Songwriter me: Look me in the eye.

One of my goals for this year was to learn how to write songs. Poetry is a different medium. I’ve written poems that can work as songs, but the poet relies on the reader’s ability to re-read the text, to pick up on layered meanings and clever word play. By contrast, the lyrics to a song have to work on first hearing. If you’re Bob Dylan, you can get away with being obscure, but normally if a song incites a “say what?” reaction, it has failed.

Oh, and there’s the music part, too. Pop tunes are actually pretty simple in music theory terms. This is good for me, because I’m a pretty simple musician.

I really like simple songs, and not just because I can play them. The country music idea of “three chords and the truth” is very appealing to me. Popular music is heir to the idea of lyric poetry, and, in consequence, it’s best understood as a dramatic literature. And unlike what passes for poetry in the modern epoch, lyrics rhyme, scan and make sense. Where I come from, we call that art.

So far, I’ve written two songs this year. One, Jenny got some rhubarb, comes down to word salad in a 12-bar blues. If you attend to my semi-sorta weekly video podcasts, you’ll hear the tune played in infinite variations. The lyrics go like this, in a classic W.C. Handy blues structure in wide-open E:

Jenny got some rhubarb.
I would like to have some.
Jenny got some rhubarb.
I would like to have some.
Jenny got some rhubarb.
I would like to have some.
Jenny got some rhubarb.
I would like to have some.
She got some rhubarb.
I’d like to have some.
Jenny got some rhubarb…

Those are place-holder lyrics, and a lot of old-time classic blues is built around place-holder lyrics like this. If you’re listening to someone like Jack White and you can’t figure out what the hell he’s talking about, swap in this idea and see how it works: He’s mouthing words that are simply there to carry the musical notes of the melody and they don’t mean anything. I will play with the melodic potential of chord progressions by using numbers as place-holder lyrics:

Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one, thirty-seven.
Twenty-one, thirty-seven, fifty-three-ee-ee.
Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one, thirty-seven.
Twenty-one, thirty-seven, fifty-three.

If the tune works, it should be easy to write lyrics to fit the scansion.

All that is just theory. It’s writing finished songs that matters. And yesterday I actually did the whole job. It took all of four minutes, once I caught the hook.

And, oh, yes, this is very much a hook song. There is no context to me in my real life, it’s just a tragic blues about a woman who knows that her man is leaving her — classic blues subject matter. The tune is blues/soul/R&B/Motown, flayed-to-the-bones simple. I’m thinking the structure is I/IV, I/IV, I/IV, I/IV, V/I — three chords and the truth — but I haven’t found it yet. I can sing it, and if I were a better musician I could decompose it from the melody, but I ain’t that good yet.

Here are the lyrics:

Look me in the eye and say you don’t want to lose me.
Look me in the eye if you hope to confuse me.
Look me in the eye if you’re planning to break me.
Look me in the eye if you mean to forsake me.
If you’re not gonna to say goodbye,
why won’t you look me in the eye?

Look me in the eye and say you won’t ever leave me.
Look me in the eye when you strive to deceive me.
Look me in the eye while you try to control me.
Look me in the eye as you soothe and console me.
If you’re gonna tell me lies,
at least look me in the eye.

Look me in the eye and tell me how much you love me.
Look me in the eye and swear there’s no one above me.
Look me in the eye and say you’ll never replace me.
Look me in the eye even though you can’t face me.
If you’re gonna make me cry,
baby, look me in the eye.

Dread simple, but it’s a song. In the right voice, it will tear your heart out, and there is plenty of room for a searing guitar. I commend it to a band like the Pack AD, who know how to wring every drop of blood from a simple song.

I’ve been working at this for ten months, but I’ve been working to get to real songs and not just noises that sound like songs. The whole package has to work together: It has to rhyme, scan, make sense — and tell a story that elicits an emotional response in the listener. I’ll get better — my whole life is about getting better — but I think this is a nice beginning.

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