About seven (almost eight) years ago, I put on a quick one-day workshop on songwriting. It was called ‘Writing YOUR Songs,’ and I held it at the charming Glen Williams Town Hall in Glen Williams, ON. That’s the historic little hamlet where my wife, Marlene, has had her painting studio for the past 25 years, and the actual venue we used for years in mounting our Source of the Song concert series. The objective of the workshop was to steer participants toward the goal of developing their own unique artistic voices as lyricists, while strengthening their chops as songwriters – how to move from the stepping-stones of imitation to carving out their own paths.
In fact, it was a bit presumptuous of me to do that (i.e. offer a workshop) since I’ve written no hits, but I’d already put in a decade as a workshop leader with the NSAI, I had some cuts, and I missed the dialogue of coaching and mentoring. Not to mention, it seemed like a modest business opportunity at a time when I needed to generate some income. (Normally, I snicker when anyone links the words “songwriting” and “income” in the same sentence… but I digress.)
“It’s a workshop,” I said to myself, “which means there needs to be a workbook that participants can take away… something to add value beyond the immediate experience.”
So, I wrote a little workbook with separate student notes and organized it with proper learning objectives, etc., and (after polishing it a bit) I bound a few copies. And then, as a part of the same exercise, I hit upon the idea of including the attached song lyric: “Every Song’s A Story” (a.k.a. The Songwriting Song). I developed this originally because I had a pending request to go into a classroom and talk about songwriting; the tone and language is therefore aimed at a younger audience. But I included it in the workshop because, structurally, it’s still true. It’s what I aim for… pretty much.
“The Songwriting Song” by Bruce Madole
V1 Start the first verse out with a very special line
introduce your story tell us who, or what, or why
lead up to the chorus and keep following your plan
grab our hearts and ears while you can, while you still can
Ch The chorus is the purpose it’s the meaning of your song
best to have a melody that folks will sing along
don’t bore us hit the chorus tell us what you need to share
every song’s a story and the story’s why we care
V2 In the second verse now we’ve got someplace else to go
move on from the start tell us more we need to know
show us real details make it true and deep and strong
come back to your chorus it’s the centre of your song (chorus)
Br There’s a middle part we sometimes call the bridge
tells us something else we need to know
short or long or in-between or maybe just a smidge
bout how you feel, how you feel
V3 Verse 3 if you got one is the sock-o final word
anything you need to say that hasn’t yet been heard
the final special details that’ll make the folks go Wow
tied up with a ribbon cause you know what happens now (chorus)
Of course, I believe that. It’s why I chose @SongsAreStories as my twitter handle. The idea of the lyric was to create a simple example of a song that is about… how a song functions, lyrically – how to tell the story if you’re just starting out, what the verses are for, how a chorus is supposed to function. The song lyric was for the benefit of real beginners and those attendees who needed to be reminded. It’s useful, perhaps, but it’s no deathless work of art; it’s merely an instructional aid. I provided a fair bit of advice on how to actually learn from the work of the writers and artists we most admire. But for some, that’s like homework. I also quoted from some of my favorite lyricists, like Beth Nielsen Chapman, Iris DeMent, John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt, etc. because the real-life examples, the true deathless works of art, deserve to be discussed when one is talking about a writer’s craft.
As an example, this lyric has definite limitations — it’s in verse-chorus form, because I had to choose, and it deals with lyric-function only because God knows there are so many great musicians out there who would have more to contribute about great melodies and how to craft them.
Then, too, the world of folk doesn’t really tend to think in terms of hits, as much as we think of just, “is this a great song, or what?”
At the end of the day, I’d settle for writing a great song. Any day.