Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Dan Bern Songwriting Workshop Anchorage Evening 2

 I took Mariano's digital art class after seeing what he did digitally to photos.  I thought, I can take photos and then play with them.  What I didn't quite realize was that it was an art class and the other students were serious artists.  An early assignment was to use a couple of the photo shop tools to draw a picture.  I started with a very simple round flower with roundish petals and a simple stem.  But I noticed the screen next to me had a perfect cowboy boot with all the details.  The screen on the other side had a great human figure.  I realized I was out of my league.  But Mariano encouraged me saying these people have to adjust from their normal medium (oil, or water colors, or charcoal) to digital and I would be starting with digital.  In the end it worked out reasonably well.

Dan's standing on the left
But at least I believed I had a visual sense, even if I couldn't execute what I had in mind, at least I had something in mind.

Music is different.  I don't think aurally.  Tunes don't pop into my mind.  I'm just not musical.  But the song writing workshop is forcing me to confront one of my own stereotypes about myself.  Don't get me wrong, there are serious song writers and musicians in this class and compared to them, my musical talents are, politely, in the most formative stage.  But I didn't completely bomb in the workshop Monday or last night.

Monday Dan talked about how little children go around merging words and melodies that they spontaneously create.  It got me thinking.  He talked about speech and singing not being that far apart.  Certainly not opposites that some imagine.  He said I should just relax.

I thought about students I've had who told me they were 'just not good at math.'  I'd always ask them, "Which teacher did this to you?"  and 90% could give me a name and a grade without a pause.  I still remember one student holding out his hands for the ruler as he said, "Sister Margarita in 5th grade."

And the light went on that I've been going around saying I'm just not musical.  OK, I admit the oboe and I were not a good match, but I shouldn't have given up on dating music.

All this is preamble to my fortune cookie based song.  (See the previous post.)

This group's work sparkled
I ended up choosing the numbers in the fortune rather than the words.  The first three in the sequence were 03 14 29 which I immediately translated into March 14, 1929.  I googled it and came up with obituaries of people born on March 14, 1929.  The first was just birth and death dates with locations of each.  Toronto and Desert Hot Springs.  I imagined a song that filled in the gap.  I found a woman who was born and died in Lufkin, Texas.  There was a little more about her.  A guy born in England who died in Santa Maria, California with a whole career and family.  Who were these people, did their lives cross paths?  There were all sorts of possibilities.

Getting further into the google results brought the fact that Mickey Mouse's 4th cartoon was released on March 14, 1929 - The Barn Dance.  Clearly, Disney had no idea who Mickey would become and Minnie ditches him for Pete, when Mickey can't stay off her toes.

And then there was this post on a German Einstein website:
In 1920, after Einstein's achievements had been widely recognized, Ulm also wanted to honour him. Thus, for example, in 1922 the decision was made to name a yet to be constructed street after him. Even though in Nazi-Germany this street was renamed Fichtestrasse (after Johann Gottlieb Fichte, 1762-1814, a German philosopher), it was named Einsteinstrasse again in 1945. On the occasion of his 50th birthday on March 14, 1929, Einstein was informed in a letter of congratulation by the then mayor that the city of Ulm had named a street in his honour. With respect to the Einsteinstrasse Einstein remarked in his reply: "I have already heard about the street named after me. My comforting thought was that I am not responsible for whatever is going to happen there." Between 1920 and 1929 a lively exchange of notes between Ulm and Albert Einstein developed which, interrupted by the political situation in Germany, was only resumed in 1949.
In 1949 Ulm wanted to grant Einstein the rights of a freeman of the city. Einstein however declined, pointing to the fate of the Jews in Nazi-Germany.

But how to put this all together?  I could focus on the day, but I also wanted to trace the paths, beyond the day, of those born on March 14, 1929.  And I had to try to sing it the next day in the workshop.

I ended up focusing on the Einstein story.  The line about taking comfort knowing he wouldn't be responsible for what happened on the street had a bittersweet sensibility.

Dan had told us Monday, in answer to a question about the problem of writing a song and finding out that someone had already written the melody.  The difference between a real songwriter and everyone else, is that the real songwriter will simply change some things here and there and call it his own.

And using the Mexican hat dance as the tune for our moose encounter songs Monday also showed me 1) how useful it was to have some structure, a skeleton,  like that to hold the words onto and 2) how hard it was to mesh - in my head -  the rhythm of the existing song to the rhythm of my newly created lyrics.

So, I decided to lift a Dan Bern song as my skeleton.  His songs are mostly stories put to music, but they do have melodies.  But I have to listen a few times to get them into my head. I picked Dan's Rome, from the "Dan Bern" album.  I tried to write lyrics, but the words from the Einstein website didn't flow with the music.  I had to start chopping back, finding words that were shorter, that had some rhyme.

I figured with my singing ability and the extra syllables here and there, no one would know where it came from.  Here's part of what I did compared to the lyrics of the original song.  I think I need another week to get this working.   But it's as far as I got before class.

March 14, 1929 Rome
Einstein got a letter
from the Mayor of Ulm
On the fourteenth of March
Nineteen Twenty nine
It wished him a happy
Fiftieth  Birthday
They gave him a street
on which kids could play.

Ulm was his birthplace
Ulm was his past
Ulm was the city
That’d he’d return to last.
We pulled into Rome
With blood in our eyes
After days of travelin'
Months of lies
Taking our various
Turns at the wheel
Taking booze
And pot and cigarettes. . .

Rome was a bust
Rome was a scream
Rome was the final
Rapid eye movement
To this dream

The Rome link gets you to the song so you can hear how it goes.

My last lines, which I left out here, just never could capture the Einstein quote.  Again, I need to find a totally different way to say it.

I also tried to throw my inhibitions to the draft and just sing.  Just as I'm doing here posting these lyrics on the blog.  This is a learning activity right?  The only lines that really work for me are the first two.  The rest need lots of massaging.  I stuck in the Ulm lines after listening to the Rome lines and I think musically, that worked best.  Clearly I have to toss the date altogether, it's just too clunky, and rely on it being the title.  But I guess that's part of the evolution of a song.

Dan asked if I played guitar, then pulled out his and gave me the perfect back up; that helped a lot.  Did he know what I was doing?

I did explain how I got to this point and read the class enough of the Einstein article to understand what I was trying to convey.

I asked Dan during the break if he had any idea what original song was my crutch.   He didn't and when I told him, he more or less congratulated me on a successful steal, "If I couldn't tell, no one else could."  I suspect that means I was so bad, there was no resemblance at all, but I'll humor myself. 

Musically,  mine was the shakiest.  The others in there are real musicians.  But they were kind, and I got credit for being the only one who found a way to use the numbers from the fortunes for the song.  Others were amazing, among them one who used a plastic cup and her hand for great backup percussion. 

Saturday, some of the members of the workshop (not me, I assure you) will present their songs at 2pm at Out North.  It's a pay what you like donation.  There are some gifted folks in the class and it should be fun.  I'm feeling a little like George Plimpton.

We had a series of interesting new exercises, including a group activity as you can see from the pictures.  I've got homework for tomorrow, plus my Chinese class meets again on Thursday.  So good night. 

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