As a songwriter, I’m frequently asked, “Why do you write songs?” I hear this question in two forms: “Why song, as opposed to some other medium?” And, “What are you trying to accomplish with your songs?”
On the first question, “Why song?”, in a way it’s because I had no other choice. In my professional career (27 years as a law enforcement officer), I did a lot of technical writing - investigative reports, training manuals, regulations, legislation – but it was fact-based, nothing terribly “creative.” Only after I’d retired, and on a lark took up the ukulele, did I start writing; and the song seemed to be the medium the muse selected for me.
I came from a very musical family, mostly in the old-time mountain- and gospel music traditions (my parents were originally from Appalachia in the US, and although they had moved away from that region before I was born, we spent holidays with family there). I grew up hearing that music. And in the ‘60s we lived outside of Detroit, so heard a LOT of Motown, soul and blues music. So even though I hadn’t played music myself, it was a major part of my life, and I absorbed musical conventions and “vibe” in listening to it. Song seemed a natural way of expressing myself once I came to writing.
It’s not as though I could have just taken up some other medium. In high school, I was fairly competent in drafting classes, but I didn’t have the artistic abilities or interests to take me into mediums like illustration, or cartooning, or painting. Sculpting? Metalwork? Nope, no mechanical aptitude. As to other forms of writing, I tried a little short-story writing, but had no particular flair for description or dialogue; and I didn’t have the attention span needed to even think about tackling a longer form.
But songwriting seemed to come somewhat naturally, in terms of knowing some of the forms and conventions. I was also attracted by the aural aspect – recognizing that I tend to “tell” more than “show” in my writing, and yet wanting to evoke emotion, I found that the musical aspects of the frequent song gave me an added dimension in which to add feeling to words. I gravitated to the forms, vocal inflexions and phrasing of the blues, particularly in minor keys to express some of the sense of longing and loss I wanted to comment upon. No other art form seemed to me to combine both intellect (words) and emotion (sounds) in a way that I was capable of capturing. And so “song” it was.
That said, after a period of time I found “song” to be somewhat limiting. I particularly found the repetition of chorus and the rhyming conventions of song, didn’t lend themselves to some of the things I wanted to say. Free-form poetry offered some opportunities for such expression; and much as I’ve had some success in writing and recording songs, I found some success in the publishing of some of my poetic works as well. Even in poetry, however, I find myself drawn to aural aspects – most of my poems are meant to be read aloud, and I draw inspiration from U.S. Southern gospel preachers in the cadences and phrasing of how I structure much of my poetry.
So, to sum up, the answer to the first question, “Why song,” I’d say that it’s because it’s the form that most naturally suggested itself to me based on what I had internalized of music over the course of my life. Song has been the prism through which I viewed life, so it only made sense for it to be the mirror that I held up to offer observations of what I felt life is about.
As to the second question, “What are you trying to accomplish with your songs?”, I’m reminded of a quote attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.” I learned early on that I wanted my writing to say something, to carry meaning: to comment on life and the world around us, inform and inspire and motivate.
My very first song came out of my taking up the ukulele – no one who knew me would ever have thought of me playing the ‘uke. As it happened, it turned out I had some talent with the little instrument, and that struck me as both ironic and amusing. I wanted to capture that and share it and so wrote a little ditty, “Ukulele Playing Blues,” about looking for my muse and finding it in the ukulele. The song was well-received, and as the lyric says, from that point songs, “poured out of me like the flood from a busted dam.”
Some of my songs are intended to inform and motivate listeners to work towards a better world, dealing with such social issues as the tragedy of gun violence, poverty, homelessness, racism, world peace. Other songs are a commentary on historical events, particularly in my area of the world, which is rich in cultural diversity and heritage. Still, other songs deal with some of the common experiences – love, longing, loss, hope, faith – that united us as human beings.
In all of my songs, I’m expressing my observations, emotions, fears, hopes and optimism that, together, we can do and be better. I’m hoping that listeners connect with these messages, feel them as well, and are comforted in their troubles, empathetic towards the troubles of others, and compassionate in reaching out to add their own observations, emotion and optimism to our collective experience.
Why song? Because it’s my way of coping with life; my effort to offer connection, hope and encouragement; my vehicle for inspiring others to reach out and connect as well. I suspect these are much the same motivators by which all artists are driven to express themselves – it just happens that “song” is the medium that, for me, best expresses what I’m endeavouring to convey.