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When you hear Gary play that song 50 years later, or when he was in his prime at whatever time period, and brilliant on top of it, that's a really damaging thing to the head. That causes a lot of people not to be able to play all their creative energy because they're really just playing with their own head - Jerry Ricks, Port Townsend 97

Author Topic: Discussion On Writing Lyrics?  (Read 523 times)

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Offline RootDoctor

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Discussion On Writing Lyrics?
« on: May 06, 2021, 10:10:57 AM »
Hello fellow forum members,

Firstly, long time watcher. Thank you all so much for the HUGE vault of valuable information available on this forum. Words cannot not adequately express my thanks to you all. From Guitar styles, transcriptions, lyrics and history/musicology. It's a diamond mine.

Secondly, a little about me. With a lot of help from SGGW, Homespun and this Forum I managed to become a reasonable country blues guitarist. Unfortunately, I wasn't (and am not) much of a performer. I love the music and always will, but as a musician I fell out of love with performing and consequently let my blues skills somewhat dissipate and ended up focusing more on Jazz (With less success). Recently, partly due to the goddamn virus I felt a hankering for getting back into learning some country blues.

I may well be in the wrong forum for this question, but I was wondering if any of you folks had any opinions on writing lyrics/melodies and whether there was any discussions being had on the subject on this forum? It may well be sacrilege to some, in which case, please forgive me!

I would love to try and write some 'originals' (in quotes as often it may well be a Sitting On Top Of The World, kinda rewrite), however I feel it could be a risky endeavour.

All opinions welcome, even if there scolding of the idea.

Thanks

Offline banjochris

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Re: Discussion On Writing Lyrics?
« Reply #1 on: May 06, 2021, 11:13:50 AM »
First of all, welcome!

Second, I don't have any advice, but go for it! With blues, always good to write about what you know. I've only written a couple of dirty blues a la Bo Carter for my own amusement so I can't offer too much in the way of advice. A couple of my favorite more contemporary writers of country blues are Steve James and Paul Geremia; I'm sure others will chime in with some good opinions.
Chris

Offline Thomas8

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Re: Discussion On Writing Lyrics?
« Reply #2 on: May 06, 2021, 03:52:52 PM »
Welcome Root Doctor!

I'm by no means an expert, but I do like to write myself.

I would start by identifying your favourite songs and songwriters and if you haven't any in particular search about and listen to lots of different blues artists until you find them. Then study and analyse the qualities of the songs and try to determine why you like them. Then apply those qualities to your writing.

For melodies same thing, learn different melodies you like and analyse them as well as explore the guitar neck and try different things.

On a lyric writing front I would advise to think about how easy the words will be to sing, think of syllables as notes, having long three syllable words will be very difficult to implement frequently as there is only a certain amount of space you have in a line for it to sound "musical". Aim for as many one syllable words as you can adding the occasional two or three to bring the line together. 

Considering things like meter and internal rhyme will sharpen up phrases and make words have more impact when sung also.

Make your lines interesting, Include things like brands or products or people or places. Anything really instead of singing "drinking this liquor" sing "drinking this (brand of liquor)". Lovie Austin wrote some terrific songs try "Chattanooga Blues". Write what you know and if you don't know it, explore it and make it seem to the listener as if you do by adding some detail or jargon perhaps.

I'd advise to write as much as you can, and after finishing your song go through each line and try to sharpen it up as best you can.
Think poetically and make use of metaphors, imagery, symbolism, allegory etc

A good place to start is to have some metaphor or subject in mind which you can build the entire song around. Those are easiest, write yourself or someone in as an animal or a car or a food etc.

In "Howling Wolf Blues" Funny Papa Smith writes himself as a Howling Wolf and sings about why and what he does. in "'Garlic Blues" Helen Humes sings about her mans bad breath and the effect that has on every one.

Let Thou's Imagination Run Wild!

Hope that helps,

Thomas
« Last Edit: May 06, 2021, 03:56:07 PM by Thomas8 »

Offline Johnm

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Re: Discussion On Writing Lyrics?
« Reply #3 on: May 06, 2021, 04:04:57 PM »
Hi RootDoctor,
I second Chris's welcome to the site and applaud your impulse to write your own lyrics. I guess my advice on lyric-writing of blues would be the same as it would be for someone wanting to write country songs--don't write about your own life, write about the audience's life. The shared experiences that the best blues lyrics speak from are much more resonant than a modern-day singer/songwriter "Let me tell you about what happened to me" lyrical stance. And if you do decide to write from your own experience, speak from a heightened or slightly fictional sense of self.

Write as you speak. Song lyrics are different than poetry, and need to be comfortable in the vernacular. Don't try to be too clever--simple but believable expressive means and methods win the day. Good luck with this.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Blues Vintage

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Re: Discussion On Writing Lyrics?
« Reply #4 on: May 07, 2021, 07:01:09 AM »
Can't add much to this excellent posted advice already.
The easiest thing to do is to just take the melody of an existing song and write your own words over it.

For example, Bob Dylan's "Obviously Five Believers" is an exact copy of the vocal phrasing of Memphis Minnie's "Me And My Chauffeur Blues".

Offline David Kaatz

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Re: Discussion On Writing Lyrics?
« Reply #5 on: May 07, 2021, 11:25:21 AM »
Great topic to raise - this reminds me that I have written a couple blues tunes, now almost lost in the gray cells. Both based on personal experiences, one basically telling a tale of what happened to me and my wife, the other extrapolating on a imagined interaction with a distinctive person I was acquainted with. The latter came off much better because it wasn't written as a first person story. I need to resurrect it.

I agree with all the advice given. Especially borrowing melodies of existing tunes. Most of the greats have done it. I don't think writing your own blues tune is a risky endeavor at all - what have you got to lose?



Offline RootDoctor

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Re: Discussion On Writing Lyrics?
« Reply #6 on: May 07, 2021, 05:05:03 PM »
Massive thanks everybody.

"The easiest thing to do is to just take the melody of an existing song and write your own words over it."

"...borrowing melodies of existing tunes. Most of the greats have done it."


If only it came that simple to me... but (valid) point taken. Though I ain't had the time since my original post to really try.

'For example, Bob Dylan's "Obviously Five Believers" is an exact copy of the vocal phrasing of Memphis Minnie's "Me And My Chauffeur Blues".'

I REALLY need to soak my soul in the recordings of Memphis Minnie. What a beautiful recording, new to me. A player/singer that I ain't yet obsessed over.

Is anyone aware of more examples of this? Specifically, more contemporary artists? Perhaps I could/should start a new thread?

I guess a lot of pre-war is re-cycled. IE CC Rider, Kokomo Blues, On Top Of The World ect. It seemed to be suggested by Honeyboy in his book that this was common practice and people were "stealing" each others tunes. I'm too ignorant of the history and timelines to follow the origins.

'Lovie Austin wrote some terrific songs try "Chattanooga Blues".' - Not found that particular tune on my initial YT search, but wow. Never heard of Lovie Austin, what I can find is great. Are there many recordings of her as lead vox??

"A couple of my favorite more contemporary writers of country blues are Steve James and Paul Geremia" - I'll be sure to check them out. Geremia is a fantastic player, never come across originals though.

"On a lyric writing front I would advise to think about how easy the words will be to sing, think of syllables as notes, having long three syllable words will be very difficult to implement frequently as there is only a certain amount of space you have in a line for it to sound "musical". Aim for as many one syllable words as you can adding the occasional two or three to bring the line together." - Top advice.

I really need to try and understand meter and it's relationship with song form. The more I discover/read the greater my ignorance! I shouldve paid more attention in school. I guess the blues is on the simple side compared to Shakespeare sonnet. Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself in terms of theory/technique. I should just try to actually write and finish something simple. Practice, practice practice.

"I'd advise to write as much as you can, and after finishing your song go through each line and try to sharpen it up as best you can." - More great advice, a friend mentioned to me about a Judd Apatow masterclass writing/scripting video where he explains a Vomit Pass. Write whatever comes out and refine it later. I saw a brief YT trailor and sounded like a pretty cool idea.

It's very easy to get precious, then it's all stopped before it's even started.

"A good place to start is to have some metaphor or subject in mind which you can build the entire song around. Those are easiest, write yourself or someone in as an animal or a car or a food etc.

In "Howling Wolf Blues" Funny Papa Smith writes himself as a Howling Wolf and sings about why and what he does. in "'Garlic Blues" Helen Humes sings about her mans bad breath and the effect that has on every one."


Fantastic idea, a great tip overcoming writers block. If anyone else has more tips like this please share!! Never heard of Humes before, what a voice. I notice there are a few videos of post war Humes with some familiar faces.


"...same as it would be for someone wanting to write country songs--don't write about your own life, write about the audience's life. The shared experiences that the best blues lyrics speak from are much more resonant than a modern-day singer/songwriter "Let me tell you about what happened to me" lyrical stance. And if you do decide to write from your own experience, speak from a heightened or slightly fictional sense of self."

Thanks so much for this, some very important and wise information there. I suppose my previous failings at performance was trying to be too honest/sincere. A surefire path to self-destruction I feel. I suppose Dylan and Waits are somewhat chameleon like.

I have a long list of old school country music I also want to listen to. (Y'know, kinda like the list of songs Johnny Cash gave his daughter, almost rite of passage?) I know there are pretty big differences with blues, I feel it would be silly to ignore Country considering its long history with song-writing.

A big 'problem' is I look the music up and become enamoured by what I hear. Get too into listening and don't commit to writing/playing.

As I said before, i've been doing too much talking/listening/research not enough actual writing.

Write as you speak. Song lyrics are different than poetry, and need to be comfortable in the vernacular. Don't try to be too clever--simple but believable expressive means and methods win the day."

I think this is a tough one, blues is filled with cliches and vernacular. Lyrically, melodically and musically (I briefly remember hearing (in a YT doc) that Blind Willie McTell affected an accent.) It's hard to avoid. I suppose the melodic cliches/inflections are there to be re-moulded.

Anyhow, thanks all.


A slight detour/diversion ahead,

I was listening to Gil Scott Heron and Herbie Hancock earlier this week and noticed this blues phrase,

Gil Scot Hero - 3 Miles Down - (Great song BTW)

@around 2:00 mins - 'It's been a long, long time. / Since I seen the sunshine.'

Herbie Hancock - Chameleon @13:52 - 14:02 (Sax solo)



They start differently but end very similarly. Anyone heard this phrase in any pre-war blues? I'm not amazingly well listened but the musical phrase sounds so eternal, an echo from way back. Then again, it may be a product of the more modern funk/jazz blues. To be fair, it's kind stale hearing it alone outside of context. But i've been listening to both versions/performances for years and they've always stood out to me.

Offline Blues Vintage

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Re: Discussion On Writing Lyrics?
« Reply #7 on: May 15, 2021, 08:44:03 AM »

'For example, Bob Dylan's "Obviously Five Believers" is an exact copy of the vocal phrasing of Memphis Minnie's "Me And My Chauffeur Blues".'

I REALLY need to soak my soul in the recordings of Memphis Minnie. What a beautiful recording, new to me. A player/singer that I ain't yet obsessed over.

Is anyone aware of more examples of this?

Dylan also did "Rollin' And Tumblin", "Someday Baby" and "The Levee's Gonna Break" on his "Modern Times" record and all took songwriting credit for it.
He did some heavy rewriting though.

Offline Johnm

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Re: Discussion On Writing Lyrics?
« Reply #8 on: May 15, 2021, 09:15:45 AM »
Robert Johnson's "Love In Vain" is a re-write of Leroy Carr's "In The Evening" using the very same melody, chord progression and phrasing. So there's another example. Blues abounds in instances of this. In fact, it's probably the most common method of blues composition.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Tim Connor

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Re: Discussion On Writing Lyrics?
« Reply #9 on: July 16, 2021, 10:48:38 PM »
Quote
'For example, Bob Dylan's "Obviously Five Believers" is an exact copy of the vocal phrasing of Memphis Minnie's "Me And My Chauffeur Blues".'

I REALLY need to soak my soul in the recordings of Memphis Minnie. What a beautiful recording, new to me. A player/singer that I ain't yet obsessed over.

Is anyone aware of more examples of this? Specifically, more contemporary artists? Perhaps I could/should start a new thread?

From the same album, Pledging My Time is based on Elmore James's It Hurts Me Too. There are a couple of dozen blues melodies that were recycled with minor variations for decades (there are many more reworkings of Me And My Chauffeur, as well as numerous takes on Sitting on Top of the World). It doesn't happen quite so often any more, but at least you don't have to worry about plagiarism, because anyone who wants to sue you will have to get in line...

Offline harriet

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Re: Discussion On Writing Lyrics?
« Reply #10 on: July 17, 2021, 04:33:19 AM »
Not on all songs as a rule on songs I study but, I've rewritten a couple of lyrics from a women's point of view and substituted for others. For the old blues men, some of them seem to have picked from a pool of lyrics and built their own - I find some lines being used by different artists in different ways. I think the art of the tapestry woven by the reuse of a lyric or a line may have been phased out by stricter copyright laws.

Harriet

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