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This is the start of Tom Bliss's SONGWRITING pamphlet, intended as background reading for anyone attending his songwriting workshops, and recently serialised in Living Tradition Magazine. Explore Tom's lyrics here.
Songwriting - specially ‘folk’* songwriting - is essentially a subtractive, not a constructive art.
I sometimes liken it to restoring an overgrown garden. You know the shrubs are in there, but you have to pull out the brambles to find them. Then you need to prune or maybe move what you’ve uncovered, before you can begin planting any new flowers.
Because Folk is an inclusive rather than an exclusive genre, and so much fine music has come before that we’d be foolish to shut it all out. So we need to embrace our influences, rather than reject them, if we’re to make our songs as familiar as possible, as quickly as possible.
And if it is a constructive art, then it’s more like art trouvé - making sculpture from bits and bobs, because most of the musical phrases and harmonic possibilities do already exist, as do most of the narrative ideas, and even some of the lyrical phrases - whether we like it or not.
Our job as ‘folk’ writers (and let’s not forget the implied contradiction in that title*) is not to build something new from the ground up (which is almost impossible in any musical genre anyway these days, though brand new genres do keep appearing, and probably always will). It’s not to splash bright paint onto a grey canvas.
No. Our task is stare at the block of stone until we see the shape within - and then to chip and polish until it’s revealed. Or maybe - if we’re talking about sculpture trouvé - to pile the pebbles so they catch a new slant of light. Or make a pattern of seeds on the ground. Or maybe to bend the twigs with care, so our sculpture will grow on, and on, long after we’ve left the glade.
Because the folk-songwriter’s challenge to make art that is both new and old at the same time. Songs that borrow from, yet (hopefully) also add to, the tradition. Art which is familiar - yet fresh, challenging - yet comfortable, exciting - yet embraceable by what is perhaps the most conservative market in the country.
And as if that wasn’t enough - these songs need to stand out in a world where everyone and his dog either writes or collects songs, by the score. No easy task.
To make matters worse, songwriting is actually one of the very few ‘bi-media’ art-forms in existence. You need to be gifted with both words AND music. Which is why so many people who are good at only one, team up with a partner who’s only good at the other.
So - working alone or in a team - which comes first; the words or the tune?
Well I’ve written whole tunes before I had a word in my head, and completed entire lyrics before humming a note, but the truth is - in terms of the song-writing craft - neither comes first. Both lie some way down a long-ish list of priorities.
In the folk world, at least, long before you can start on either the melody or the lyric, you need a story, or a topic, or a message, or a theme - or some combination of these.
So - before we start - some general tips
Keep a notebook, or a file on your computer, for jottings and ideas
Keep a tape recorder handy, all ready to record - but if you can’t remember the tune next day, without playing it back, it probably wasn't good enough in the first place!
Don’t listen to other writers overmuch. Specially not to one favourite. Mix up your listening so you won’t copy one style.
It’s ok to plagiarise yourself though (it’s called developing a style). But don’t keep writing the same damn song over and over!
If driving alone, don’t listen to music. Sing your work in progress, and your repertoire (even if you don’t normally perform unaccompanied).
Value your work by its hooks (if it ain't got them no-one else will ever value it at all)!
Don’t be afraid to write a weak song. Get it out of your system and put it in your grab-bag to rewrite or cannibalise later.
Songs are a one-dimensional art-form. Totally linear. The order in which you impart information is crucial.
Song are bi-media. You have to be good at both words and music.
To obtain the rest of this pamphlet as a Word document, see above. It’s 35 pages long, so to help you decide if you want to read it all, here are the headings:
TYPES OF SONG
THE WRITING PROCESS
1 - Mood
2 - Time signature and tempo
3 - Place / location
4 - Hooks
5 - Structure (Verses, choruses, refrains, bridges, middle eights, breaks, intros and outros)
Introductions / sleeve notes
6 - Which first - Words or Tune?
Starting out (finding a melody)
6b - Lyrics
Alliteration and vowels
Language (and poetic licence)
Metaphors, sayings and clichés
7 - Finishing.
Remember the old adage: An amateur practices a piece until he can play it right. A professional practices a piece until he can’t play it wrong!
* NB I'm defining 'folk' here by the modern 'Wikipedia' definition of the word, not the definition made in 1954 by the then International Council for Folk (later Traditional) Music, to which some still adhere.
Like most people in the wider world of acoustic/roots/heritage music, I employ the term 'traditional' when referring specifically to older, pre-technology, orally/aurally transmitted, community shaped material.
I accept that new songs can only become 'traditional' after being widely taken up and adapted, though how long this process might take in the modern era of recordings, radio and the internet, and how much change and adpotion is required, is open to debate. Some think it starts to happen almost immediately, some think it must take decades or even centuries for a song to mature. I don't know - but I do suspect it's quicker for tunes than for songs.