly, the other profession-obsessed tavern goers applaud and embrace this knowledge.
The tavern scene is deeply rooted in the idea of each man/woman having a place, and being defined by what you are. So long as you have a label and you play your role, you are welcome at this tavern. Their desperate need to define Wirt (who is, of course, resistant, as a self-aware, but not-so self-assured teenager) seems to me to be a rejection of such things, from the author’s standpoint.
The song and the accompanying animation (expertly crafted by art director Nick Cross) is deeply and clearly inspired by musician Cab Calloway, best known for his large strides dancing and the song “Minnie the Moocher.” Said song could itself be argued to be about how a character’s inherent nature cannot change, and makes certain people dangerous or unsavory. Something The Highwayman knows, and his tavern-mates forgive easily, in exchange for a stated purpose.
4. “Forward, Oneiroj!” vs. “Hansel & Gretel: An Opera Fantasy”
The moment this song occurs in the series is in the moment Wirt casts his brother out. Write is losing faith, and places their failure to escape the Unknown onto his younger, generally unconcerned stepbrother Greg. Greg goes off on his own, following this song into a fantasy land. The song that welcomes his dream-state have been connected to a 1950’s stop-motion short called “Hansel & Gretel: An Opera Fantasy.
Thematically, these two pieces are directly intertwined. Hansel & Gretel, true to the storybook, are drawn into an old witch’s malicious clutches with her fantastical candy house and amusing nature. Similarly, in OtGW, it doesn’t take long for this dream to be revealed to be a ruse of the primary antagonist, The Beast. Appealing to Greg’s playful attitudes, he disguises himself as an angelic fairy and sends his imagined minions to sell this fantasy.
It’s needs to be noted: the title “Forward Oneriroi!” is a direct reference to Greek mythological creatures that prowl on people on their dreams, in service to their father Erebus (or “Darkness”). The lyrics are beautifully sung and difficult to decipher purely on ear alone, but they suggest this deception intrinsically:
Forward cherubs hear the song/
A child's wishes call us on/
Descend descend, 'ere he 'scapes/
The dreams our wing-ed wind hath made/
For only beneath the veil of sleep/
can we oneiroi act on men.
The Beast is acting upon his need to turn lost souls (children mostly) into edelwood trees, to keep the lantern containing his soul lit. On first viewing, we are not entirely sure what the true endgame of The Beast is at this point, but it is well known that he is a deceiver and might even turn people to trees so that he may burn.
5. “Come Wayward Souls” vs. “O Holy Night”
This is an easy one, once you hear it. The Beast’s siren song is heard throughout the series and suggests his duplicitous and hateful intentions with lost souls in the Unknown. The song itself is a corruption of the well known Christian hymn “O Holy Night.”
It takes the backing music of the hymn and progression of the song and applies minor and slightly more dissonant tones to create the song’s evil brother. It also suggests an almost God-like nature for The Beast himself. If you’ve assumed that The Beast stands in for Satan, this is some strong evidence to that end.
Tangent: The Beast’s earliest incarnation (in early drafts of OtGW) was literally a man with a devil costume on. He is labeled in renderings as “Old Scratch,” which is a somewhat dated alternate name for Satan. It was (as best I can tell) originated in the 1940’s film “The Devil and Daniel Webster” in which a man sells his soul to the devil (“Old Scratch”) in exchange for prosperity. He takes Old Scratch to “court” to reclaim his soul. It is an original take on the 1920’s FW Murnau film “Faust.” Which is awesome and you should watch it immediately.
There are several more musical pieces that correspond to bygone popular culture, such as “Potatoes & Molasses” connecting to Shirley Temple, and “Patient is the Night” as a pastiche on Hoagy Carmichael. The wealth of influence in The Blasting Company’s work on Over the Garden Wall cannot be overstated, and deserves great admiration and inspection. If you find yourself in need of a connection between these songs and the reverie they induce, there is so much more to find.
What other influences are present, that I may have missed? Please message us or comment below with your observations.
Sorry for being a dork. Love you.