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.


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