Monthly Archives: March 2014

A Bit Of College Doggerel

Here’s a tongue-in-cheek sonnet I wrote in college. Thanks Mikey for showing me how to do the stress thingy over the ‘e’. It didn’t work, but I was able to cut and past yours, ha. Improvise, adapt, and overcome!

To Elizabeth, (Upon the Gift of a Box of Matches)

Elizabeth, bright light of my life and my pipe,
A fairer match nare have I spied.
You’ve kindled a flame that’s brought to ashes the tripe
That, for a time, I let be and abide.
For your sweet self I do feverishly yearn
And for your blessèd sake I do fervently burn.
For your radiant hair and complexion so fair,
My heart is aflame and lights my world like a flare.
Oh, what’s in a flame? Myself, seared and blinded;
Wounded by love, though I haven’t much minded.
Pierced by arrows of Eros like a pincushion on fire
I stand a martyr for loves blazèd sake.
‘Pon the grill and the embers of glowing desire
I lie and for you learn to bake.

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A Revolutionary Anthem

The logic of the revolutionary is based upon two imperatives. First, there must be masses. Then, they must be liberated. While the latter of these is obvious, not much thought is given to the former. However, it is this first step which is the most important, for without the discontented crowd at his back the revolutionary is nothing more than an irritable lonesome crank. Unfortunately, the progressive revolutionaries have done a smash-up job of creating a seething disaffected sea of individuals cut loose from tradition, doing their diluvial damnedest to sweep away the courtesies and institutions that have formed the West.

Jean Rohe’s song “National Anthem: Arise! Arise!” is typical of the propaganda of the Left in its inordinate fixation with the darkest corners of America’s past. To hear Miss Rohe sing it, our nation’s history is nothing more than one long litany of slavery, genocide, labor exploitation, and botched back-alley coat hanger abortions. Class struggle is the name of the game as the protagonists of her anthem come to America “with hungry hearts and hands” to be exploited, “at the auction block or the darkened mill.” They came to our land only to struggle and die in the factories and fields, in rooms with a coat hanger, on the trail of tears or in the electric chair. They came here to die under the oppressive hand of the United States of America.

But, lest we lose all heart and faith in our home land, bright-eyed Miss Rohe lets us know that all of this will be set right on that glorious day when the oppressed peoples and classes of our great nation arise to form the “more perfect union” and the “tyrants bow to the peoples dream, and justice flows like a mighty stream.” All this after the completion of the revolution, I suppose. Miss Rohe presents us with the harsh dichotomy of the revolution, either stand for justice with the oppressed masses or be counted among the petty tyrants to be brought to heel.

The genius of the revolution is in its formation. It does not have a positive identity except for the image it projects of itself as a champion of the oppressed. Because of this, the revolution is incredibly malleable in the forms it assumes as it forges a common cause with just about any group that claims it has been treated unjustly. In this manner the revolution creates a coalition which is constantly in a state of flux but is consistent in its political and cultural struggle against the perceived oppressor. Over the years this coalition has shifted and grown from workers struggling against their employers, to blacks rising up against unjust and discriminatory laws, to women fighting for equal opportunities in education and employment. In recent years the revolution has gathered homosexuals and gender confused individuals unto its bosom to fight for their right to be socially accepted as homosexual and gender confused individuals.

Some of the causes championed by the revolution have arisen out of truly unjust conditions. Many other causes are mere fronts and fabrications. Whether the injustice is real or perceived is not important. All that matters is that the cause disrupts the institutions and traditions that are set against the revolution. In Miss Rohe’s anthem, it does not matter who the disparate disenfranchised individuals are as long as they can be coalesced into the masses that march under the revolutionary banner. All are summoned to join in the struggle, African Americans and Native Americans, factory workers, the mothers of unwanted children and the convicted felons on death row. All are called to take to the streets as guardians of liberty marching to loose the waters of the river Justice that it may flow forth and baptize with a spirit of freedom the unwashed and undefined masses of the modern state.

For reference purposes only, here are the words to Miss Rohe’s song,

National Anthem: Arise! Arise!

Atlantic and Pacific floor,
The Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico,
The land between sustains us all,
To cherish it our tireless call.

Chorus: Arise, arise! I see the future in your eyes.
To one more perfect union we aspire,
And lift our voices from the fire.

We reached these shores from many lands,
We came with hungry hearts and hands.
Some came by force and some by will,
At the auction block or the darkened mill.

Chorus

We died in your fields and your factories,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,
With an old coat hanger in a room somewhere,
A trail of tears, an electric chair.

Chorus

And our great responsibility;
To be guardians of our liberty,
Till tyrants bow to the peoples dream,
And justice flows like a mighty stream.

Songwriting: Birdsong and Melody

Some thoughts I had on melody and songwriting taken from correspondence with a friend,

Some more thoughts occurred to me this morning while I was listening to a mourning dove outside the kitchen window. As I listened to the bird’s song I started trying to mimic his call. The more I imitated him the more I noticed the subtleties of his song. It was intriguing to discover the depth of his variations upon one or two themes(or perhaps there were two birds).
Later, I was discussing with my father how I’ve been beginning to find inspiration for melodies within the natural world. I demonstrated what I meant, first whistling my approximation of the bird call and then riffing a melodic structure from musical intervals within the call. The result was a satisfactory fiddle tune which borrowed from the bird song and melodic devices I’ve heard in other tunes.
I don’t listen to as much music as I used to; when I’m working I prefer quiet and solitude since it allows me the space to think about music and words. It occurred to me that a hundred years ago it was still fairly easy to find peace and quiet for there was far less droning and racket in the world. There was space to hear natural patterns and no doubt these patterns readily imprinted themselves upon the mind of the songsmith; a veritable treasure trove of melodic intervals and rippling rhythms. The old songs are mined from this stock. They resonate with the inherent melodies of the world around them. When the fiddler gave his melodic nod to the mourning dove’s song his audience would recognize the reference, just as we recognize when a guitarist pays homage to an older hero with a riff or lick. The old songs spring naturally from the soil they were formed in.
In our generation, and for a number of generations before us, we have become so inundated with recorded music that it has become our only melodic reference. The best music nowadays comes from those who recognize that there is something fresh and alive about the old songs, even if they don’t know what it is. The worst music stalely rehashes old trick and trinkets clumsily ripped off of better men.
Of course, at it’s most basic level music will always be shaped by the world it emerges from. Ours is a mechanical industrial world. Flawless and unvarying repetition forms our soul. Gone is the subtle variations of the mourning dove’s theme. In its stead is the chicca-chicca-clank of the steam engine or the machinegun-blast of a guitar and drums. There is very little space for the old songs to grow.

Songwriting: Songwraiths

A popular technique often used today in commercial songwriting is avoiding the use of unique concrete details in order to broaden the appeal of a song. The thinking goes that if you write a song about a specific place or people the song will not be as marketable outside of that region. This has lead to a rise in songs that generally stick strictly to universals and avoid the particular as much as possible. When it is done right a leanness of detail within a song can lend it a haunting quality that seems to transcend capture by any particular time or place. However, there is always the danger that this wisp of a song becomes something of a wraith, so disconnected from the particulars of the world that our imagination finds within it little to grasp and hold onto. Such songs quickly fade from the popular memory. Earlier, I wrote of how the song “Travelin’ Soldier” used small but significant details to create a world that was human in scale, but also much larger than just what was described by the lyrics. In the Carrie Underwood song “Just a Dream” we are provided with an excellent example of what happens when songwriters choose to focus more on the action of the song then the world it unfolds in.

“Just a Dream” was written by Hillary Lindsey, Steve McEwan, and Gordie Simpson at a Nashville songwriting session. Their intent was to write a song where it seemed like a woman was going to her wedding, but it ended up she was going to her husband’s funeral. The over all action contained within the lyrics is quite brief, basically describing the woman driving to the funeral and the funeral itself. The first line of the song is practically a direct echo of the opening line of “Travelin’ Soldier,”

It was two weeks after the day she turned eighteen
All dressed in white, goin’ to the church that night
She had his box of letters in the passenger seat
Six pence in a shoe, somethin’ borrowed, somethin’ blue

Once again, the first four lines of the song allow us to begin to imagine the world the story exists in, a young woman dressed in white driving to a church with what we assume are a box of love letters and some keepsakes on the passenger seat. The description immediately calls to mind a wedding but there is something amiss in her driving alone in a car with just a box of letters and keepsakes.

The next few lines mimic the movement of a wedding, as the woman arrives at the church,

And when the church doors opened up wide
She put her veil down, tryin’ to hide the tears
Oh, she just couldn’t believe it
She heard the trumpets from the military band
And the flowers fell out of her hands

However, while we imagine a bride entering a church in her white dress and veil, the tears seem a little out of place. When we hear trumpets from a military band, and we know something is wrong, especially when the crying young woman drops her flowers. At this point the chorus of the song comes in, spoken from the young woman’s perspective, as she grieves the loss of her husband.

Baby, why’d you leave me? Why’d you have to go?
I was countin’ on forever, now I’ll never know
I can’t even breathe
It’s like I’m lookin’ from a distance, standin’ in the background
Everybody’s sayin’, he’s not comin’ home now
This can’t be happenin’ to me
This is just a dream

While it is apparent that the woman must be going to her soldier husband’s funeral, we still have very little to go on about the world that all of this is occurring in. We know that it is a world in which people drive cars, military personnel are dying, and funerals are held at churches, so we can assume the action is taking place sometime in the last sixty years during a war. Other than that, there is very little in the way of details to flesh out the world of the song. The second verse essentially reinforces the details of the dramatic situation set up in the first verse while providing us with little new information about where or when the action is occurring,

The preacher man said, “Let’s bow our heads and pray”
Lord, please lift his soul and heal this hurt
Then the congregation all stood up and sang
The saddest song that she ever heard
And then they handed her a folded up flag
And she held on to all she had left of him
Oh, and what could’ve been
And then the guns rang one last shot
And it felt like a bullet in her heart

In the second half of the verse we are reminded of her husband’s military service and probable combat death through the image of the folded flag and the shots of the rifle salute, but aside from a neatly played simile in the last two lines, these details accomplish little in furthering how we are to envision the world of the song. Once again, all we can imagine from the lyrics is that sometime in the last sixty years or so a young bride’s husband died at war and she was distraught at the funeral.

The other great weakness of this song is the lack of depth and perspective in how it describes the action. The immediacy of the description doesn’t allow us to see anything beyond the sorrow of the young woman. While it could be that the songwriters were trying to communicate her isolation in her sorrow, it’s hard to imagine her alone when her perspective is all you can see in the song. The chorus continues directly from the young woman’s perspective as she demands to know how her husband could have left her, ending with the words, “this can’t be happening to me.”

Baby, why’d you leave me? Why’d you have to go?
I was countin’ on forever, now I’ll never know
I can’t even breathe
It’s like I’m lookin’ from a distance, standin’ in the background
Everybody’s sayin’, he’s not comin’ home now
This can’t be happenin’ to me
This is just a dream

While one can understand her sorrow at her loss, the overall emotional scope of the song is curtailed by a lack of perspective that borders on self absorption, as if her becoming a widow was a greater tragedy than a young soldier dying. This effect is heightened by the dearth of knowledge we have about the young soldier. Within the lyrics of the song his character has no presence whatsoever, there is nothing there to even begin to imagine what he was like or provide us with some way in which we could emphasize with him. He almost comes off as a prop for her sorrow. It is her personality within the song which demands all of our attention.

In contrast to this, Robison’s “Traveling Soldier” presents us with a wider world in which we can emphasize with the love the couple has for each other, the soldier’s fear of dying young and alone, and the young girls tragic sense of loss when she discovers that her love has died fighting overseas. Robison creates this larger perspective by allowing for the interplay of multiple characters and emotions within the arc of the story. The world he creates through his lyrics is large enough to allow for multiple perspectives and the telling details he intersperses through out his song draw us into a familiar world we believe in and recognize. “Just a Dream” gives us but a brief glimpse of a moment with few details to recollect it’s passing. It is a fleeting wraith of a song.

Hillary Robison and Gordie Simpson sing “Just a Dream
Bruce Robison singing “Travelin’ Soldier