I had the pleasure of hosting a house concert with Peggy Seeger this past weekend and, in the course of her performance, she spoke a bit about song-writing and had a lot of good things to say.
Principal among these was her practice of writing songs based upon lengthy interviews that she tape records. Many of her songs include phrases, modes of expression and points of view that are not her own (although she may agree with them) but which come from her informants. Her informants are sometimes particular people that she wants to write about, but they also include ordinary people who are involved in particular vocations or issues. For example, in writing a song about battered women she will interview women who have had that unfortunate experience, or who have provided professional assistance to such women, so that she may accurately convey the subject matter.
This, of course, was the basic method that Peggy began to use back in the i950's when she worked with Ewan MacColl and Charles Parker on the Radio Ballads, which produced such gems as "Shoals of Herring" and "Freeborn Man." But while Peggy may have been using this method for a long time, few others seem to employ this resource.
The problem with too many songs is that the composer has limited experience of the world and therefore little to offer in the way of insight. Thus, people may write songs that protest wife-beating because they think wife-beating is bad, but the songs are ineffective because the composer really does not know anything real about the subject. One can expand upon one's own limitations, however, by drawing upon the experiences and insights of others. Particularly for those aspiring to write "folksongs," Peggy's field-work approach to inspiration seems preferable to resorting to a rhyming dictionary or to the tin pan alley conventions espoused by the Neil Sedaka's and Sherman Brothers of the world.