Thank you, Mark Twain. And happy 68th birthday to my dad.
Slow Learner. This song, ending the third quarter of this project, is distinctly different from all the prior entries in that it appears to have all the earmarks of a real, recognizable song, something that might have value outside the context of this blog. It has a hook, a chorus, a twist, and if not a melody then a melodic groove. And getting back to mythical Lance’s terminology, this is a public song, not a private song. Lance would sing this one. I will be so immodest as to say that this one, if performed by a professional musician, might stand up to more than one listening for many people.
And none of that was by accident. The song arises from my continued thinking about the public/private categorization of songs, which songs are for the writer only and which ones are for anybody to sing, and from my conscious decision to try to write a song in the public category. In short, I approached this one as though I were a professional songwriter, one of those guys in Nashville who puts on a suit and goes to the Sony/ATV offices every Monday morning and tries to write a hit song. Thursday night I got on Youtube and started listening to what I understand to be current or recent hit country songs (Why country? More on that in a moment). I listened to some Taylor Swift and quite a bit of Brad Paisley. Friday morning I wrote this song (but not in a suit), and I recorded it that afternoon.
Sony/ATV, can I have a job now?
Are These Songs Any Good? I wasn’t planning to get into quite yet what I think of the songs I’ve written so far—I was going to wait until closer to the end—but it’s becoming unavoidable, so I’ll take a shot at addressing that question. If you read on, prepare for a bit of navel-gazing self-indulgence. (“A bit“?)
Nobody has asked me if I think these songs are any good, and only a few people have told me what they think of a few of the songs. That’s probably because people are being polite, which is appreciated. But be assured I am not under any delusions about the appeal or commercial viability or the value of the songs (well, not many, I hope.) I don’t have any plans for these songs beyond this blog, except that I may re-record (to the extent they’ve been recorded yet) the wedding songs and put them on a CD for my friend whose marriage was the genesis of this whole thing.
It gradually became apparent to me that the point of this endeavor was the project itself, the process, and not the individual songs. There is no reasonable basis for believing any of the songs are destined for a life beyond this blog. Before November 8, 2008, the date of the earliest song recorded here (“No Proof”), I had written maybe a half dozen songs in my whole life, and they were all occasional songs. (I was well into my thirties before I knew that an “occasional” song or poem was one written for a particular occasion, not ”occasional” in the sense of ”every now and then.” I remember being confused by a reference to Tennyson’s occasional poems. Occasional? I thought. Hell, that’s all he did!) I do think a few of these songs could credibly be covered by professional musicians. As mentioned, I think “Slow Learner” is recordable and maybe even could have broad appeal. I could see Junior Brown doing “Big Highway.” I could see Lyle Lovett doing “Marguerite’s Cafe.” There are a few others that are general enough—public enough, songlike enough—that somebody else could credibly do them. A good interpreter can make any song sound good, of course. (More on that later, too.)
The songs I’ve written are not intentionally quirky, but (except for today’s) they’re not intentionally not quirky either. I never questioned a line or re-wrote a line based on how it would play in Peoria. Don’t infer from that I mean I see myself as some artist whose vision is so pure that it will not permit itself to be sullied by concerns with the mass audience’s tastes. It’s not like that at all. I wish like hell I’d written “Achy Breaky Heart” in 1991. I just mean, for instance, that a song like “Red Ball Freight” could probably have been generalized slightly to have somewhat broader significance (it still wouldn’t be a hit song). One of the first lines you’d change if that were the goal would be the reference to the Melissa Etheridge tee-shirt. “Melissa Etheridge” was not a good choice either from a popular taste standpoint or from a pure artistic standpoint. I knew that at the time. A real songwriter would have chosen something else to be on that tee-shirt, something that scanned better and that had some signifying power. A Che Guevara tee-shirt would have meant one thing, a “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” tee-shirt would have meant another thing. What audience you are writing for will also have some influence in what you determine to put on that tee-shirt. But a Melissa Etheridge tee-shirt means only that you are reading my blog. I deliberately exempted myself from the artistic v. popular audience debate. I just did stuff that seemed like it belonged on this blog.
The approach I took in writing the earlier songs was pretty much “I need to write around 45-50 songs before this year is over. Be vigilant for things that might turn into songs.” I at first envisioned that all the songs would be comic. I wrote a bunch of surrealistic nonsense songs along with the joke songs, but luckily the blog didn’t go that route. I also thought at first that the video would be integral to the project. But the video started taking too long, so I have done them only sporadically since about Week 10 and hardly at all since the halfway point.
I then got obsessed with the production of the songs and rode that horse for way too long. I’m back to the one-or-two-take approach now (though I have a couple in the can that are multi-tracked and that I will likely obsess over a bit more before posting.)
“In Our Neighborhood” was sort of a breakthrough in how I approached writing songs for the blog. I didn’t think it would be a song at all when I started writing it. It doesn’t rhyme, it has an imprecise structure, but I think it comes together well to portray a little world and an attitude about the world. It’s my favorite of the ones I’ve written so far, and it’s all the way back at Week 4. It opened up the door for me to see songs where I never looked for them before.
At that point I stopped concentrating on comic songs and started being open to other kinds of songs in various genres. Sometimes I let a particular guitar part or tuning lead the way (“Something’s Gone Wrong in Houston,” “Plow”); sometimes I decided on a topic first (“Miracle on the Hudson,” “Son of Strawberry Roan”); sometimes a real-life event suggested there was a song there (“Dune.”) Sometimes they just came to me suddenly without effort on my part (“Big Highway,” “Bigfoot Song,” “Sad Day at the Carnival”).
At this point, 39 weeks, 3 covers, 2 collaborations (one with my dad, the other with Wallace Stevens), 34 solo originals, there’s nothing I regretted putting up the moment I hit the “POST” button. There are a few I regretted ten minutes after hitting the POST button, but that’s a big difference.
Well, Are They Any Good or Aren’t They? I’m getting to that.
First we have to figure out what we mean when we say a song is “good.” It quickly becomes a philosophical question, the same kind of metaphysical inquiry as whether a falling tree makes a sound in a forest if nobody’s there. I submit that a song isn’t good unless it’s sung. It doesn’t even exist if it isn’t sung. That may not be true of classical works. A trained musician could, I assume, look at a Beethoven symphony transcribed on paper and “hear” the whole thing in his mind and make a value judgment about the work. He or she could say, “That is a good symphony.” He or she will be using an academically devised set of “rules” in adjudging that work, such as structure, the presence of counterpoint, harmonic convergence, other words I’m just pulling out of the air as though I know their meanings. There’s an accepted way to evaluate such work, I assume.
But would he be as confident about assessing the value of, say, “This Land is Your Land” if he just saw the lyrics and the melody line transcribed? It would probably look like doggerel set to a simplistic sing-song melody. “Like A Rolling Stone” has no melody, but maybe somebody could transcribe it to approximate the feel of how the song goes, along with the lyrics. What would somebody conclude about the song viewing it that way? It would probably look ridiculous. But both of those, most people would agree, are “good” songs.
There’s a difference between those two songs, though. “This Land is My Land,” whether sung by kindergarten kids, Woody Guthrie or me, is still the same song. The weight it carries is the weight of common usage. All versions are equal. You can’t change it, and it’s new every time. It’s a public song.
“Like A Rolling Stone,” on the other hand, sounds ridiculous and is often downright unlistenable except for the single released in 1965 on Highway 61 Revisited. When we talk about “Like A Rolling Stone,” we talk about that version of it. That is the song. Outside of that version, the song doesn’t really exist. Others can sing the words, even Bob Dylan, but all those versions exist only to hark back to the ur-version. All they are doing is singing the words. The song will never escape its original recording.
So is it accurate to say “Like A Rolling Stone” is a good song? I’m thinking about Lance again. He wouldn’t sing “Like A Rolling Stone” because the song doesn’t really exist as a song. It exists only as that 1965 recording The song was more than a song—it was a historical event. Its significance is far more than what we typically think of as a song. It stands for a moment when popular culture and popular music changed and when people knew immediately that they were witnessing that change; i.e., it was not a change that was recognized in retrospect by historians or critics. Contemporary accounts agree that there was a definite before-and-after measured from that song’s release. I’ve played that song on my guitar. I can do the chords, I can hit the notes, I can do the snarl, and I sound like a fool doing it. So does everybody else. Because they’re not singing “Like A Rolling Stone.” There’s no such song. They are singing Bob Dylan in 1965 singing “Like A Rolling Stone.”
“Like A Rolling Stone” is an extreme example. There aren’t many songs that represent watershed moments in music. I’m just saying that part of thinking about a song is separating it from its various interpreters and contexts and seeing how it holds up, seeing what’s there, and defining and re-defining what we mean by “song.” You could go on to conclude that the more separable the song is from its performance, or the less difference it makes who does the song, the greater the song is. “Stardust” will make any competent singer sound good; the greatest singer in the world will still sound like a fool singing “MacArthur Park.” Ergo, “Stardust” is a great song; “MacArthur Park” is a bad song.
Just to clarify, there are of course better and worse, more and less favored versions of good and not so good songs. There are even “definitive” versions of good and maybe not so good songs. That’s not what the inquiry is about. The inquiry is whether, after the song is performed, it’s still there for somebody else to sing. Lance says “Step Inside this House” isn’t there for anybody but Guy Clark, or that whatever exists is only a shadow of the song. For several years I’ve coming around to his way of thinking. Sometimes a song relies on more than the words and the music for its power.
Songwriters. My friend Barry remarked in an email to me a few months ago that (I’m paraphrasing) the Beatles are largely responsible for obliterating the lines of professionalism that used to exist in popular music. Before the Beatles, there were (i) songwriters who wrote the songs, (ii) musicians who played them, and (iii) singers who sang them. That is obvious now that he points it out, but having grown up listening to “singer-songwriters” and accepting that Merle, Willie and Waylon were the norm, I honestly had never thought about the significance of erasing those lines. Until recently I would have been firmly in the camp that the songwriter is the best interpreter of his or her own work, subscribing to sort of an auteur theory of music. But I’m becoming more conservative, I suppose, and I confess I’m finding the presumptuousness of the singer-songwriter model more intolerable. My attitude is becoming, “If your song is so damn good, let a real singer sing it! Don’t automatically assume I’m going to grant you more credibility just because you wrote that thing you’re croaking about up there with your Martin D-28.”
The singer-songwriter model is the norm now and has been, as Barry points out, since the Beatles. It goes back further in country music—Jimmie Rogers, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn and many other pre-Beatles country folk wrote their own songs, of course—but there was and still is a place for the professional songwriter in Nashville. The Brill Building songwriting apparatus no longer exists, but Nashville still has staff writers. I’ve sneered at that, and my reference at the beginning of this post to the guy in the suit sounds snide, but, again, I’m coming around to that way of thinking. That’s why I’m paying more attention to contemporary country music from here on out. I’m going to put aside all the sociology and just listen to the songs. As somebody who has no performing gene and only a passable singing voice but likes messing around with words and guitars, I’m all in favor of a purely songwriter role. I have thirteen entries left to do. I have maybe five or six songs that I’m pretty certain I’ll post, all of them in the same vein as those that have been posted prior to this week (i.e., they’re purely nutcracker songs). I have others I can use and may have to use but which I hope can get replaced by better entries meanwhile. From here on out I’m going to keep trying to write public songs. We’ll see how it goes. As always, I’ll let you know which are which and what I think about them.
[SIGH!] ARE THESE SONGS ANY GOOD?! Haven’t you been listening?
Video. That’s a picture of my dad, Uncle Bob and Grandpa. It looks sort of like a movie poster for the film version of East of Eden.