Saturday, November 5, 2011


This is not the post I’d planned for today.  No, I was going to go in a much different direction indeed.  Then two things happened on Facebook.

First, a friend posted a link to this story detailing how a small Rhode Island café was bullied by ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) & SESAC (the Society of European Stage Authors & Composers) into stopping a long-running tradition of performances by local musicians.  I’ve heard such stories before: in fact, I know of cases much closer to what-used-to-be home involving venues in McCall, Idaho. 

Now as anyone who reads this blog at all knows, I’m a performing musician.  I’m certainly not a big-time musician & I’m not a professional in any real sense of that word, tho over the years between performing & teaching I have certainly supplemented my income a fair amount.  I am just another of these “local musicians.”  It used to be that “local musicians” who played both traditional songs & the “hits of the day” provided much of the music for people’s lives.  The music industry has changed this.

As a solo performer, I play cover songs, mostly old blues that were recorded in the the 1920s & 1930s.  Although by any sane definition, most of these songs are “traditional,” in fact most of them are under copyright.  The great irony is that many traditional musicians, & in particular African-American blues performers, sold their rights to these songs to recording companies because they were promised ready money for doing so—& the music industry folks wanted the copyrights because they knew they were getting a deal.  So much for the notion that ASCAP et al. are “only looking out for the artists.”

I’ve thought about these issues for some time, & for some time I’ve thought about how it would be best for me to address them in terms of my own performing ventures, modest as they may be.  & for quite some time I’ve played with the idea of writing my own songs.  After all, I have composed a fair amount of music (all instrumental, & all designed for duet-playing in a very specific context) & I have written lots of poetry.  Given that, I should be a natural songwriter, correct?

Actually, no.  I’ve never had any success writing songs.  & this week on a late evening whim, I posted this fact as a Facebook status update. 

I received some amazing feedback, in particular from Scott Houston (whose songwriting talents were on display here a while back in the Homegrown Radio series) as well as blog friends Dominic Rivron & Dick Jones.  All three of these fellows are talented musicians & composers, & Dominic & Dick are also gifted poets.  I found their suggestions most inspiring—& also practical.  Dominic, for instance, talked about the different approaches to language songwriters & poets each take, while Dick talked about how words can grow out of the chords themselves & even defined how he hears different chords in terms of overall mood.  Scott also wrote about how the disciplines of poetry & songwriting differ in a very clear & thoughtful way.  Thanks, friends (thanks Michael, too!)

Now last year at around this time I pledged to make a good quality recording of my repertoire over the winter, & in fact I was able to do that.  Now I see this winter’s project: songwriting!

I’m excited.  It will enable me to market myself more online & probably also make me a more attractive performer to local venues.  Will it involve a lot of work?  Absolutely, but I’ve been feeling the need of a new creative challenge & I strongly suspect this is it!

Of course, as Dominic Rivron pointed out, sometimes poetry of the highest caliber also works as song lyrics, & he referred to a specific YouTube video—in fact, the very one which follows which by some strange coincidence or serendipity I’d already slated for the post I’d originally planned for today—Irish songster Christy Moore’s take on a beautiful setting of W.B. Yeats’ “The Song of the Wandering Aengus.”

I clearly have a very long way to go!

Pic of yours truly performing at the Bare Bones Café on SE Belmont for the October First Friday Art Walk is by artist/photographer Mark Crummett—thanks, Mark!


  1. Sounds like a good plan, John! And yeah, I've seen the bully tactics of the PROs at work in RI before; there used to be a great venue called the Stone Soup Café that closed down over the same issues. There have been others. Even the musicians they're supposedly "protecting" have protested against these actions, but they keep on bullying the small bookstore cafés and coffeehouses. It's crazy!

  2. A great poet and a great musician is an exciting combination - I am looking forward to the output.

  3. Wonderful. This sounds like an exciting new road for you. Enjoy it, and good luck.

  4. John, I wish you well with your song-writing project, and look forward to hearing a few samples along the way.

  5. I'm excited for you! I also agree that poetry doesn't always make for songwriting, but I would be keen to read Dominic's and Dick's comments. FB doesn't seem to like me at the moment; I'm not getting any exposure and apart from a small handful of people, nobody's talking to me!

    I have toyed with the idea of writing songs, since I have some facility with rhyme and would love to tap into a whimsical-song market. Of course, I can't write music, so I would need to find someone who could take those reins.

    I'll be anxiously awaiting the announcement of your first songs, John! Best of luck on this new adventure.


    For some reason I can't comment via WP. The social network gods are against me today!

  6. Hi Roy, Alan, Jacqueline, Martin & Kat

    Roy: Thanks for the encouragement! As far as the other goes, it's insane & it's all about power & greed. I need to write about it more here, if for no other reason than to blow off some steam!

    Alan: Thanks so much!

    Jacqueline: Thanks--I appreciate your support so very much!

    Martin: Thanks! Yes, hope to have samples at some point in the winter.

    Kat: Thanks so much! Have you managed to see the post with Dick & Dominic's comments? I've noticed you're doing a lot on G+--have you found that a more satisfying outlet? For myself, it seems like G+ is just a string of monologues with very little interface, but perhaps that's not true for everyone. Thanks again!

  7. I've already pointed out that many of The Spring Ghazals would be wonderful set to music. Get busy.

  8. Hi Mairi: You have indeed! Truth is, while I think you are right, I don't think I'd be the right person to set them to music. I think I could perform them as "spoken word" with a backing band, & I think they also could be sung if set by the right person. But I'm looking at a bit more recognizable type of song, probably more or less blues-based because that will be most natural for me to compose. But thanks for the thought--it is a good one; & I shall get busy!

  9. I'm not interacting much on G+; it's more of a device to publicize for me. I prefer FB for that and even Twitter is growing on me.


  10. Kat: It probably makes sense from that angle. My question is: is anyone interacting much on G+--it seems like a bunch of isolated monologues. Much prefer FB & Twitter.

  11. Can't beat a good bit of blog synchronicity. Thanks for the plug!

    I think I remember Lou Reed saying how when he was young and met Andy Warhol for the first time Andy asked him how many songs he'd written. Reed had written one (he said) but claimed he'd written five. "Should've written fifteen" said Warhol. (I think I've got the numbers right).

    I always admired Warhol's attitude to work - keep knocking it out.

  12. Good luck, sounds like it will be an awesome and inspiring project!

  13. Go John! Nothing like a dreary Portland winter to pull out some songs.

  14. Hi Scotty: Thanks! The dreary & considerably colder Indian Valley winter worked well for recording!

  15. Good luck with that project, John. It sounds challenging but potentially rewarding.

  16. Hi Dominic & Banjo52

    Dominic: Ah, the Warhol work ethic! Great story.

    Banjo52: Thanks for the support!


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