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Frankham Songwriter's Songwriters (91* d) RE: Songwriter's Songwriters 26 Jun 05


WLD, loved your post! Funny! "Soldier gone for a Johnny".

Jerry, I like Steve Earle because I think he carries the tradition of Woody Guthrie, simple, direct, tells the story of a character or a situation in few short but highly evocative phrases. He paints pictures with words but is sparing (the mark of a great folk singer) and I gravitate to his social conscious subject matter that I feel he doesn't do in a self-conscious way. He also has a great sense of humor ("Skank for me Condi") and he comes up with an unusual and unpredictable chord pattern now and then. He writes in the voice of the people he writes about.

I have heard those criticisizing the brevity of Woody Guthrie because he is not long-winded, verbose or pretensious.
They would do well to emulate Woody in his ability to synthesize the story into basic strong words. (E.B.White would approve.)

I like that Steve Earle and Woody Guthrie stay focussed on their subject and are not given to pseudo-philosophical ramblings.

Another in this Woody tradition is Si Kahn who captures the flavor of the folk song but introduces his own take. A song for example, Wild Rose of the Mountain could be right out of Appalachian tradition.

Another important and overlooked songwriter in this style is our own Jean Ritchie who has written some memorable songs
that reflect her own background and upbringing. L and N Don't Stop Here Anymore, Black Waters, her Winter song all show a disarming sophistication but still sound true to folk.

Woody has set a tradition for us. The Carter Family basically recycled old tunes. A.P. put his name on a lot of them. Wildwood Flower was written in England and re-translated into Appalachianese by A.P..(Maud Irving comes to mind....)
But Woody blew in with a fresh voice from the dust bowl. Alan Lomax saw that and gave him his first job as a songwriter for the Grand Coulee Dam Administration. It was a good use of Federal funds in my opinion. Woody set a style for contemporary songwriters such as Steve Earle, John Prine, the illusive Dylan,
Steve Goodman, and Tom Paxton (although Tom's writing is to me often redolant but not copying Tom Lehrer. Tom Paxton has his own voice.) Oddly, the songs Turn Turn , Bells Of Rhymney and Where Have All The Flowers Gone departs from Woody's narrative style. Pete's songs become anthemic but not as specific and more a generalized emotion is conveyed. We're caught up in those delicious melodies. It's another style of song writing that borders on the "Art Song". The chord progressions are a little more sophisticated than the spare changes of Woody and his progeny.

I think we may owe Dylan for his foray into abstruse metaphors and personalized "poetry". I think that this was a slippery slope leading songwriters toward pretensious writing though the best of Dylan was anything but this. The imagery that I like best from Dylan oddly is in his love songs. I never really believed the attempt at political or social commentary. It always seemed a little forced to me and we find out later through his interviews and "Chronicles" that he wasn't really into it, either.

Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon seemed to skirt the pretensious through evocative, fresh and perceptive imagery. Their writing was to my way of thinking a benchmark in contemporary songwriting because of it's remarkable originality and the use of subject matter that was not present in earlier songs. Dangling Conversation about ennui and "bows and flows of angel's hair..I've looked at clouds that way" is as fresh and alive now as it was in the Sixties.

Don McClean's Vincent will stand the test of time. It's more of an Art Song than a Pop Song. American Pie certainly broke the record for the pop single and it's references although denied by Don are pretty clear about the evolution of the rock stars.

What makes a song durable is it's ability to transcend the time in which we live by commenting on that time but soaring above it with grace, style and freshness. A songwriter is not merely a journalist but more of a novelist in the shortest novelistic style available. The songwriter deals with the materials of the cultural language that surround us but speaks to us in that language of
other things than we would customarilly hear.

Chris Christopherson, oddly enough is a Woody type writer.
His songs are bare-boned yet sophisticated as he was originally a fiction writer (having sold to Atlantic Monthly). Help Me Make It Through The Night has been criticized by some pretensious folkies as being derivative but this isn't true. Chris invented that phrase which was picked up by other lesser writers. "Take the ribbons from your hair" is now so commonplace that we think of it as being around for a long time. But it was fresh when it came out.

Jimmy Webb has wedded imagery to lovely tunes that are more again along the lines of Art Song rather than folk songs. For anyone serious about songwriting, please read his book called Tunesmith. It's a classic.

So when does the folk style cross over to the Art Song? It's a hard question to answer but it has to do with not only subject matter but the materials used. Three or four chords will not make an Art Song. Basic language sometimes gives way to flights of poetic sounds and sophisticated melodies and harmonies. Usually the Art Song isn't interested in the gritty
elements of social justice or basic story telling ala Woody.

Today, thanks to Woody and others we have a history of a rich musical heritage. We have all kinds of songs that serve different functions. Some can get us on our feet to dance (Yes Disco, and that's the way I like it!) and some tell us a narrative about which many of us are in denial (Rap and Hip Hop). If we remain open we can find a rich world of song out there.

Hope this is what you were looking for, Jerry.

Frank Hamilton


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