The Evolving ‘Life’ of a Song

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March 18, 2013 by folkchris

As a songwriter, there is a definite satisfaction in knowing when a song has been completed. Unless you are working to a robotically specific brief that requires X amount of verses and chorus, for example, there is no actual measured way of telling when your job is done…you just know.

However, even when the actual lyric writing and chord structure is complete, the ‘life’ of the song is just beginning.

This ‘life’ may begin with a simple few words or (if you are lucky) an entire sentence, which may provide some sort of hook for the song- or at least, provide a springboard to help kick start the writing process. The ‘life’ may begin with a few notes played together by chance.

In finding the right notes at the right time in the creation of the song, the song can practically write itself. That is of course, before it is re-drafted; that is not to say that I’m not a sucker for the power of spontaneity, but the re-draft can provide insights you missed the first time.

Before a song is born, there have been occasions in which no (usable) material has come to me and I have had that inevitable ‘will I ever write a song again?’ dread.

To combat this feeling, I could use the old fishing trip analogy, of casting your line out and waiting for a bite to just come along, but, an analogy which I find more comforting (and more ‘lived in’)in combating ‘writer’s block’, is that of  ‘King of the Road’ singer Roger Miller. Miller describes song writing material as being like a well. After one takes from the well, there is a little less each time, but given time, the well will fill up again…most likely without the songwriter even realising it is doing so.

When the well runs dry you have to wait a while for it to fill up again’ (Nelson, 2006, p43)

If this outlook worked for the late Country Music Hall of Famer, Miller, then I’m pretty confident that there must be some truth in it. 

So lets pretend that the lyrics are written and the chords work with the lyrics and the song has been re-drafted…rehearsed and even recorded, does the song cease to evolve then?

In my opinion, no.

Yes, there is a recorded version which (as I have mentioned in a previous blog) becomes the ‘official version’ to some extent, the song itself, is not a tangible item which can be pinned down so easily…

No matter how many ‘official’ recordings have been made, a song cannot be captured and made static- in fact I would suggest that the more recordings that are made of a particular song, the more the song has evolved from the writing process.

An example of this, I would argue, is from Bob Dylan’s infamous 1966 electric tour. I use this as an example, because of the relatively short space of time between the songs being written, (‘officially’) recorded and being inverted and having ‘new life’ breathed into them by (in this case) an electric revamp.

This revamp changes the tempo, the delivery of lines even in some cases the lines themselves. Recordings made of this tour see Dylan perform his once solo acoustic bitter sweet heartbreaker ‘One Too Many Mornings’ originally written in 1963, now, with a full band and his 1964 ‘She Acts Like We Never Have Met’ has an even more venomous snarl than it did 2 years earlier. 

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Musically, the songs are complete polarities. Not being changed for the sake of changing, but more, evolving with the songwriter’s direction at that moment in time. Of course the songs would continue to evolve and change again and again according to other musical directions which Dylan would take.

To any songwriter, while there may be constraints on the work, this notion of constant evolution and being able to follow one’s true musical ‘feeling’ where possible, is essential.

If a song changes in a different direction from what was originally intended or if it becomes unrecognisable from its ‘official’ recording, over the course of time, that is not a bad thing it is simply the song expanding and evolving and in a sense, ‘living’ its ‘life’.

Dylan himself acknowledged the changes, by referencing his acoustic version of ‘She Acts Like We Never Have Met’ seconds before bursting into to the fully electric re work:

 ‘It used to go like that, now it goes like this’.

 REFERENCES

Nelson, W (2006) The Tao of Willie: A Guide to Happiness in Your Heart. New York. Gotham Books

Dylan B (1964/ 2003) Another Side of Bob Dylan. [CD]USA. Columbia 512354 2

Dylan B (1998) The Bootleg Series Volume 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966. The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert. [CD]USA. Columbia Legacy 491485 2

Dylan B  (1963/ 2003) The Times they Are A-Changing. [CD] USA. Columbia 32021 

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