TODAY’S PROMPT: Write a song somehow inspired by a place.
This is inspired by Sufjan Stevens’s notion to try and make an album for every state in the union. I’m not sure if he got past two, but one of the states he wrote about is Michigan and Michigan is my home state (and his home state. Whoo!); I love that album because it’s full of songs about a bunch of places I recognize.
What makes his songs compelling, in my view, is that they are really about people. He names a place in the album title and many of the song titles but his albums or songs are really about people living there. Sometimes he directs them to a person living there.
SONG OF THE DAY: Romulus
Romulus is a suburb of Detroit–the city that holds the airport. Who knows? Maybe it has a pretty downtown somewhere. If so, I haven’t seen it. If so, most people don’t know about it. From my understanding, it’s pretty much an airport, a field, a bunch of gas stations and car rentals.
I tend to like sad, slow Sufjan over happy quick Sufjan, and when it comes to sad, well, Romulus just nails it. It captures Romulus as a weary place, its people sorting through debris left by the car industry’s whirlwind tour through Southeast Michigan (and the United States). I mean, this song would be great even if I knew nothing about Romulus, but because I do, because I’ve been there, it just means so much more. To me, this song IS Southeast Michigan.
Or part of it. There is another part of Southeast Michigan that he doesn’t capture in this song, a part that might be better captured in a song called “Downtown While There’s a Tigers Game Going On,” but for when there isn’t a Tigers game going on, this song really captures my impression of the region where I grew up.
I wrote this prompt in April (as that is when I brainstormed for these) and as I wrote it down today in this here blog template, I realized that I wasn’t exactly sure what officially makes a song a pop song. So I went to Wikipedia, of course.
It derives from Rock and Roll. It’s from the 1950s. I guess it has to have a catchy hook to be a pop song; it has to have a verse chorus structure. It’s aimed at the youth market. Maybe everyone knows this already, but because I’m really out of the pop culture loop, I had to look it up.
Part of the reason I want to learn a pop song is because I am amused at the challenge of taking, say, a Madonna song and making it work on the guitar. Or maybe a Michael Jackson song. Yes. A folky version of a Michael Jackson song sounds like a good project for today.
SONG OF THE DAY: Billie Jean
I had a fun time looking up people’s acoustic versions of MJ songs on Youtube. This one impressed and amused me. PS: I have no idea who this dude is.
TODAY’S PROMPT: Learn a song someone else likes or that you associate with someone else. If you get good at playing it, maybe you can play it for them some time.
TODAY’S SONG: We Won’t Get Fooled Again
There is a game I like to play where I ask people which 1960s band they like the most out of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and the Kinks. Apparently, says the friend who taught it to me, you can learn a lot about a person through their answer. I choose the Who. I haven’t listened to all of the Who’s stuff, but what I have heard moves and wows me more than any of the others. They are the only band I can listen to jam out without getting bored.
My father also loves the Who–has loved the Who since way before me. It’s either a music preference gene or I just like the music my dad likes. One of the two. He claims they lived in Detroit for a while before they were famous. He claims his brother saw them play in a high school around here.
Well, folks. It’s Father’s Day. Here’s my father’s favorite Who song.
If you’ve seen me perform, you know I have one of these and you might also know that I usually use it to start my set because it’s less stressful to play. Who knows, I may get another starter-song out of this prompt.
SONG OF THE DAY: Memphis Tennessee
This Chuck Berry song has two chords. He does does a lot with those two chords, though.
Today’s prompt is inspired by the fact that I’m having lunch with my high school Spanish teacher today. Unfortunately, exposure to the Thai language has really confused my ability to speak Spanish. But hey! Maybe I’ll get some Spanish back today.
PROMPT: Learn a song in another language (besides the primary one you speak).
You get to choose the language. I’m probably going to learn a song in Thai, probably a song that the Thai King wrote.
SONG OF THE DAY: ยามเย็น ~ Love at Sundown
This is an example of a song that the Thai King, Rama 9, wrote. He’s got a lot of titles, including “The Agriculture King,” but my favorite thing about him is that he writes music and is sometimes called “The Jazzy King.” (See photo above!) He writes music, primarily jazz and blues. I love his music.
This song here (“Yam Yen” is how to pronounce the Thai title), is one I used to sing when I lived in Bangkok and performed with a choir made up primarily of Thai senior citizens. (LONG STORY, not as long as the cover band story though). I was their magic farang they pulled out of a hat at concerts and things who could sing solos written by the Thai King.
This version of “Yam Yen” is kind of hokey, but the King’s music isn’t always performed in this hokey crowd-pleasing way. I happen to love a bit of hoke, though, especially Thai hoke, but if you take a step back you can recognize that it has a gorgeous tune.
I recommend that you take a youtube tour of his music though–it’s good!
TODAY’S PROMPT: Learn a song usually sung by someone who is not like you.
If you’re a black woman, learn a Rufus Wainwright song; if you’re a white woman, learn a John Legend song, if you’re a male of either race, sing an Aretha Franklin song, etc.
This prompt comes from my days in Bangkok singing in a cover band. If you didn’t know I did this, well, now you do. It’s a great story and hopefully it will be an essay one day, a famous essay, so you all can read it from some famously wonderful source.
When I first joined the band, the guitar player (named Lynchee) gave me a stack of 1990’s, early 2000s alternative/pop songs that were all sung by women. “Don’t Speak” was in there, for instance. So was “Top of the World” and “Zombie.” The whole covering other people’s music thing didn’t really click from me until I started singing U2 songs, or until I covered “Creep” by Radiohead.
The explanation was simple: I had more freedom with these songs. As soon as the audience recognized the song and then understood that I, a not-bald man but curly haired white woman, was going to be singing “Losing My Religion,” they dropped their expectations about how the song was supposed to sound. I think they liked that one the most because my version of it was, well, really different.
TODAY’S SONG: Always Be My Baby
David Cook knew exactly what I was talking about when he covered this song on American Idol years ago. For me it’s like, middle school meets whoa.
TODAY’S PROMPT: take an old poem, without a copyright, and put a tune to it.
Rhyming is so out of poetry-style these days that if you can find a poem that rhymes, you’re likely to be safe. But just in case the song you half-create today is amazing enough to hit the airwaves and/or you just want to be careful, here is a website of poems in the public domain. It’s not hugely expansive, but it’ll get you started. Also, the site has nine Oscar Wilde poems on it. I didn’t even know he wrote poems. Doh.
Give it a shot!
SONG OF THE DAY: Richard Cory
Paul Simon is a poetry buff, if you haven’t noticed. He’s one of the most poetic lyricists we’ve got. This song, from his Garfunkel days, springs out of a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson by the same title. Read the poem and you can see that S&G took a lot of liberty, i.e. rewrote and updated it. You can do this, too! You can do anything and everything you want to interpret and own the poem you’re working with.
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
Once upon a time (hey nonny), I took a rhetoric of song class at Miami of Ohio that alerted me to the fact that our music history (“our” as in “American”) is chock full of songs that tell really dark, complicated stories. Ballads are the HBO dramas of the past. We’ve got songs about infanticide (“The Cruel Mother”), songs about murder guilt (“Edward”). “Mary Hamilton” is a first person account of a woman waiting for public death because she got pregnant by the king and killed the baby. Dark stuff, yo. And really dramatic.
Not all the old songs are dark. Some of them are about feeling like mack-daddies in a world gone right (“Sittin’ on Top of the World”). These songs came from overseas and morphed on American soil; their journeys help us understand where we came from and maybe where we’re going.
All the cool kids are doing it, by the way.
Everybody who is anybody knows how to play “Saint James Infirmary.” I mean, I have my version. So does Janis Joplin, despite the fact that Louie Armstrong is probably the true owner.
Gillian Welch has a fantastic “Make Me Down a Pallet on your Floor.”
These songs are great because you can play them in any setting and not worry about copyrights. Right?
TODAY’S SONG: “I Wish My Baby Was Born”
I learned about this song in my aforementioned rhetoric of song class. There’s a great version on the COLD MOUNTAIN soundtrack.
This one isn’t Jack White (who is fantastic all over that soundtrack), but it does have the potential to destroy a listener:
I wish, I wish my baby was born
And sitting on its papa’s knee
And me, poor girl
And me, poor girl, were dead and gone
And the green grass growing o’er my feet
I ain’t ahead, nor never will be
Till the sweet apple grows
On a sour apple tree
But still I hope, But still I hope the time will come
When you and I shall be as one
I wish, I wish my love had died
And sent his soul to wander free
Then we might meet where ravens fly
Let our poor bodies rest in peace
The owl, the owl
Is a lonely bird
It chills my heart
With dread and terror
That someone’s blood
There on his wing
That someone’s blood
There on his feathers.
asked me how she can participate if she’s a piano player? This is a good point. I play the guitar (see in the picture? I’m the giant with the guitar…) so I will be writing/learning songs on that. But I really hope Lindsay participates (because two are better than one, of course), so here’s my answer:
Write songs for the piano!
Or whatever instrument you play. My friend Paul rocks the melodica (besides the piano). I say, if you play the melodica, this month can be for you too. And you too, recorder/trumpet/flute players. It might be harder for you drummers. Basically, just try to learn a song a day. On days where I give a songwriting prompt, write a song that goes well with your instrument?
Okay, so here’s how I’m hopefully going to go about posts this month. Each entry will have one prompt and one song of the day with some thoughts about the significance of that song. They may or may not be related.
PROMPT FOR DAY ONE: Learn an old hymn.
Not a contemporary (Christian) song. An old hymn.
Now, I understand if you are one of those folks who gets all squeamish at the idea of anything that has to do with your corrupt church experience. If this is the case, you might get a similar experience out of choosing some song to learn that inspires some sort of feeling of transcendence for you. More props for you if you can find an old song that makes you feel this way.
Because Salman Rushdie told Bill Moyers that, “All art began as religious art.” I don’t know if Rushdie is right but it makes sense if he is. Music is mysterious. It invokes (in me, at least) ideas of the supernatural.
And so, songwriting month begins with a religious song. These are usually songs that have lasted centuries and often come from crazy deep places. You might want to investigate the story from where your hymn came. Most of them have Wikipedia pages, I think. There are lots of people on the internet obsessed with old hymns and their stories.
There are hymns all over the Internet. Choose one for any reason at all: because it’s pretty, because it hits you as somehow true, because the words are hilarious and gory (there is a lot of blood in hymns– fountains of blood in hymns), because it was your grandma’s favorite, because you’ve never heard it before and it has a cool title. Figure out how to plunk it away on the guitar.
SONG OF THE DAY: In the Garden
I love this Willie Nelson version.
Here’s why I chose this song:
1. It brings back memories of my performing arts high school in Detroit, when a group of students competed in a speech/drama competition with an eight-person version of the play, Rimers of Eldrich. This is a tremendously creepy play about a corrupt little town, and there is nothing like a group of city kids trying to pull it off (and they pulled it off well, if I recall). They returned to this song throughout, as a sort of motif. It was totally creepy. Now the song has a sort of creepy-awesome connotation in my mind, and so I like that complexity. (Don’t worry, I am fully aware of how weird I am.)
2. My mom sings hymns every week with residents at a local Detroit nursing home and this is one they sing together. I love to hear the old folks singing this song. No matter where I am, they seem to be singing, I can get to the garden with Him. From an inner city Detroit nursing home, that shit is inspirational if nothing else is.
Recommended Listening: “My Mother’s Hymn Book” ~ Johnny Cash