"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Songwriting has a big reach with few words

Journalists ought to be very jealous of songwriters. We both deal in words. How wonderful to be able to put together a small collection of well-crafted words and gain near-immortality for it.
A pop song grabs our attention like no journalist's tome would. A rare journalist's product comes along that grabs our attention, like "All the President's Men" or "In Cold Blood." Most of the time, even the best journalists' work has a fleeting, transitory quality.
"All the President's Men" was made into a totally commercial movie. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, even. Looking back it seems perverse, the idea that two mere newspaper reporters could emerge as the heroes of Watergate and as household names. This they accomplished in the lawyer-infested world of the Beltway around Washington D.C.
Reporters did what lawyers and politicians failed to do: get inside the Watergate mess in such a way as to unravel it. Politicians took over in the end. But reporters were fodder for the movie and our pop culture.
The wonder of songwriting is that mass appeal can be generated from just a few words. How many of us stop to think about that moment in time when a song was conceived? There is nothing dramatic about such moments, as songwriters get through their normal day the way we all do. A song might start churning around in their mind when doing the most mundane of things: brushing your teeth etc.
They will grab a pen and write down a musical idea on any available piece of paper. Perhaps the back of a receipt or a napkin. If they're afraid of forgetting the melody, they'll quickly draw a barely serviceable musical "staff." Five slashes, hurriedly. I once viewed a museum exhibit with such modest notations of lyrics/words. Snippets of musical ideas on scrap paper can be transformed into finished products that stay in our consciousness forever. I can think of few things more fascinating.
I think any journalist, the type of person trained to be a craftsman with words, would have to be totally, indescribably in awe at how good songwriters ply their craft. Think of such simple songs as "Tiny Bubbles" or "Please Release Me." Think of how these songs first sprouted in a songwriter's mind. And once conceived, they go through a process that ends with the words and music coming across juke box speakers in hospitality establishments everywhere!
I have attempted to write a song just like this. It's called "How Long Has It Been?" It has gone through a metamorphosis. At first it was what you might call a "buddy" song, as it was written from the perspective of a male individual communicating with an old male "buddy." No they're not gay. It's ridiculous I'd have to be defensive about this, but such are the ways of our society. With time I decided this issue could be an impediment to the song so I began tweaking the lyrics. I floundered for a time attempting to do this. Then, on one of those days that inexplicably comes along and puts you in a "stream of consciousness" or some such thing, I re-worked the song successfully. It's all set now if I choose to have a "demo" recorded.
These days it costs about $400 so I'm not eagerly jumping off the couch to do it. For $400 you can get a good mid-range studio in Nashville to do it. You can always spend more of course. But that's not real practical since this is entirely a "spec" project with no assurance of reward. You can spend less too, and hire a studio "mill" that records several songs an hour - no real tender loving care.
I have identified a studio that I feel could satisfy my needs. I would never be doing this, if this was the only song I have ever written. You don't achieve success in this field if you have only written a handful of songs, and certainly not if you've written just one.
I had a professional demo recorded for a song I wrote about Kirby Puckett in 1997. I had several other demos made in the early '80s. Bet you didn't know this about me. Of late I even wrote a song about Morris, Minnesota. It's called "Morris Minnesota." (Comma or no comma? The Beatles went back and forth on this with the song "Hello Goodbye.")
My song about Morris uses the narrative approach for the verse portion which is extensive. Narration means no melody. Remember the song "Uneasy Rider" by Charlie Daniels? My song is like that. Johnny Cash was known for the approach, as in "One Piece at a Time," a humorous novelty song.
My song about Morris has a rousing melody for the chorus portion. Harmony voices would break in. Is it good? The audience would ultimately decide. Anyone else who thinks you can do better, go for it. A successful song of this type could be the theme or a backdrop for our town's sesquicentennial in 2021. That is, if our town is even fired up enough to mark the occasion. Sometimes I wonder.
As a long-time journalist and songwriter by avocation, I feel special fascination with the latter field. The economy of words fascinates me. Ah, the way songwriters can condense or simplify thoughts or concepts, and make cogent points about our world. Mesmerizing us with story-telling.
Five words to guide the world: "All You Need is Love." Did John Lennon write it on a napkin?
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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