April 21, 2013 by folkchris
Through studying for my Masters Degree in song writing at University of the West of Scotland – UWS – I have become one of those lucky people who get to take their passion to a step further and out into the world.
My experiences at UWS, so far, have provided my songwriting with discipline, depth and afterthought, while providing new challenges for me to overcome in my writing.
That is not to say that my work has become robotic, far from it, the spontaneity is still very much there, but things just get ‘cleared up’ in the redraft process.
‘My songs are celebrations of my personal freedom…of the existence of my feelings’
So said folkie Eric Andersen on his 1965 debut LP ‘Today Is the Highway’.
A statement which sums up much of what songwriting is all about: the communication of the deepest of feelings and saying the unsayable.
However, in undertaking this course, I began to realise that in order to ‘make a dent’ in the songwriting world, it cannot just be the feelings of the individual which are being celebrated. A working songwriter must be able to represent and celebrate the feelings of others and summarise these feelings in a few lines, he or she should have a wide and varied understanding of genre and ideally, and may be expected, to an extent, to be creative on demand.
Of course, sooner or later, the notion of ‘creativity on demand’ is going to be problematic. In order to ‘stay afloat’ it is important that songwriters constantly have new ideas, ways of writing and at the very least new stimuli for inspiration.
In February 2013, I wrote 2 songs with 2 other students, in the space of 2 days. Much like the (longer) songwriting week in October, this experience also introduced new methods of creativity into the writing process. One of these methods was picking a day of the year-or an event- from the calendar and writing about it. The other required students to select an old folktale and use it as inspiration for a piece.
The latter, I believe, is particularly interesting stimulus for the songwriting process. A song may be triggered by a number of things in this case: The story itself, the title, the story’s moral, its themes, a character or an action etc. Therefore, a piece of writing that already exists may make an ideal ‘starting point’ for a new song.
Gordon Friesen (co-founder of Broadside magazine with Sis Cunningham) once recalled asking Phil Ochs where his songwriting ideas to write came from. The story goes that Ochs just smiled and pulled out a copy of ‘Newsweek’ from his pocket, telling Friesen ‘From out of here’.
Granted much of Ochs’ songwriting was topical, therefore, it would make sense for the source of his songwriting to be rooted in a topical or news based publication, however, the very fact that this approach could inspire such vast quantities of songwriting, I would argue this illustrates the flexibility and durability of this technique.
Of course the source material may, to an extent, dictate the outcome of the song; as in Ochs’ case, a current news publication would encourage ‘politically tinged’ writing, while a folktale, for example, may also do this, it may also allow more room for the songwriter’s creativity. That is not to say that either inspirational source is better than another, just that one may ’fit’ more appropriately to what the songwriter is trying to say at one particular moment in time.
It is not the content of the source is that is important, it is what the source inspires the songwriter to create.
Andersen E (1965) Today is the Highway [LP] Vanguard VSD 79 157 USA
Ochs P (1989) The Broadside Tapes 1 [CD] Smithsonian Folkways SF 40008 USA