Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 2

Let me introduce you to a songwriter with whom I’m guessing most folks who stumble across this blog will not be familiar.  To be honest, I’m only mildly familiar with him myself, but having been impressed with what he had to say in Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting, from whence come the posts in this current series, I’m inclined to learn some more about him in the months ahead.  See previous posts for more details, but the primary aim of this series is to give contemporary worship music (cwm) songwriters some ideas for improving their craft.

unnamedA cursory bio would note Mose Allison (1927-2016) was a jazz singer and a pianist (“The singer-songwriter Mose Allison might have been a lot better off if he fired the piano-player Mose Allison,” he once said self-deprecatingly), who crossed genres in a manner that makes his jazz a bit hard to define neatly.  Listen to his tunes and you hear all kinds of various influences filtering into his music.

“Parchman Farm” was one of his biggest hits, and you hear a good example of his rough-hewn pianism here.  You also hear him modulate a couple of times, a technique all but non-existent in contemporary worship music, a missed opportunity to bring a lift to a worship song and/or set about which I’ve written in a previous post.

Putdowns don’t come too much more caustic than those found in “Your Mind Is on Vacation,” with its brutally witty opening line, “If silence was [sic] golden, you couldn’t raise a dime” and with its interesting harmonic variations on typical blues I-IV-V chord structure, and I love his piano solo here.

The Who’s Live at Leeds album is generally considered one of the best rock and roll live albums of all time, and Pete Townshend and the lads cover Allison’s “Young Man’s Blues” in their own inimitable style, but one that’s faithful to the angst Allison brought to his lyric a decade before.

Allison’s interview with Zollo covers a lot of ground.  Here he details how he responds when he gets songwriting inspiration.  Believers, of course, would attribute what he describes to the Holy Spirit:

A lot of people keep notes and things and it’s probably a good idea, especially at my age.  But a writer once said, “The only things worth writing about are the things you can’t forget.”  So I sort of took that for my rule.  I wait for the things to keep coming back.  If something keeps coming back, if I keep thinking of that phrase, if I see manifestations of it at different times and different places, then I feel that it’s worth trying to make a song out of.

OK.  That’s one approach, and I get what he’s saying.  A counterargument: I vividly remember an incident from my often-arrogant teenage years when, having come up with a riff, a lick, or a chord progression (I can’t remember the specifics), I proudly played it for my dad, who taught at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music for 40 years.  He expressed sufficient enthusiasm for my creative effort and then, before taking his leave, suggested I write it down, lest I forget it in the days ahead.  “Dad,” I thought to myself, “I know you’re a music professor, and you know your stuff, but you’re obviously a bit off your game today since you clearly can’t appreciate the majesty of this creation, that which even far lesser musicians than I would never, in a million years, forget, such is its profundity.”  You know the rest of the story–and I’ve written down every remotely interesting lyric or chord progression ever since.  (But, hey, if the more-spontaneous approach works for you. . . .)

Songwriters benefit greatly from exposing themselves to all different kinds of musical styles, expanding their artistic palette.  When Zollo opines that Allison’s piano solos seem to have classical-music roots, Allison agrees:

Yeah, I listen to a lot of classical music; still do. . . . Bartok, Hindemith, Ives . . . Scriabin.  I went the whole route.  I started out with the contemporary people and went all the way back to Bach.  And now Bach is the one I like to listen to more than anybody.  It’s amazing, all the things he did staying within the diatonic scale.  His harmonic mode was limited in relation to what people can use now, but he was able to get an awful lot of variation within that one mode.  I listen to all kinds of music.  And anything I really like usually ends up in my arsenal for things to use. . . .

I wonder what the harmonic structure of the average cwm song would sound like if more Christians writing songs for the Church listened to “all kinds of music” more regularly.

And here’s something that doesn’t get talked about too much when we talk about songwriting–the benefit of taking care of yourself physically:

I think the best thing to keep you in shape creatively is to keep yourself in shape physically.  I run, I swim, I do whatever I can to try to keep myself together.  If I don’t exercise, I feel miserable.  But it’s hard to tell.  Feeling miserable, sometimes something comes out of it.

Next time you’re in a creative rut, maybe go out for a jog.

Much more to come in this series, friends, Lord willing.  I pray you’ve been inspired in your creative efforts.  The Lord be with you!

About Warren Anderson

Emmaus Road Worshipers is written by Dr. Warren Anderson, Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), where he also directs the Judson University Choir. A Judson alumnus, he has served his alma mater in a number of capacities over the past 30+ years, especially the chapel ministry, which he led for 22 years. From 1982-2016, Dr. Anderson served six different churches--American Baptist (X2), Converge, Evangelical Free Church of America, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist--as a "weekend warrior" worship musician/pastor. He is a former member of the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Judson University.
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