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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Songwriting part one (of many)


I'm a songwriter. I've had a few (about 60)accepted by the PRS/MCPS, but no hits to date. They say everyone has at least one song in them. Irving Berlin had aver 1000 "hits", Johnny Mercer had more than 800, while Lennon and Mccartney had over 300 together with countless others as solo songwriters. A few years ago, when Sony moved from being a manufacturer of tape recorders to a complete media organisation that manufactured the equipment, owned the songs, and then released the music though its own company, they bought the rights to over a million songs.

A million songs. How can they all be heard? And thousands if not millions added to the number of published works every year.

That goes some way to explain why the X Factor always uses an old song to launch the recording career of their talent show winner. I've not checked, but the chances are that the song is published by Sony and released through Syco (a division of Sony records).

I read "The Hobbit" by Tolkein a couple of times. Tolkein based his books on a traditional way of life that was dying out in 1930s England. As radio, cinema and phonographs became more popular, the old oral tradition of songs being passed down from generation was dying out, and collectors like Cecil Sharpe in the UK, and Alan Lomax in the US began to collect the old songs to save them for posterity. Those old songs served a valuable purpose.

I've read and studied the Bible. I'm told that the old testament prophets would enter a town, go into the market place and sing their prophesy. If you look at the different books of the Bible where prophesy plays a part, the actual prophesies are written as verse rather than prose. So songs can be used as prophesy.
Songs are also a way of remembering stories, of remembering past events, of history. Facts are easier to remember if they can be learned as rhyme. Take, for instance, how to remember how many days to each month.
This rhyme dates back to the sixteenth century, and is a perfect example of the use of song/rhyme as an aid to memory.

30 days hath September,
April, June and November,
All the rest have 31,
Excepting February alone.
Which only has but 28 days clear
And 29 in each leap year

In Tolkein's book the travellers spent the night with some people they meet along the way. The evening was spent singing songs to each other. This was a way of describing their culture to the other people and may account for why some songs turn up in different parts of the country (and as far away as the US, each with slight variations. The travelling musician brought the news in the form of ballads, and one reason why traditional ballads were so long may be due in part to the need to string the listener along (Authors like Dickens and H G Wells were first published in the Saturday newspapers and were paid by the column inch, hence the long descriptions in the narrative).

Indeed, the reason we now have songs that are limited to about three minute duration is a result of the technology available about a century ago. Wax cylinders could only record and store about three minutes of music, so songs were edited to fit the new medium. Eventually, three minutes became the norm, and I for one have become so accustomed to this that when I, for instance, sat in with a folk band playing jigs and reels whilst on holiday a year or two ago, found that tunes often went on and on beyond the "normal" three minutes. That's because the tunes were arranged for a set dance, which takes as long as it takes. Other traditional tunes like "The Masons Apron" or "Sally Goodin" have a basis tune structure which is them embellished by the performer. The prowess of the player is set by the number of different variations he/she can introduce into the basic tune.
Here's Hulda Quebe of the Quebe Sisters Band playing a traditional fiddle tune when she was about 15. I love the sponteneity of it all. A couple of players back stage amid the trucks and amplifiers just jamming. Notice how the bass player comes in after the Hulda and Joey start playing.



And while we're on the subject of traditional tunes, here's two versions of a fiddle tune called the Mason's Apron. The first is by the Chieftains, with Matt Molloy on wooden flute,a notoriously difficult instrument to play



And another, by Canadian band the Mudmen



Great tunes are not dependent on gadgets or gimmicks. But great songs need great tunes and hooks,and I hope to write about that on the next post.

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