"Songwriting and the Creative Process"
An Internet Tutorial

Lesson 2. A Conspiracy of Romance


One of my first vivid memories of the power and excitement of music is of a time when I was five years old. I do remember many happy times before then singing silly songs with my grandfather, or singing on car trips, or just listening, but this one particular moment stays with me.

My dad plays the piano, and over the years our family has had a succession of usually old, upright pianos. On the occasion I remember my parents had some friends from their college days over for dinner and afterwards they gathered around the piano to sing some of the old familiar songs.

I remember standing with my arms wrapped around the leg of the piano with my jaw tight against the wood at one end of the keyboard. My dad's powerful playing and the ringing of the frame of the piano were particularly hypnotic and as I listened to these four people sing, "Shine on, shine on harvest moon" and "Only a shanty in old shanty town", and "There's a long, long trail a-winding", and "I'll be down to get you in a taxi, Honey". It occurred to me with the vivid realization reserved for five year olds and brahmins that they were making love.

Love and music were the language that was being spoken. These two activities were the same activity. Without apology, or embarrassment, these two young couples were celebrating a form of public joy, a romantic conspiracy of song. I too felt the romance of the moment, although I also was aware that between the four adults there was a special bond that had to do with the songs and common experiences.

Since that time I've noticed that same conspiracy of romance on many occasions, in a concert hall, sometimes in a living room or around a campfire. And I know that it's the songs and the regard for the songs, and the willingness to let the songs work their magic that is the basis of this wonderful thing that we all share.

It's the mother's reassuring heartbeat. The dream language and the subliminal pulse of peace and rest. It's the wind in the trees just before a light rain. It's the call of birds at the time around sunset when they are settling in for the night. It's the enchantment of crickets and the urgency of the cicada.

Songs have the power to change our mood, to allay anxiety, to awaken our sense of joy. There is a synergy in words and music that can lift us, and disengage us from tedium. There is the whole aspect of spirit in songs. An undeniable magic.

The only memory of past kingdoms in some cases has come down to a piece of music. The ancients accorded great celebrity to their musicians and that is no less true today. I'm not only referring to the opulent homes of the stars when I say that a great deal can be had "for a song".

When the prisoner on his way to the gallows in Merle Haggard's classic, "Sing Me Back Home" makes that request of his buddy with the guitar in the next cell, we understand just what it might mean. I believe that deep within us all are many such epiphanal points of reference which are touched on by songs.

Many emotional experiences that we aspire to we only know from songs. Many things that we have been capable of doing and coping with as a society we might not have been able to do without songs. I'm thinking of the Civil Rights Movement, although many would say the same thing about the great depression, World War II and even their own teen age years.

There are no songs without songwriters. Many have been forgotten, many have been simply those who passed the song along and made some small change in the process. Today we live in a time when we have tremendous access to the world through our songs. There is a thrilling sense of rejoinder.

We can listen to the ideas of others and respond and there is the possibility, although somewhat subject to the tariffs of the industry, of a true dialogue, a true tribal culture on a world scale. There are many examples of songs which communicate basic truths which are well known in virtually every corner of the earth.

A song can be recorded hundreds of times. Songs are routinely translated into many languages, and can go out much farther in the world than any person could travel. Songs can live almost forever, at least they can survive on a scale that approaches true immortality. It is not just the name or the idea of the songwriter which survives, there is in each song a kind of spiritual DNA that is evident and reassuring to people of distant places and times.

A well formed thought or a timely message can reach and resonate with an amazingly large audience. In Tiananmen Square, at the Berlin Wall, and in the halls of Congress, songs have been quoted and sung. The next five words you put on paper really could change everything.

This course is based on materials from the book, "Songwriting and the Creative Process" by Steve Gillette. Published by Sing Out! Press. Used by permission.

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