Wednesday, July 20, 2011

living a dream

dear Terra,

excuse the absence, once again, but i've been busy, living the dream and then recovering from it.

being hired to play at this year's Mariposa Folk Festival has sent me through the gamut of emotions, from elation to anxiety, fear to excitement, happiness to exhaustion.

it turned out to be a wonderful weekend. i wasn't scheduled to play 'til sunday, so the first two days were relaxed and fun. the family was reunited, and good times were had at the ArtsU tent - the first time we've had such a visible presence on site.

sunday came and Sue Charters and i did our first outdoor presentation of the Blood and Fire show, a first also for the shortened version, The Donnelly Primer. not a huge crowd, but it went very well. my brother and sister-in-law and their musical son drove up to catch it for the first time, and there was a great back-and-forth with audience members afterward.

i was relieved to have gotten through the first show successfully, and i found myself surprisingly relaxed leading up to the big one, hosting a workshop in the pub with a veteran folkie and a new friend, a young songwriter accompanied by his fiddling companion.

i introduced myself to the veteran outside the pub tent, and then to the fiddler, who i asked to join us on stage. the veteran seemed unsure of things, never having heard of us. but we set up, me vowing to install electronics in my old Larrivee, as the sound crew, working a new and unfamiliar hi-tech board, were unable to cut the feedback from the instrument mic. i tried to pretend i was playing a twangy twelve-string with brand new strings and way too many overtones. it kind of sounded like that.

i asked the pro to start us off, which seemed to surprise her. i had tried some funny shtick to lighten things up, for myself as well as everyone else - stripped off and changed my shirt and publicly denied that we were the pro's latest folk supergroup. i guess she thought i was going to play the first one myself - in my view a workshop faux pas, and a thing i vowed i would never do.

it was magical. we went around three times and i got to close with Emmylou On the Radio, just as i had planned, or at least hoped. the audience was enthusiastic, and the veteran congratulated me on my job of hosting and told me that it was her favourite set of the weekend.

talked with my brother and a few folks outside, and then my wife and Suse-my-muse, who fed me with a fresh view of how i had done. i realized that what i was feeling mostly was relief, that i hadn't taken in just how special a moment it had been. Deb and Susan can do that for me, better than anyone.

so we celebrated the rest of the day, with a decent cheque in my pocket and a bit of cash from cd sales. that night i found myself avoiding bed, not wanting my day of days to be over.

i was surprised how back-to-normal everything was over the next week. it didn't match the high i was still feeling, the dream continuing into waking.

so yesterday, having the house to myself, i set out to write a song. all i had were the first three words and a stolen melody for them. so i went out to the tent (our dining/party shelter, the shady place to be on a hot day) with my guitar and notebook, and started with the three words and notes, Come On, Dreams.

come on, dreams, i want to fly tonight

come on, dreams - damsels to save.

they're all around, i hear them calling,

and i'm feeling brave

i've been having these daylight dreams

how could life be as good as it seems?

i don't want to change a thing

now, about these damsels...


i dared to dream, some nights

of a creature i would ride

a Spanish butterfly

in search of damsels...



the creature has a name

my head is turned, and turning gray

who will save this day?

my damsels.

such a shock, when dreams come true

you become a bigger "you"

now i'm painting what i drew

bring on those damsels...

come on, dreams.

the damsels don't need saving, of course, but they're more fun than windmills. they are Deb and Suse and Alyssa and Jen and Carol and Lori and Wendy and Susan and Diane and Sue and the list goes on.

the creature is referenced by a rhyme with name, ie. "fame", as in "don't let it turn your head".

and Spanish for butterfly would be "mariposa".

so in the bridge, the song gets turned on its head, and the damsels save me. as always.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

inspiration i could live without

Terra, David. David, Terra.

i've just written my second song for this joyous bastard, and wish i'd never felt the need to write either. the first was "The Question", after David's wife Heidi died a few years ago. it became part of our "Tiny Rehearsals" project, dubbed by some as "a few ditties about death". he was in the front row for the single show we did, and the picture above was taken the same night. he's the most lovable goofball.

the new one is called "While You Were Gone", about our experience the last three weeks while David was in an induced coma after a horrendous motorcycle accident.

the good news is that he's awake again, and healing, slow and sure. his fiance, the strong and wondrous Julie, has been at his bedside throughout and kept us updated. in the meantime, thousands of friends and strangers across the continent have been praying for him in their way.

what would it be like to miss three weeks of your life, only to wake up in pain and confusion? i don't really know. but i wanted somehow to let him know what it was like for us, while he was gone.

while you were gone, i took up my pen and i
laid it all out, that you'd rise again
i sent out a message, like thousands of others
women who love you, and all of your brothers

while you were gone, the earth went on spinning
like wheels beneath you. the day was beginning.
i bet you were laughing, a moment before
silence defeated the motor roar

while you were gone, angels would dance on the
head of a pin, if given the chance
so we gave it to them. we danced too,
on pins and on needles. we danced for you

while you were gone, the moon didn't spin
it started out dark, and lit up again
it looked like hope, and a little like you
grey and white, from black and blue

while you were gone, hearts were afire,
aching with owning a single desire
a vision to hold us: an arm on a shoulder
we're walking ahead. we're getting older

while you were gone, the earth went on spinning
like wheels beneath you. the day was beginning.
i bet you were laughing -

i would have been quite content in other circumstances to have never written these songs, but, reality being what it is, i'm glad i could find a way to write them. they started in a place that was so full of emotion, i needed time and distance to be able to turn the passion into craft.

and simply DOING something was a balm to my feelings of helplessness.


Friday, May 13, 2011

Between the Covers

Dear Terra,

i've been learning a couple of themed cover songs for a benefit gig tonight, and it hasn't been easy trying to memorize the words. it has occurred to me that it's because i've been writing and playing my own songs for so long, hardly ever playing covers.

when i try to sing someone else's words, i want to replace them with my own, sing it the way i would say it, phrase by phrase.

i'm trying to remember what it was like, when i wasn't writing, playing other folks' songs i loved and had to learn because i couldn't get them out of my head otherwise. i appreciated each turn of phrase, wishing i could come up with something so poetic, so perfect.

and then i could. and now i find it hard to internalize someone else's song. because that's the way i used to do it. many of my friends and contemporaries choose to change a song, find some way to make it their own, in their way. i always played covers as closely as possible to the original, ie. the song i loved.

it's been an interesting exercise, in any case. and i'm glad i've partly figured out why it's been as hard as it has - much better than assuming i've lost some capacity in my middle years.

tomorrow i will go back to playing my own songs, with a better appreciation of what having written them means to me.



Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Life is Short. Make Music

Dear Terra,

Larry was one of my heroes in high school. he was a year or two older, and very cool - elected chairman of the dance committee, lead singer in a R&B band - with matching suits.

i hadn't seen him since, nor heard anything about his life. we became Facebook friends around this time last year, when plans were hatched for a 60s & 70s high school reunion. i was hoping to see him there, but he didn't make it.

turns out he had had some terrible health problems, and lost both of his legs. i've just watched a video of him on his 60th, and last, birthday, singing "Stormy Monday", accompanied by an amazing trio of friends. it was beautiful.

i'm turning 60 next year.

go gently, Lar.



Monday, May 2, 2011

A Project becomes a Primer

Dear Terra,

not the best day to have my picture taken, having awakened with a bad case of stomach cramps, but we needed to get these done and sent off to Mariposa.

Sue came over to rehearse the shortened version of Blood and Fire: The Donnelly Project, which we have renamed "A Donnelly Primer". Deb took the pictures in front of our house, which dates back to almost the right period.

Mariposa have been announcing their line-up in bits and pieces for a while now, so i'm hoping that ours is coming, just so i'm sure i haven't been dreaming.

whenever we get hired for a big show, we like to perform it in front of a smaller audience first. even more necessary this time, since the shorter stage time (75 minutes, no intermission) means a very different show. this time it will be on a sunday afternoon in Barrie, in early June. so plenty of time to shine it up beforehand and to get the kinks out after.



Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Creative Imperative

Dear Terra,

today i heard about 30 seconds of a CBC radio piece from Venezuela. the person they were speaking with was talking about each person having "a creative imperative" to do their best to make his/her life a work of art.

art is made every day. it can be astonishing, beautiful, monstrous in content or proportion, but the people who create it are the same species as those who don't, or think they don't.

i get a lot of props for writing, performing and promoting music. but i often find myself setting people straight when they congratulate me on my "talent" and claim that they could never do anything of the sort.

i do art because i love it, and i've been doing it long enough, and working at it hard enough, that i'm getting pretty good at it. and i love to spread the word, letting folks know what a joy it is, encouraging everyone to try a little, or devote their entire lives to creating bold new things.

we all have the ability to bring more beauty into the world. paint your house with four colours instead of two. plant flowers. sing harmony. put your niece's drawing in a frame. look at the world through a camera lens. design what you knit. make a video of the song your friend wrote. start a literary salon at the used book store. be enthusiastic. admire art. congratulate the artist, not on her talent but on her work.



Saturday, April 30, 2011

Many call me "Morgan's Dad"

Dear Terra,

speaking of working with young musicians...

last night was the Orillia Folk Society's monthly Fridayfolk concert, featuring a great double bill of Maria Dunn and John Wort Hannam. they were wonderful, of course, but another highlight for me was the opening act, a young woman from town, accompanied by her dad, with whom i have played numerous times at our weekly song circle.

i got more than a little nostalgic to see Laura and Peter on the same stage that i had shared with my beautiful daughter Morgan, about a decade and a half ago.

we were called "Morgansdad", because in those first several years in town, that is how i was known by the greatest number of Orillians. Morgan is the outgoing one in the family. the name was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but i never minded playing second fiddle to the bright light that is our firstborn. if i was Morgan's dad, i had to be pretty cool.

she has always loved music, and had been taking recorder lessons for years, and later took some piano. i don't remember whose idea it was to put together an act - i probably talked her into singing at Don's Coffeehouse in Hillsdale, waybackwhen, and then an opening gig at Fridayfolk and shared gigs around town. it didn't last long before she thought maybe it wasn't the coolest thing she could be doing.

she sang songs by Jewel (who also started out in a duo with her dad) and Alannis Morissette. she played recorder on my version of The Lady of Shallott. i can't remember if we did any of my songs. but i remember how good, how proud it made me feel, and what a joy it was. at one point last night, Peter suggested to the parents in the room, that if they ever got a chance to play music with their offspring, they should definitely do it.

hear, hear!

it was sad when Morgansdad was no more. but four or five years later, when she was sixteen, i did another Fridayfolk opener, with Morgan in the audience, and played this song for the first time:


you're growing older, my girl - so much so that you're not my girl anymore

your heart's in a whirl, you can't wait to find what's behind that door,

what's the final score

sweet sixteen's a myth, the world has carved on you a crooked smile

without me or with, you have had your very own style

for quite a while

you are your own woman now

i don't know when it happened, but somehow

you are your own woman now

now i lie here awake, listening for the turn of your key

just for my own sake. you could not be anything but free, from me

you are your own woman now...

you used to sing with your dad, in a duo, just like Jewel

i'd give everything i have for you to know life is anything but cruel.

now go to school.

even though you are your own woman now...

she came up from the audience, tears on her face, and gave me a hug, to the delight of all, but especially me.

so now it's ten years later, she lives two hours away and still hasn't returned to the stage. but she acquired a guitar, i show her stuff when we get the chance, and we talk music. alot.

and we will always have that golden fleeting moment when we were a duo and we made people smile.



Friday, April 29, 2011

I'm Only In It for the Art

Dear Terra,
isn't this a wonderful piece of graphic art? it was done by our friend Kim Campbell, and i'll be wearing it with pride on the black tee shirt i ordered last night.

artsU is an annual community-based event which takes place in the few days before the Mariposa Folk Festival in July. Mariposa and Orillia's Lakehead University are joint sponsors.

i've been involved since its inception, along with an incredible group of old and new friends, who have worked thousands of volunteer hours to help promote local artists and to spread the joy of making art.

this year i will be teaching two classes, one on basic guitar theory and the other on improving one's songwriting. also offerred will be classes in photography, painting, watercolour, printmaking, puppetry, movement, singing, instrumental improvisation, and home recording.

something for everyone. classes are inexpensive and open to all levels of skill and experience.

we are hoping to be more of a presence this year at the Festival itself, as we will have a tent in a prominent spot where we will hang out, talk art, and show off what the students came up with in our classes.

hope you can join us.



Thursday, April 28, 2011

Having Someone Else's Idea

Dear Terra,
i wrote a couple of days ago about the dangerous Cult of Originality, and how i refuse to drink from that particular juice cup.

so when Mike Hill, head of the Artistic committee of the Mariposa Folk Festival, asked me for ideas of workshops i might like to be involved in, i suggested "Songwriters Under the Influence".

hopefully, volunteers for such a workshop would be those who readily admit being inspired and influenced by the songs of other writers. each performer would play a cover tune, immediately followed by a song they wrote as a (direct or indirect) result.

i sent Mike a couple of examples of what i might use myself:

1. "Gold in Them Hills" by Ron Sexsmith, followed by "Hang the Jury", the first of ten songs i would write about the Donnellys for my show "Blood and Fire".

Ron's song is one of my favourites of all time, and i was learning how to play it at the same time i had the idea of responding to Steve Earle's diatribe in song, "Justice in Ontario". Earle's basic premise was "Sure, Jim Donnelly was no angel, but he didn't deserve to die". my idea of responding was to write a song from the perspective of a juror in the first trial of the head of the vigilantes, which resulted in a hung jury - not a surprising result, when you consider the consequences of being persecuted by the vigilantes or the surviving Donnellys, had they come to agree on either conviction or acquittal.

"Gold in Them Hills" is a piano song, but i was working on it as a finger-picked guitar piece, and the first few simple notes of the intro/tag were solidly in my head - "d c b g a b g a b". so when i came up with the juror's first powerful line of song, "I did what I had to...", the melody was almost the same - "b d c b a b". a different melody suggested itself for the rest of the verse: "I've a wife and a family. The White Boys could slaughter us, like they did the Donnellys. The jury was hung - we couldn't decide/On truth and justice, and suicide", but it was Ron's music that inspired it all, and i'm very grateful to him.

2. "Dusty" or "Codeine" from Fred Eaglesmith's album "Dusty", followed by my "Ridin' the Fences".

i love Fred's music, but especially this album, which i learned in its entirety and covered often at our local song circle. so it was a great compliment when i played "Ridin' the Fences" one Monday night, someone asked who wrote it, and my good friend Jennifer said "Fred Eaglesmith".

the album is a masterpiece of Americana - Fred is very much a Canadian, but his images are usually evocative of places south of 49. "Dusty" and "Codeine" are stories of sad old cowboys. the character i assume in "Ridin' the Fences" is a younger version, but sad in his own way:

i'm talkin' to horses / there's no one around
only my voice / but i like the sound
like she never did / she'd cover her ears
i had her in town / now i got me out here

i'm ridin' the fences / i mend what i can
i stay on the far side / to feel like a man
the sun does some damage, and so does the rain
but the wind is the worst, and it gets in your brain

i'm singin' an old song, from i don't know when
and sometime tomorrow, i'll sing it again
unless there's a new one takin' its place
i had a woman / now i got me some space

i'm ridin' the fences...

i'm makin' the turn, headed for home
wherever that is, i don't even know
my favourite saloon / i'll be drowning the thought
that i had a woman / now i got me a bottle

i'm ridin' the fences...

the song has proven to be one of my very favourites to play. it helps that my wife loves cowboys, and would be one if given the choice in another life. in the back of my head, there's an idea for a project of cowboy songs for Deb. and we would owe it all to Fred.


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Mariposa's Young Songwriters

Dear Terra,

i mentioned yesterday that i would have to start hanging out with a younger crowd, i.e. one who wouldn't mind the way i "borrow" material from other writing, notably songs.

thing is, i've already done so. my good friend Aaron, pictured here, who not long ago was being mentored himself, has become a mentor to some brilliant young songwriters in Orillia. and he is speeding up the generational thing even more, by having these young folks teach songwriting at an upcoming event at the Leacock house.

so he asked me to design a workshop, using the four writers and myself to teach the basics and to lead writing exercises. when i sat down to do so, i was somewhat at a loss. i had team-taught in the past, but only with good friends whose writing styles and strengths were well known to me.

i prepared as well as i could, going over my material and possible exercises to use, but with very little idea how it would look in the end. as it turned out, i needn't have worried. the training session proceeded in much the same fashion as our writing - organically. as different as our approaches to writing may seem, this was a common thread: none of us write with a plan. we start with something we find interesting, and we grow it from there.

Aaron (different Aaron) realized it might be worthwhile for him to start with a lyrical idea, rather than picking up the guitar every time. so i suggested he lead "The Spider Game", where you start with an evocative word or phrase, circle it, draw "legs" from it, each with another word or phrase related to the first, and the same outward from each of those.

Tyler's advice to beginning writers related to the middle of the process: "if it's not working, try something else!" so we decided to exaggerate the idea. he will bring a well-know song to play, and the group will be asked to suggest new lyrics which would give the song an entirely different meaning. i hope this will open folks' minds to new possibilities- eg. a happy song can be written in a minor key; a sad song can have some rhythm to it.

Hayley starts with a musical idea, and when she starts writing lyrics, typically gets bogged down when a well-known phrase ("ships passing in the night") suggests itself and takes over. so i suggested she lead an exercise in "cliche-busting", ie. finding your own creative way to say the same thing without using trite, overused phrases. Aaron (the first) even gave an example where he alluded to a cliche through rhyme: "between the clock and your face" ("a rock and a hard place"). brilliant.

Chris is an amazing guitarist who writes tunes, not songs. how best to use him seemed like it would be the hardest part of all, but not so. it's very hard in these group sessions to do much work on music, strange as that may seem. but this was our opportunity - Chris would help each participant come up with a melodic idea for an essential phrase they had gleaned from Aaron's or Hayley's exercises.

i think it's going to be great.



Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Cult of Originality

Dear Terra,

as promised, another day, another missive.

the song i sent you yesterday was one of two i wrote within a couple of days in early March, right after the last meeting of our writers` bloc. very unusual circumstance - most months i may write one song, and usually directly before the meeting.

i had been confused about the date of the next one - seems i had a year-old calendar on my wall. thinking that the session would fall on April 1, i invited folks to write a Fool`s song. the confusion was soon relieved, but wheels were already in motion in my brain.

i had also just heard a new duo called Spring Breakup, who formed for the express purpose of putting together a themed album around the idea that the breakup of river ice in the Yukon, where they were writing, often coincides with the breakup of relationships.

so i was starting with someone else`s idea. i have no problem doing that - i do it all the time, and try my best to reveal my sources. but it seems the idea is anathema to some songwriters.

and i didn`t stop at just borrowing the idea. the basic premise of the song i was thinking of was that couples are fooled into thinking that their love is forever, much the way that one might think a season will never end.

so the last line of the first verse turned out to be:
''We were fooled by a season, but never again, never again''
which led naturally to a rockin`chorus of:
''We won`t get fooled again, by endless dark or weather...''

The Who. i know.

and yes, i would have preferred to come up with something just as catchy but totally original. but i didn`t. and ''totally original'' is an impossibility in any case. it`s a trap. a cult.

i always warn my songwriting students of this. think about it - if you came up with any piece of music that didn`t fit some pattern that had already been done, it would be unlistenable, crap.

folks have this idea that ''creative'' people ''create'' like God - out of nothingness, zero history. it ain`t so. we are inspired by something out there, and try to make something else out of it, by using what`s in here.

The Cruellest Month

March came in like a lion, the wind roared

there were maples to tap, and rivers to ford, rivers to ford

soon out goes the lamb, in soft rain

we were fooled by a season, but never again, never again

we won`t get fooled again, by endless dark or weather

frozen skin a burning pain, winter looks like forever

but we won`t get fooled again

time for the breakup, the ice groans

i can only agree, here on my own, here on my own

what were we dreaming, in our little den

we were fooled by the fire, but never again, never again

we won`t get fooled again, by this endless river

that flows while standing still, love looks like forever

but we won`t get fooled again

April is the cruellest month, chaos is the rule

try to divine its wrath, you`ll be the first of fools

may the sun rise to meet you, full in the face

with the wind at your back, all of your days, all of your days

spring`s a beginning, spring is an end

we fooled ourselves, but never again, never again

we won`t get fooled again, lying together

the lion and the lamb, nothing is forever...

so i had a few weeks to play the song, get used to the idea that it wasn`t all mine. it seemed to work, and i thought it would be a good one for the band. took it to BADASS (the writers`bloc), and most liked it. except for a fellow who thought it was good except for the Who reference, and could not understand why i would even try to get away with it.

i may need to start hanging out with a younger crowd, folks who are used to sampling, mashups etc.

you can`t call it ''stealing'' when it`s such a well-known phrase. i like to think of it as an ''hommage''. i bet Pete and Roger and John and Keith would dig it.

will write again soon



Monday, April 25, 2011

My Return from Nowhere in Particular

T. LeMonde

2011 04 25

Dear Terra,
sorry i haven't written in so long. there's no excuse for it really - i've had very good news to share.

biggest is that Sue Charters and i have been hired to perform a shortened version of Blood and Fire - we're subtitling it "The Donnelly Primer" - at this year's Mariposa Folk Festival.

it's been a really interesting process to cut it down to under 75 minutes (and no intermission). i dropped two of the songs, and Sue is working at cutting the stories to about four minutes each, for an audience tuned to a weekend of songs. Sue has some great ideas for visuals and pacing, etc.

i've been lobbying my pals at MFF to get my name on at least one piece of publicity with that of Emmylou Harris, this year's headliner. i don't amass souvenirs as a rule, but that would be a keeper.

the day i heard she was coming was also International Women's Day. so i had to write an Emmylou-type song, from a woman's point of view:

Emmylou on the Radio

Emmylou is on the radio, tomorrow's the day to go
plough on through all this snow
with Emmylou on the radio

we're livin' on the edge of town, just like you said
livin' on the edge, and livin' on the edge of town

i dreamed of the big romance, i thought it was our best chance
but it was only a high school dance
then Emmylou on the radio

Emmylou is on the radio, tomorrow's the day to go
plough on through all this snow
with Emmylou on the radio

we're livin' on the edge of town, just like you said
livin' on the edge, and livin' on the egde of town

i could drive to Hollywood, sunshine would do me good
out from under this wedding hood
with Emmylou on the radio

Emmylou is on the radio, tomorrow's the day to go
plough on through all this snow
with Emmylou on the radio

we're livin' on the edge of town, just like you said
livin' on the edge, and livin' on the edge of town
livin' on the edge, and livin' on the edge of town

now all i need is a woman to sing it. it's a very simple melody, so i've tried to make a gift of it to my friend Amy, who loves and promotes roots music, including mine, but calls herself "not a singer". i won't give up , though. i know it's a dream of hers to perform.

wish me luck! i promise to write soon, and often. new leaf for spring!