Songs and Songwriting for Creative Sustainability.
Songwriting is a conjuring. Bird on your shoulder. Rabbit from a hat. Demons at your doorstep. Unraveling a ball of yarn that is the phenomenal world while knitting some cozy metaphorical sweaters, hats, mittens. Productive unraveling and reweaving refines the stories we have heard into stories we want to tell. Through melody, meter, and rhyme poet songwriters find metaphors, conceits, and twists of true-enoughness by spelunking deep into metaphysical caverns, nightclubs, river valleys, backroads and dank basements. Eureka: Inspiration! Gritty, coated, ass-kicked… triumphant… off to the open-mic; try a little something new. Hoping to pass the audition.
Songcraft in the tradition of American Roots Music or Americana offers, at its best, a pursuit of grace. Processing the mystery. Within histories balancing the sacred and profane, many voices, rhythms, rhymes and flows converge in a process of projecting the good life, often by reflecting upon its inverse — the miserable life — the life of struggle; the down-and-out, nobody-knows-you lifeblood of Country Music: heartache and misery. The alchemy of imagination, three chords and the truth, bears witness to the toils and triumphs of everyday people facing everyday choices. Hard work or easy money. Food or medicine. Songs and songwriting in this tradition spring from the shacks of Appalachia, Mississippi Delta and Oklahoma prairie, the do-wop of Harlem and elecctric jukes of Southside Chicago. Austin to Boston to Bakersfield and back. Melting pots of spirited becoming. Reflections in the cosmic mirror.
As a song is emerging, one basic goal is to simply receive it. Open mind, open heart. Simple, not easy. Start where you are. Sweat it out. Translate the unintelligible whispers of imagination’s wilderness to an in-the-pocket hook of dancehall salvation. Tears in our beers. Silver wings. Walks after midnight with friends in low places. Til you can make it on your own. Jolene.
Rural themes in this vein ring eternal while strained through filters of particularity, lived experience rooted in an often imagined past while inviting potential for a more satisfying future. “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul,” writes Simone Weil. Expressing the connections of rootedness is central to the place-based imaginary of many songs. The streets of Baltimore; down in the West Texas town of El Paso; met her accidentally in St. Paul, Minnesota. From the bend of the Cumberland, Skowhegan bound.
If American Roots Music is rooted, focused on root notes and typically simple song structures, the trick is being creative within such constraints. There’s the fun. Devil in the details. Can I write a catchy tune working just three notes, octaves apart? How about a two-chord song? Listeners do not need to sleep in the bend of the Cumberland to know how it feels to love that place, to find lost faith, to connect with such grace.
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Advice from the mid-twentieth century: Scott and Helen Nearing suggest seven areas where human creativity may flourish in pursuing the good life. These include altering and adapting nature; shaping material objects; expressing beauty and harmony; modifying social relationships; increasing control over the self; service to others; the search for order and principle; and achieving harmony and at-one-ment with the universe.
The creative field is “of immense extent, obscure, only partially understood,” Scott Nearing writes. Songs help us embrace beauty and harmony and struggle by emplacing and embodying broader generalizations in specific ways, connecting life at the scale of universality to life at the scale of human experience and perception.
“If people want local musicians to do anything at all,” writes ecomusicology scholar Mark Pedelty, “it is to perform as cultural catalysts.” The best songs can act as change-agents. Not the biggest hits or the most popular songs, but the most effective songs. Hooking one listener at a time, conveying understanding at intersections of disparate social worlds; helping us understand the dynamic impermanence of a life well lived. Through listening, creating, and taking part, a songwriter facilitates change for the to-each-their-own of individual self-efficacy.
Songs are rituals. Repetitive. Performed over and over, again and again. Purposeful. Reverent attention to time and intention. Oriented toward connection, rooted in individual expression. The audience is immediate and disparate, separate and together, connected via flows of interbeing. Often in three-and-a-half minutes or less. On to the next. Song after song in a set, set after set in a gig, gig after gig in a lifetime. Looking for the immediacy of connecting with an audience, one active listener at a time. Moment to moment. Breath to breath. Finding the balance. Releasing the rest. Equanimity.
A bird may land on my shoulder. As a writer, I need not understand birdsong to experience the trust of interbeing. Finding — allowing — trust in the process of creativity is often fleeting. The give and take, sacrifice and reward; ephemeral. Yet that trustworthiness is accessible to everyone in commonplace ways. To you. Yes, even you. To me. Yes, even me. Chance favoring the prepared, we can all cultivate sustainable creativity in the everyday becoming of our true selves — if we are open to it. Life is the accumulation of everyday moments punctuated by the occasional game-changer. Wherever you are, there you go. The obstacle is the path. Notice, appreciate, recognize the game-changers. Steady as she goes. In a Tucson coffeeshop just off Speedway Boulevard or on a farm near Bells Bend; the top of Katahdin or a king tide on the Salish Sea. Be there for it. Honor the moment. Breathe in. Release.
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A pluralism of graces emerge through the stories we tell ourselves about our own knocked-down/got-up assertiveness. Stories of the past can guide us to demoralized incapacitation or creative evolution. This is the dirigo attitude. In the face of challenge: Grit, gratitude, and grace. A whip-smart smirk in the flow of punctuated equilibrium.
High Life and chocolates. Virgin Mary and a wishbone. Handgun in the drawer, used tires on the curb. Make me an offer. I can’t refuse.
Celebrate the mundane as a gift of living in mutual relation, nurtured flourishing. Creativity as self-care. Sharing as caring. Creative sustainability in all manner of living well. The mundane need not be so much so when cultivated creativity sprouts from the ashes of burned out despair. Not all fire is bad. Burn off the overgrown understory. Allow the heat to germinate sprouts of an ever-emergent sense of self-in-place.
Songs can be many things. Both/and rather than either/or. Poetry and noise. Despair and salvation. Frameworks for applying our own meanings to messages conveyed fully formed. Be who you are, cultural catalyst of self in everyday life, affective change-agent. Activation energy for intersection, interconnection, interbeing in contrast to stark indifferences of the actually-existing world.
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Particularity emerges in local venues. Venues for local art are hubs, crucial nodes in networks of overlapping emergence, creating the conditions for critical expression and community convergence. Local venues facilitate productive challenges to unreflected-upon norms, assumptions now antiquated. Business As Usual perpetuates through avarice, indolence, colonialism, patriarchy, racism.
We need new stories. Ushers in the grand theatre of restitution, reconciliation, restorative justice. Artists tell new stories. Songwriters set them to melody, beats and rhymes. New stories are often old stories retold, ancestral stories, adding counter-weight to status quo abuses and exploitation required for propagating narrowly constructed hierarchies. The common good deserves better.
Creative work is taxing and rewarding. Sometimes more taxing than triumphant… Hard times. Difficult attachments. Codependence. Functional alcoholism steeped in depression. Chronic suicidal ideation. High cliffs cast long shadows over the collective unraveling among artists. Exponentially so for women in the male-dominated systems of financial, sexual, spiritual, physical, and emotional exploitation. Time’s up.
The music industry is full of egos living large. Jerks. Sycophants. Creeps. Like badges of honor. Fuck that. Make room for good people, good business, good living. Allow the pomposity of righteous indignation to give way to steady assurances of creative capacity for collective action and constructive change. Inclusion. Equity. Not just decolonial and anti-fascist but pro-sovereignty, pro-dignity, pro-self-determination. The old guard falls. Radicals rise. Radicals for love. Radicals for creative evolution. Citizen artists. Legitimate artists cultivating fruits of craft through inclusive community. Mutual flourishing > managed scarcity.
Let music and art do the work it has always done: Universal connection.
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Recognize your song’s arrival. Bird on your shoulder. Rabbit in your hat. When it arrives: Hallelujah! Redemption. Rejuvenation. Resilience. Borne of dogged stick-to-itiveness. Tenacity. The long-game of spinning gold from heartache redefines prosperity; aligns the trajectory of to-each-their-own becoming into the arc of this one precious life. True becoming. Becoming true. Verve and vitality. Relentless all-in-ness. The creative fire. Lit. Living with the alive ones. The mad ones. Them’s ur people. The inner fire of self-sovereignty forges pluralisms in the pursuit of living well: Compassion, empathy, humility, grace.
Everyone can participate! Yes, even you. Even me. Across generations and cultures, languages and histories, the art of songcraft rings eternal in its synthesis of here-and-nowness. Rhythms and beats, with or without melody and rhyme. The ancestral drumbeat echoes from generations ago. In the blood. In the bones. That spirit remains. Dwell in the stardust. Act as the conduit, connector, catalyst. Mix together narratives and stories spanning cultures and homelands and a potent pool of productive intermingling emerges. Relational networks of dynamic emergence. The arts of living well. Increasingly in the moment, intuitive, open to new experiences.
Longer tables, not higher fences. Grace posts a large tent. Go forth; create. Tell stories. And listen. Most importantly, listen. Men, LISTEN. Sit in the back for a while. Knees together. Seek truths, bare witness. Act independently. Be accountable, transparent. Seek out and differentiate wise elders from old fools. Listen to the rivers and trees, the birds and the bees, aunties and uncles whispering dreams for a woken world.
Regenerative metaphors inform our personal paths. Sometimes ecological systems are out of control; life spins out of control. The ephemeral nature of seasons, cycles of life and death, remind us of the essential nature of all things: Impermanence. Even in the face of distortion, disillusionment, we look for action. This leads to hope. No mud, no lotus. The obstacle is the path.
Songs are magic. Big magic. Legitimate art. Rituals for returning to life itself, life as it is and as it can be. “There’s a song that wants to sing itself through us,” says Joanna Macy, matriarch of ecological thinking. “Maybe the song that is to be sung through us is the most beautiful requiem for an irreplaceable planet. Or maybe it’s a song of joyous rebirth as we create a new culture that doesn’t destroy its world.” Regardless, says Macy in her interview with On Being, at this moment — you are alive. “So you can just dial up the magic of that at any time.”
Dial it up. Person-to-person. Being-to-being. As a shrike. An oak. A falcon. A great storm or a writer of simple songs. Be who you are. In your own becoming, you will lead. Be the song you want to sing in the world. Courageous. Vulnerable. Because there is but one way: The life you will have lived. Live it well.
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Originally published in Hawk & Handsaw — Journal of Creative Sustainability, May, 2019.