The Practice of Songwriting

Like most singer-songwriters, I started out with the “strum and hum” method.  I was about 17.  I was living in a back house on my parent’s property, and my girlfriend had gone off on a trip across the country.  I had my Martin D-18.  I tuned the low E string down to D and started strumming variations on a D chord with different notes in the bass.  When I sang the neighbor’s dog started barking at me, so that became my first line:

I sing and the dogs bark at me

In a short time I had a whole verse:

I sing and the dogs bark at me,
I walk it’s so bright I can’t see,
But it’s ok, believe me now
‘Cause I’m gonna make it, somehow, somehow
Hey, wandering one
Who told you to come home?
I might have known
I might have known

This song had no verse/chorus structure and had very simple chords and not much movement in the melody. Still, people liked it, so it gave me confidence to do more. I haven’t played it in many years, but I could probably figure out how to do it. I wrote many songs during that period, and played them in various venues, including the Sunday night open mic (it was actually called a “hoot”) at the Ice House in Pasadena, which featured singer/songwriters, folkie bluegrass bands like the Dillards, and comedians like Steve Martin. If you signed up a month in advance you could have one of the first four slots and play for 15 minutes. The hoot came right after the Sunday night show, so if you had one of those slots, you could play to a full house. My friend John Lee and I did that twice, maybe more.

I don’t remember any of the other songs, and I don’t have any playable tapes. The only other song I remember is one of the last ones, called “Waiting.” This song was inspired by the 1971 Sylmar earthquake.

I was living in the back house in San Gabriel. The quake struck at about 6:00 am, so I was asleep. The outside door was a little loose in the frame, so the quake made it rattle so vigorously, I thought someone was trying to break down the door. The moment I opened the door, I saw all the transformers on all the power poles in the area explode in a bright white light. It was an apocalyptic vision.

Later I wrote this:

Wasting time trying to make my way
I think I won’t look in the mirror today
Oh, baby watch your eyes.
Don’t get lost in southern skies
It’s a sinful highway, set with stars
And too many people who play guitars,
[Forgot the phrase here], try most anything
I listened too hard and my ears still ring

And it’s hard, these times were in
They’re as bad as they have been
And if it seems, we’ve come to harm
I want to die with a woman in my arms.

This song was recorded by Mary McCaslin, a folksinger from San Bernardino, on an album called “Way Out West.” You can hear a snippet of it here:

Song on Amazon

Actually, you can buy it and download it for 99 cents. How strange.

I managed to get love, romance, the music business, death, the end of the world, all that stuff, into one song.  And then it was like the muse left me, probably because I started working at a life insurance company.  However, I think the real problem was that my standards had gotten beyond what was possible with the strum and hum songwriting method.  I wanted to write better melodies, better lyrics, better chord progressions.  The old process was failing me, but I didn’t have a new process.

The other thing is that when you are 17 years old, it seems like you are the first one in history to feel these things and think these thoughts.  When you are older, it is harder to discover something unique to say.  Again, your standards go up, and you can’t meet them anymore.

Years went by when I didn’t play much.  Then computer technology made it possible to arrange whole compositions with multi-tracked parts on your screen, mix them and play them back.  You could make mp3’s and mail them to your friends, and burn CD’s of your material.  I used a program called Fruityloops, which became FL Studio.  I learned to program synths, create drum parts and string parts, all self-taught, without any formal musical training.  Then one day I was working on a piece with some sliding triads played through a sampled piano, and I started singing a line.  That turned into a song called “Seize the Day.”  It isn’t very good, but it was the first song in 30 years.  (The version on the website was rewritten a bit to accommodate someone who wanted to put it in a novel/CD project that fell through, so it is even cornier than it originaly was.)  I quickly wrote two more, “Fourth of July,” which is about a guy trying to get his wife to forgive him by comparing himself favorably to George III, and “Helen” which is about Helen of Troy from the point of view of Menelaus, her abandoned husband.  I seem to be back in business again.

The new songs can be heard on the “Muse of Synthesis” site.  There is a link on the home page of the blog.

Why write songs?  That I do not know.  It seems to be necessary.

About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
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