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December, 2009


by Webmaster

Someone once said, "They don't call him 'Ramblin' Jack' because he moves around a lot."

I just have some random thoughts about songwriting and decided to put them here. My mind is rambling while my body is (happily) staying home.

"Anything too stupid to be said is sung." — Voltaire, from a Good Earth tea bag tag

That comment was made in the 1700's. When I think back on popular songs, I can list many that fall into Voltaire's description. There used to be a real distinction between poetry and songwriting.

There still is, but, watch out! Some songwriters, many singer-songwriters / indie artists, are slipping poetry into their songs.

For some reason, I'm reminded of a time about 9 years ago, when I was cementing a variety of things (like shaped ceramic tiles, sand castings, iron architechture stars, glass beads, broken pottery, marbles, polished stones and pieces of jewelry) on a cinderblock wall at the back of my house. A boy about 10 years old wandered in to see what I was doing. He studied my work and said, "It's... it's... it's...ART!"

I was an English major in college. One class concentrated on writing copy for advertising. One of the basic tenets of the trade is "If there are no positive traits to include in the ad, just write a catchy jingle."

Think about that when you watch TV and listen to the radio. How many ad spots have no information and rely exclusively on jingles? (Hint: think about soft drinks and chewing gum.)

I'm not putting down a good rhythm track and good melody. I think they're every bit as important as the lyrics in songwriting.

"Just because English lyrics rule the U.S. charts doesn't mean that English is the most important language in getting a song across. In most pop songs, that distinction would fall to the music itself: a combination of melody, chord progression and beat. And if a songwriter has a good grasp on those elelments, his mother tongue need not be English." — Jewly Hight, "Hitmakers / Espionage," BMI MusicWorld (received Dec 2009)

"...melody, chord progression and beat" can say it all. Instrumental music of all genres has relied exclusively on "...melody, chord progression and beat" to communicate.

One of the commonly-accepted differences between songwriting and poetry is the presence of "...melody, chord progression and beat".

But a lot of pop songs, the ones that fall into Voltaire's description, are not poetry. They're just long jingles and have as much substance to them as the ads which rely exclusively on jingles. They're just words set into a "...melody, chord progression and beat".

So, what is the difference between song lyrics and poetry? Think about art and pornography: "I don't know what it is, but I know it when I see it." Maybe poetry is in the ear of the beholder.

In September, I attended a songwriting workwhop with Dan Navarro. Among many other helpful things, he said we should try to write first lines that really grab the listener and make them want to hear more. At that time, I was reading a book, “Long Time Gone” by Denis Hamill. The opening line to the first part of the book was something like, "Danny couldn't remember whether or not he killed the cop." Now, that's a line that grabs your attention.

I wrote the lyrics to a very long Irish song: 8 long verses and a chorus. The opening line is "Mickey Doherty blew up a car, a bridge and part of his leg." I think that'll grab the listeners' attention. It seems to be working so far.

I met Katie Lee when I was in Arizona the end of October. She's a remarkable woman: actress, singer, songwriter, photographer, author, environmentalist, and very active 90-year-old. I mentioned that I, too, write songs and that I look for co-writers to help me with the music. She said she likes to write music and asked what I have that needs a melody. I told her about the Irish song and she asked me to read her the words.

Well, she said it's too long to put into a single song. She suggested I write more and put it into a "folk opera." I wasn't sure what she was talking about, so she played me one that she had written, based on a book she read. It was a bit like Gordon Lightfoot's "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" but longer. It essentially is a number of small songs that all together tell a story. It doesn't sound like opera, though it follows the essential format of opera. It sounds like folk music.

Now, Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, James McMurtry and a few other singer-songwriters can write really long songs and get away with them. I don't put myself in their class. (Note: Writing really long song lyrics doesn't make the song "poetry," though it might have a lot of poetic phrases in it.)

But if I break this song down into different melodic parts, like the "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" and Katy's folk opera, but keep a consistent rhythm like James McMurtry's "Choctaw Bingo," I might be able to make a palatable song out of it. I don't expect it to be a commercial success. (The only place I've heard "Choctaw Bingo" is on K-PIG and on a CD my dentist gave me.) But, my song just might work. I told a musician friend about it last night and she wants to learn and perform it. Wow!

Speaking of James McMurtry, if you haven't heard any of his songs, check him out. He is the son of Larry McMurtry, a reknowed author known for his descriptions of settings and quirky characters. James tells stories with lots of detail and interesting characters and a great groove. Listening to him, it's easy to get caught up in the characters, stories and groove. It's easy to NOT notice that rhyme and melody aren't always present in his songs.

I have no idea what inspired me to write that Irish song. The chorus came to me years ago, and I hung on to it. Lately, I've been finishing songs that I started writing years ago and kept the pieces. In one song, I combined pieces to two different songs into one song and got a totally unexpected result that I'm really pleased with. I now have lyrics in search of a melody.

I've also been co-writing and collaborating with various people. Recently, I started working with Sylvia Murray and got B. J. Suter involved. Sylvia mentioned an idea she had for an Irish song and I took a tiny bit of that (a girl on a boat) into the Irish song I wrote. (I wrote about that process in the July, 2009, column, "Make it Up as You Go Along".) I'll meet with Michael Cleary this month to get his help with the Irish song. Founders: Bands, Singers, Songwriters, Solo Performers, Sidemen, Instrumentalists, Performers, Entertainers, Musicians, Places to Hear Acoustic Music, Locations, Venues, Clubs, Festivals, Business and Services Supporting Acoustic Music, Music Stores, Musical Instruments, Music Teachers Ernie Martinez suggested that the verses should be recited and just the chorus should be sung. I think that might work. "I get by with a little help from my friends." — The Beatles

And speaking of inspiration, when I was in Phoenix last month, visiting my mother, we looked for her sketch book. We didn't find it, but found a thick folder of poems my father wrote while he was in the Army in Europe in WWII. Mom said that she hoped I could find something in there to inspire songs. I mentioned it to Sylvia, along with Katy's idea for the folk opera, and Syvia suggested I write a theme album from my father's poems, similar to one she's been thinking about..

That would be like Katy's folk opera. I could tell the story of his experiences in the front lines in his words with my music.

When I mentioned it to B.J., she said it might inspire her to work on her bluegrass opera. So I suggested that we three get together and blue-sky all three projects, so see if we can help each other out.

Did I mention that I like collaborating and co-writing? It can help us get past writers' block. It can help us go in directions we never would have gone on our own. It can help us start and keep the momentum going when we get tired of the project. And it can help come up with a finished product that is so much bigger than the sum of its parts. Enthusiasm is contagious, and enthusiastic co-writers and collaborators are remarkable in their ability to keep us on track.

Speaking of staying on track, my CD will not be done by Thanksgiving as I'd hoped. Too many things came along and derailed the project. But, we still made a lot of progress in the last six months. All the songs are recorded and mixed, and the artwork has been uploaded to DiscMakers. We need to do a bit more work on the Master so I can upload the songs to DiscMakers. I should have CDs by the end of the month. I am SO EXCITED!

I'd ask you to keep your fingers crossed for me, but it's hard to play an instrument like that. So, just send me good wishes.

Thanks for putting up with my rambling thoughts this month

And, thanks for visiting AcousticByLines.

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