Songwriting in the Traditional Mode: Some Preliminary Thoughts

Alex and I have been asked to lead a workshop for the Uptown Folk Club in January, and we’ve pretty much been given free rein as to the subject matter. I’ve been thinking that I might like to address the subject of ‘Songwriting in the Traditional Mode’.

I got back into songwriting a couple of years ago after many years of being away from it. The material that inspired my return was the traditional folk music of the British Isles, specifically as performed by Martin Simpson, Kate Rusby, John Renbourn,Jacqui McShee, Martin Carthy, and others like them. When I started writing songs again, I found myself writing in the traditional style – a very different style from the sort of songs I had written in my teens and early twenties.

I’m not alone in this of course. Some of my favourite contemporary songwriters have trodden the same path – Stan Rogers, James Keelaghan, Jez Lowe, David Francey, and Kate Rusby, to name just a few. The success of their music has shown that, even after decades of what I call ‘songwriting as emotional autobiography’, the traditional style still has a compelling power that draws people into the stories it tells.

What are some of the features of this sort of songwriting? I’ll name a few, in no particular order.

The traditional mode is predominately narrative in form; these songs tell stories. Stan Rogers did it to perfection: a man loses the fishing boat his father has passed down to him in an accident on the sea (‘The Jeannie C.’); a farmer ploughs his field and thinks about the difficulties of the sort of life he leads (‘The Field Behind the Plough’); a middle-aged former rodeo cowboy turned rancher is having trouble with cattle rustlers and rides patrol over his stock at night (‘Night Guard’); a man volunteers for service on a privateer and returns home after seven years, having lost both his legs in a sea fight (‘The Last of Barrett’s Privateers’).

Another contemporary songwriter (not normally associated with the folk music field) who does this well is Mark Knopfler. In his song ‘Why Aye Man’ he tells the story of the tradesmen from the north of England who went to work in Germany in the early 1980s during the Margaret Thatcher years when there was so much unemployment in England, and he does so in a memorable way, rich in the speech rhythms of his native Newcastle (‘Why Aye Man’ is apparently a greeting in that part of the world, much like ‘How You Doing?” in my neck of the woods; it is apparently also a feature of the local accent to turn an initial vowel into a consonant from time to time, so that ‘our’ becomes ‘wor’). And in ‘Sailing to Philadelphia’ he imagines a conversation between Jeremiah Dixon and Charles Mason on the ship to America in the eighteenth century, bound for the border of Pennsylvania and Maryland, where they would survey the country and draw a line on a map that would become famous as the ‘Mason-Dixon Line’.

The stories do not have to be about the songwriter. This is one of the biggest differences between the ‘songwriting as emotional autobiography’ school and the traditional school. Much contemporary songwriting can be introduced (and often is) by the singer saying, ‘I wrote this song about a time I was going through in my life when…’ – in other words, the writer is practicing songwriting as a form of journaling. Many times the songs that result do not in fact tell a story at all; they are written in the first person, addressed to someone in the second person, majoring on emotion and using all sorts of code words and references known only to this second person; the listener is left to try to figure out the meaning for himself. This form of songwriting is so common that to many writers it seems almost sacrilege that a person could make up a fictitious story and write a song about it, just for the fun of storytelling.

Why should this be? Novelists get to make up stories all the time, and no one thinks they are any less honest because of it! Why not make up an interesting story and write it into a song?

When I got back into songwriting one of the first pieces I wrote was called ‘Becky’s Day’. I had been thinking about some single moms I’d known over the years, outstanding women all of them, who had been ‘traded in on a younger model’ by the losers they’d been married to, and had been left to provide a home for the children by themselves. I was full of admiration for the way these women had knuckled down to the job, without complaining or inviting others to a pity party on their behalf. So I wrote a fictional song about a person like that, trying to imagine the difficulties she might face in her everyday life.

Another example from my own work: all my life I’ve been interested in naval history, and as a result I know quite a bit about the story of the Royal Navy in World War Two. More recently – and somewhat paradoxically – I’ve returned to the Christian pacifism which I held instinctively in my teens. The combination of these two factors began to plant the germ of an idea in my mind. What about the story of the Bismarck and the Hood, those two gigantic warships which had been sunk within days of each other in May 1941 – the Hood sunk by the Bismarck, the Bismarck herself sunk three days later by the pursuing forces of the Royal Navy? What happened to the children of the thousands of men – German and British – who perished on those two ships? What if two of those children – one from each side – were to meet years in the future? Would they hate each other’s guts? Or would they be able to get beyond that and work for reconciliation? Out of these questions came my song ‘The Bismarck and the Hood’.

Enough said: those who write in the traditional mode often feel free to create fictional stories and tell those stories in their songs. This doesn’t mean the stories don’t have a personal element (they often do); nor does it mean traditional-style songwriters never tell their own stories (I did in ‘Watching This Town Growing Old’). It simply means that the songwriter who writes in the traditional mode has a far wider field of material than simply his or her own personal experiences.

Another thing: in traditional-style songwriting, the tune is very important. And here’s the test: you should be able to sing it ‘a capella’ and have it still sound interesting. Many contemporary songs fail this test; they were written with guitar in hand, and the first thing the guitarist did was to come up with a chord progression, after which he or she wrote the words and then droned a bit to come up with a tune for them. The resulting tune often takes shape as a sort of monotone, with many syllables sung to the same note against the backdrop of the chord changes; it works as long as it has a guitar accompaniment, but falls flat without it.

I share a couple of my own practices here, not because I think they’re hard and fast rules (they aren’t, and I don’t always follow them myself) but because I’ve found them helpful in coming up with memorable tunes. I often write the tune before I write the words. I’ve got a couple of ways of doing this. When I’m driving in my car alone I sometimes find that there are tunes playing in my head, not tunes from the radio, but tunes of my own, tunes that my imagination is creating. If something emerges from that stream of consciousness creativity, I play with it and try to shape it into a usable tune.

There are some recognizable forms here that have evolved in traditional music. For instance, a verse will often follow the ‘A B B A’ format (the first and fourth lines of the tune are identical, and the second and third lines are identical). Bridges, which are common in contemporary songwriting, are almost unknown in traditional music. And choruses, if they are used, are designed for maximum participation.

Another way I come up with tunes is to play around on the guitar – not with chord progressions, but with the notes in various keys. Perhaps I’ll be trying a different tuning (I’ve written a lot of songs in DADGAD over the past year) and I’ll experiment with different note combinations in that tuning. Sometimes the tunes evolve from improvisation; I came up with the tune for ‘The Ballad of Jake and Rachel’ one afternoon at my parents’ home in England this past summer, when my son and I were improvising on D, G and A (with drop D tuning).

And here I want to register a plea for a return to the art of learning to read and write musical notation. I know many excellent songwriters don’t know how to read music (Paul McCartney springs to mind); I only know for myself that it is far easier to work on a tune and polish it if the first draft is written down in musical notation and I can see it on a page. I don’t have to struggle to keep the tune in my memory; there it is on the stave in front of me, and I can experiment with the order, or inverting the notes, or moving parts of it up or down, just as I want, knowing that the original is still there for me to return to should I wish to do so.

When it comes to writing the words, the words must tell the story. If I have to introduce the song by saying, ‘This song is about a time in my life when…’, I’m beaten already. I shouldn’t have to explain to the listeners what the song is about; they should be able to pick out the story from the song itself.

This doesn’t mean the storytelling can’t be subtle. Once again Stan Rogers is a master at this subtle storytelling. I think of his song “You Can’t Stay Here’, in which the listener gradually realizes that the conversation going on is between a musician and a groupie who wants to go to bed with him; the story emerges as the song progresses. Another example is his exquisite love song ‘Lies’, in which a moment of reverie on the part of a farm wife gradually unfolds as the story of her marriage and her worries about its future in the face of her fading beauty.

If I were asked to name the major difference between the traditional style and the ‘songwriting as emotional autobiography’ style, it would be this: in emotional autobiography, the emotion is the theme of the song, and you’re left to make out the story for yourself. In the traditional style, the story is the theme of the song, and as you listen to the story and enter into it, you experience the emotion yourself, without being told by the songwriter how you should feel. The ‘emotional autobiography’ style evokes emotion directly; the traditional style evokes it indirectly, through the vehicle of story.

Also, the traditional style refuses the temptation to preach. One of the standing jokes between my good friend Rob Heath (who by the way is a wonderful storyteller in song) and me is that whenever he hears a new song of mine he will make a comment something like this: “I’d love it if you could give us a chorus or a bridge that would really drive home in a few words the point you’re trying to make in this song”. And I always laugh and say to myself, “Traditional songs don’t do that. If they tell their story well, people will have got the message by the end of the song; you won’t need to spell it out for them”.

These are a few of my observations about songwriting in the traditional mode. I may have more, as I do some more thinking in preparation for this upcoming workshop. Comments are welcome.