* When I think of songwriting I find it in the same mind-compartment as poetry. That is where I filed it. Both started at the same time in my early life. I discovered poetry in school and began to write while I was a teenager. Popular music at that time did not, for the most part, inspire or include poetic thought, highbrow being square, Daddio! Beat poetry was delegated to hip, dark, seedy, coffee establishments more conducive to the gritty and city streets reality, whereas mainstream and classical poetry, to the more well to do educated class, was heard in readings, clubs, and recitals, there fawning over Byron, Keats, Yeats, and Browning, sighing over Stephenson, snickering over E.E. Cummings, and frightened by Poe.
*The lyrics in popular music had power nonetheless. There was little poetic about ‘Wake up little Suzi, wake up,’ but it did speak to the mores of the time, or ‘Dottie Fruiti all-da-rootie,’ concerning a certain girl’s social and apparently skillful proclivity. Apparently she did all the rootie! But poetic sensibilities did appear in popular songs – ‘The mountains high and the valley so low…,’ ‘Sally go round the roses…,’ or ‘I remember you…,’ And when the Beatles hit the American music scene the acceptance of poetic lyric jumped to new popularity – and songwriting and poetry merged and became complementary. Popular groups and performers such as Simon and Garfunkel, The Moody Blues, Janis Ian, Don McClean, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, early Elton John, and others, made no distinction between the two forms.
*From that same historic perspective, music was an ancient way in which news would be conveyed. When Rome fell the means by which people heard news of other lands, and their people, also ceased. Minstrels and jongleurs filled that gap and would construct songs using wry and clever language to tell the news stories and gossip of the day, based on their audience (news purveyors have never been impartial). The cleverer, the more money they received, as a gratuity. Inventive turns of phrases, puns, and metaphors were used to say what shouldn’t be said, although I am sure many a songsmith would end up in tangles with the local magistrates.
*Modern poetry and songwriting came of this. Minstrel fare evolved into a popular art form during the Elizabethan Period with rock star lute players and composers like John Dowland, John Ward, and William Byrd. Their music not only became popular, but also was memorized individually by fans, using the first publicly available printed music, an invention attributed to John Dowland. The singing of four parts at a parlor table became a popular evening pastime. Clever word usage in song and on stage became a necessity and expected throughout Europe. Shakespeare’s plays were meant for the common people and it was with this audience that language became a divertissement. What was created was a distinction between common language usage and poetic or artistic usage, a point I often bring up to new poets and songwriters.
*One could easily make the case that Rap and Hip Hop, with street idioms and strong repetitive rhyming structures, do that same thing – by using creative language usage to entertain. The same could be said for country music, with its clever and often poetic turns of phrase. Rock and Roll hid sexual references in the lyrics, understood by the youth, and local Ministers – Little Richard’s, ‘I got a gal named Sue – she knows just what to do!’ Or John Dowland’s, ‘Was I so base, that I might not aspire unto those high joys which she holds from me?’ The same humanly interest – centuries apart – sang in the manner of common folk – cleverly!
*I suppose the point of this article, if there is a point to my ramblings, is that what makes for good prose, poetry, or lyric, is an understanding, and a love, of the language, without which there is no art to what we do. The work is to write a poem, or a song, differently than the way you would say it. The work is to translate our mundane speech, or scribbling, into words that elevate, agitate, intoxicate – words that mystify, clarify, vilify, simplify edify, qualify – words that lift up, raise up, point up, to what is in us, of us, below us, above us, for us, or against us.
Excerpts from the July Article ‘The Ramblings Of A Vagabond Poet’ On Lit.org.s Newsletter, Majestic