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!