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Friday, March 04, 2011

Songwriter's Navel: Week 08, Live From the Archives

Hoping that WXRT doesn't have that phrase copyrighted.

So this is the first week of the new session at the Old Town School of Folk Music, which means that I did not have an assignment last week. I had thought about what I might do this week, given that I suck at writing without an assignment.

Naturally, taking the week off was the first thing that occurred to me. The second thing that occurred to me was putting up recordings of the songs I'd done for the showcase, which usually would have been last Sunday. When I knew that the showcase had been moved to this coming Sunday, I thought I'd perhaps just talk about the songs I'd decided on and perhaps how arrangements of them had developed. The problem is that I still haven't really decided and given that I have a cold I probably should save any singing (or singing-adjacent) voice in the hopes of being well enough on Sunday.

As I've mentioned before, taking time off is sure to lead to the total collapse of this endeavor, so I decided to go with something from the archives. I don't have all that many recordings of when I've performed with the exception of the first time that I did a slot of my own at the Acoustic Explosion. In a moment of panic, I'd promised my mother a video recording of that show as her Christmas gift. Nothing has ever been more painful than editing that video and audio. It took me 7 months. (That is literal, not exaggeration for comedic effect.)

I led off with this song on a shaky premise. Its unofficial title is "Laffy Taffy Hanukkah." I was also doing a cover of "Hard Candy Christmas" at that show because I'd promised myself that I would if I ever played out and because the show was very close to Christmas. Thus, I thought ALSO playing "Laffy Taffy Hanukkah" was hilarious inside my head. Ahem.

Why, you might ask, is the song called "Laffy Taffy Hanukkah," even unofficially? Well, we'd been given the assignment to write a "character" song along the lines of Patty Griffin's "Sweet Lorraine," Paul Simon's "Duncan," and so on. I seem to remember that I ended up working on this song over 2 weeks. I'd showed up with only one verse and part of a chorus and volunteered to skip performing it in class until the next week when we ran out of time.

I'd had a hard time deliberately writing in the direction of a character, not because I don't know some great ones about whom I'd like to write a song, and not because my brain isn't occupied by a bunch of fictional crazies who would be great subjects. I think it boiled down to trying too hard to be clever or profound.

At this time, I was reading Tom Robbins' Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates and having a hard time with it, as I increasingly do with Mr. Robbins. I love—venerate, even—Jitterbug Perfume and Skinny Legs and All, and the repulsiveness of his other novels offends me on the behalf of the wonderful heroines from those two.

Annnnyyyway. I got to thinking about characters that deserve better authors, and we'd just gotten around to hanging some of the art that we'd bought from the set of the Strange Tree Group's production of Mr. Spacky, the Man Who Was Continuously Followed by Wolves. That production, its artwork, and underwritten female characters naturally brings to mind Dickens and particularly poor Rosa Bud of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Dickens, of course, died while writing TMoED, and I thought how that was liberating for his characters, who were not trapped by his hackery. So I started to run with this idea lyrically and the first verse came out as sort of an admonishment of the author, leading into a chorus where the narrator gets to write herself.


[G] In these pages I have [C] sung just [C/B] like a bird [Am]
I have [Fmaj7] blushed and bloomed and [D] paled
As you [C] set down every word [G]
I’ve [G]sighed and sulked and simpered [C] and all [C/B] but disappeared [Am]
Your [F] pen left me an [Dsus2] afterthought
Bereft [C] of voice and [G] tears


One of the strange things to me about this song is that the music came to me . . . well, easily is not the right word. Very specifically and as a whole. In the verse, that first instance of an F chord (which implies the song is in C) was very definitely an Fmaj7, leaving the high E string ringing. And it was very definitely followed by a D-major chord, which contradicts the F by implying that the song is in G. In contrast, the second F was definitely an F and the second D was definitely a Dsus2.

This continued into the chorus where the G changed to a "Big G" (four-finger G chord where you play [from high to low] G-D-G-D-B-G), which theoretically sounds so much like a G played with two Bs, rather than two Ds, that people use them interchangeably all the time. Mr. Crankypants Music was having none of this: It was a 3-finger G in the verse and a 4-finger G in the chorus. This not-quite-descending bass line in the chorus was also very specific. It goes G-F#-C-B-C-B-D-E over the G to Cadd9 to A7sus4 progression.

It's also worth noting that this song insisted on being fingerpicked. At the time I wrote it I sucked at fingerpicking even more than I do now.


I am [G] more than a [Cadd9] painted rose, [A7sus4] more than a tale untold
Your [Am] pen cannot [Fmaj7] imagine all the [D] things I’m bound to [Dsus2] be
I am [G] fierce and I am [Cadd9] reckless, I have [A7sus4] dreams both dark and wild
Your [Fmaj7] story ends, here [D] I begin, and I’ll [C] be nobody’s [G]child


Oh, I was talking about the secret title. In trying to write the second verse, I'd sort of been promising my brain that it would get to insert the "great ideas" it had been coming p with into that verse, because they kept not quite making it into Verse 1 and the Chorus. I was certain at the time that the second verse would end up being all about what the narrator would do now that she was able to write herself. So I had a bunch of "I can/I will" statements in my notebook. At some point, I wrote the phrase "Laffy Taffy Hanukkah" in the margin to remind myself that Carol Hall had already gone to the trouble of writing "Hard Candy Christmas." Et voila! Incidentally, the Kernel hated (and presumably still hates) this title something fierce.

My brain ended up getting no satisfaction in the second verse, which became about how the author wrote his male characters:


Your men you make of dust, and to dust they shall return
Your pen breathes life into their minds
Inside a fire burns
Though you gave them feet of clay
They tread a path that’s all their own
You arm them well with words and will
In flesh and blood and bone


Oh, the clunky phrasing and awkward images! But what are you going to do? Write a third verse, I suppose . . . . But no. Both the verses and the chorus are rather long, the lyrics are dense, and everyone is like "For the love of god, please stop now!"

Anyway, here's the recording. There's actually video, too, but I'll spare myself that.

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