- Song: The World’s Best Songwriters on Creating the Music That Moves Us
More of a popular publication than a scholarly work, this book by editor J. Douglas Waterman and company compiles interviews with “the best songwriters around” taken “from American Songwriter issues dating back to 1984, as well as other sources” (n.p.). As such, much of the text’s content contains information that is subjective because it is based on each artist’s professional experience and perspective; at times, however, this produces a pristine distillate—a principle, truth, or objective fact based upon a collective subjective reality. The purpose of discourse with one hundred professional songwriters is to give “insight into [the] songwriters’ creative processes from the creators themselves,” to include “musical styles, genres, approach, expectations, lifestyles, worldviews, inspirations, and more” (p. 3). We are not told why these particular songwriters are chosen, as many more people make a living as songwriters or songwriter/artists. Yet, each songwriter included shares a common attribute; each has “been able to etch out a living in this endeavor” (p. 2).
Songwriter interviews are presented alphabetically, as opposed to topically. After giving a synopsis on the songwriter or band, the interview is presented as a series of questions to which the interviewee responds. Some interviews go on for several pages, while others are very brief. Sequencing of questions doesn’t follow a particular order, nor are the same questions asked during each interview. Thus, the conversations give a feel for the songwriters’ life experiences and how they view their craft and themselves as the planned questions flow into unplanned questions, wherever the discussion should lead. Additionally, the design of the book is useful in that an alphabetized table of contents is given at the outset, allowing the reader to locate a specific songwriter.
While there is no set list of questions, certain themes recur more frequently than others: (1) early development and musical influences; (2) questions about individual songs written or co-written by the artist; (3) advice for aspiring songwriters; and (4) the songwriting process, including the process of rewriting and sources for ideas. A broad array of artists from various genres appear in Song, such as Bill Withers (Soul: “Lean on Me”), Eddie Rabbitt (Country: “Every Which Way but Loose”), Questlove (an artist with a Hip-Hop band called The Roots), and Ray Charles (R&B). One of the best interviews on being a songwriter and working artist is with Ray Charles: “The thing is to believe in yourself. You have to start that way. Because people are going to try and discourage you and tell you you don’t have this. . . . [But] if you really [End Page 378] believe in yourself, then you work toward it at that end and don’t let anybody discourage you and just keep on practicing. That’s the key” (pp. 72–3). With a hundred artists in various fields of music—film scoring, singer/songwriter, pure songwriter—giving insightful information about every aspect of songwriting, the book yields advice useful to writing and some advice applicable in any facet of life, like that given by Ray Charles.
The direct pertinence of this text to the field of folklore, as well as its contribution to folklore research, is somewhat problematic. It brings to mind the story about the ethnomusicologist or folklorist who found a remote community of people singing original songs, yet ultimately he learned, to his embarrassment, that the songs were popular, perhaps even old Tin Pan Alley tunes. Although the tunes in Song are neither anonymous nor predominantly transmitted orally, these songs may be diffused into traditional culture, and ultimately be handed down by recording to some, and likely transmitted orally to others somewhere, perhaps on a back porch where everyone has a fiddle or an acoustic guitar on his arm or leg. As time passes, melodies may be incorporated into new songs, lyrics changed, or motives incorporated into modern post-tonal music. Or the recordings of songs by...