Category Archives: Songwriting

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.


A Taste of The Devil’s Buttermilk

pb_tdbm

If you’ve heard The Devil’s Buttermilk before, you know it’s a bit of a different record in the Preacher Boy canon. In my mind, it’s almost a sort of collection of shorts, combined into a larger, longer film.  Every song was really recorded to be its own self-contained universe, it’s own completed circle. The songs seemed to ask for that, and so that’s what I did. There is very little sonic continuity from song to song; this one is lighting fast and loaded with electric guitars, that one is soft, quiet, acoustic. This one is whispery and spooky and moody, that one is full bore and monstrous.

The album is populated with a lot of different characters. The destructive, white -trash-noir anti-hero of “On and on it goes,” the cracked Wiseblood-ian preacher of “Glory Man,” Patrick Jones, whose white bones close “The Dogs,” the neighborhood drunk in “Spaceman,” and more.

The theatricality and comparatively complicated instrumentation has meant that these songs don’t get played live very often—some of them I’ve never played live. But recently, I’ve committed to working out arrangements of a great many songs that I haven’t given much stage time to, and songs from The Devil’s Buttermilk are looming large on that list. Last night I played “On and on it goes,” “Rust,” and “Spaceman.” Two of those I’ve NEVER played live before, and “Spaceman” I haven’t performed live in over a decade. It was an adventurous evening.

Here’s a raw and straight-from-the-stage recording of “Spaceman” from last night:

if you don’t see the embedded media player above, please click below to stream:
Preacher Boy – Spaceman [LIVE]

(lyrics are at the bottom of this post)

The whole show was a bit of a journey song-wise … a pretty diverse mix of country blues workouts, and a great many album tracks I don’t often play. Here’s the whole set list:

  1. if i had possession over my judgement day (robert johnson)
  2. rollin’ stone (rev. robert wilkins)
  3. evil blues (mance lipscomb)
  4. rust (from “the devil’s buttermilk”)
  5. levee camp blues (fred mcdowell)
  6. my gold canoe (from “demanding to be next”)
  7. black crow (from “crow”)
  8. gun (from “gutters & pews”)
  9. jake j. thomas’ ol’ mission st blues (new)
  10. catfish (willie doss)
  11. chop wood, carry water (new)
  12. that’s no way to get along (rev. robert wilkins)
  13. down south blues (sleepy john estes)
  14. my car walks on water (from “the national blues”)
  15. nehemiah james (from “demanding to be next”)
  16. down and out in this town (from “gutters & pews”)
  17. spaceman (from “the devil’s buttermilk”)
  18. on and on it goes (from “the devil’s buttermilk”)
  19. change (from “demanding to be next”)
  20. setting sun (from “the national blues”)
  21. motherless children (blind willie johnson/mance lipscomb/dave van ronk)
  22. a little better when it rains (from “demanding to be next”)

~

Finally, here are the lyrics to Spaceman, if you want to read along!

spaceman

god knows where they go, i only know his name was bob
he had a job somewhere, some office that paid him well
he spent his science fiction days dreaming up
all the things that he’d invent, but never sell
i used to see him whenever i was down at “george & walt’s”
and he’d tell me again, like i didn’t already know
that he preferred to start his nights out with three brandy twists
and then finish two beers before he had to go
the bartender, dave, gave bob his nickname
they’d yell out “spaceman!” whenever he walked in
but he confessed to me, in that weary voice that only drunkards get,
that he was pretty sure they were making fun of him
making fun of him
well, they’ve always been
give him half the chance, and bob could talk for half the year
with a mouth full of nothing but an overbite
he was so far past alone not even pity helped
so i’d just sit with him and drink away the nights
the money he earned would have loved to burn his pocket full of holes
but he had no one to spend it upon
for him, love had become some magic instance that never lasts
like the moment when the street lights first come on
sometimes, if bob got a little too drunk
my friend and i, we’d drive him to his house
and we’d talk and sit, and i’d play a bit on his little guitar
and then we’d leave whenever he passed out
whenever he passed out
we’d just let ourselves out
i haven’t been back to “george & walt’s” for so many years
maybe bob doesn’t mean too much to me now
but i’ve always kept that little guitar he insisted that i take
so i guess he still matters somehow
and if you see him, buy him a brandy for me
tell him the kid that took his guitar says hello
and do me a favor, sit and listen to his stories for a while
he’ll appreciate it more than you know
more than you could know
and i ought to know

 


Cornbread: The Story Behind The Song

Preacher Boy - The National Blues - Lyrics

We’ve just published an enhanced lyric booklet for “The National Blues!” It features lyrics, stories behind the songs, insider guitar tips, and more.

You can download a free copy in either PDF (multi-use) or EPUB (iBooks) format here, or, if you’d like to enjoy the book on your Kindle/Kindle app, you can get it in the Kindle store on Amazon for just .99¢!

Here is an excerpt from the text; a short essay about the origins of the second track on the album:

Cornbread

The seeds of this song have been with me for probably decades at this point; I think I first hazarded a demo of it when we were living in Brooklyn, though I believe the first time I tried to play a version of it was with Colin Brooks, during a songwriter’s conference in Durango, Colorado that my missus and I drove down to from Denver.

Lyrically, the song has changed little over the years, and it’s the stories of the families in the verses that have kept the song with me across the miles. What finally clicked was the music. I wish I could claim it was a magical, revelatory moment, or the result of years of diligence and experimentation, but in fact, the click was a simple one. I changed the tuning on my guitar from Open D to Open G. That was it.

The characters are largely based on real people from my childhood; the names have been changed to protect the innocent, but I left the real names in for the guilty


The 8 Musical Influences Behind The Song “Down The Drain”

 

PB_DTD_Thumbnail

“Down The Drain” is the first official video single off my new album “The National Blues” on Coast Road Records. And like virtually everything I write, its roots go deep, and it draws on a great many influences for its shape and sound.

The origins of the song are actually a little out of step with much of what I write, the bulk of which is largely inspired by the early country blues/delta blues canon. Probably the most important influence is actually a comparatively contemporary musical act, a band called Sixteen Horsepower. For my money, they’re likely the greatest band you’ve never heard of. They came out of Denver about the same time as my first album came out (1995), part of a small, localized, but very wonderful sort of Gothic Americana movement that included acts like The Denver Gentlemen, Slim Cessna, Tarantella, Munly, and more. (Full disclosure,  I later spent about two years in Denver, and shared bills at one time or another with most of these acts).

David Eugene Edwards of 16 Horsepower was fond of using open minor tunings in what sounded to me like an Open Gm form, and while I’d already spent half my life in open tunings, and while I was also deeply fond of minor keys, I’d never really put the two together in an Open Gm form until I heard 16 Horsepower. But listen to South Pennsylvania Waltz, or Coal Black Horses, or I Seen What I Saw, or Prison Shoe Romp, and you’ll surely see the similarities! (The following playlist has a whole host of 16 Horsepower gems):

Another big influence on the sound of “Down The Drain” was actually a song I learned to love from hearing my Dad play it on the record player when I was a kid. It was a great guitar instrumental from an era full of great guitar instrumentals, and I used to just love it. I’m not even sure I was drawing on its influence as “Down The Drain” started to come together, but once I realized what I’d done, it was pretty obvious what I’d done! Give it a listen, and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean:

Duane Eddy did a killer version of this as well, which you can check out here, and which I also really love.

The semi-wordless chorus (depending on whether you think “sha” and “la” are words!) of “Down The Drain” is probably the other key component of this song that has clear sonic antecedents. I’ve always loved songs that use vocal “sound” as evocation … think of the “humming” part of Skip James’ magisterial “Hardtime Killing Floor Blues” as but one example (Skip’s melodies on this song are definitely an influence on “Down The Drain” as well!), or Adelaide Hall on Ellington’s “Creole Love Call,” both of which are great examples of this kind of thing. Probably more specific to “Down The Drain” of course is something like Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl”—the sha-la-la’s tell the whole emotional story! Given the sound of my voice though, the comparison that probably leaps to mind sooner than Van Morrison is Tom Waits, from “Jersey Girl.” And yeah, I’ll confess that was in my mind when I first started toying with doing the chorus this way. But honestly, it’s not one of my favorite Waits songs, and truthfully, while “Down The Drain” may SOUND like “Jersey Girl” the effect I was actually after was more akin to Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” which somehow manages to make la-la-la sound somehow so … rueful.

So, where does that get us to so far? 16 Horsepower, Bill Justis, Skip James, and some combination of Van Morrison, Tom Waits, and Iggy Pop. That’s the music!

Now, as to lyrics, that’s a little harder. I don’t entirely know WHERE they came from! I will certainly admit that the drink has played a lot of roles in my songs over the years, and Shane MacGowan has certainly been my patron saint in that regard, so the reference to “your Chardonnay sky will go black & tan” can probably be attributed in no small part to the influence of The Pogues. And I’m not sure one can write a song with rain as a central metaphor and not be thinking of Ann Peebles singing “Can’t Stand The Rain”:

There is actually a LOT of country blues in Peebles’ song, most notably in this verse:

Alone with the pillow
Where his head used to lay, yeah
I know you’ve got some sweet memories
But like a window you ain’t got nothin’ to say

Which definitely calls to mind these lyrics from Son House’s immortal Death Letter Blues:

Got up this mornin’, just about the break of day
A-huggin’ the pillow where she used to lay

I actually first discovered Ann Peebles’ song being sung by a band at Your Place Too in Oakland, back in the late eighties. (Check out my friend Pete Devine’s bio on the Howell Devine website for a nice little reference to Your Place Too). I don’t remember the band, but I’ve always remembered the song!

So, now we’re up to: 16 Horsepower, Bill Justis, Skip James, some combination of Van Morrison, Tom Waits, and Iggy Pop, Shane MacGowan, and Ann Peebles.

And I think that’s where I’ll stop. Eight! And I tell you what, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to write songs, if for no other reason than you get to listen to so much music! Thanks for helpin’ me continue to get to do it! To borrow (and mutate!) a great quote from the world of creative writing, to be a good songwriter, you must be a good songlistener!

~

Buy “Preacher Boy – The National Blues” direct! Just click the image below:

PreacherBoy_TheNationalBlues_Web

 

 


What A Difference 20 Years Makes: The Evolution of “Coal Black Dirt Sky”

Preacher Boy - LIVE

I wrote the lyrics to the song “Coal Black Dirt Sky” pretty much exactly 20 years ago. With The Backyard Funeral Band, we recorded it for the album “Crow.”

Despite the fact that I really love the song, I’ve virtually never played it live. It could be the arrangement. The way we recorded it was very much the evolutionary result of that particular group of musicians coming together, and it just never made sense in any future ensemble incarnations. The same might be said for solo performances as well—I just never wrapped my head around how to own the song on my own.

And so into the brume it went, disappeared into the obfuscatory tendrils of time …

Until recently. The song just started coming back into me for some reason. I wanted to play it. I wanted to own it. I wanted it to be my song again. I wanted to play it on my National.

So I had a go at working up an arrangement, and I played it a couple nights ago. It didn’t go very well. The brume beckoned. But I didn’t give up. I had to get it. The minor tonality of the chorus’ second chord—that had to be nailed on the National somehow, in a way that wouldn’t dip in intensity.

Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper” gave me the first third of the answer. It was all about flipping the chord, and pulling the minor tonality out of the bass strings.

That meant the rhythm had to change. Tricky, as the song has a very particular syllabic pattern. That’s where Jimmy Reed’s “Honest I Do” came in—it gave me the second third of the answer. It had to swing.

Finally, I had to bring the slide in. Thank you Mississippi Fred McDowell, for once again showing me the way. This was the third third.

Boom. I have my song back. I hope you like it too. I really do. But regardless, I’m happy. I have my song back. And I love to play it. I played it last night. And I was very happy.

This is bootleg-quality guerrilla audio, but I think you’ll get the gist. Check it out, see what you think. Then, go check out the version from Crow.

A travelin’ song that’s done a lot of travelin’. That’s what this is:

Preacher Boy – Coal Black Dirt Sky [LIVE],  2016

~

Preacher Boy (and The Backyard Funeral Band) – Coal Black Dirt Sky [Studio], 1998

~

Coal Black Dirt Sky

when you’re alone in wyoming you are truly alone
you look out the window and there’s nothing there but road
and if you make it to nebraska there still ain’t nothin’ ’round
and the night wraps around you just like a gown
you look out the window and the sky is coal black dirt
and you realize you’ve ridden through hell on earth
and you leave behind the creaking night, the whip-slap winds a-moanin’
never again to see the wilds of nebraska and wyoming
it’s a coal black dirt sky
the hills laugh out load as we speed by
between sleep, i spy
nothing in the coal black dirt sky
wyoming is as cold as frost on a metal rail
and the cold wind pins you down like the bars of a jail
and the snow sits at the side of the road like a threat
and you pray for the end of the ride but you’re not there yet
and nebraska is tall as heaven and it’s twice as wide
and it’s bound to take a lifetime to reach the other side
and you don’t know what it looks like ’cause you never saw it’s day
so nebraska lies behind you and just fades away
it’s a coal black dirt sky
the hills laugh out load as we speed by
between sleep, i spy
nothing in the coal black dirt sky

Seven Songs You Must Listen To If You Want To Be A Songwriter

First, “I Did It All” by Tracy Chapman. Few artists would dare tread on Sacred Sinatra Soil, but that’s exactly what Tracy Chapman does with this song. This is “My Way” for a new generation. Tracy Chapman is a badass, plain and simple. I knew it when I saw her beat out Sting, Peter Gabriel and Bruce Springsteen for best set of the day at that Amnesty International Concert so long ago—she did it with just a single guitar, when she was just a young woman with one beautiful and strange hit on the radio called “Fast Car.” If you ain’t down w/ Tracy Champan, you ain’t down with much.

Next, “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. Because you can’t believe it was WRITTEN. That one writer, with a pencil and a guitar, actually sat down and created this. It didn’t grow out of the ground like some bent and peculiar flower. It didn’t fall out of the sky like some permanent snowflake. It was WRITTEN. And it is perfection.

Third, “When Doves Cry” by Prince. Yes, I have him on the brain. We all do. But this was a classic the second he released it. It is a classic as we mourn him. And it will be a classic for decades to come. THIS is proof that pop music and vision don’t have to mutually oppose. For me, this song is like the great, pathos-laden girl group songs of the 60’s, those rockabilly-meets-torch songs that broke and mended hearts, then broke them again. In that strange, baffling, all-consuming emotional eco-system where love and loss of parents and love and loss of love—where romantic love and parent love—are inextricable, there is a song playing, and it is the soundtrack of this crazy emotional realm, this neo-natal origin story of the heart, and it is this song.

Next, “Space Oddity” by David Bowie. Because anyone who can fit an entire play, an entire movie, an entire novel, and entire life, an entire world, an entire species, an entire galaxy, into a single, mutant art-folk song, deserves to be recognized as a bloody genius. The man David Bowie has given us the man Major Tom, and he has entered our consciousness through song.

Fifth is “My Funny Valentine.” The song was written by Richard Rodgers (music) and Lorenz Hart (lyrics), and it is quite simply one of the most gorgeously weird songs every written. The melodies are almost crippingly beautiful, and when voices like Chet Baker’s take it on, it’s almost too much to bear. Hearing the notes emerge from Miles Davis’ horn is akin to drifting into a gossamer trance. And then there are the lyrics:

Is your figure less than greek
Is your mouth a little weak
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?
But dont you change one hair for me
Not if you care for me
Stay little valentine stay
Each day is valentines day

This is an emotional perversion of the highest order, and there is something both hopelessly earthy and trancendentally romantic afoot here. This isn’t a song you could sell, or pitch, or even explain. One just has to write it. Fortunately, this one was written, and we’re the better for it. Care to argue about the definitive version???

Next is “Ugly” by Robert Pete Williams. Because if you don’t think Country Blues produces incredible songwriting, then you don’t know nothin’ about nothin’. Because this song ends with the lines:

Mama, why I got to be so ugly in this world?
Son, that’s just a mark that God put on your face.

Because if you don’t think that’s poetry, you don’t know nothin’ about nothin’. Because when you HEAR this song—with it’s raw, howling vocal, it’s emotive, impressionistic lyric stream, and it’s rivetingly funky, minor-chord stomp, you WILL know somethin’ about somethin’.

Finally, for song number seven, we have “Broken Arrow,” written by Neil Young. This is one of those songs that sort of proves what’s possible when it comes to song itself. In many ways made possible only by the studio (it famously took some 100 hours to record), it is also at heart a simple folks song. The images are so powerful, the melodies so compelling, the oddities so appealing, and the simplicities so magical, it’s simply hard to know how to name its accomplishment. It’s a song I come back to time and time again, to just marvel at what’s possible when one believes in song.

The streets were lined for the wedding parade,
The Queen wore the white gloves, the county of song,
The black covered caisson her horses had drawn
Protected her King from the sun rays of dawn.
They married for peace and were gone.
Did you see them, did you see them?
Did you see them in the river?
They were there to wave to you.
Could you tell that the empty quivered,
Brown skinned Indian on the banks
That were crowded and narrow,
Held a broken arrow?


Judging the “Songwriter’s Showcase” Finals: Year Two

 

SongwritersShowcase

It is with the utmost pleasure that I announce my return to the judge’s seat for the Annual Songwriter’s Showcase event, held at The Britannia Arms in Capitola, CA. This will be the 14th year of this incredible event—14 years of honoring the noble craft of songwriting!

The Finals

The finals will be held Tuesday, April 26th, starting at 7pm, and I will be there in my seat, sheafs of lyrics before me, my space pen and moleskine at hand, with a regular stream of coffee at my disposal. I will hear songs from those who’ve performed their way through rounds and rounds of stiff competition, who’ve earned their spots in these finals through the sheer strength of their compositions, and who will come to the stage prepared to share the very best of their heartfelt work. I will be there, and I will be humbled.

To Be A Songwriter

I have been some form of a professional writer/songwriter for over 25 years now (you can read my “songwriter’s bio” here, if you wish!), and I still think songwriting is simply the most magical of worlds. I TREASURE being able to call myself a songwriter. I LOVE to answer “writer” when asked what I do for a living. Why? Not vanity, tho if I’m honest, there’s probably a bit of that there too! But no, honestly, it’s because I’m so kid-in-a-candy-store’d to be in any way tangentially in the proximal company of giants! To think that I too am a songwriter? Remarkable. Simply remarkable! I still can’t believe it. It’s as exciting to me today as it was when I first saw my name on a published songwriting credit back in 1989! The giddy thrill I feel has waned not a bit lo these many decades, and it is with this undimmed and ecstatic appreciation for the form and for the word that I’ll be taking my seat at the finals tomorrow night.

The Permissible Delights Of The Soul

“Music is an agreeable harmony for the honor of God and the permissible delights of the soul.”
― Johann Sebastian Bach

When I wrote about the Songwriter’s Showcase last year, I went out on an aesthetic limb of a kind and recommended 23 songs for holy songwriting canonization. I’d like to recommend a few more to you right now. These are must-listen songs. These are songs that remind us that telling ourselves stories is what makes us human. That singing ourselves melodies is how we survive. That dancing ourselves with rhythm is how we move, and move forward. That listening to our music is how we live. These are songs that astonish, for we can’t believe they could actually be written, for surely they simply arrived fully formed. These are songs that delight us, move us, change us. And for our purposes here, these are songs, that teach us to write songs. That compel us to write songs. That make us songwriters, if we let them.

Let us begin!

Seven Songs You Must Listen To If You Want To Be A Songwriter

First, “I Did It All” by Tracy Chapman. Few artists would dare tread on Sacred Sinatra Soil, but that’s exactly what Tracy Chapman does with this song. This is “My Way” for a new generation. Tracy Chapman is a badass, plain and simple. I knew it when I saw her beat out Sting, Peter Gabriel and Bruce Springsteen for best set of the day at that Amnesty International Concert so long ago—she did it with just a single guitar, when she was just a young woman with one beautiful and strange hit on the radio called “Fast Car.” If you ain’t down w/ Tracy Champan, you ain’t down with much.

Next, “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. Because you can’t believe it was WRITTEN. That one writer, with a pencil and a guitar, actually sat down and created this. It didn’t grow out of the ground like some bent and peculiar flower. It didn’t fall out of the sky like some permanent snowflake. It was WRITTEN. And it is perfection.

Third, “When Doves Cry” by Prince. Yes, I have him on the brain. We all do. But this was a classic the second he released it. It is a classic as we mourn him. And it will be a classic for decades to come. THIS is proof that pop music and vision don’t have to mutually oppose. For me, this song is like the great, pathos-laden girl group songs of the 60’s, those rockabilly-meets-torch songs that broke and mended hearts, then broke them again. In that strange, baffling, all-consuming emotional eco-system where love and loss of parents and love and loss of love—where romantic love and parent love—are inextricable, there is a song playing, and it is the soundtrack of this crazy emotional realm, this neo-natal origin story of the heart, and it is this song.

Next, “Space Oddity” by David Bowie. Because anyone who can fit an entire play, an entire movie, an entire novel, and entire life, an entire world, an entire species, an entire galaxy, into a single, mutant art-folk song, deserves to be recognized as a bloody genius. The man David Bowie has given us the man Major Tom, and he has entered our consciousness through song.

Fifth is “My Funny Valentine.” The song was written by Richard Rodgers (music) and Lorenz Hart (lyrics), and it is quite simply one of the most gorgeously weird songs every written. The melodies are almost crippingly beautiful, and when voices like Chet Baker’s take it on, it’s almost too much to bear. Hearing the notes emerge from Miles Davis’ horn is akin to drifting into a gossamer trance. And then there are the lyrics:

Is your figure less than greek
Is your mouth a little weak
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?
But dont you change one hair for me
Not if you care for me
Stay little valentine stay
Each day is valentines day

This is an emotional perversion of the highest order, and there is something both hopelessly earthy and trancendentally romantic afoot here. This isn’t a song you could sell, or pitch, or even explain. One just has to write it. Fortunately, this one was written, and we’re the better for it. Care to argue about the definitive version???

Next is “Ugly” by Robert Pete Williams. Because if you don’t think Country Blues produces incredible songwriting, then you don’t know nothin’ about nothin’. Because this song ends with the lines:

Mama, why I got to be so ugly in this world?
Son, that’s just a mark that God put on your face.

Because if you don’t think that’s poetry, you don’t know nothin’ about nothin’. Because when you HEAR this song—with it’s raw, howling vocal, it’s emotive, impressionistic lyric stream, and it’s rivetingly funky, minor-chord stomp, you WILL know somethin’ about somethin’.

Finally, for song number seven, we have “Broken Arrow,” written by Neil Young. This is one of those songs that sort of proves what’s possible when it comes to song itself. In many ways made possible only by the studio (it famously took some 100 hours to record), it is also at heart a simple folks song. The images are so powerful, the melodies so compelling, the oddities so appealing, and the simplicities so magical, it’s simply hard to know how to name its accomplishment. It’s a song I come back to time and time again, to just marvel at what’s possible when one believes in song.

The streets were lined for the wedding parade,
The Queen wore the white gloves, the county of song,
The black covered caisson her horses had drawn
Protected her King from the sun rays of dawn.
They married for peace and were gone.
Did you see them, did you see them?
Did you see them in the river?
They were there to wave to you.
Could you tell that the empty quivered,
Brown skinned Indian on the banks
That were crowded and narrow,
Held a broken arrow?

 


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