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Lyrics and Lyricists, your opinion

Margo 29 May 99 - 10:53 AM
Chet W. 29 May 99 - 01:33 PM
Tiger 29 May 99 - 02:03 PM
Roger in Baltimore 29 May 99 - 03:23 PM
katlaughing 29 May 99 - 05:33 PM
Susanne (skw) 29 May 99 - 06:25 PM
Mick Lowe 29 May 99 - 08:30 PM
Indy Lass 30 May 99 - 12:10 AM
Rick Fielding 30 May 99 - 12:23 AM
Barry Finn 30 May 99 - 02:08 AM
Penny S. 30 May 99 - 04:03 AM
Margo 30 May 99 - 07:10 AM
Roger in Baltimore 30 May 99 - 08:29 AM
Susanne (skw) 30 May 99 - 06:15 PM
DonMeixner 31 May 99 - 12:07 AM
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Subject: Lyrics and Lyricists, your opinion
From: Margo
Date: 29 May 99 - 10:53 AM

I love language. Some Lyricists have such a felicity of expression and I wish I could write lyrics so beautifully. What are some of your favorite lyrics/lyricists?

I am writing songs using Robert Louis Stevenson's poetry. I've seen some wonderful songs with Rudyard Kipling's poetry.

Do any of you poets out there have any secrets or rules you follow for writing? Suggested reading of instructional books?


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Subject: RE: Lyrics and Lyricists, your opinion
From: Chet W.
Date: 29 May 99 - 01:33 PM

No books of instruction. It's just like with music, you listen to and read as much as possible, and adapt what you like to your own use. There are a few lyricists that I admire greatly and meant a lot to my own writing: Ira Gershwin, for his sheer mastery of language and feeling; Cole Porter, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Tom Waits. Among non-lyricists I find inspriration in Flannery O'Connor and Hemingway and Steinbeck. One useful thing that I read that Paul Simon said once was that the sounds of the words were as important as their meanings. This is especially evident in his Graceland album, where he recorded South African musicians and then wrote songs to sing over the recorded music. Some of the lyrics, in English, are taken from sounds suggested by the recorded singers singing in Zulu or Xhosa or whatever. So he got a sound that he was looking for and worked around that to say what he wanted to say. I use this now quite a lot.

Good luck, Chet W.

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Subject: RE: Lyrics and Lyricists, your opinion
From: Tiger
Date: 29 May 99 - 02:03 PM

I'll have to second Chet's recommendation of Paul Simon, who puts it ALL together beautifully (lyrics, music, performance).

Others who move me with their lyrics - Townes Van Zandt, Tom Paxton, Stan Rogers, Eric Bogle.

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Subject: RE: Lyrics and Lyricists, your opinion
From: Roger in Baltimore
Date: 29 May 99 - 03:23 PM


I am sure there are several writers whose work you appreciate. An important intellectual task for you is to sit down with some work you like and to try and determine why you like it. Get beyond the subject matter and dig down into the structure of the song.

As mentioned above, there are nuances in rhythm and in how words sound. You will find there are certain structures that are helpful, alliteration and repetition for examples.

If you want to write, you need to make a commitment to it by setting some time aside each week to write. Many lyricists find it helpful to find others who can critique their work and give them new ideas. Many larger cities have songwriting groups who do that on a regular basis. If you don't have that, consider friends who care who can also give you feedback about your work.

Buy yourself a rhyming dictionary. One can be a source of inspiration in times of need.

This summer there will be many gatherings that will include teaching songwriting. Common Ground, the Augusta Heritage weeks, and the Swannanoah Gathering are three that come to mind. If you want ones in your area, start a thread and ask.

Contact your local community colleges and music stores. There are often opportunities to learn song writing through these organizations.

A device some people use is to assign themselves "song projects". One writer took a book and asked people to call out page numbers and line numbers. Each person was then assigned to write a song about the phrase captured by the page number and line number they called out. Others take a newspaper and find one article about which they can write a song. Another asked people to write a song that had no rhyme scheme.

Woody Guthrie did that with "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos" (also known as Deportees). I never noticed that the verses did not rhyme until it was pointed out to me. The one rhyme in the verses matches "dry leaves" with "Deportees" and to me it makes the two lines stand out. That's how dissecting a song can be helpful to you.

I am about to start rambling so I'll stop here.

Roger in Baltimore

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Subject: RE: Lyrics and Lyricists, your opinion
From: katlaughing
Date: 29 May 99 - 05:33 PM

Margarita: all of the above are really good advice, but I want to also stress, inspiration. While working out the words can get frustrating at times, there are other times when one is not trying to force anything, when one just lets go and goes with stream of consciousness, letting the words flow without any intellectualising or analyzation. Thse are the times you can just feel that you got it right, often in "one take".

I am not saying the other way isn't valid It is by far the most often mode of writing, esp by professionals. We write everyday, with or without inspiration. It is very important to set aside time to write on a consistent basis, preferably every day, even if just for a few minutes. And, as the Muse can be fickle about when she strikes, it always pays to have a pen and paper handy wherever you are, for that odd moment of inspiration. I penned one of my favourite short essays one day while waiting for my son in the doctor's office; waited a long time, which generated "A Mother's Life of Weights/Waits".

By all means, read and figure out what it is that you like about what you're reading. Do buy that rhyming dictionary; they're great fun, as is a big, unabridged dictionary, and a thesaurus.


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Subject: RE: Lyrics and Lyricists, your opinion
From: Susanne (skw)
Date: 29 May 99 - 06:25 PM

I keep repeating myself - Brian McNeill, to me, is among the very best living songwriters. His songs tell a story in a totally unforced way (with very few exceptions). Only the other day, someone referred to one of his songs as 'the old Scottish song ...'. Also, they don't lose their freshness with repeated listening.
I also like Harry Chapin's versatile body of work, Tom Paxton's wit, and Judy Small's deceptive simplicity and determined feminism. On the other hand, I've often been disappointed by Eric Bogle, who has written some great songs but also an awful lot of fairly mundane ones. (Murmurs of protest growing in volume ...)

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Subject: RE: Lyrics and Lyricists, your opinion
From: Mick Lowe
Date: 29 May 99 - 08:30 PM

I started reading this thread thinking no one will have mentioned the "one" perosn I consider as being in the top ten of all time lyricists and then I see Chet & Tiger have beaten me to it. Paul Simon has written some "monumental" lyrics. "Kathy's Song", "Wednesday Morning 3am" and "Dangling Conversation" to name 3.. hey I can count. I would also add Al Stewart but I guess he hasn't travelled acorss the pond save for "Year of the Cat" (not his best attempt).
As Chet so rightly pointed out, the best way is to immerse yourself as much as possible into every conceivable source of inspiration. I feel that the "best" songs are those that stand alone as poems/poetry. Both media have to convey the sentiments of the author as succinctly as possible. Okay with a song it helps to have a good melody as well.
RiB your mention of a rhyming dictionary reminded me of seeing Sammy Cann (Three Coins in a Fountain - fame, amongst others) on a chat show here in the UK many, many years ago... I can't knock him cos he made a lot more money writing lyrics than I ever will.. but I think coupling June & Moon must have taxed him somewhat.
Kat you sly thing you, you never let on that you could add writing to your endless list of talents.. and you still haven't replied to my email... I know you are busy, just teasing.
Susanne I agree with you re Eric Bogle. If you were to take a straw as to the "best" Bogle song, I guess the winner would be "Green Fields".. why?.. Because this like all "good" songs/lyrics, it seems to be written from the heart. By all means learn the "tools of the trade" Margarita and you should be able to knock out product as good as any songsmith, when you are taken over by your heart, then you become a master of your craft as a lyricist.

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Subject: RE: Lyrics and Lyricists, your opinion
From: Indy Lass
Date: 30 May 99 - 12:10 AM

I found a scottish poem by Sir Walter Scott that I liked and put my own music to. But is this really songwriting or is it just stealing someone elses great lyrics? Loreena McKennitt has done this and produced some beautiful songs with others poetry--poetry that I may never have known had it not been for someone putting it to music. Can songs like this be copyrighted by a musician? Is "old" poetry considered public domain? And how would I know if someone hasn't already set this poem to music and I just haven't heard about it yet?

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Subject: RE: Lyrics and Lyricists, your opinion
From: Rick Fielding
Date: 30 May 99 - 12:23 AM

Annieglen, writing tunes to existing poetry is a noble tradition. "Innesfree" has at least four tunes that I know of, and "Fiddler of Dooney" about the same. I've written tunes to poetry and recorded them for years. The composer credit is split, ie. lyrics: by.. music: by...

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Subject: RE: Lyrics and Lyricists, your opinion
From: Barry Finn
Date: 30 May 99 - 02:08 AM

Peter Belamy put some great tunes to Kipling & more & Sean Tyrell is doing the same with some others.

Margarita, you might try asking here for comments on songs that you're working on, it was very helpful for me.

I don't write alot, mostly just when an inspiration hits me over the head with a 3 lb sledge. Then the stream flows eaiser. I think it's also important to me that I'm never as important as the song (if I'm even there at all) even my opinion or take on the matter doesn't amount to squat in the unfolding of a song. I guess that's why I find my pen doesn't like to be pushed while in the first person. Two of the guys I sing with are pretty good writters & I don't think that they set off to write something so much as they're set off by something to write. Happy Tales. Barry

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Subject: RE: Lyrics and Lyricists, your opinion
From: Penny S.
Date: 30 May 99 - 04:03 AM

Annieglen, I don't think that someone else having set a poem to music makes it taboo for anyone else to do it. Unless the composer is also the poet, of course. Or unless that music has become totally identified with the poem. That still doesn't stop some people, if they have heard something in their heads that needs to be sung. For example, Christina Rossetti's carol "In the bleak midwinter" has a tune by Holst, but has recently had a new tune set to it, equally good.

Margarita, I haven't posted here before, because I only do a little in the verse line. But when I do, it is because something has to be written that way, rather than prose. The form it comes in depends on all the rest of the verse I know, so reading or listening a lot is important. I'm very picky about the way it develops: if I have to force subsequent verses into the rhyme scheme, I usually dump it. The whole thing, not the scheme. I have a personal dislike of songs which start off with a complex rhyme scheme, involving internal rhymes, dump the latter in the second verse, switch to assonance in the third, and have no rhymes at all in the last. My ears expect rhymes to certain tunes. Much as I admire Gilbert's skill with lyrics, or Tom Lehrer's, I think simplicity is a good way to go, in vocabulary and verse form: the Kipling you've been looking at has that sort of structure, hasn't it? And also the Stevenson?

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Subject: RE: Lyrics and Lyricists, your opinion
From: Margo
Date: 30 May 99 - 07:10 AM

Thanks folks, for all the good advice. RiB, I like your suggestion of looking at why I like a poet's writing. I think the poems or lyrics that really impress me are ones that convey a vivid picture succinctly while the very sound of the language also reflects the emotion in the music. Hmmmm.....I wonder if there is a rhyming dictionary on CD rom?


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Subject: RE: Lyrics and Lyricists, your opinion
From: Roger in Baltimore
Date: 30 May 99 - 08:29 AM

Setting poetry to music reminds me of a personal story.

I was invited to sing at a poetry and strings concert set up by local Arts Council and their Poetry Society. We alternated with poets reading their works and singers singing songs. I enjoyed much of the poetry. The Poetry Society had made a little booklet of all the poems read that night and I bought it.

Later, I kept referring back to one specific poem that had struck me. It was rhymeless, but I decided it should be a song (a self-challenge Margarita).

After a few days work I had an air that felt right and a proper guitar part. I was very happy since I write very little. Then I realized that I probably could never perform it in public without the poets permission.

So I called the Arts Council and asked if they could have the poet call me. They agreed and a few days later she called. She remembered who I was and said she would want to hear the song first before giving her permission.

We set up a time to meet so I could play the song for her. Only after I hung up did I face the possibility that if she didn't like it and didn't give her permission, I was stuck with a song I liked and no way to perform it.

When we met it was the most nervous performance of my life. She came with her son's Fisher Price tape cassette recorder. I played the song and fortunately she liked it. We talked some about music in general and I told her about the Potluck Singing Society group. She was fascinated as she had a dream of meeting with a group of people just to sing.

Laura has become a good friend and a regular member of our Potluck Sings. We are both happier for having met.

God I love music!

Big RiB

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Subject: RE: Lyrics and Lyricists, your opinion
From: Susanne (skw)
Date: 30 May 99 - 06:15 PM

One of the most impressive (though chilling) contemporary songs I know is a modification of a poem, 'Five Ways To Kill A Man', to the tune of (a very slow) 'Ye Jacobites By Name'. To me, both the poem and the song are valid in their own separate ways. If such 'tampering' can open up a new audience to an art form or a thought worth thinking, why not? With older works, we call it the folk process. (And, no, I don't want to get back into the debate on copyright ...) - Susanne

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Subject: RE: Lyrics and Lyricists, your opinion
From: DonMeixner
Date: 31 May 99 - 12:07 AM

Phil Ochs did a little setting to music of poems on his first two albums. (In many ways I think they were his best but his concert album is hard to beat.) I think he was very successful with each of his attempts. My children knew the Noyes poem The Highwayman from my singing of Ochs' rendition for many years before they learned it was a poem. ( A teacher once asked how it was possible for such little kids to know such a long poem by heart?) He ws equally successful with "The Bells" and "The Men Behind The Guns" which has never left my performing rep since I first learned it nearly 35 years ago.

Gordon Bok sings a version of The Sea Wife by Kipling that is chilling. I don't know where the melody came from. Dave Bromberg did a bit of a rework on Willa Cather's "Spainish Johnny which works well enough but, oddly, I find the rework makes a better poem than it does a song. Priscilla Herdman did all those fine Henry Lawson poems over into songs many years back and created what I think of as a perfect album.

Another perfect album I think is Paul Mc Neill, live at the Troubadour with some Causley poems on board as songs. "The Nursery Rhymn of Innocense and Experience,( The Penny and the Apricot Tree)" and "Mother get up Unbar the Door". Un fortunatelly I have never heard of Paul Mc Neill except on this old Fontana disk. Anyone know of his where abouts?.


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