Well, what can I say? A lot has happened since I last played a live music gig in Atlanta, which was in somebody’s driveway for the Oakhurst Porchfest, back in October 2016:
America survived the Trump years. I got a Ph.D. and discovered the “joys of the pris”, as I like to think of my job as an educator in a prison.
Lately, I have been working on a lot of music. I wrote about 10 songs (some rougher than others) in the past week, which are linked by the words of Mary MacLane, who wrote a creepy feminist journal in 1901. It’s a rock musical in progress.
But today I booked my first gig as an opening act in Atlanta. I’ll be playing at the Red Light Cafe, a listening room near midtown, before Nashville singer/songwriter, Zachary Scott Klein.
PROMPT: Write a song in a different tone (emotion) than you’re used to writing in.
This prompt comes from the fact that when I look over my songs, almost all of them have Am and E in them. In other words, they are usually sad, slow, and dark. Not always, but usually. Today, the goal is to try your hand at a different sort of song than you’re used to writing. Try learning a new chord and then work out a new chord progression with it into a song.
TODAY’S PROMPT: Learn a song you liked when you were in middle school.
Admittedly, I am having a hard time coming up with prompts in these last days, but I have been reading a bunch of student essays and so many of them focus on middle school that I have started to think about it a lot.
Middle school is the most complicated and horrible stage of life for most US-Americans. It’s just awkward. It is fun, though, to think about the kinds of music that inspired us at the time. There should be a writing rule: if you have nothing to write about, write about middle school. Instant tension! Instant darkness! Instant humor!
I loved this song so much when I was in 7th & 8th grade(s). So much. If you are going to be a one hit wonder, let it be a hit as wonderful as this song. (Obviously, I still like it. Maybe I’ll karaoke it next week or something…)
TODAY’S PROMPT: Write a song inspired by middle school.
TODAY’S SONG: We’re Going To Be Friends.
I’m pretty sure that this song is about middle school. It definitely reminds me of the time. And it’s so pretty.
YESTERDAY’S PROMPT, which I didn’t have a chance to write, was to learn any song you want again. Simple enough.
TODAY’S PROMPT: Learn a song you don’t actually like that much.
Who knows? Maybe you’ll like it after you will learn it? The real challenge would be to improve the song with arrangement choices, but you could just learn it because it’s nice to have something harmless to make fun of (as long as you don’t mock it in front of it’s writer, you should be okay…)
TODAY’S SONG: Apple Blossom
This is my favorite White Stripes song, found on my favorite of their albums: De Stijl. One thing I love about the White Stripes is how simple their songs are, especially the early ones, and this is a good example of that. I also love how coy their lyrics are in contrast to their enormous sound.
Two people making a lot of noise: yes.
Two people from DETROIT making a lot of noise: yessss.
PROMPT: Take a super famous song and do something totally wacky with it—like make it a waltz. Change the genre. What would Britney Spears sound like if you made her song sound old timey? Is it possible? It’s up to you to find out.
SONG OF THE DAY:With a Little Help From My Friends
I like to have conversations about “what’s the best?” with my dad and my friends. Especially my dad. “What’s the best Hitchcock movie?” “What’s the best Beatles album?” It’s fun to pretend to be objective about it. Of course, we are expressing opinions, but it’s still fun to argue opinions and take them seriously for five minutes.
During the rest of the minutes, I don’t really take taste-driven opinions that seriously. I mean, of COURSE I have the best taste in music than anyone else. Of course. Along with the best taste in food, movies, beer, dogs especially…
One of my favorite topics for one such conversation is “What’s the best cover of a song ever?” I always propose this Joe Cocker version of the, cough cough, dorky second track on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club band.
Now I love the Beatles, really I do. I love Sgt Pepper’s! But their version of this song, in my humble-not-even-trying-to-be-objective-here opinion, is downright terrible. But then Joe Cocker comes along and transforms it into a gospel song.
It was so good, it became the theme Wonder Years.
(By the way, I try to use the Wonder Years as an example when I’m talking to my students and they have no idea what I’m talking about. Youngins! They have no idea who Kevin Arnold even is! They don’t even remember the episode when Winnie Cooper comes in to a sick Kevin’s room all mad at him, punishing him by jumping on his bed and screaming if he wants coleslaw.)
Back to this song. I love the fact that Julie Taymor presents both versions in Across the Universe:
PROMPT: Write a song about how much you love something, but write it in a minor key. Let the words contrast the tune, so the words aren’t said, necessarily, but the tune is.
Write a song with really sad words but with a happy tune.
SONG OF THE DAY:Born
My favorite love song by one of my favorite bands, Over the Rhine. The album this song comes from, “Drunkard’s Prayer” is incredible. It tells the story, as this song does, of a couple who revives a troubled marriage. It has some of the saddest, most beautiful songs on it I’ve ever heard–so sad and beautiful that I cannot listen to this album at all if I am in anyway broken-hearted. But I’m not today, and hopefully you’re not either, so check this album out. I suggest listening to it tonight while you make dinner.
PROMPT: Learn a song you liked before you turned 13 years old.
I’m having a good time remembering the songs I used to like as a kid. Some of them, like Bryan Adams’s “Everything I Do, I Do It For You” I consider today to be so awful that I laugh at the thought of them (sorry if you’re still a fan). Mostly, I just liked Broadway musicals–The Secret Garden, Les Miserables, and the Phantom of the Opera in particular. When I was too little to know what I was listening to, I had a thing for Paul Simon’s entire Graceland album. So I had some good taste built in me. Also, I remember being obsessed with the song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
SONG OF THE DAY: Dead
The first band I ever loved (and there is a chance that it was the first band you ever loved, too–) was They Might Be Giants. Good God, I felt so cool listening to They Might Be Giants.
I had to make a last minute emergency drive across the country yesterday and so I didn’t get a chance to make a post. Today I’m playing catch up.
PROMPT FOR DAY 17: Learn a Woody Guthrie song.
If you know me, you know I love me some Woody Guthrie. I think it’s a singer/songwriter’s duty to keep his music alive, since he wrote hundreds of songs that are considered a big part of (our) American heritage. Check out this biography page if you need more info about this dude. There is a reason I call him Saint Woody. There is a reason I named my dog after him.
Because his songs are super easy (G/C/D anyone?), this prompt shouldn’t take too long to complete. You can find an archive of his song lyrics here. Feel free to add your own tune. You know, like you’re Wilco or Bily Bragg or something.
PROMPT FOR DAY 18: Write a song for a child.
It could be a children’s song. It could just be a song that’s dedicated to a child. By the way, Woody Guthrie wrote tons of them.
SONG OF THE DAY(s): Why, Oh Why
This is my favorite children’s song that Woody Guthrie wrote.
If you don’t know who Tom Waits is, and you’re a songwriter, you’re in for a treat. This dude has been writing songs since the 1970’s (maybe earlier) and has a huge range of styles and subject matter to delight his listeners. He can be tender and outright frightening. His songs have been covered by everyone who is anyone in the singer/songwriter field.
He’s kind of like Bob Dylan (who also gets covered a lot) because his voice is not exactly what we would call pretty but his songs lend themselves to all kinds of voices. The man just writes wonderful songs–songs that invite anyone to reinvent and play with what’s already, well, a solid piece of music.
For instance, if you’ve watched THE WIRE, you will recognize that each season begins with a different version of Tom Waits’s, “Way Down in the Hole.” High five to the person who complied all the versions into a single Youtube video:
Season 1: Blind Boys of Alabama
Season 2: Tom Waits (himself!)
Season 3: The Neville Brothers
Season 4: DoMaJe
Season 5: Steve Earle
My favorite Tom Waits album is called Mule Variations. I think it’s a good place to start if you’re not too familiar with his music.
SONG OF THE DAY: Chocolate Jesus
This is one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Kim Taylor, covering a great Tom Waits song.