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Dave T 13 Oct 98 - 08:10 PM
Bert C 13 Oct 98 - 11:47 PM
BSeed 14 Oct 98 - 02:06 AM
Alice 14 Oct 98 - 08:18 AM
Barbara Shaw 14 Oct 98 - 12:17 PM
The Shambles 14 Oct 98 - 01:07 PM
BSeed 14 Oct 98 - 01:26 PM
Earl 14 Oct 98 - 03:59 PM
Bert 14 Oct 98 - 04:49 PM
Dave T 14 Oct 98 - 11:00 PM
Dave T 14 Oct 98 - 11:04 PM
Barry Finn 14 Oct 98 - 11:31 PM
harpgirl 15 Oct 98 - 12:04 AM
Big Mick 15 Oct 98 - 01:09 AM
Bert 15 Oct 98 - 12:04 PM
Barry Finn 15 Oct 98 - 02:03 PM
Bert 15 Oct 98 - 02:11 PM
Barry Finn 15 Oct 98 - 02:28 PM
harpgirl 15 Oct 98 - 03:39 PM
BSeed 15 Oct 98 - 03:50 PM
harpgirl 15 Oct 98 - 04:22 PM
The Shambles 17 Oct 98 - 03:55 AM
The Shambles 17 Oct 98 - 06:46 AM
BSeed 17 Oct 98 - 03:42 PM
Art Thieme 17 Oct 98 - 04:27 PM
BSeed 17 Oct 98 - 07:17 PM
BSeed 17 Oct 98 - 07:31 PM
BSeed 17 Oct 98 - 07:34 PM
The Shambles 17 Oct 98 - 09:22 PM
Barbara 18 Oct 98 - 12:05 AM
The Shambles 18 Oct 98 - 09:17 AM
Peter T. 29 Oct 98 - 04:54 PM
Dave T 29 Oct 98 - 08:17 PM
Roger in Baltimore 29 Oct 98 - 09:15 PM
BSeed 30 Oct 98 - 10:03 PM
Bojangles 30 Oct 98 - 10:29 PM
Barbara 30 Oct 98 - 11:17 PM
Barbara 31 Oct 98 - 09:43 AM
Peter T. 31 Oct 98 - 10:05 AM
Peter T. 31 Oct 98 - 10:22 AM
BSeed 31 Oct 98 - 01:09 PM
31 Oct 98 - 02:27 PM
Barbara Shaw 31 Oct 98 - 04:10 PM
Barbara 01 Nov 98 - 01:49 PM
To Bseed 02 Nov 98 - 05:25 PM
BSeed 02 Nov 98 - 09:45 PM
Dave T 02 Nov 98 - 10:40 PM
The Shambles 03 Nov 98 - 06:08 AM
The Shambles 03 Nov 98 - 07:50 AM
03 Nov 98 - 09:54 AM
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Subject: Songwriting
From: Dave T
Date: 13 Oct 98 - 08:10 PM

I thought it might be interesting to have discussion on songwriting. I didn't find one on a forum search, so I though I'd try. There's an intersting article in the Feb. 1998 issue of "Acoustic Guitar" magazine on how the instrument one uses affects the song. I'm not a professional musician, but I enjoy trying my hand at writing songs. I've tried writing songs on different styles: country blues, delta blues, country, folk ballads, etc. Generally I write using the guitar and most often write the music before the lyrics, although not always.

I can usually tell pretty quickly whether a song is going to work. Those that do often seem to "write themselves". If I find I have to labour at it, the song usually was never meant to be. This doesn't mean I don't spend time editing and polishing the lyrics or search for the right variation on the standard chords; but the basic skeleton of the song takes shape very quicky.

I'd be very interested in knowing how do some of you approach songwriting both lyrically and musically (although I find it hard to separate the two).

Dave T

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Bert C
Date: 13 Oct 98 - 11:47 PM

Dave, I agree that it's hard to separate the music from the lyrics. Those songs that "write themselves" usually seem to start with a good solid phrase, and the tone and content of that phrase defines the music. An acquaintance of mine used to bat those out at the rate of several per week, but only once in a while did he get a really good one.

On the other hand, some of what I consider my best stuff has come through extended trial and tribulation. (I believe it was Edison who something about 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration). I think it has to do with the intellectual level of the song. If the song has something to say, it may take weeks or months for me to figure just what the message should be. Then it may take even longer to capture the message in words that are suitably poetic and get the tone of the music and lyrics to mesh. I'm in the middle of one right now, where I can think of lots of good things to say, but fitting them into a consistent musical and lyrical framework is the trick. If I didn't already have a good verse and chorus that rhyme, I'd consider doing it with no rhyme at all.

I've done some other less meaningful songs that are still entertaining and fun to perform, and they were a lot easier to write.

One of the ways I approach lyrics (after I have a subject) is to sit down at the word processor and throw in every good phrase that comes to mind. Then, taking each of the ending words of the phrases, I list out all the words that rhyme. Every now and then, one of the rhyming words jumps out lays out the rest of the verse for you.

The ultimate reward is to be able to perform a meaningful piece of your creation and have it truly move an audience. It's a spiritual experience like nothing else. If you get there even once in your career, it makes it all worthwhile. I'll never forget it.

Bert C.

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: BSeed
Date: 14 Oct 98 - 02:06 AM

One of the members of my song circle/jam group/occasionally performing band broke this out after we had played a blues (I was on harp, with two guitars and me trading breaks, one of the guitarists singing, and a keyboard playing rhythm). When we finished, the keyboard player read this aloud to the group. It seems appropriate for this thread:

HOW TO SING THE BLUES (attributed to Memphis Earline Gray, with help from Uncle Plunky)

1. Most blues begin "Woke up this morning..."

2. "I got a good woman" is a bad way to begin the blues unless you stick something nasty in the next line:

I got a good woman--with the meanest dog in town.

3. Blues are simple. After you thave the first line right, repeat it. Then find something that rhymes, sort of:

Got a good woman with the meanest dog in town.
He got teeth like Margaret Thatcher, and he weighs about 500 pounds.

4. The blues are not about limitless choice.

5. Blues cars are Chevies and Cadillacs. Other acceptable blues transportation is Greyhound bus or a southbound train. Walkin' plays a major part in the blues lifestyle. So does fixin' to die.

6. Teenagers can¹t sing the blues. Adults sing the blues. Blues adulthood means old enough to get the electric chair if you shoot a man in Memphis.

7. You can have the blues in New York City, but not in Brooklyn or Queens. Hard times in Vermont or North Dakota are just a depression. Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City are still the best places to have the blues.

8. The following colors do not belong in the blues:
a. violet
b. beige
c. mauve

9. You can't have the blues in an office or a shopping mall; the lighting is wrong.

10. Good places for the blues:
a. the highway
b. the jailhouse
c. the empty bed

11. No one will believe it's the blues if you wear a suit, unless you happen to be an old black man.

12. Neither Julio Iglesias nor Barbra Streisand can sing the blues.

13. If you ask for water and baby gives you gasoline. it's the blues. Other blues beverages are
a. wine
b. Irish whiskey
c. muddy water

Other blues beverages are not
a. any mixed drink
b. any wine kosher for passover
c. Yoo Hoo (all flavors)

14. If it occurs in a cheap motel or a shotgun shack, it's blues death. Stabbed in the back by a jealous lover is a blues way to ddie. So are the electric chair, substance abuse, or being denied treatment in an emergency room. It¹s not a blues death if you die during a liposuction treatment.

15. some blues names for women:

a. Sadie
b. Big Mama
c. Bessie

16. Some blues names for men:
a. Joe
b. Willie
c. Little Willie
d. Lightning

Persons with names like Sierra or Sequoia will not be permitted to sing the blues no matter how many men they shoot in Memphis.


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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Alice
Date: 14 Oct 98 - 08:18 AM

We had a humorous discussion about the topic of writing lyrics awhile back. I think the thread was called 'folksongs for dummies' or something like that. A forum search will probably bring it up.

alice in montana

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Barbara Shaw
Date: 14 Oct 98 - 12:17 PM

Sometimes a song on the car radio will inspire me with a certain "feel" which I try to recapture when I get to my guitar. Then I hope that I haven't recaptured the exact same "feel" that the original song had!

Sometimes I set out to write a waltz, or a bluesy, bouncy thing. Sometimes these all come out sounding like pretty much the same song I've written many times before with different lyrics. My "voice" or "signature" is on these songs, no matter how much I try to say something different! I think this is true of many songwriters: you can pretty much tell it's one of their songs by the sound or feel or "voice."

I do have one good fiddle tune that just showed up on my fiddle one day. It wrote itself, and then I went and put my corny voice to it by writing some lyrics . . .

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: The Shambles
Date: 14 Oct 98 - 01:07 PM

Many thanks to Dave, Bert and all.....It was getting a bit too peaceful round here.

I find it very interesting to hear how other people go about writing and why. I mean why write songs? Are there not enough good ones around already? Why not leave it to proper songwriters? How do you know if they are any good? When you perform do you have to sing all of your own material? If you don't, then who will? Just because it's original dosn't make it good. Just because it's original dosn't make it bad either.

There is also this artist thing that comes up. If you are known to everybody as 'Joe the Postman' and you appear at your local sing-around with a song you have composed, it seems to be very difficult for people to take the song on its merits. If you get any reaction at all it tends to be on the lines of "oh you wrote that youself". If you performed the same song and introduced it as an obscure Eric Bogle, John Prine or Richard Thompson song, no matter how poorly you performed it, it would probably be more easy to accept. I never have actually tried it though but I would be interested to hear from anyone who has. If you work away at it long enough though, you do eventually become known as 'that Joe the Postman who writes songs'.

The above dosn't apply in the case of the places you go that are geared up for the budding 'singer-songwriter' but they present different problems. I would be interested in hearing your experience of these, as they don't seem to be too common in the U.K.

As for the why, I think Bert covered that very well. When it works like that it makes it all worth while. It's just as likely to happen though, that when you have sung a song by one of the writers mentioned above, that someone will approach you and say "did you write that one then"? !*+#! Has that ever happened to you?

The most important thing for me though is to have something to say, then you have the best reason to write a song. When I look back at what I have written here I never quite seem to be able to say what I mean. Someone always seems to focus on what I would consider to be minor point, or I just seem to confuse the issue entirely.

I just seem to be able to say it better in song somehow.

When I first started I seemed to think that the music had to be complicated and have lots of difficult chords to be original. I would pass over what I thought to be simple or obvious melodies before I realised that they we only simple and obvious to me! I am now going though my 'minimilist' stage, which means two chords only. As was said by Dave and Bert, they seem to be the ones that write themselves. I am aiming to do a one chord song next.

To sum up I would like to say that writing songs is not too difficult, the difficult bit is being able to write a good song and knowing how to recognise it..... What makes a good song?

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: BSeed
Date: 14 Oct 98 - 01:26 PM

Motivated by my dismay to find the threads down again on Sunday, I went to my word processor and started banging out my "Missing the Mudcat Blues." The first three verses came easily, but I couldn't remember enough names to finish it--luckily, although I couldn't call up any postings, at least the names of the members posting came up, so after i went back and got a bunch more names, I was able to crank out the song, which I posted that evening, but stupidly omitting the the and the quotes in the title. Missing Mudcat blues doesn't quite convey a] that it is a song and b] that it is about times without the 'cat.

I hope that there is enough content here on the process of writing it that it won't seem too much like mere shameless self-promotion, but I do hope you'll check it out. It's at least mildly amusing. --seed

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Earl
Date: 14 Oct 98 - 03:59 PM

I like to start with an idea or one line then decide on the rhythm and style to fit it, ragtime, country, blues, whatever. It is usually fairly easy to get one verse down and if I can add a decent chorus then I know I can eventually write enough verses to call it a song. Sometimes it happens right away, sometimes it takes years.

I don't expect to move people with my songs but I have made people laugh (intentionally) and that's pretty gratifying.

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Bert
Date: 14 Oct 98 - 04:49 PM

Here's some thoughts from the other Bert.

Shambles asks..
..why write songs? : Because you have something to say
..Are there not enough good ones around already? : No, just listen to the radio.
..Why not leave it to proper songwriters? : We are PROPER songwriters.

So Here's how I do it, for a ballad style song.

First decide what you want to say. What is the message you want to get across?
Decide on a punch line which sums up the message. That becomes your ending. If you haven't got an ending you haven't got a song.
The first verse has the job of getting the listener's attention.
Subsequent verses provide the build up to the last verse
The last verse delivers the message

For each verse you draw a picture in words. Make sure it is a real picture that you can see. Look at the covers on paperback novels, they do this quite well.
for each picture or verse, add some props. These should be real visual things. Things the listener can see in his/her mind.
Look at the comic pages in the newspapers. These guys are professionals at telling a story in just a few pictures.
Look at the props Bob Thaves uses in "Frank and Ernest"
That coffee urn really sets the scene for the greasy spoon cafe.

The props you use give you words which you can use for rhyming.

Let's look at a song you know. Here's the first line of "A song for a Winter's Night" by Gordon Lightfoot.

The lamp is burning low upon my table top.
OK. the song has nothing to do with lamps or tables, they are the props he uses to draw his picture. From this first line you know what time of day it is, it's late at night.
You know he is in some remote cabin because you don't use oil lamps in a downtown condo.
Next line.. The snow is softly falling.
See how he uses the snow as a prop to set the mood.
Next line...The air is still, in the silence of my room.
He is still using the picture of the room, and he is bringing the listener right in there with him.
Next line...I hear your voice sofltly calling.
Because he has set the stage so carefully you can almost hear her voice yourself.

Now you have got the hang of it, carry on songwriting.
I'll leave it to the musicians among us to talk about the tune.

Bert (the old one)

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Dave T
Date: 14 Oct 98 - 11:00 PM

I find the most meaningful songs are those that are based on a single, central image or theme. It seems many songs we hear today are too disconnected and thereby lack impact,while others are simply fluff. I've always been impressed by the images created by writers like Townes van Zandt( of my favourites, "Tecumseh Valley").
I was thinking the other day that now matter how close we may be to others we are essentially alone. This brought out the following verse, which in turn brought out an , as yet unfinished, song:

Though we may stand together
It seems solitude's what we know best
From our thoughts on the wind we are tethered
To the feelings alone in our breast

To me it's often these simple themes that lead to "good songs". I hope we keep this discussion going a while longer. So far I've enjoyed all you comments, and am looking forward to more.

Dave T

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Dave T
Date: 14 Oct 98 - 11:04 PM

Why does my message seem to be reposting itself??? Seems to me I've heard about his a long time ago. Any suggestions? Maybe I'll go to Max's new Help & Trouble page. Until then, sorry for the duplicates or triplicates as the case may be. @#%$!&@#
Dave T
Dave, most times, double posting seems to be the action of evil gremlins, but sometimes it's due to using the "refresh" button on your browser instead of using the Mudcat refresh stuff Max has bestowed on us. don't worry about it - double posts are easy to delete.
-Joe Offer-

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Barry Finn
Date: 14 Oct 98 - 11:31 PM

It seems that for me I write only serious material & usually only after I've encounted a very emotional experience or something jumps out at me & screams write. Watching the life of an impared child or last week running into a very old & close high school friend who, after near 30 years is still a junkie & still alive or reading about a female Lighthouse keeper whose unsung rescues over her lifetime saved 25 people. As for bringing them out & not knowing if they're any good, at a singing party or session I might throw one in among the others, never saying anything about it & seeing if there's any interest or any remarks. When other singers want to know where you got that song or whose it's by you can figure it's at least decent. Some time ago at a session I asked Jim Paine to sing one of his songs, only the person who brought him knew of him, after he sang (Empty Nets) a few said "where in the hell did you get that" one mentioned that he'd only heard that once & it was up in Canada" then named the group & they were friends of Jims'. Then came "where's it from", Jim had to've been very proud to say it was one of his & to know in the eyes & ears of his peers that he had written a real gem. Barry

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: harpgirl
Date: 15 Oct 98 - 12:04 AM

Is there a thread somewhere with Mudcatter's songs? Is it a copyright issue or shyness or the desire not to appear that one is self promoting or needing to sell them or what? I thought Art said anyone could sing his and that some are posted. Anyone else? Or if I do a search with names would I find everyone's songs? harpaftermidnight...

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Big Mick
Date: 15 Oct 98 - 01:09 AM

Great thread and timely for me. I have recently been working on ideas for a number of songs using events that have happened in over 20 years of union organizing/activism. I also have a number of ideas floating around my mind with that deal with being raised among Irish ex-pats and with the customs of my people. I had purchased a book on how to craft lyrics (even though a lot of this seems to be inate), but I have learned more from just reading the thread, than from the book. When I get one done, I will post it for serious critique from a group that I have come to have great respect for, all of you.

All the best,


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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Bert
Date: 15 Oct 98 - 12:04 PM


There isn't a central spot for Mudcateers songs yet. It's one of the many things Max has on his list.

You'll find most of my stuff here...

Barry and others
Don't forget that Happiness, Joy, Mirth, Gaiety and Delight are also emotions and can be used in songs. I've noticed that songwriters nowadays seem to be such a miserable lot.

Bert - the old one

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Subject: Lyr Add: ICE DAMMING (Barry Finn)
From: Barry Finn
Date: 15 Oct 98 - 02:03 PM

Hi Bert, yup I know these emotions too but they're not what usually drive me to writing, I guess personal style & preference. I deal with joy & happiness just fine it's more sadness or pain that sparks me, whether it's my own form of self therapy of a feeling or need to shed awareness on something in particular. I'm not miserable, just sensitive, actually some refere to me & my sickness as being pathology affirmative.
Harpgirl, as for songs being submitted, under BF you'll find in the DT "Ida Lewis" & in the search forum, in a thread called "Feedback Please" you'll find "You Wouldn't Know It To Look At Me" which many Mudcatters were very helpful with during the writing process. Both are copyrighted but I would be tickled if singers found them to be worthy enough to sing themselves & sang them. You didn't ask but seeing as you were interested here's one & Bert this is probably as light as I get.
Here in the cold country of the Northeastern US the snow builds up on the rooftops, because of the inside warmth escaping through the roof the snow melts from the underside & freezes again when the water tries to fall off the roofs edge creating an ice dam which starts to back up the roof until the water has no other escape route except though the roof to the inside of the house. I used to clear these winter ice dams, sometimes we'd make the best out of it, sometimes there'd be a disaster.

Words: Barry Finn Tune : Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changing"

It's winter in New England and throughout the land
The trucks start rolling with all available hands
It's a party, a tradition, a picnic, a plan
Over mountains of snow they attack the Ice Dams

And you hear everywhere the cry Ice Dam
It's a flue, it's a fever that spreads through the land
Man your pickups, your axes, every woman and man
And answer the call and the cry Ice Dam

Blaze a path round a house in snow that's waist deep
Take a rake or a shovel and clear up 3 feet
Crawl the edge of the dam on a roof that's to steep
And start pounding on ice and let nobody sleep

On a 40-foot ladder that slides on the ice
Out comes the homeowner who tries to be nice
I like what you're doing but I don't like you're price
For a few dollars less would you still risk your life

Some shingles may break and the ice will sure fall
If we land on your shrubs sure you'll give us a call
Your check will bounce as we bounce off your walls
It must be illegal to have such a ball

Like ants, like locus we're all over your roof
We cry Ice Dam and drink 100 proof
In the news and the papers we're spreading the truth
When ice damming is done we're a winter recluse

Copyright, Barry Finn 1996 (winter)

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Bert
Date: 15 Oct 98 - 02:11 PM

Nice one Barry, I like it.


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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Barry Finn
Date: 15 Oct 98 - 02:28 PM

Thanks Bert, nice of you to say so. Barry

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: harpgirl
Date: 15 Oct 98 - 03:39 PM

Barry, I was trying to find out about everyone's songs. I like this one too but if I sang it in Florida they would all look at me like I was insane. But then again my friends do call me Abby normal....I'm going to look up and read and try out anyone's songs who wishes to share. Maybe even post one of my own...harpgirl
Mick, can't wait and great advice guys

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: BSeed
Date: 15 Oct 98 - 03:50 PM

Harpgirl, do you know the origin of the name Abby Normal? --seed

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: harpgirl
Date: 15 Oct 98 - 04:22 PM

Seed, I always thought my girlfriend Julie made it up! I guess not, huh? Also, I thought your song was clever and you must be a fun guy!!!l harpr

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: The Shambles
Date: 17 Oct 98 - 03:55 AM

I think you must have a relative here in the UK called Abbey National, she gets around the country.

Actually it's a building society.

But back to the topic. Has anyone written something in the past and then looked back at it and wondered where the hell it came from?

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: The Shambles
Date: 17 Oct 98 - 06:46 AM

Seed; Have a look at the Jimmy Reed thread. With your tips and the things I stole it looks like we have the beginnings there, of one hell of a blues song.

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: BSeed
Date: 17 Oct 98 - 03:42 PM

Harpgirl, in the Mel Brooks movie "Young Frankenstein," Igor (pronounced Eye-gore, played by Marty Feldman) goes out on the doctor's orders to get a brain from the Brain Repository. In one of the funniest scenes in the movie, he drops the correct brain and gets one with a sign under it that says (DO NOT USE THIS BRAIN--Abnormal). Later, when the creature turns out to be dangerous, Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) asks him if he brought back the right brain; Igor has to admit he didn't.

"Whose brain is it, then?" demands the doctor.

"Uh, Abby somebody's."

"Abby sombedy's?"

"Yes, Abby Normal's."

"You mean I put an abnormal brain in a nine-foot, three hundred pound..." the doctor shrieks and begins to strangle Igor...


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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Art Thieme
Date: 17 Oct 98 - 04:27 PM

I've always thought of my "career(?)" as a musical antique shop. Finding the antiques and displaying them any way I could--setting them up with humorous tales, or even serious tales, was my method of choice--but the ballads--story songs from history--were always pushed to the fore in a way that, hopefully, was subtle and not noticable.
That said, for me, writing my own songs always seemed like putting a plastic table in that shops window! It was truly out of place there.

Still I did it on 3 occasions that sort of succeeded. But I surrounded the "plastic tables" with enough "real artifacts" that those were rarely noticed---and I was glad of that.


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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: BSeed
Date: 17 Oct 98 - 07:17 PM

Art, aren't you real folk? That's terribly disillusioning. --seed

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: BSeed
Date: 17 Oct 98 - 07:31 PM

Shambles--"The blues ain't nothin' but a good man feelin' bad." (Jimmy Rogers)

My son was bitten by a dog when he was about 4, and before we could find the dog to check on its rabies vaccination, he'd had about 6 in the series of rabies shots, each more painful than the last. On our way from the hospital after the fourth, he shocked my mother when he said "I hate those fucking shots!" He had serious blues. Luckily, that afternoon the dog owner called. Another pediatrician later told us that rabies in dogs is so rare in our area that the first one was crazy to recommend the shots: my son was much more likely to die from the shots than from the dog bite. Maybe there's a blues in that. --seed

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: BSeed
Date: 17 Oct 98 - 07:34 PM

I keep doing this: having to correct myself after I've made a post (I write like Thomas Wolfe when I'm writing for the threads, it pours out). Anyway, "after the fourth" should read "after the last." At least I caught it before you did, Gargoyle (hey, buddy, don't disappear on us now). --seed

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: The Shambles
Date: 17 Oct 98 - 09:22 PM

Art: It's interesting what you say about the plastic tables.

My problem was the other way round. Being able to carry a song but not having a distinctive voice, or anything else unique to bring, performing my own material was, I thought, the only way I was prepared do it. As I didn't seem then, to be able to write anything else, but things that sounded to me pretty much like your 'plastic tables', I didn't really want to perform at all.

When I discovered that maybe I had got something to offer in the way of writing original material, I desperately wanted to perform that, but nobody elses (including good old Anon). I suppose my thinking was, why should I perform their songs when they don't perform mine? Or if I don't perform my songs then nobody will hear them, and I'll never know if they are any good. So don't waste time doing someone elses songs when I could be doing my own.

Now that I (we) have been performing my and other original material (plus a few good non original ones that the other band members wanted to play) for some time now, I have changed my views.

There are so many GREAT songs out there, that say things better than I could myself, I can't seem to find enough room to fit them all in.

But it seems that I had to go through that process before I could see it.

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Barbara
Date: 18 Oct 98 - 12:05 AM

Basic writers advice that applies to songs as well: write close to the bone. Or as writer Daniel Keyes said, "Writing is easy, I just sit down with some paper and open a vein." Scary, but true in my experience. What I write has to move me to move others, it has to be so true it rings. Specific is a tool that helps. But a great song for me, moves me. One that leaves me laughing and crying. One I can't sing all the way through.
I took a songwriting class a few years back at Puget Sound Guitar Workshop and wrote about a two year old child in our lives who had just died. It had a chorus that went: "Sara's gone (2X) Don't ya know, Sara's gone?" and Geoff Morgan, who was teaching the class, poked his finger at that phrase 'Don't ya know,' and called it "a throwaway line".
"It doesn't say anything" he said. "Tell me what it means." When I couldn't come up with anything, he asked, "What do you want to say there?" And I found what I did want to say: "How can it be?". One of my favorite songs for both making me laugh and making me cry is "I Cried" by Ruth Pelham. It's very simple and yet very powerful.
Are you familiar with Tom Paxton's story about how he judged a song writing contest along with several other songwriters, one of whom was Towns Van Zandt?
Seems Tom looked over at the judging form Towns was filing out, and was puzzled by his scoring. He was giving the performers anything from a -6 to a 3,427. Tom's curiosity finally got the better of him and he asked Towns what kind of system he was using to score the folks.
It's simple,"Towns answered, "I'm just rating them on how many songs they have to write before they write a good one."

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: The Shambles
Date: 18 Oct 98 - 09:17 AM

Barbara what you say reminds me of a night spent at at place designed for new performers of original songs. The overall standard was pretty good but the stand out was from two young boys aged about 16. They did a couple of songs in a 'Punk' style which were O.K then one of them was persuaded by the other to sing a song about his grandfather, who he had obviously just lost. The song was very simple and mainly to the effect that his Grandad was dead and he didn't have the chance to say goodbye. As you say "very simple but very powerful" and with no throwaway lines.

On that scoring system though, there's only about another 3,400 more songs to go, before I get a good one. I suppose it's a bit like fishing; if you caught lots of fish everytime you went out, it wouldn't be quite so enjoyable. If anyone asked me what all of us posting here have in common, the answer would have to be SONGS..BUT.. What is it, that is so special about songs? I mean why must it be a song and not just the music or a poem or a book?

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Peter T.
Date: 29 Oct 98 - 04:54 PM

Apropos of nothing very much, I recently read a piece about Paul Simon where he talks about finding a songwriting style that goes back and forth between the "heightened" colloquial, and a more sophisticated language. This gives him a chance to capture both the "something anybody might say, he just said it better or tighter" and reflection or irony or deepening the sentiment. What makes this interesting is that is so obviously captures a feature of his style that is obvious once it is pointed out to you, and it is something he has evolved out from an unconscious pattern into a conscious one.

Yours, Peter T.

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Dave T
Date: 29 Oct 98 - 08:17 PM

Interesting comment about Paul Simon's songwriting Peter. A lot of my favourite songwriters have this characteristic; Townes van Zandt, Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, Steve Goodman, John Prine, etc. I wonder if they think about it as conciously as Paul Simon obviously has?
I can't put my finger on any one thing that makes a song stand out. Sometimes it's one verse or line in a song that captures the entire mood. An example of this, for me, is John Prine's Paradise:

Some times we'd travel right down the Green River
To the abandoned old prison down by Adrie Hill
Where the air smelled like snakes and we'd shoot with our pistols
But empty pop bottles was all we would kill

I mean, hearing the verse, you feel as though you might have been there yourself.
By the way Seed; thanks for refreshing the thread. I was out of town and sort of forgot about it.
Dave T

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Roger in Baltimore
Date: 29 Oct 98 - 09:15 PM

Shambles asks, and I paraphrase, "Why songs?" What is so special about songs?

I think music moves me emotionally. Psychology says we only have two basic physical states related to feeling, arousal and calm. Music, for me, can trigger both of those states. Psychology says we label emotions on these two physical states based on their perceived context. Lyrics provide the context.

I know many who are moved greatly by classical music and I think they must find a way to place a context on the physical state. Lyrics simplify that process.

So first of all, songs evoke feelings for me. Some songs I feel so greatly that I often cannot get through them, I get teary-eyed and choked up and the words just fade away. Sometimes I'll sing them for myself just because I know how they will make me feel. Other songs cheer me up. Van Morrison's album Moondance is a sure mood elevator for me.

Songs can often place us in times and places we have never been, but might wish we had been. Certainly one of the attractions of folk songs.

Songs are part of our community. They may remind us of our roots, of our common bonds (as workers, fellow citizens, or human beings, etc.), or our common goals or ideals. Singing together is a unifying experience. To those who have not experienced it, it is difficult for me to describe the harmony and oneness I feel when "it's just right" and a group of people, who may not know each other in any other way, cooperate in making beautiful song.

Songs are powerful. Woody's guitar was not likely to kill fascists, but his songs were a threat to the powers that be. A good song can lead me to sing thoughts I would not want to speak outside of song. I love the blues lyric "I feel like snappin' a pistol, baby, in your face, You know that graveyard will be your restin' place." In black and white, it scares me to death. Political songs have the power to change minds as well as unify those already committed to the cause.

I just love songs, some better than others. I can't imagine my life without songs.

Roger in Baltimore

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: BSeed
Date: 30 Oct 98 - 10:03 PM

This semester I'm teaching photography to students in an independent studies program (the students spend a half an hour a week with their teachers, who give them assignments, discuss the past assignments, test their knowledge, etc. Except most of my students are expected to spend a couple of hours a week in the darkroom...all of which has nothing to do with songwriting, it's just given as a description of the program i'm working in. Next semester I will add a class in traditional music, for either music appreciation or English (poetry) credit. I'll be giving instruction in guitar, banjo, autoharp, and harmonica, and directing individual studies in other instruments; we'll cover rhythm and harmonic theory as they relate to folk traditions, folk poetic forms such as blues and folk ballads. I'll ask my students to keep a journal, keeping track of practice time and content and progress, writing about the music they listen to (and that to which I introduce them), their concerns and ideas on how to express them musically...

Although the lessons will be individual, I will try to unite groups of students for ensemble playing and singing, in hopes of bringing them together for a recital at the end of the semester. I've talked to several students who are interested in the class, and have been told by some of the other teachers that students were expressing interest to them, as well. One of those I've talked with plays guitar better than I do (not such a stretch) and is interested in helping with the class. I'll try to get him credit for both the class and as a proctor.

I'll also give as readings and starters for discussions many of the things you have been posting about the songwriting process, and of course, direct the kids to the Mudcat.

I took yearbook portraits at the school over three days the last couple of weeks, an activity which required a lot of sitting around waiting for kids to finish their sessions with their teachers. The first day I read while waiting for customers. The second day I brought my Baby Taylor, and the third day my banjo. I got a lot of interest from students and a lot of support from the other teachers as well.

I think it will be both a lot of fun and a unique kind of learning experience for both the kids and me. I will welcome your feedback, suggestions, sources, etc. --seed

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Bojangles
Date: 30 Oct 98 - 10:29 PM

Woody Guthrie -- certainly regarded as one of our very best songwriters -- reportedly wrote a total of about 1,500 songs in his life. How many of those can we rember on the spur of the moment? I have a hard time coming up wirh more than 15 or 20,and that takes a bit of a stretch! Why so few? Because, frankly, the vast majority of his songs are not remembered because they were not very good. Yet he remains the amanuensis of American folk poetry. I think the message is clear. Writing a song that will raise goose bumps on a listener is extremely difficult to do. A successful writer has to be willing to write a great many bad songs without discouragement and keep on writing if he is to have any hope of giving birth to a This Land is Your Land, or a John Henry, a Goodnight Irene, or a Buffalo Skinners. There are so many terrific songs out there, and a folksinger can almost be assured of eventual sxtinction if he insists upon singing only his own material. The folk process will eventually shake the wheat from the chaff. Inexoably the bad will die out and the good will live on, and no academy of awards can alter for long the truth of the process. And that is just one of the things that is so wonderful about the world.

Peter Stanley

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Subject: Lyr Add: SARA'S GONE (Barbara Millikan)
From: Barbara
Date: 30 Oct 98 - 11:17 PM

Here's the song I spoke of earlier. Blessings,

(Barbara Millikan)

Things got bad when Todd was drinking and then Lisa did some crack
And when the fighting started, the children hid in back.
Now Nessie's four and David's six, but Sara's only two,
And when the hitting started, she didn't know what to do.

Sara's gone, Sara's gone,
How can it be, Sara's gone?

Sara ran between them, she'd already wet the bed,
And she got kicked, really hard. "Shut up! You're not hurt, " they said.
Todd smashed the TV when he left, Lisa tucked them in that night;
David and Nessie were terrified, and Sara, she was white.


Taking the photos from the casket, Lisa broke down and I held her
While the social worker led her kids away
We sat looking at the pictures of Sara in the sun,
When we all reached out to hold her, but now ... Sara's gone.


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Subject: Tune Add: SARA'S GONE (Barbara Millikan)
From: Barbara
Date: 31 Oct 98 - 09:43 AM

And here's the tune.

MIDI file: sara.mid

Timebase: 240

TimeSig: 4/4 24 8
Tempo: 100 (600000 microsec/crotchet)
0480 1 61 080 0192 0 61 064 0048 1 62 080 0192 0 62 064 0048 1 64 080 0288 0 64 064 0072 1 64 080 0096 0 64 064 0024 1 64 080 0192 0 64 064 0048 1 64 080 0192 0 64 064 0048 1 66 080 0192 0 66 064 0048 1 64 080 0192 0 64 064 0048 1 61 080 0192 0 61 064 0048 1 59 080 0192 0 59 064 0048 1 57 080 0288 0 57 064 0072 1 59 080 0096 0 59 064 0024 1 57 080 0192 0 57 064 0048 1 54 080 0192 0 54 064 0048 1 52 080 0384 0 52 064 0336 1 52 080 0192 0 52 064 0048 1 57 080 0288 0 57 064 0072 1 57 080 0096 0 57 064 0024 1 57 080 0192 0 57 064 0048 1 57 080 0192 0 57 064 0048 1 61 080 0192 0 61 064 0048 1 64 080 0384 0 64 064 0096 1 64 080 0192 0 64 064 0048 1 64 080 0192 0 64 064 0048 1 59 080 0192 0 59 064 0048 1 59 080 0192 0 59 064 0048 1 61 080 0192 0 61 064 0048 1 59 080 0576 0 59 064 0144 1 64 080 0192 0 64 064 0048 1 64 080 0096 0 64 064 0024 1 64 080 0192 0 64 064 0048 1 64 080 0288 0 64 064 0072 1 64 080 0192 0 64 064 0048 1 66 080 0192 0 66 064 0048 1 64 080 0192 0 64 064 0048 1 61 080 0192 0 61 064 0048 1 59 080 0192 0 59 064 0048 1 57 080 0288 0 57 064 0072 1 59 080 0096 0 59 064 0024 1 57 080 0192 0 57 064 0048 1 54 080 0192 0 54 064 0048 1 52 080 0576 0 52 064 0144 1 52 080 0192 0 52 064 0048 1 59 080 0288 0 59 064 0072 1 59 080 0096 0 59 064 0024 1 59 080 0192 0 59 064 0048 1 59 080 0192 0 59 064 0048 1 61 080 0192 0 61 064 0048 1 59 080 0384 0 59 064 0096 1 52 080 0192 0 52 064 0048 1 54 080 0192 0 54 064 0048 1 57 080 0192 0 57 064 0048 1 57 080 0288 0 57 064 0072 1 59 080 0096 0 59 064 0024 1 57 080 0384 0 57 064 0096 1 61 080 0192 0 61 064 0048 1 62 080 0192 0 62 064 0048 1 64 080 1344 0 64 064 0096 1 66 080 0192 0 66 064 0048 1 64 080 0192 0 64 064 0048 1 62 080 1152 0 62 064 0048 1 59 080 0192 0 59 064 0048 1 59 080 0192 0 59 064 0048 1 61 080 0192 0 61 064 0048 1 62 080 1344 0 62 064 0096 1 61 080 0192 0 61 064 0048 1 59 080 0192 0 59 064 0048 1 57 080 1344 0 57 064

This program is worth the effort of learning it.

To download the March 10 MIDItext 98 software and get instructions on how to use it click here

ABC format:


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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Peter T.
Date: 31 Oct 98 - 10:05 AM

Dear seed, If you have time, you might want to look at "", Harvey Reid's site. Somewhere on the site is a page of advice to students that he gave to them on the first day of class (I think he taught guitar and/or folk music at a university for awhile). I thought it was quite powerful, and I sent it to a few educators I know, and then lost my copy! -- there are other interviews/ essays on the site about the craft of making music, how to keep people's attention while playing in a bar, and all sorts of other stuff. There is also a very interesting book called With Your Own Two Hands about learning how to play the piano -- what makes it interesting is a very detailed discussion about why people won't practice, and the virtues of practicing, and how to pace yourself, etc. A real teaching problem as you know is how to get them to do anything outside of class, and if they do anything, to have the right attitude towards it.

Just random thoughts from a sometime teacher.

Yours, Peter T.

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Peter T.
Date: 31 Oct 98 - 10:22 AM

I knew I had this around somewhere. This is also on Harvery Reid's site, where, as I said, he has a lot of other wise and some not-so-wise (but unique!) things to say about the musician.


This was a hand-out given on the first day to my guitar class at Davis & Elkins College in 1992. There have been several requests for reprints of it, so here it is. (Harvey Reid)

Guitar music is a place where the elements of rhythm, tone, emotions, harmony, melody, poetry, preparation, solitude, friendship, intellect, physical training and spirituality all meet. It involves your spirit, your body, your heart and your mind, and it is both a solitary and a social act. It not only offers the player the pleasure of making music, but it also offers to the skilled the ability to actually change other people's thoughts and feelings. Just by doing something you love to do, you can impart profound things to others and give them something they value. Those who discover that they have this ability, who feel obliged to develop it and who use it generously, will experience a reward comprising not only the satisfaction of the act itself, but also an abstract pleasure in sharing and communicating with others through the language of music. There is an energy, a sense of purpose and a direction that it imparts to its practitioners that can give a gratifying sense of meaning in what threatens to seem like a meaningless world.

Only through a lifetime of music will you experience an understanding of all the aspects of the art, but a basic awareness and regular reminders of the existence of all these various ingredients that make up music will allow the student to progress more quickly toward a mastery of it. There is, as always, a price to pay, and there are responsibilities that come with having the power to change other's thoughts and feelings, and not all who set out on this learning path make it all the way through.

The essential element in the study of music is a love of music and an appreciation of its sacredness. Music is not something your hands or your voice do. It is not something your mind does. At its finest it is a transcendental state that involves all parts of you, and allows you to exist on the crest of a wave, in the exact moment of the present as you perform each part of the music. It is only there, in the present that we can truly live and have control over our lives, since the past and future are inaccessible to us. When you are deeply involved in music and when you have control of it, you can experience an excitement and a sense of well-being that is impossible to duplicate. The sensation of the pleasure of music making is the primary thing a student of music must focus on. If enough time is spent in joyous music making and if the desire to share and transmit this feeling is strong and sincere, the hands will train themselves and the voice will find its true expression. One cannot hurry the process–p; you must instead enjoy and cherish it as it slowly unfolds. There is an unfettered freedom in being a beginner that you may look back on fondly some day. The desire to be something other than what you are will impede your ability to grow, and the amount of pleasure that music brings is relatively constant. If you are not experiencing that pleasure and fulfillment as a student, then you must learn how to do that before you can go further. The magic that is music comes from such a place inside us. And any beginner can experience these sensations just as easily as the master. If not more easily.

Harvey Reid (Elkins West Virginia 1992)

© 1992 by Harvey Reid

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: BSeed
Date: 31 Oct 98 - 01:09 PM

Peter--Thanks. That is wonderful. I haven't looked at the website yet, but if the other stuff is anything like the above, what a resource! Again, thank you, thank you, thank you. --seed

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
Date: 31 Oct 98 - 02:27 PM

Dear Seed, Well, I should say that I disagree with some of it -- the use of "abstract" puzzles me, and there are other problems I have -- it would probably make a good start for a debate. But there is something about it that is right, especially the part about being a vehicle for the music, and having some responsibility for a talent that touches people. I had never read anything like that. I also like the part about having to keep rooting yourself in the feeling for the music, which could of course turn into self-indulgence, but it can sure help when you are lost and weary to go back to the thread of why you got into music in the first place. The other nice thing he has in one of his interviews is something of an offhand remark about how archaic the whole role of the musician is -- how people just naturally want to gravitate towards one when he/she wanders into town. It again speaks to that sense of the absolutely ancient, primeval need for music which some of the people in this thread have also cited as the reason for songwriting. It gives it all a weightiness and that sense of responsibility to the tradition of muscimaking which I rather like. Harvey also makes good records (all by himself, from taping to shipping!)

Yours, Peter T.

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Barbara Shaw
Date: 31 Oct 98 - 04:10 PM

Barbara, a beautiful song. Blessings on you, too.

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Barbara
Date: 01 Nov 98 - 01:49 PM

Thank you, Barbara. I welcome feedback on it. It feels like a powerful song to me, yet I sing it very rarely. It seems to stop traffic. That is to say, after I sing it in a song circle, instead of another song, we end up talking about child abuse.
I'm not sure what to do with it.

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: To Bseed
Date: 02 Nov 98 - 05:25 PM

Loved your "How to write a Blues song" Post. I just wanted to add the fact that blues songs never truly commit to disaster or tragedy, instead they "believe"

"Gonna get up in the mornin, believe I'll dust my broom."

"I been shooting craps and gambling, woman I believe I done got broke"

"Somebody call for a doctor, believe I got the Pneumonia this time"

I believe we should stick to this when writing blues. Steve Latimer

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: BSeed
Date: 02 Nov 98 - 09:45 PM

Steve, I can't take much credit for it other than posting it, but it inspired a couple of spinoffs: How to write a country song and how to write a folk song threads. Both (particularly the country song one) were a real kick. (I guess a lot of people are too serious about writing folk music [many deny it is possible*] to kick back and enjoy it.) --seed

*I think some of them believe in their hearts that real folk songs are the word of God.

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: Dave T
Date: 02 Nov 98 - 10:40 PM

It IS a powerful song. I think one of the purposes of songwriting (or any kind of writing, art, science, etc.) should be to describe the world around us in a new, different or more accurate way. The closer the description is to reality, the stronger the message. As for what to do with it, keep singing it. More discussion can only help.

Dave T

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From: The Shambles
Date: 03 Nov 98 - 06:08 AM

This is probably not to be sung at a wedding and not to be taken too seriously but it is my latest baby and belongs to all of you at the Mudcat, for it was you who inspired it. It was one of those songs that appear to write themselves. It's out of my 'minimalist' period and has two chords, the 1st and 7th.
The sub-title is... A Single Man's Second Thoughts.


I would like to say I love you but I just don't know
I would like a love that flowers but this just won't grow
I'm counting up the hours, they run so slow
I would like to say I'll miss you but you just won't go


I just can't seem to see the wood from the trees
You won't find me at my best at moments like these
It's not the ground that's shaking it's just my knees
I'm standing at the altar, Lord help me please

I say that there's no water at the bottom of this well
It maybe smells of roses but I've lost my sense of smell
I would like to say it's special but I can't tell
I would like to say it's heaven but it feels like hell


I'm just try to tell you everything's gone wrong
But you just carry on singing that same old song
You don't know what you've got until it's gone
I know what I got and I know it don't belong


They say that a good woman may turn water into wine
I think maybe somebody must have left the cork in mine
All the things you're saying only come out as a whine
But when you're far away, you will sound just fine


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Subject: RE: Songwriting
From: The Shambles
Date: 03 Nov 98 - 07:50 AM

So many things to respond to in this thread and it's not been very easy lately to get in and answer. But here goes.

Dave and Peter T(T for two?) I can't add very much to what you have pointed out about the move between the colloquial and the "heightened", as you say, now you have pointed it out it seems very obvious..... Lyle Lovett's 'If I Had Pony' is one of my very favourite songs and for a 'simple' song works so well on a number of levels.....a good song?

Roger Thanks. There is nothing to add to that.

Seed Good luck with your course. When you get them together for ensemble playing and singing, I hope you can get to what Roger described. "The harmony and oneness" when "it's just right". Something to aim for.

Barbara I liked the song, please just carry on singing it. There is just one thing and it's not in any way to critisise the song but as point for disscussion.

Your song is about death, or your feelings about a death but you do not mention the word? I wrote a song about life/death and in the song I used the word dead. My wife, who also writes said that she "would not use the word dead in a song". She felt that the word was too stark and detracted from the song as a whole. Is this a 'woman' thing do you think? *Ducks down with hands protecting head*

Bojangles I do agree about the ammount of songs it takes to come up with a good song and that the folk process, eventually sorting the wheat from the chaff, is probably the only way to find out if you have come up with one. Let's just hope that we are still around to see it.

I don't think that Woody was the best example to give though. True he did write a lot of songs but he used and re-used the same music for many of them, thus lessening the impact they may have made if they could have stood alone. It was always my one disapointment with Woody that he did use this apparent 'lazy' approach to song-writing. To me, it was almost like him writing a parody of his own songs. I don't know if he felt that the music was less important than the words and certainly his genius lay with words. Maybe he was just reflecting the low opinion that people in general have, of these types of tune, then and now.

I think that the good songs are a delicate balance between words and music. I don't think that the music is interchangable. I remember well my disgust at school when favorite hymns were presented with different tunes, it didn't work..... Interestingly I later found out that most of the tunes I liked the best were actually 'stolen' from the English folk tradition and credited to famous composers like Vaughan Williams etc. Some things never change do they?

"I Believe" etc

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Subject: RE: Songwriting
Date: 03 Nov 98 - 09:54 AM

Well, if this is really a songwriting thread....At the risk of taking Barbara at her word (don't ask for feedback, you may get it), I think that while there are parts of the song about Sara that I like, it is too overtly a message song. I don't think the relationship between the reportorial outrage and the emotional response is worked through enough, so that we are being pushed into feeling these emotions rather than having them emerge from our response to the situation. We see all this situation from the outside, and then we are asked to feel pity about it. Joyce once defined false sentiment as being allowed to indulge in the emotion without having paid the price. Songs about dead children almost invariably cross over that line.

If I could speak to the writer (Hey, I can!) I would for example ask for a verse or a line or two about Sara. As the song is, she is either a faceless victim or the projection of the sentimentality of the mourners (pictures on the coffin, etc.). I was even wondering if it would be even more powerful to have Sara live, but be gone. Into her own world. I have known abused children, and death is not the worst thing that happens to them.

Yours, Peter

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