I would like to start out this talk by making a confession: I am a spiritual underachiever. At least, that’s what I used to think.
When it comes to the spiritual life, I have all the self-discipline of the terrible twos. I would not last a week in a monastery, for the simple reason that I could never remember to fold my hands and pray five times a day. Until a few years ago, I had never attended church on a regular basis. The closest I ever came was going to Quaker meeting, where I developed a bad habit of falling asleep.
For years, I was prone to beat myself up over my state of spiritual slackerdom. I mean, by my age, Jesus, Buddha and Hank Williams had long since fulfilled their career goals. Me, I couldn’t sit still on a cushion to meditate without drifting off into the most mundane of daydreams.
I was trying so hard to follow other people’s spiritual paths, it took a long time to notice that I was actually blazing one of my own. To decide that daydreams aren’t so different from visions. To realize that I had been meditating for years. I just called it – songwriting.
Now, the first thing people always ask about songwriting is, “Where do songs come from?” Well, I like to say that songs come from The Muse.
Writing a song is making a prayer to The Muse. You’re sending out a request, and hoping She’ll send something back, something other than Return to Sender.
The Muse is a jealous goddess. She demands constant attention. But if I keep bringing her flowers, she keeps giving me songs. Which is to say, the more attention I pay to the practice of songwriting, the more often a song will come to me.
The great sage Townes Van Zandt had another good answer. He liked to say the songs were already out there, fully-formed, somewhere in the ether. The trick was to be in the right place at the right time, so he could reach out and grab one when it floated by.
Townes also said that living’s mostly wasting time. He should have made an exception for songwriters. Because for a songwriter, there’s no such thing as wasted time.
The Muse can strike when I’m standing in line at the supermarket, or out driving on the freeway. Even when I’m working on something “important,” there’s a part of my mind that scans the background chatter in my head. It listens in when I’m talking with friends. I have no shame about interrupting a conversation to say, “Can I use that line in a song?”
One line at a time is all the Muse usually grants me. Once in awhile, I can pull an entire song out of thin air. More often, I start with a snatch of a melody here, a poetic phrase there.
I collect those bits and pieces in a notebook or a tape recorder. I try to keep them handy at all times. I call it courting The Muse.
Once in awhile, I get a fragment that makes my spider-sense tingle. It points to something bigger. It tells me there’s a whole song out there, waiting to be written.
It’s like tripping over a diamond in the dirt, and suspecting there’s a whole necklace down below, and if I go digging, I can put it all together, piece by piece by piece.
Of course, you do have to know where to put your shovel. I go prospecting for a song the same place a mystic goes prospecting for enlightenment – Inside. Saint Augustine was not a songwriter, but he beautifully described the songwriter’s habitat:
“People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering.”
Those mountains, those oceans and those stars are all on the inside. When I’m working on a song, I’m channeling Indiana Jones, stumbling over those psychic landscapes, running from my own monsters and digging, digging, digging for pieces of buried treasure.
How does all this work in practice? Let me tell you a story – because all songwriting is storytelling.
One December night, a dozen years ago, I was supposed to play a coffeehouse in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Trouble was, the folks who ran the coffeehouse completely forgot about the gig. No one showed up to unlock the door, which was just as well, because no one came to listen. While I was waiting there, for Godot, I wandered down to the beach, which was just a couple of blocks away. For awhile I sat at the end of a pier. A star-spangled sky was dangling over the dark waters of the Mississippi Sound.
I had a flashback. For a moment, I was six years old, reading a star chart and learning about the constellations. Flashing forward to the present, I tried picking out those celestial figures in the Gulf Coast sky. Suddenly, a line and a melody came to me. They went like this: “A single new star rearranges a whole constellation.”
It might not sound like much, but I felt like I’d just sat on a supernova. The ratio of meanings to words was clearly greater than one to one, though it wasn’t clear what all those meanings were. The only way to find out was to live with the song. I wrote twenty or so verses, over about four years. As I zeroed in on what The Muse was trying to tell me, I distilled them down to five:
Song: A Single New Star
In my case, songwriting was the single new star that rearranged the constellation of my life.
I picked up my first guitar in High School, over Christmas break. In one month, I had mastered the chord changes to “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad.”
At first, I didn’t take it too seriously. I thought being a folksinger might get me some dates. But then I heard my first album by Bob Dylan, and a song called “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
He was singing about nuclear war, but he was doing it in metaphor, in images that were grim and yet mystically beautiful. “I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways/I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans.” I’d never known you could set poetry to music. In that moment, my heavens moved. Then and there, I wanted to be a songwriter.
I came to feel there was something sacred about a great song. My prophets were Dylan, Townes, Hank, Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, Nanci Griffith, Kris Kristofferson, Pete Seeger. And singers you’ve never heard of, like my late friends Al Grierson and Dave Carter. They’re as legion as the prophets of the Old Testament.
Fast forward to age thirty. By then, I’d spent four years as a newspaper reporter in New Orleans. On the side, I was playing a couple of times a month in a coffeehouse Uptown. It was getting time to make a change. The obvious move was to a bigger paper, in a bigger city. But The Muse had other ideas.
About that time I went backpacking in the Sierras. As I was gazing down from a mountaintop, back over my twenties, it hit me that Mick Jagger had it right. Who reads yesterday’s papers? If I was going to write anything that might outlast my lifetime, it would probably be a song.
Twenty years ago I quit my day job, moved to Austin, took a vow of poverty, and began my pursuit of a glamorous career as a Texas folksinger.
In retrospect, I had a thing or twelve to learn, but hey – that’s what spiritual paths are all about.
One thing I’m still learning is how to condense a far-flung story into the fewest possible words. In this next song, it’s a single word. The word is “precious.” And, as you’ll see, it has nothing to do with Lord of the Rings.
“Precious.” That word has multiple meanings, and in the song, you hear it multiple times. Repetition is an important part of what makes songwriting a poetic form.
Let me say some more about poetic form. Like a sonnet or a quatrain, a song uses a special sort of structure to deliver a particular kind of emotional punch.
You’ve probably noticed that most poetry sounds pretty lame when you try to set it to music. And most song lyrics sound godawful when you take the music away, and try to read them as poetry.
The magic of songwriting is in the wedding of words with music, to touch you in ways that words alone rarely can do. As Nietzsche put it, “Poetry is language aspiring to the condition of music.”
Nietzsche was a big fan of Greek tragedy. And if you look closely, many a classic country song is really a Reader’s Digest condensed version of a Greek tragedy. As I said earlier, it’s all storytelling.
Usually, a song comes in three acts. We call them verses. The verses tell a story: its beginning, middle and end.
Between the verses, you have a chorus. As in Sophocles, the chorus comments on the story and drives home the moral. The verse is the solo part, while the chorus is collective. It invites us all to join in and sing along.
Of, course, there are differences between Oedipus Rex and Mama Tried. I mentioned repetition. In a song, you usually hear a hook line, over and over, until it shacks up in your head, like an uninvited guest.
I can’t quote you all of Hamlet’s soliloquy, but no matter how hard I try, I cannot purge my memory of the immortal words of Barry Manilow: “At the Copa-, Copacabana, The hottest spot north of Havana.”
From a different angle, the repetitious hook in a pop song sounds a bit like a religious chant. The echo of a few words lulls our conscious minds to sleep and etches a message directly into our souls. The message might be “Ave Maria,” “Hare Krishna,” or “Da Doo Ron Ron Ron, Da Doo Ron Ron.”
Now, perhaps I’m reaching a bit too far. I mean, you turn on the radio and most of what you hear is about drinkin’, shootin’, cheatin’ or fornicatin’. How can it be spiritual to be singing about drinkin’, shootin’, cheatin’, or fornicatin’?
My answer is this: When’s the last time you read the Old Testament? I mean, the holy scripture is chock-full of verses that would make a punk rocker blush. Those ancient saints knew the secret of the sacred: That the power of the sacred draws partly from the power of the profane.
Like a song by Johnny Cash or John Lennon, the Bible tells us stories of real human beings with real human weaknesses, and the lessons they learn as they wrestle with their devils and their angels.
As Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey, we are spiritual beings on a human journey.”
Great songs help us to navigate our human journeys. They can point us to new stars, sparkling through in the dark nights of our souls. But don’t just take my word for songwriting as a spiritual practice. I’ve talked a lot about Townes Van Zandt, the outlaw patron saint of Texas songwriters. I’d like to close by letting Townes speak for himself.
Song: To Live is to Fly