How to write a song (as told by someone who’s never written a song)

As long-time readers will know, I’ve been singing folk songs in pubs and clubs for a couple of years now. It’s great fun, and I highly recommend it: anyone who can strum a couple of chords and hold a tune really ought to look up what folk clubs are in their area and give it it a go.

But although I’ve built up a repertoire of more than fifty songs now, they’re all covers. (11 Beatles songs, if anyone’s interested; five Dar Williams, three Paul Simon, two traditional, two each by Richard Shindell, Joni Mitchell, Frank Sinatra, Deep Purple and Crosby, Stills and Nash. All the rest are singletons.)

So my dirty little secret is that I’ve never written a song of my own. And in fact, on reviewing what I’ve written on here before about music, I see at least three different occasions when I’ve lamented this.

(Well — that’s not quite true. Long ago, when I was in my twenties, I was involved in two pantomimes that our church put on. I wrote two songs for the first one. For the second, I wrote one and co-wrote three.)

So the question is: given that I love good songs, and that I have very strong opinons about what makes a good song, and that I have a track record of writing in other fields, why have I not written a song since 1992?

As soon as I ask myself this question straighforwardly, the answer is obvious: perfectionism. If I stand up and sing (say) Joni Mitchell’s Little Green and Simon and Garfunkel’s America (as I did at the Mitcheldean Festival), how can I then follow those songs — so close to perfection — with some lumpen effort of my own? In my heart, I believe that if I write a song, it has to be up to Joni Mitchell’s and Paul Simon’s standards.

Which of course is complete nonsense. My Doctor Who book is nowhere near as good as Andrew Rilstone’s but doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth doing. It’s made some people happy: that’s a win. My scholarly works are nowhere near as influential as Paul Upchurch’s, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t worth writing. They are a real, if small, advance, in the world’s understanding of dinosaurs. So in the same way, I should write songs that express the things I feel strongly about; and if they’re not quite in Paul Simon territory, well, that’s OK.

It’s crippling to compare your work to that of the greatest practitioners there have ever been.

So I’m going to stop doing that.

Here’s my plan. I am going to set myself a deadline, and just darned well write a song. After all, that’s how I wrote the pantomime songs — which, when I look back on them, are actually not bad at all. I could go further. When Brant Hansen felt paralysed by his inability to write a book, he sat himself down in a coffee shop and told himself, I’m not getting up till I’ve written a bad chapter. It doesn’t have to be good. It just has to exist. And, sure enough, after a few sessions of doing that, bam, he’d written a book (which I will buy as soon as its out). So that’s my plan, too: write a bad song. It doesn’t matter. Just write a song.

After all, it’s not as though I’m short of material. I’m outraged by the ubiquitous surveillance that the NSA and GCHQ have us under. I’ve actually half-written three different songs on this subject. Well, maybe “half written” is overstating it. Maybe “sort of sketched out in my head” would be more accurate. But anyway, the point is this. I have some basic musical ability. I have some facility with words. I have a subject that I feel strongly about and three angles to approach it from. I really have no excuse for not writing a song.

6 responses to “How to write a song (as told by someone who’s never written a song)

  1. Just to prove how easy it is – I wrote this after reading your post in about 15 minutes flat. And it shows. If in doubt, always start with the blues.

    Verse 1
    ——–
    (2 bars vocals, 2 bars guitar response – john lee hooker style blues pacing)
    (E, with Am drop at end of each line)
    Woke up this mornin’
    goin out of my mind
    hear that damn crackle
    on my telephone line

    I see a camera..
    on ev.e.ry street
    wanna take a leak man?
    yer gotta cover up your meat

    Break
    —–
    (B7)
    oh yeah! (E)
    I got those persecution blues so bad
    (1 bar guitar lick in E)
    (A)
    the boys up on the hill
    (B7) (E)
    took every bit of dignity I had

    Verse 2
    ——-
    it aint paranoia…
    it feels like a crime
    plenty of shadows
    only one of them is mine

    they’re tracking my mail
    they’re into my phone
    I ain’t done a thing
    but they won’t leave me alone

    Break
    —–
    oh yeah! (B7) (E)
    I got those persecution blues so bad

    (A)
    the spooks up in the big house
    (B7) (E)
    took every bit of dignity I had

    And then probably have a 4 bar coda – call and response
    The NSA!
    (whispered) here they come!
    The NSA!
    (whispered) you better run!
    that kind of thing followed by repeat of verse 1 and you’re done! Stand to take applause from pub based audience before shuffling off into the night, having struck a blow for freedom that leaves the our political masters reeling.

    You’re very welcome.

  2. Oops – I think you need to switch B7 and A. Well, in my defence, I’ve never written a song in a blog comments section before

  3. I wish this blog had the capability to “like” a comment :-)

  4. (so I have a script called “ph” to grep my notes & quotes file…)

    $ ph jayne

    Jayne Cortez: http://destination-out.com/?p=4481

    Jayne Cortez: http://destination-out.com/media/tracks/JC_You-Know.mp3

    Jayne Cortez: “You Know”

    Jayne Cortez: You know I sure would like to write a blues, you know

    Jayne Cortez: a nice long blues, you know

    Jayne Cortez: a good feeling piece to my writing hand, you know

    […skipping most of the piece and leaving out the “Jayne Cortez” prefix…]

    you know a significant blues

    you know an unsubmissive blues, you know

    you know a just because we exist blues, you know a blues

    you know a terrible blues about the terrible terrible need i have to write the blues, you know

    you know if I could write a nice long blues

    you know a nice long blues

    you know it would sure feel good to my writing hand, you know

    you know?

    you know?

    you know.

  5. Go for it Mike, you seem to do most things well, (except perhaps cricket). You might pleasantly surprise yourself. X

  6. Thanks for the vote of confidence! Maybe I will …

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