Thursday, November 13, 2008

writing story songs

my friend Jennifer has asked me to sub for her next week with her songwriters' club at the local high school. she asked me particularly because i write story songs, and she doesn't.

this is a relatively new development for me. not too long ago, i might have said the same thing as she: "i don't write stories".
all it took for me to change that was to become emotionally attached to the idea of telling a series of stories, a piece of Ontario history, which became The Donnelly Project and the cd Blood and Fire.

i was passionate enough about the idea that i ignored the fact that i had little experience in writing stories.

the key was the aforementioned "emotional attachment". reading books about the Donnellys' rampage through mid-nineteenth century southwestern Ontario, i put myself in the place of the participants, and the stories grew from there.

the first one i wrote, which predates the Project by almost four years, was written from the perspective of a member of the jury in the first trial against James Carroll, leader of the vigilantes ("White Boys") responsible for the massacre of five of the Donnellys in February 1880. that trial ended in a hung jury, hence no conviction. there was a huge outcry at this injustice, since evidence included eyewitness testimony by the only survivor of the murderous arson. i asked myself how that could possibly happen, and answered in the voice of my fictitious character:
"I did what i had to / I've a wife and a family
The White Boys could slaughter us / like they did the Donnellys"

this was a man who had lived in Biddulph Township for thirty years, who had seen firsthand the criminal and unpunished doings of the Donnelly clan. as tragic as their demise was, most folks would have been more relieved than anything, glad to have the spree of arson and mayhem ended at last. a man certainly wouldn't go out of his way to anger the mob who had done it.

and things fall into place. i was researching as i wrote that song (Hang the Jury), and i came across a song written around the end of the century, the cadence of which exactly fit the chorus i had written. so part of it became the second chorus. and i won't have to share the residuals, as the writer is both dead and anonymous:
"Birds don't sing and men don't smile out on the Roman Line
Their faces grim, and so they'll be until the end of time
For the midnight hour brings alarm, no horse will pass the Donnelly farm
Stay off that road or you'll come to harm, out on the Roman Line."

a world 125 years in the past is foreign territory for any writer. but, when i put it in a personal context, i found that i could imagine, if not the circumstances, at least the emotions involved, and that's the core of my writing.

so, 3 1/2 years later, interest grew into obsession, and i dove into the Project, heart first. as i look back, i see that the first song that came to me was "Kevin Kelly's Lament for Bridget Donnelly".

Bridget was a niece, who spent the last year of her young life living with the Donnellys of Lucan, having come from Tipperary, as had they. not much is known about her, but i imagined a sweet, loyal, hardworking girl. i also imagined a young admirer, son of an enemy of her uncle James. it was a natural for a tragic Romeo and Juliet kind of story, this time with the potential lovers given zero chance across the gulf of a bitter feud, ending in her unnecessary death and his endless regret:

"This prayer's too late to offer up / i'm too proud of a man
i loved the bones of a Donnelly, / and her blood on my brothers' hands"

i named the character Kevin Kelly after my friend of the same name, who was instrumental in the project, having given me the book (The Donnelly Album, by Ray Fazakas) from which i would garner most of my song ideas, and a mountain dulcimer, on which i would write perhaps the most powerful of the songs, The Flight of Johnny O'Connor. there was a family of Kelleys (note the spelling) on the side of the White Boys. the rest is fiction.

for that one, i found it easy to put myself in the shoes of the unrequited lover. i could so identify with being in love with an unattainable woman, perplexed by her exotic and confounding ways:
"she never missed the peat, or the songs so lovely, sad
i never missed a chance to tell her that was mad.
she loved her new-found family, the devils that they were
she'd never hear a word against them, her faith in good endured."

i still get goose bumps when i sing that one.

the next song was "Ain't Fooling Anyone", the story of James Donnelly hiding out for months after he murdered Patrick Farrell, told by an unnamed citizen.

i had gathered from talking to people that perhaps the most common image of James was his dressing as a woman while he was a fugitive to help his wife Johannah in the fields. so i started with
"the murderer is wearing a dress / he's helping his wife with the crops
he ain't fooling anyone / except maybe the cops"
and ended with the elation of the storyteller at Donnelly's conviction and impending execution (which never happened):
"The joy, the joy, unforeseeable joy / finding him no longer here
what kind of power can a wee man have, / behind a wall, on a rope, in the air?"

same sort of position as the man in Hang the Jury, but i thought it warranted repetition, as being a widely-held opinion.

the sheer intensity of the climax of the stories, ie. the brutal beating and burning of James, his wife Johannah, son Tom, and his innocent niece Bridget would have been enough of an emotional impetus for me to write the next song. the fact that there was an eyewitness to the scene, in the person of a teenaged boy, was awe-inspiring. i picked up the dulcimer Kevin had given me, and imagined a barefoot Johnny O'Connor running through the snow in utter darkness, away from the rising flames of the Donnelly homestead:
"Run, Johnny, run / flames lick your heels
barefoot in the snow / you can hardly feel
hurry to the Whalens' - stop, you've gone too far
there's barking from the house
behind you in the dark
"Call up the boys!" you cry, / "to quench that awful fire"
"What fire?", Mrs. says. "The Donnellys - they've died.
"men with blackened faces came to take old James,
but killed them all instead. And i know the leader's name!"
"Whisht, boy, be quiet," Mrs. Whalen says
"It's a load of trouble you'll be bringing on your head."
"But i'm the only one alive who knows what went on inside.
The only one alive, but for those of the killing tribe."

the mountain dulcimer was crucial in setting the tone and feel of the song - driving, immediate, and authentic to the time period.

the confidence i gained from writing such a powerfully emotional song allowed me to take on the task of writing from the perspective of one of the most foreign characters - Johannah Donnelly.
imagine if you can a short, stout woman, every bit as fearsome as her terrible, thieving, murdering husband, who, while James was away in prison (when his death sentence was commuted) raised her sons to be "seven devils".

i remember watching the movie "The Secret of Roan Inish", to get a feel for the language and customs of Irish folk. there was a beautiful scene with the grandmother damping the fire to make it safe before bed, and saying an accompanying prayer: "I rake this fire, as the true Christ rakes us all. Mary at the foot, and Brigid at the head. And may the brightest angels from the city of grace preserve this house and all within 'til the coming of the Day."

so that was how i inhabited Johannah for the purposes of writing the song "Johannah's Prayers": i had to get past the caricature of her as the female devil, and try to find the loving, church-going mother, which of course she was. but it was also said that she vowed that, if any of her sons failed to take revenge on any enemy of the family, may he rot in hell.
"Seven sons mine, hear your mother's prayer:
Our good name is now within your care
Our enemies can burn, you must not frgive them
The only failure now is to fail to take revenge"

having success writing from the viewpoint of someone as foreign to me as Johannah was a revelation. no, i may be stretching it a bit. it's obvious to me now that it had been a major hurdle, but passion and dedication had paid off. at the time i'm sure i was just glad to be one song closer to the end of the Project.

it was a couple of months before i was able to write the next one. i remember feeling a bit stuck at this point, five songs down, perhaps five to go. lots of ideas for characters and songs, but nothing immediate and compelling.

tune in next time for a tour through the final five.

in the meantime, if you're writing a story song, here's my tip for the day:

know your character(s) well. inside-out. know them way past the point of what you are going to tell us about them. listeners attach themselves emotionally to characters in songs. this requires depth. think of a successful character as a minutely detailed oil painting. pencil sketches just don't measure up.

i'll be back soon - sorry if you've been checking in for nothing new. sometimes i'm just not sure what to write about, but, as i've just proven, if you want to write, all you have to do is write.

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