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.


TODAY’S PROMPT: learn a song written before 1900.

This site is a fantastic resource.

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.


It’s here! June! AKA Super Songwriting Month.

I have been waiting for this month since April, when I came up with the idea.  I am so excited about it, that I actually wrote this post the night before.


My friend Lindsay, the piano player smiling here,

414989_10151206067734965_793967959_oasked 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