Author Archives: pbistyping

A Good Song Is …

Song

A good song, insofar as one can describe one’s own creation in such a fashion, is a kind of controlled frenzy,  sort of a bucking bronco ride where a certain kind of practiced, angry madness meets several degrees of deliberate lunacy.

A good song is both much wilder and much more sedate than that. It’s homemade alcohol at 160 proof that burns your throat, and drum mountain white cloud tea that promises you something more than meditation and steam.

A good song is words on a page and notes on a staff.

A good song is right up there with the novel, the poem, the play, the sculpture, the painting, as a great thing.

A good song often comes in a rush so overwhelming you can’t write fast enough to put it down. I don’t mean to suggest that this is objectively a good song, or that it’s a good song to you, but I’ll call it a good song all the same, because I think it’s a good song, and to me, it is, and it’s called “The Fine and The Weak,” and I really can’t understand how it came out, or why it’s like it is, but when I listen to it or read it now, I’m sort of staggered by everything it contains inside it:

The spoils of life are both fine and weak
A circus mirror for the grotesqueries we won’t speak
We won’t speak that name, we won’t name that wound
All the songs that we sing have all come un-tuned
It’s all come un-tuned like a dancer’s slip
Like a drunken old captain down with the ship
Gone down with the ship, as dust to dust
To rejoin all the bones that preceded us
They preceded us to the farther shore
Where the wheel of fire won’t spin anymore
Won’t spin or even light or even offer up change
So farewell to the wild, unruly, and strange
Unruly and strange, like the dreams we duck
Like the black on the glass from the stack of a truck
From the stack of a truck comes a hovering guilt
Blacking in the white lines where somebody got killed
Somebody got killed where the spool melts down
Where the strip of our life comes fully unwound
So fully unwound in an amber slick
That when we try to walk through, our soles all stick
Our soles all stick to the way we were
And the less we know now, the more we once seemed sure
Oh, we once seemed sure that the future was close
As the father to the son to the holy ghost
But the holy ghost plays unholy games
He might blink with hope, but he bets with shame
Yes, he bets with shame on an un-rollable rock
Until there’s no more dust left on anyone’s clock
Now, anyone’s clock has a chance to be right
And still we can’t divine day without invoking night
When we invoke night what we mean is the moon
We feel the tides of our women in the ocean’s womb
In the ocean’s womb every secret splays
For the alphabet of history to spell its own days
To spell its own days, to write its own wrongs
To bend in the pitches of the un-tuned songs
All the un-tuned songs, all the hollowed-out pelts
All the unsung saints, and the way they all felt
That’s the way it all felt, when the patient and meek
Finally came to inherit both the fine and the weak

A good song is an answer that makes you ask the question, “Is the idiot in Idiot Wind actually the narrator?”

A good song has a narrator.

A good song is a built thing, like a model airplane. It starts with a picture and directions, and ends up with glue problems and a missing decal, and a splinter, and a moment of flight so exquisite that you remember it when you’re fifty, along with the smell of grass, and the taste of dandelions.

A good song is more than just a clever couplet, but sometimes, a single couplet is how I convince myself I might have a good song on my hands. Is this a good couplet?

Blister and a bottlecap, fetch my skippin’ stone
Get a bone, get a bone, fetch my skippin’ stone

It might not seem like it, but it healed me from nearly a decade of musical sadness.

A good song is not a melody.

A good song is more about phrasing than it is about words, except when it’s more about emotion than it is about logic.

A good song is a sort of memory ritual that can’t be tested for efficacy until you’re years and years away from the moment that birthed the song. But if you are years and years away, and then you listen to that song again, and it takes you right back to where you were, then you’re onto something, particularly when you can’t even recall what some of the images even mean, or how they came to you, or whether they’re real, or something you imagined:

Deep in the dark Californian night
Driving straight into the stars
Half of the moon sits on top of the hillcrest
To x-ray the clouds and their scars

Spanish accordions dog all the handprints
But changing for change sake was soothing
The bargain begins at the first sight of mountain
To obey the mystery of moving

Damp in the cold Californian morning
The eye behind the wave
Brown into green, into green, into blue
Into blue into some deeper grave

Apple-skin fledglings supine on wood
That’s been waxed to slide over violence
The bargain begins at the first sight of ocean
To obey the mystery of silence

Sometimes I wake with the lightning in my eyes
And the echo of some thunderclap
Jesus, man, what a motherfucker of a storm
I have never seen nothing like that

Deep in the dark Californian night
The iambic frame of the naked
Pushing the screen up against all the water
Listening for sounds that sound sacred

Belatedly praising the roots for their honor
Grateful the earth remains porous
The bargain begins at the first sight of breathing
To obey the mysteries before us

A good song belongs to no one.

A good song is there at the beginning of time—it just needs someone or something to put it together.

A good song is kind of like “Lincoln Logs”; a building toy to build log cabins with, and there were X amount of pieces, and X amount of variation between the pieces, and pretty much just one way you could put the pieces together—notches—and pretty much anyone who played with it built a log cabin or possibly a fort, and once we stopped following the directions and just started building, some of us built paddocks and fences and second small buildings and windows and not-windows and really we all just built log houses.

A good song begins differently when you begin it on piano than when you begin it on banjo.

Cemetery Stout, which is another song that I don’t mind saying is, I think, a good song, began on a piano in Ballyvaughan, County Clare, Ireland, and ended on a National Resophonic in Manhattan, New York. There is, in a shoebox of mine, a cassette tape of the very first demo of Cemetery Stout:

The rain was on the grass, and the wind left a letter.
The morning was a wish, and the dreams got better.
The handles went backwards, and the smoke curled a waltz,
and the lazy conversations turned from true to false.

The nicotine thumbs took the bulls by the reins.
The shovels hit the rust with the passion of saints.
Boys became girls, and the girls became tomorrow,
and the clouds paid me back for whatever they had borrowed.

and Matilda got the coat,
and Mikey got the hat.
Desmond’s gone to the hospital,
and he’s never coming back.

The high rises, elsewhere, expanded their boxes.
We skipped out on the funeral, to sleep with the foxes.
A rifle of wood, and a castle made of plastic.
The night was a wish, but the dreams got too drastic.

Everyone was preparing for yesterday’s battle.
A pint in the boot, and a spike in the saddle.
Let’s bury the laws, and dig up the mugs,
paint shadows on the windows, and footprints on the rugs.

and Matilda got the coat,
and Mikey got the hat.
Desmond’s gone to the hospital,
and he’s never coming back.

There’s a battery in the bath, and the animals are listening.
The radio is out, but the newspaper is whispering.
Put a trunk in the shelter, and title it well,
and no matter who begs you, don’t ever tell.
All the words got smaller,
because the troubles were brewing.
Put a target on the barn,
and quit whatever you’re doing.
Take a moment with the cows,
and get a taste of the dead.
One fed the words,
while the other one said…

…that Matilda got the coat,
and Mikey got the hat.
Desmond’s gone to the hospital,
and he’s never coming back.

A good song is always at least a little bit about death.

A good song is homeless.

A good song is a house that will break somebody’s feelings when it becomes an Estate Sale.

It’s a very common question for a songwriter: “Which comes first, the lyrics or the music?” It’s hard to answer that, other than to say, “Neither.”


Deep Bows, Tony Joe White, Deep Bows.

Tony Joe White

The list of songwriters and musicians that I love is a long one. There is also a shortlist.

This shortlist is reserved for those artists who go beyond just being songwriters and musicians. They are the artists whose very existences are, have been, and will continue to be, life lessons to me. The way they think, feel, speak, walk, move, dress, sound—these people are the alpha and the omega of what I understand of the world.

To these songwriters and musicians, I owe a debt that goes beyond influence. If I am anything resembling a whole person; a thinking, feeling, living person who is mindful and aware in the world; then it is due in no small part to these artists. If I myself am anything resembling an artist—a poet, a musician, a storyteller—it is on their shoulders that I stand. If I live, it’s because I have breathed their air.

Tony Joe White is on my shortlist.

For one thing, “Willie and Laura Mae Jones” is probably the greatest song about racism a white person has ever written.

Tony Joe is, to me, what was once the impossible. To hear Tony Joe for the first time was to begin to believe that maybe there was a home for someone like me in the world.

He brought together the country and the city; blues music and folk music; poetry and rock n’ roll; pathos and funkiness. He did it all, all while being so fucking cool. He wasn’t the first or the only to do any of the above, but he did it all like no other. There is no put-on in his songs, no over-earnestness, no dogmatism, no self-righteousness, no sanctimony. He is just straight up raw and beautiful.

Tony Joe is, to me, like Sleepy John Estes—a true blues storyteller. The characters in his songs—just like those in Sleepy John’s—are just right there, and real. Roosevelt and Ira Lee. Willie and Laura Mae Jones. Old Man Willis. Polk Salad Annie. The High Sheriff of Calhoun Parrish. The Backwoods Preacher Man. These people are as good as alive to me.

Tony Joe White is Carson McCullers with a harmonica rack.

Tony Joe White passed away on October 24th. As recently as last month, he was still giving us more music. Fittingly, a blues album. Of it, he said:

“I’ve always thought of myself as a blues musician, bottom line, because the blues is real, and I like to keep everything I do as real as it gets.”

Tony Joe White is as real as it gets.

The cotton was high and the corn was growin’ fine 
But that was another place and another time.

~

image credit: Heinrich Klaffs


Can You “Win” at The Blues? Thoughts On “Competing” in the International Blues Challenge

The International Blues Challenge Solo/Duo Competition, presented by the Golden Gate Blues Society, and hosted by Mission Street BBQ, begins at 2pm PST on Sunday, Oct 21, 2018. All are welcome to attend and listen, and those who purchase a ballot may vote on who to send to Memphis to represent the region!

IBC - BANNER

Call it what ya wanna: Folk Blues, Delta Blues, Country Blues, Original Blues, Early Blues, Classic Blues, Vintage Blues, Acoustic Blues, Ragtime Blues, Gospel Blues, Roots & Blues, etc. Ultimately, the name doesn’t matter, as long as we know what we’re talking about.

What we’re talking about is music that doesn’t come from money.

Woody Guthrie, as much of a blues musician as anyone in my book, may have said it best:

“It’s a folk singer’s job to comfort disturbed people, and to disturb comfortable people.”

Underserved and marginalized communities have to stick together. But the powers-that-be don’t want it that way. Divide and conquer. Get folks squabblin’ amongst themselves. That’s how the man runs the plan. The man is comfortable. And we’re here to disturb him.

We take care of each other, and we sound our horns.

The Golden Gate Blues Society is presenting an event this weekend in Santa Cruz, CA. The International Blues Challenge Solo/Duo competition. Three acts will “compete” for the opportunity to represent the region in Memphis, TN.

But do we “compete?” We do not. We celebrate. We exalt. And besides, you don’t “win” at the blues. What this is, is the comin’ together of the community. Where there is good BBQ, where there is good drink, where there is good music, there be the people.

The Westside Sheiks - Photo

The Westside Sheiks are one of the acts that will “compete.” I am a proud half of the core that comprises said Westside Sheiks. The other half is Jonathan “Captain Ahab” Dryden, the most talented musician I’ve ever known. He’s like Jaki Byard, Errol Garner, and Bill Evans meets Garth Hudson, Benmont Tench, and Leon Russel. In the Sheiks, I have the honor of being Scrapper Blackwell to his Leroy Carr.

rv

Also to “compete” is the incomparable Rob Vye, within whose fingers the ghosts of Blind Blake, Rev. Gary Davis, and Blind Willie McTell roam. He is the ragtimiest of fingerpickers. The gospeliest of soapboxers. The footstompiest of bluesmen. He’s a mendicant at the altar of Mt. Zion. He’s Zen and the Art of a Dog and a Van. He’s a crooner where others might holler. He’s a tune-down when others might tune-up. He’s a syncopating, three-finger alchemist of the country soul. In short, he’s the real deal.

 

maxresdefaultThird in this line-up is Mr. Pete Madsen, accompanied by Celeste Kopel. They have recently bequeathed unto the world a phenomenal album entitled “From The Delta and Beyond,” which aggregates their performances of the almighty delta canon—the canon built on the works of Son House, Skip James, Tommy Johnson, and more. Mr. Pete is a scholar and a teacher, yes, but he’s also a player. A finger-bouncin’, thumb-thumpin’, swinger of the steel strings, yes, but also a rocker, a fiery electric bluesman who can grease up and pull down some Albert King from the sky as needed. That said, this competition is about the down home, the back porch, the boot on the ground; it’s about the intimate on the parapet, and Mr. Pete and Celeste’s rare muso chemistry is meant for rakishly downtrainin’ the downtrodden blues into the wood and steel light.

In short, such a night!

The point is, there is no “competition.” There is only the music. You, and the night, and the music.

IBC

 


The Rumble Strip – Coming September 23!

Preacher Boy – The Rumble Strip

Coming September 23!

Pre-order on Amazon TODAY!

The Rumble Strip - Black Trim

 


The Totally Useless (But 100% Real) History of The Useless Bastards

Bastards-Pinwheel

The truth is, The Useless Bastards began as a joke. But something funny happened along the way. A real band was born. And not just any band. A genuinely great band.

Sure, the live shows were loose, boozy, and raucous, with audiences perpetually in a good-natured battle with the band themselves to see who could heckle the band more. But behind the irreverent exterior was a group of five singer-songwriter-bandleaders who took their fun pretty seriously.

But we’re getting ahead of the story a bit.

The Useless Bastards were the brainchild of Jonathan “Captain Ahab” Dryden. He’d been a successful jazz pianist in New York for years. But in a post-9/11 NYC, gigs were down, stress was up, and Ahab needed an outlet.

The Useless Bastards - Sum of our Parts - Ahab

A lifelong fan of classic American music, and a bit of a Machiavellian trickster, he got an idea—a band in which every member played an acoustic instrument with a bad reputation.

Thus, the now-immortal Bastards slogan: “Songs you love, on instruments you hate.”

He sought out some of his close musical pals whom he knew had a few aural grotesqueries at their disposal, and the line-up began to coalesce around said unloved instrumentation—accordion, banjo, harmonica, ukelele, trombone, etc. It was a junkyard symphony in the making.

Ahab lived in Park Slope, which at the time was still affordable, and a great many musicians lived there as well. He picked a fave haunt down the road from his house as the venue to debut his project—Cafe Steinhof. Did he know they sold Il Bastardo wine by the glass before he made his choice? No, actually, he didn’t. But needless to say, the band members were thrilled with the discovery.

Who were these band members?

This is the part of the story where things shift from a joke to a jam. While Ahab may have picked them for their collection of loathsome instruments, what he got in his ensemble was in fact a group of professional songwriters and performers, each of whom was already a bandleader in their own right. Before he knew it, Ahab had himself a sort of Brooklyn version of The Band on his hands—think The Basement Tapes, but set in The Slope.

The Useless Bastards - Sum of our Parts - Sinnerman

On bass, Jim “Sinnerman” Whitney. Did audiences know that this doghouse bass player who was singing a song to his penis on stage at Steinhof, had studied with Dave Holland at the New England Conservatory? Did they know he’d also played with Bill Frisell, Tony Trischka, Anthony Braxton, David Grisman, Ray Anderson, Jamey Haddad, Richard Greene, John Scofield, Ricky Skaggs, and many more?

The Useless Bastards - Sum of our Parts - Bullpork

Would it have been mind-blowing to the audience to know that in J. Walter “Bullpork” Hawkes—trombonist and ukelelist extraordinaire—they also had a Grammy-winning composer? Or that the profane gent in the front going under the name “Preacher Boy” had a Gold Record on his wall from his work with Eagle-Eye Cherry? When they heard Bryan “Park” Miller singing about “Them Jeans,” did they know they were listening to a two-time Nashville Songwriter’s Award winner?

The Useless Bastards - Sum of our Parts - PreachThe Useless Bastards - Sum of our Parts - Park

And what of Jonathan “Captain Ahab” Dryden himself? As audience members gleefully sang along with the chorus of “Pentecostal Girlfriend,” did they know the song had been written by a graduate of the Berklee College of Music—a musician who’d performed with everyone from Lenny White and Regina Carter, to Norah Jones and Marcy Playground?

Ultimately, it wasn’t the pedigree that mattered. It was that the songs the writers brought to the table were seriously crafted. They were still funny, irreverent, and loaded with multiple entendres, but they were substantively sardonic. Best of all, they were never played quite the same way twice, and it was a virtual requirement that band members brought new songs to each new show. And not every song was played for laughs, mind you:

The number of songs in the Bastards’ repertoire made it a challenge when it came time to actually record. There were so many songs to choose from! But, the band had only booked the studio for a day, so they had to be merciless in their selections.

Ok, actually, the album was recorded in Sinnerman’s living room. But it was still done in a day, and what was recorded that day are the 14 songs that make up the first album.

“Sum of our Parts” is actually only one name of five for the band’s legendary debut. The idea was to have a CD release party, with each band member responsible for providing a chunk of the inventory that would be for sale. The CD itself was the same in all instances, but each member gave the collection a different name, designed a different cover, and brought their own custom-designed inventory to the show. Park’s title was “The Problem with Impotence.” Bullpork’s was “Place Drink Here,” and it featured a coffee stain on the cover. Sinnerman’s was perhaps the best of all: “It’s Hard Suckin’, Not Knowin’.”

It’s largely because of this custom-inventory approach, that the album never saw “proper” release. Being a rather useless bunch —but popular!—the group managed to sell out all their copies, leaving nothing for posterity.

Time would pass, Bastards would move away, and while there were the occasional shows at other venues with other guest musicians, the magical core of The Useless Bastards experience was the original 5 members, doing what they did, in the corner of Cafe Steinhof.

As it would turn out, the recordings weren’t lost after all—they were found!—and now, remastered for the digital age, the full selection of 14 songs is available for listeners the world over, under Preacher Boy’s original title “Sum of our Parts.” Preach’s version had a hand-drawn sketch of Captain Ahab on the cover …

ahab3

… but the remastered version is simply rendered in dignified black, white, and red. Because dignity is what The Useless Bastards were always about.

That’s not true at all, actually. The Useless Bastards were about writing great songs, playing our asses off, and having a really fucking great time.

If you want to understand the whole history of The Useless Bastards in one fell swoop, just dive right in and check out “The Useless Bastards’ 116th Nightmare.” It’s on Spotify if you want a quick stream, and the lyrics are below:

“the useless bastard’s 116th nightmare”

ahab in a bikini, makin’ a martini
accordion around his waist
has a dirty room once again, says he wants a lesbian
to come and clean up around the place
drinkin’ lots of makers, makin’ fun of quakers
tryin’ to make the raider’s bail
not so very PC, liquefied and greasy
tryin’ to catch the great white whale

i had a dream, and it was rather useless, all about the bastards i was in a group with

yes, it’s very well known
j. walter’s got a big bone
and he’s the cause of so much hunger
that we all had to decide 
if he was goin’ outside
he’d have to cover up with a plunger
he told a very gross joke
about a broken egg yolk
i laughed until i almost puked
i felt so sick in my gut 
but he quickly cheered me up
with a song about a tulip on his uke

i had a dream, and it was rather useless, all about the bastards i was in a group with

preach, he is a rare bird
a kind of living swear word
that you can’t say in front of guests
he got a job with good pay
shilling for the AMA
as poster boy for tourette’s
he won the nobel peace prize
sold it for a king-size
bottle of wine and a shuttle-cock
tripped and spilled the wine
when i saw him for the last time
he was lickin’ it off the sidewalk

i had a dream, and it was rather useless, all about the bastards i was in a group with

park is in the park
singin’ songs after dark
and smokin’ a bali-shag rolly
havin’ sweet dreams about them jeans
and singin’ on the grand ole’ opery
had a little lovin’
got a bun in the oven
and now ya know he really does need luck
he’s tryin’ to save his pennies
but he ain’t savin’ any
’cause the pay sucks drivin’ a meat truck

i had a dream, and it was rather useless, all about the bastards i was in a group with

if anyone’s got a problem
sinnerman’s got one
and it’s very hard to diagnose
every doctor that we know
came and had a good go
but they never ever even got close
it seems his penis
a schizophrenic genius
offended him with something it said
now, i don’t mean to be demeaning
but it brings a new meaning
to hearing voices in your head

i had a dream, and it was rather useless, all about the bastards i was in a group with

Have you gotten your copy of “Sum of our Parts” yet? If not, BUY IT today!

Bastards FB Ad source 3


Top 11 musical things I DO & DON’T like discovering via social media

Beefheart Video Social Media

Social media is equal parts fascinating and horrifying. For every one gift of a new bit of Mississippi John Hurt footage that gets uncovered and shared, there is … well … everything else. However, in the interest of trying to present a balanced assessment, I’ve done my level best to list out 11 musical things that I DO and DON’T like discovering via social media.

Today’s Top 11 musical things I DO like discovering via social media:

  1. Vintage Captain Beefheart video footage I haven’t seen before
  2. Unearthed guerrilla footage from inside recording studios when legendary albums were being recorded
  3. Anything about Thelonious Monk
  4. Stories about Kid Andersen saving vintage Hammond organs and putting them to use at his Greaseland studio
  5. Any kind of evidence that there are new and excellent songs being written within a broad definition of the blues idiom
  6. Anything about Mance Lipscomb
  7. News that artists I admire are releasing new music
  8. Examples of well-known and amazing artists sharing the music of lesser-known but equally amazing artists
  9. Videos of that that baritone sax guy with the drummer playin’ house music in the Union Square subway station
  10. Evidence that other people also miss and revere Chris Whitley
  11. Excellent quality upright basses for sale, within 5 miles of my house, for less than $400.*

Today’s Top 11 musical things I DON’T like discovering via social media:

  1. Home videos of people performing Beatles covers
  2. Videos of Beatles covers, of any kind
  3. Beatles songs
  4. Videos about harmonica microphones that last for more than 3 seconds
  5. New examples of Joe Bonamassa’s offensive claims to importance
  6. Snarky posts from people aggressively defending the fact that they’re a cover band/act, especially when they presume that “no one wants to hear original songs” but fail to take into consideration that their own original songs might just suck.
  7. Self-righteous posts from record labels posturing pro-artist stances when we all know behind the scenes that they f*&k over artists constantly
  8. Bad lyrics
  9. News about new Tribute Albums that don’t donate all their profits to organizations that work to ensure that new and talented artists don’t have to choose between starvation and giving up, the way the artists they’re paying tribute to did because no one was there to support them when they needed it most
  10. Anything to do with that TajMo album
  11. News about another good music club closing down

*note: this has never happened

 

 

 


Top 11 Most Influential Singers, Songwriters, & Guitarists

Top 11 most influential singers, songwriters, and guitarists

I was recently asked to prepare answers to the questions below, and be prepared to discuss my responses for a possible radio interview. The interview never happened, but it was instructive thinking through the answers all the same, so I’m posting what I landed on here.

Question:
You’re known primarily as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist. For each category, please list the 11 artists who most influenced your style and approach.

Top 11 Vocalists Who Most Influenced My Style

  1. Blind Willie Johnson
  2. Bukka White
  3. Charley Patton
  4. Howlin’ Wolf
  5. Bob Dylan
  6. Dave Van Ronk
  7. Captain Beefheart
  8. Jim Morrison
  9. Townes Van Zandt
  10. Tom Waits
  11. Lemmy Kilmister

Runners Up:
Dr. John
Leon Redbone
Tony Joe White
Joe Cocker

Top 11 Songwriters Who Most Influenced My Style

  1. Bob Dylan
  2. Bruce Springsteen
  3. Neil Young
  4. Tom Waits
  5. Tony Joe White
  6. John Fogerty (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
  7. The Band (Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson)
  8. Nick Cave
  9. Kris Kristofferson
  10. Shane MacGowan (The Pogues)
  11. Phil Ochs

Runners Up:
Billy Bragg
The Clash (Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Topper Headon)
The Doors (Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robbie Krieger, John Densmore)
The Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards)

Top 11 Guitarists Who Most Influenced My Style 

  1. Mississippi John Hurt
  2. Mance Lipscomb
  3. Fred McDowell
  4. Blind Willie Johnson
  5. Son House
  6. Bukka White
  7. Charley Patton
  8. Johnny Winter
  9. John Fogerty
  10. Willie Nelson
  11. Stevie Ray Vaughan

Runners up:
Mike Campbell
Tony Iommi
Brian Setzer
Marc Ribot

 


Working on a Building: The art and craft of songwriting

Working on a Building

A song is a built thing. As such, its creation is dependent on the efforts of a builder who deploys a combination of intentions, skills, and tools to achieve a finished result.

The Holy Trinity of Songwriting

The final barometer of whether a song can be considered a successful creation depends on whether it meets three related criteria:

  1. Vision: Is there a discernible, experience-able “intention” driving the song? Is there a “point” to it? Is there a worldview at work behind it? Is there a reason for the song to exist, and is that reason woven into the DNA of the song itself?
  2. Craft: Has genuine skill been applied to the creation of the song? Is there “talent” of a kind at work? Has the song truly been “built” through the application of technique?
  3. Aesthetic: Is the song pleasing in some way? Does it move a listener? Is it beautiful? Not pretty, mind you—beautiful.

By these standards, the raw one-chord majesty of Blind Willie Johnson’s “God Moves On The Water” is every bit the equal of Beethoven’s “Eroica,” and that’s as it should be.

The Due Diligence of Songwriting

As a builder of songs, you are remiss in your duty if you fail to evaluate every component of what you’re building, as you work to fruition. Lyric, melody, harmony, rhythm. It is your responsibility to consider these components, and ensure you’ve done your diligence. It is not required of you that you audition your composition in every single available time signature, but it IS required that you have experienced, understand the full import of, and have a reason for, the time signature you choose.

At The Crossroads

All that said, the best songs emerge from the holy crossroads where craft and spontaneity meet. You must practice all your life for those singular moments when you must act as if you know nothing at all. This, among so much else, is what both Bukka White and John Coltrane teach us. The critical moments of inspiration and composition depend for their success on the craft that you bring to bear on those instances. As with any craft, you must practice, and as with any practice, you must understand how to be free.

The Neil Young Use Case

If you want to understand how all the above inter-relate, listen to Neil Young. His transparency, and bizarre willingness to let us hear EVERYTHING from the terrible to the divine, offers a rare opportunity to bear firsthand witness to what a successful song requires in the way of synergy. Musically, he is often a mess. Otherwise potentially wonderful songs are marred by unimaginative melodies, repetitive chord patterns, and hopelessly sloppy execution. Lyrically, he falls into cliche so often it’s a wonder he is not concussed. Great lines are often surrounded by the most appallingly banal lines. Rhythmically, he rarely strays from the “Crazy Horse Beat.” Songs run one into another, hardly discerning themselves. But when it all comes together, he writes songs of otherworldly stature, that few songwriters in history can claim to have matched. We may all have personal preferences when it comes to songs such as the following:

  • Helpless
  • Pocahontas
  • Cinnamon Girl
  • After the Gold Rush
  • Old Man
  • The Needle and the Damage Done
  • Powderfinger
  • Only Love Can Break Your Heart
  • Heart of Gold
  • Cortez the Killer

But it’s hard to refute that they each in their own way represent remarkable convergences of spontaneity and craft, that they each meet the trinity of Vision-Craft-Aesthetic, and that they are each, in their own way, great songs.

The Complexity of Simplicity

Perhaps the most complicated concept, when it comes to the art and craft of songwriting, is the question of simplicity, because, what IS simplicity? Is this haiku by Basho simple?

An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.

If you want to experience songwriting perfection, listen to the opening couplet of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”:

Jolene, I’m begging of you please, don’t take my man
Jolene, please don’t take him just because you can.

The melody is perfection. The instrumentation and arrangement are perfection. The lyrics are perfection. Her vocal is perfection. The great Zen master Dogen once wrote, “The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass.” The whole world and the entire sky are reflected in the first two lines of this perfect song.

That said, don’t be fooled by the seeming simplicity. To understand the complexity of simplicity, listen to Thelonious Monk’s re-harmonizations of Harold Arlen’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” on the “Monk Alone” collection. To hear this performance is to experience a completely different enactment of the Vision-Craft-Aesthetic triumvirate.

Working on a Building

The point is, there is no right answer. There is no universal definition of perfection. There is only the work. The work of songwriting is to work your songs. To build.


My Baby Left Me, etc.

My baby left me,and I feel .....

Welcome to Episode 32 of …

Getting to the Art of the Matter:
In which we try to answer the really BIG music questions!

Q: Why are there, like, a million songs about “my baby left me?”

A: There are actually 4 possible answers to this very important question:

  1. It’s a metaphor.
  2. Somebody is lying.
  3. There are a lot of exceptionally promiscuous people out there.
  4. So-called “blues songwriters” are continuing to rely on an exceptionally short list of lame clichés.

Thank you for your question! Stay tuned for Episode 33, in which we address the question: “What happened to the saxophone in the 90s?”


10 Critical Songwriting DON’Ts

Songwriting

I’ll preface this list by saying that I KNOW you’ll look at each one of these, and immediately think of a pre-existing exception. So I’ll clarify my intentions. This is a list highlighting what should not be done EVER AGAIN. Even if it was a good idea once.

10 Critical Songwriting DON’Ts

  1. Unless you’re a woman named Maria, do not put any women in your songs named Maria.
  2. Do not write about, or even mention, walking on water.
  3. Do not write genre songs about a genre (e.g. do not write a blues song ABOUT blues music; do not write a rock n’ roll song ABOUT rock n’ roll music, do not write a jazz song ABOUT jazz music, etc.)
  4. Do not write songs about waitresses or prostitutes with hearts of gold.
  5. Unless you’re younger than 11, do not ever use the word “hater” in a lyric, or mention any social media platforms.
  6. Do not co-write with Diane Warren.
  7. Unless you’re Van Morrison, do not write choruses made up of words that are not words (Sussudio and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, I’m looking at you)
  8. Do not straight up copy someone else’s song and say you wrote it (Led Zeppelin, I’m looking at you)
  9. If you’re a comedian, don’t write songs. (Pay special attention to this order. It’s not necessarily a DON’T if you go the other direction.)
  10. Do not rhyme “love” with “dove.”

Abide by these rules. Thank you.


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