Lyrics & Knowledge Personal Pages Record Shop Auction Links Radio & Media Kids Membership Help
The Mudcat Cafemuddy

Post to this Thread - Sort Descending - Printer Friendly - Home

Writing down song words

Marje 18 Oct 11 - 11:25 AM
WindhoverWeaver 18 Oct 11 - 11:48 AM
Stower 18 Oct 11 - 12:03 PM
Black belt caterpillar wrestler 18 Oct 11 - 12:26 PM
Georgiansilver 18 Oct 11 - 01:04 PM
GUEST,SteveG 18 Oct 11 - 02:15 PM
Bert 18 Oct 11 - 02:38 PM
McGrath of Harlow 18 Oct 11 - 03:08 PM
Don Firth 18 Oct 11 - 03:50 PM
Jim Dixon 18 Oct 11 - 07:32 PM
GUEST,mg 18 Oct 11 - 07:56 PM
GUEST,.gargoyle 18 Oct 11 - 08:39 PM
GUEST,guest (Fred Gosbee) 18 Oct 11 - 09:04 PM
GUEST,mg 18 Oct 11 - 11:03 PM
Leadfingers 19 Oct 11 - 09:00 AM
Marje 19 Oct 11 - 12:10 PM
David C. Carter 19 Oct 11 - 12:24 PM
GUEST,DrWord 19 Oct 11 - 12:41 PM
MGM·Lion 19 Oct 11 - 12:53 PM
GUEST,Don Wise 20 Oct 11 - 10:54 AM
Share Thread
Lyrics & Knowledge Search [Advanced]
DT  Forum
Sort (Forum) by:relevance date
DT Lyrics:

Subject: Writing down song words
From: Marje
Date: 18 Oct 11 - 11:25 AM

On the radio recently I heard someone say that the written word was not good for stories. Old stories that had been handed down orally had to be remembered, resulting in the best and most important bits being recalled and the rest lost or replaced. The story teller could improve and embellish as they passed the story on, so stories got better, more refined, and more satisfying with each re-telling - until people started to write them down. Then the stories became set in stone, with whatever faults and quirks they had at that point in time, and people felt they couldn't or shouldn't change them any more.

This set me thinking about traditional songs and ballads. Does some of this apply, do you think? I often think that older ballads (and tunes too) have qualities that are hard to surpass, whereas some more recent songs have glaring faults that no one tries to fix because they're all set down in this or that songbook or collection. Obviously, if the song has a known writer, you have to be a bit cautious about editing (although many recently composed songs are badly flawed), but when we find a song set down 100 years ago by one of the early song-collectors, as sung by some farmer or labourer, are we sometimes too inclined to sing it as printed, even if the lines don't scan or rhyme and the plot or dialogue is creaky?

Instrumental folkies often prefer to learn tunes by ear, and some insist that seeing it written down would spoil their playing in some way, but I never hear anyone say this about song lyrics.

This is not a "yes" or "no" question, really; it's more of a how-much-and-why question. To what extent have literacy, books, recordings and the internet (and even Mudcat!) slowed or stopped the evolutionary process that shapes and sharpens our songs? And does it matter? I have my own thoughts but I'd like to hear what others think.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Writing down song words
From: WindhoverWeaver
Date: 18 Oct 11 - 11:48 AM

I think songs both evolved and devolved, and that is still the case, albeit at a slower pace.

Think of how many different versions there are of John Barleycorn. The older versions reflected the actual process of making beer, with the correct names of the various participants, whereas many newer versions change things around so the the beer "recipe" is made into nonsense.

There also seems to be a process of standardising choruses in songs. I don't mean between songs but within a given song. One example that comes to mind is Sandy Denny's Who Knows Where the Time Goes. The last line of each verse, as written, changes each time: "I have no thought of time", "I do not count the time", "I do not fear the time", yet many singers just use one and repeat it. Sad, because it loses a subtle but definite change in meaning as the song progresses.

I wonder too how the existence of lyrics sites plays into it. So many of those sites have the lyrics set down by a third party who is trying to get them from a recording and so many of them have nonsense words or phrases just because the scribe couldn't make out the actual words (obviously Mudcat is exempt from such a charge!). Do these errors get propagated or sung, I wonder?

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Writing down song words
From: Stower
Date: 18 Oct 11 - 12:03 PM

Memory certainly isn't perfect and can be as troublesome as the written word, but for different reasons. Just remember how many fragments were collected by folk song collectors. Some were made up into fuller songs by borrowing from elsewhere (Brigg Fair being an example); in other cases there was no elsewhere so we remain with fragments (Orange Tree being an example. Never heard of it? The entire words we have are "'Twas in the month of May / When flowers they were gay / When the orange trees were all in bloom / When the orange, orange, orange trees were all in bloom").

*Good* singers will not simplify. And good singers will treat the tradition as a resource to be modified, thus moving it well beyond the written word (for example, Martin Carthy).

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Writing down song words
From: Black belt caterpillar wrestler
Date: 18 Oct 11 - 12:26 PM

Remember the Kipper family theory that singers will keep the best songs to themselves and only pass on the worse ones!

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Writing down song words
From: Georgiansilver
Date: 18 Oct 11 - 01:04 PM

A beginning, a middle and an ending!! A story is a story to be enjoyed by all no matter how raw or how embellished..... People do take written stories and embellish them when repeating them... I wouldn't worry about it personally.. doesn't ruin my quality of life........

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Writing down song words
From: GUEST,SteveG
Date: 18 Oct 11 - 02:15 PM

Evolution is a wonderful thing and it hasn't stopped or slowed down in my opinion. I'm sure they made complaint in the 15th century when printing started, but the poets and printers' hacks just went right on rewriting the more popular stuff, and this alongside oral tradition, which incidentally is still as strong as it ever was. Some songs stay pretty much the same for centuries, others blossom into a myriad of variants. I love 'em all, well, most of those that survive.

As part of my research I have to plough through hundreds of thousands of songs from the 18th century, and boy am I glad most of these haven't survived. Those that have are jewels though (IMHO).

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Writing down song words
From: Bert
Date: 18 Oct 11 - 02:38 PM

I find it very important when writing a song. I never write anything down until the song is finished.

If you start off writing it down as you go you will find that the first line gets set in concrete and you never get the chance to change it.

Whereas, if you keep it all in your head, you can change anything as you go along.

Also, more importantly, any lines that you forget are the forgettable ones that have no place in your song.

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Writing down song words
From: McGrath of Harlow
Date: 18 Oct 11 - 03:08 PM

More often than not if I go back to check on the words of a song I've written and have sung a good few times, there'll be all kinds of changes that have crept in. Generally changes for the better.

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Writing down song words
From: Don Firth
Date: 18 Oct 11 - 03:50 PM

In one area, I actually am reasonably well organized. I have most to the songs I have learned typed out and in three-ring binders. I also have most of them in computer files, so if necessary, I can make changes and reprint them.

Like McGrath, over a period of time and with a lot of singing, I sometimes note that I have unconsciously changed a word or two, and it sings better than the way I originally learned it Set up the way I have it, I can easily incorporate the changes.

But there are some songs that I may not have sung for years and that I have partially forgotten ("How the %@&^!# does that third verse start!?"), so I can haul out the notebook and refresh my memory rather than maybe losing the whole song because I can't remember a crucial verse.

Consider. One of the first major collections of ballads was made by Bishop Thomas Percy, who was visiting a friend. He noticed that the maid was lighting the fire with sheets from an old manuscript. Curious, he looked at it and discovered that it was a collection of old ballads that someone had written down. He rescued it, and this became the nucleus of his collection, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. And Samuel Pepys assembled a collection of broadside ballads. These and other collections provided material for Francis James Child's monumental and definitive work, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.

Had someone not written these down in the first place, we could very easily have lost an immense number of really good songs and ballads. How many have we lost because theyi weren't written down someplace or the writtenn copy was destroyed, and for some reason people just stopped singing them. And not because they weren't good songs.

I shudder at the thought!

Don Firth

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Writing down song words
From: Jim Dixon
Date: 18 Oct 11 - 07:32 PM

It will always be a matter of opinion whether a change was an improvement or not.

Anyone who changes a song, even if he changes it unconsciously, will probably feel that his change is an improvement. Others may disagree.

A lot of good stuff seems to get lost. Clever wordplay is often lost. Anything that people don't understand tends to get changed to something they do understand—and think of the lowest common-denominator of understanding here. The result is often something less poetic or expressive than the original. Archaic expressions, unusual words, references to obsolete technology and customs, all tend to get replaced with something more modern.

Long songs tend to get shortened as whole verses are forgotten. Our ancestors had more patience than we do for listening to long ballads. Our abbreviated versions of ballads sometimes lose so much detail that they no longer make sense.

I have made quite a hobby of looking up old songs, and have often made it my goal to find the oldest known version of a song. When I succeed, I nearly always like the old version better than the current best-known version. But others often don't agree. When I'm responding to a request, I often find the requester saying, "No, that's not right." It often turns out that they want the Chad Mitchell Trio version, not the Georgia White version; or the Lonnie Donegan version, not the Leadbelly version; or (heaven help us) the Pat Boone version rather than the Fats Domino version. De gustibus non est disputandum.

People are afflicted with nostalgia—your first kiss, the first car you ever owned, your first guitar, the first computer you ever learned to use, and so on, will probably forever occupy a special place in your heart. Likewise, the first version of a folk song that you learned to love and sing will probably always seem like the "right" version, no matter how recently it was coined when you learned it.

Nowadays, the best-known and most-requested version of any song tends to come from somebody's recent hit record—and the last 40 years counts as recent in the history of many songs. So I'd say it's recording, not writing down, that tends to establish a certain version as definitive in the minds of many folk-music fans.

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Writing down song words
From: GUEST,mg
Date: 18 Oct 11 - 07:56 PM

True. I have almost never preferred someone's changes to a song no matter how enamored they are of the changes themselves. The exception would be if terribly racist etc. words were changed out of necessity. mg

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Writing down song words
From: GUEST,.gargoyle
Date: 18 Oct 11 - 08:39 PM

Plato's Phaidros presents a conflict between memory and writing. Plato presents an arguement against writing...

It is similar to the "old school" thesis you are presenting.

Thank heavens for the "New World."

Some UKer's in this forum have "embraced" only one true "tradition."

A particular performance or performer.

In a parallel to Plato, the latter labor under the false illusion of autonomy which comes with musical theory and writing. This illusion leads them to think that whatever can be argued following the rules of traditional music is true.


Could you imagine John Coltrane - "running the bar" with ribbons and bells?

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Writing down song words
From: GUEST,guest (Fred Gosbee)
Date: 18 Oct 11 - 09:04 PM

Here's my two cents>
Re: obsolete, archaic words. If they can't be understood via the context they need to be modified (as little as possible) or the song as a whole loses it's meaning and will fall by the wayside. Handing out a folder of footnotes at a concert isn't practical. For recorded songs there is the booklet option to define strange words (Having recorded several Robert Burns songs- in Scots - we felt it was necessary to keep the language and provide translations) However some songs just can't be rescued. Many of the 17th century catches use words or phrases that were clever double-entendre when they were written but the non-vulgar meanings have been lost so the whole point of feigned innocence has been lost with the evolution of the language.

Re: Writing down original songs. I have revisited the original "proper" version of many of my songs and found that many changes creep in. Almost always for the better. Words and phrases that don't sing well or aren't easily understood tend to get refined with repeated performances. I have never felt hampered by written words or music - maybe because I'm a lousy mimic.

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Writing down song words
From: GUEST,mg
Date: 18 Oct 11 - 11:03 PM

All depends on the recipient. I personally love the obsolete and archaid words and don't care if I understand them or not. I would not change them. mg

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Writing down song words
From: Leadfingers
Date: 19 Oct 11 - 09:00 AM

The Folk Process is still alive and well ! I find that if I go back to my original trancription of a song I have been singing for some yers that what I sing now can differ quite significantly , as there are always phrases that dont sit comfortably in YOUR mouth , though
they obviously did with the original writer .

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Writing down song words
From: Marje
Date: 19 Oct 11 - 12:10 PM

I deliberately withheld my own views just to see what transpired, but much of what's been said echoes my feelings.

I do, both consciously and accidentally, alter the words of a song when I find they don't fit the rhythm, or if I think I can make it rhyme when it doesn't, or if what's written down is just unsingable in some other way. I try to stick to the tune as I've learned it, although there may be variants, in which case I'll choose the one I prefer. If possible, I seek out variants of the words too, and may fuse several of these into one version that I like, rather than making my own changes to the first version that I find.

But you have a point, Jim, about changing too much; if we change everything to modern, idiomatic, everyday language, we risk losing some of the precious and fragile qualities of the old songs. Sometimes the quirkiness and mystery of archaic language are the main reason for a song's appeal; on the other hand, a singer may feel uncomfortable singing words that don't feel natural and may even be incomprehensible. It's always a tricky balance to get right. But I have a feeling our forebears in the days before mass literacy were not so scrupulous, and may have changed or re-invented a lot as they went along.

I wouldn't suggest for a moment that we give up writing things down and rely on memory entirely. Never having the opportunity to see or store written lyrics would reduce some people's repertoires to little more than Happy Birthday and God Save the Queen (and maybe the Wild Rover and half of Last Thing on my Mind..). It's just interesting to speculate on the effect that the printed word - and now electronic information-sharing - have had on our songs and our readiness to alter them.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Writing down song words
From: David C. Carter
Date: 19 Oct 11 - 12:24 PM

I'm with Bert on this one.I have to keep it all in my head untill I think it's finished.It sort of keeps up the"pressure"to continue the song.
And,as he said,nothing is set in concrete.
My only problem with this is that I find myself writing several songs at once,then it gets complicated.But so what!


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Writing down song words
From: GUEST,DrWord
Date: 19 Oct 11 - 12:41 PM

Marje ~ thanks for the thread!
I love the archaisms [He promised to buy me a fairling...]
Love, also, the old old versions ...

I'll often, on the final chorus of "You are my sunshine" at my music with the frail elderly gig, sing "You'll never know, dear, how much I miss you"

I am a bit of a Platonist ~ writing will be the death of memory!
Lyric collection is a good thing, but the oral tradition ... gawd I could blather forever ... thanks again, all, for your thoughts on the matter.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Writing down song words
From: MGM·Lion
Date: 19 Oct 11 - 12:53 PM

As to Plato, confusing the issue by distancing himself from the arguments by writing as if in the persona of Socrates whom he presents explicitly as a devil's advocate making equivocal points just to keep the disputation on the boil ~~ I have often wondered what the hell we are supposed to take or learn from his maundering manifestations...!


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Writing down song words
From: GUEST,Don Wise
Date: 20 Oct 11 - 10:54 AM

I have no problem with songs written out on paper. When I'm learning a new song, no matter whether trad, from a songwriter, or a new one of mine, I fix the basic text and melody in my head and then put the song to one side for a few weeks or months to let it 'bed-in' and take root. Then, when I feel it's time to torture an audience with it, I'll get on with the final learning, arranging etc. At this point, if it's one of my songs, I often find that awkward lines and rhymes sort themselves out. Interestingly, over the last year I've been making archive recordings of my songs and tunes (away from scarcely playable cassettes and onto CD) and I found myself giving quite a few of the songs an overhaul, even though in some cases, the songs have never been sung in public. Others were deemed to have such a 'cringe factor' that they were excluded from the archive project! I also completed a song that I started writing nearly 30 years ago- I'd put it to one side and completely forgotten about it!

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate
  Share Thread:

Reply to Thread
Subject:  Help
Preview   Automatic Linebreaks   Make a link ("blue clicky")

Mudcat time: 17 November 10:39 PM EST

[ Home ]

All original material is copyright © 1998 by the Mudcat Café Music Foundation, Inc. All photos, music, images, etc. are copyright © by their rightful owners. Every effort is taken to attribute appropriate copyright to images, content, music, etc. We are not a copyright resource.