This was originally going to be an introduction to the new CD by Eric Brace, Peter Cooper & Thomm Jutz. The words chose to go a different direction. This still fits as background for the forthcoming pieces on that CD as well as Thomm Jutz’ solo CD, so be prepared to see part or all of this opening paragraph again. It’s all an ongoing conversation at any rate.
This is the essence of what music is all about: A story drawn from incidents and accidents along the journey of life set to a melody that doesn’t detract from communication of the observations. In the worst of these, the observations are trite and quickly forgotten. In the better ones, they are memorable, sometimes witty and clever. The best ones hold small details which paint pictures and point to larger ideas. Those are the ones that live on with us and touch our senses, emotions and intellect simultaneously, leaving us unable to separate the cord of that experience into individual strands. Every now and then, the rare ones come along that communicate across lines of race, economics and time. There is no real category for those. They communicate a bit of transcendence.
I’ve studied music, passively and actively at turns, for most of my life. I still have no idea how the songwriting process actually works. There is no formula- at least not for anything more than the lowest product of the craft. Each writer has their own process, even if it appears random. Sometimes, songs come quickly- almost as an email from somewhere in the ether. Often, songs are products of reflection, trial/error and time. Some take minutes, some hours, some years. It’s amazing to observe the variations on the theme of songwriting.
Any list I make of writers who consistently move me would be incomplete. I would likely forget some. There are those who will move me in the future as well (hopefully I am not through being moved). Then there are those who move others but haven’t affected me in the same way and vice versa. Some of the ones I would list would be Van Morrison, Gretchen Peters, Jimmy Webb, Bob McDill, Larry Cordle, Carl Jackson, Jerry Salley, Paul Simon, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Rodney Crowell, Tom T. Hall, Merle Haggard, Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Lennon/McCartney, Isaac Watts, William Cowper and Rosanne Cash. There are probably another 50-100 whose writing has affected me in some way but that’s just off the cuff.
One last note in the way of backdrop: in consumable/commodity music (read: ‘popular music’), the performer receives the lion’s share of praise. In folk music tradition, the song itself receives the most praise/dismissal. In formal music, the composer/creator is the main focus. Obviously, these are categories and descriptions are made for our convenience but this holds true in general terms. My inclination is to say that the focus on the creator is the most appropriate, but the lease prevalent in our time. That’s strictly my opinion, but without the writer, there is no song to sing. Having said that, many writers aren’t such great singers, so you can draw your own conclusions.
More to come…
Note 1: Sometimes the observations mentioned above are extrapolated into multiple voices, perhaps with subplots and become musicals, opera or even symphonies, concerti, etc. I’m limiting this particular article to song, however. That’s why the list in paragraph 3 didn’t include Bach, Verdi, Bernstein, Puccini, Rutter, etc.
Note 2: if you’re interested in such discussions, I strongly encourage you to read Dorothy Sayers’ Mind of the Maker and/or Martha Bayles’ Hole in Our Soul.