Thursday, February 4, 2010

130 Years Later, and i'm Still At It

Today is the 130th anniversary of the Donnelly massacre. so here i am, late again, but drawn back by a significant date in Canada's history, the stories of which continue to be central to my "career" as a happy amateur, and to my life.
my writers' group happens to be meeting tonight, and when pal Scott pointed out the coincidence of the date, i decided to revisit the project and try to come up with Song Number 11.
now, by the time i finished writing Number 10, i had reached some kind of quota. the last few had been difficult, as i was less motivated to tell those stories than i had been in the beginning, when my desire to tell the tales i had been immediately struck with amounted to something of a compulsion. and Susan was working on the stories, and could fill any obvious gaps with narrative.
Number 10 was also a departure, being written from my own point of view, 100 years after the Lucan story. it was also the last song of the show and cd. i was looking to the past, but stepping back into the present, literally out of the story.
so i started skimming through Ray Fazakas' book The Donnelly Album, which i used almost exclusively for my research for the Project. i was hoping for, and expecting, i think, something to jump out at me - something i had been considering earlier, or perhaps something i have been moved by in Susan's stories.
and it was the latter which happened. Susan touches on the story of William Donnelly's star-crossed love for Maggie Thompson, daughter of a sworn enemy, and how he had tried, with a posse of men, to take her by force. Old Thompson had spirited her away, and managed to keep them apart for years, 'til Will finally married another.
in the book i found The Letter - not hearsay, or paraphrase, but a photograph of the actual letter which Maggie had written to Will on Christmas Eve 1873, having snuck off to the Post Office in Offa, and which invites Will to come and take her away by force.
December 24th, 1873
William Donnelly
Dear friend,
I adress you with these few lines to let you know I am well, and hopes you are enjoying the same blessing. I wish to let you know a little about the performance I had to gp through since i came up here. My friends herd all about me writing Letters to you, which caused an awfull storm, so that I could not ask to go any where, and on that account you will please excuse me for not writing to you. Dear William, I would rather be in the grave than at home, at preasant, for the way my people abused me on your account hinders me of ever forgiving them. I will never have anything like a chance of fulfilling my promise of marriage to you except you came and take me away by force, and if you think as much of me now as you did always I trust you will relieve me before long, and if not you will please send me my Letters to Offa P.O., and i will try to put up with all. I burnt your Letters when they commenced to abuse me about you, for they would shurly get them, if I did not do something with them. Excuse my bad writing, for I am in an awfull hury, as it is in the office I am writing it. No more at preasant from your loving friend
Margret Thompson
pretty powerful. so i have my subject. how do i turn it into a song? my first idea was that i would have to paraphrase Maggie's words, so that they could fit some sort of song structure and rhyme scheme.
i got out my trusty DIY Gathering notebook and wrote the letter on the left-hand pages, with lots of space for notes, and the sentences (some of them DO run on, don't they? i picture her rather breathless, scribbling those intense words in the post office) broken into song-line type lengths. i would write my paraphrased lines on the right-hand pages. i was planning to be as faithful as possible to the original.
the next day, when i went to make a start, i had a revelation: "as faithful as possible to the original", is, of course, the original. the more i read and re-read the letter, the more attached i was to it as a discrete, important thing. i was no longer willing to change the letter to suit my purposes as a songwriter.
very noble i'm sure. but WHAT THE HELL AM I GOING TO DO NOW?
i read the letter out loud. i read it into my Zoom H2 recorder and listened to it. i realized the obvious: language is music. i knew that. melody, rhythm, dynamics. music.
what if i simply exaggerated the language? stretch out the melody, accentuate the rhythms, add necessary pauses, both for affect and for purposes of performance, amplify the dynamics.
so i tried it. sat down with the mountain dulcimer in my lap, and wrote out the notes to a melody which approximated the rise and falls of natural language in the letter.
there is no song structure for the listener to get a hold of. there are no rhymes. the rhythm shifts from 4/4 to 6/8 in one of the run-on sentences. and, truth be told, despite the exaggeration, the melody is pretty monotonous.
i know it's not up to performance standards, but i'm still excited to share it tonight with my fellow writers, see what they think, hear their ideas.
and then i'm going to continue to work on it, and hopefully present it as a proper song (without rhymes - a stretch for me) at next month's meet.
it's going to be a lot of work, which i've already begun. the first attempt was not wasted at all, even though i don't have a performance piece to show for it. as i became more intimate with the nuances of the letter and more adept at singing the non-song that it is, finding more rhythm and natural pauses, i realized that a song was possible.
i broke the letter into three, and printed the separate pages. lo and behold, there were definite parallels. without too much tweaking, i saw that i could fit the pieces of the entire letter into two or three musical parts, with an added or subtracted line here and there, vocal lines replaced by instrumental, etc.
i even wrote the melody and (almost) fit the words for the first four lines of each of the three parts. turns out that was a teaser, definitely the easiest. "I adress you with these few lines"="I would rather be in the grave". couldn't get any easier than that.
and it doesn't. but it's a very cool and worthwhile challenge, and i'm looking forward to it.