Sunday, December 22, 2013

Bob Dylan on Songwriting

I just ran across a pretty interesting quote from Bob Dylan about songwriting. The link to the original seems to be broken, but here is where I read it. And here is the quote:
Dylan leans over and picks up the acoustic guitar. “Well, you have to understand that I’m not a melodist,” he says. “My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or songs or variations of the blues form. “What happens is, I’ll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head…I’ll be playing Bob Nolan’s ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds,’ for instance, in my head constantly — while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song.”
He’s slowly strumming the guitar, but it’s hard to pick out the tune. “I wrote in 10 minutes, just put words to an old spiritual, probably something I learned from Carter Family records. That’s the folk music tradition. You use what’s been handed down. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ is probably from an old Scottish folk song…
No, no, no,” Bob Dylan says sharply when asked if aspiring songwriters should learn their craft by studying his albums, which is precisely what thousands have done for decades. “It’s only natural to pattern yourself after someone,” he says, opening a door on a subject that has long been off-limits to reporters: his songwriting process. “If I wanted to be a painter, I might think about trying to be like Van Gogh, or if I was an actor, act like Laurence Olivier. If I was an architect, there’s Frank Gehry.
“But you can’t just copy somebody. If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to. Anyone who wants to be a songwriter should listen to as much folk music as they can, study the form and structure of stuff that has been around for 100 years. I go back to Stephen Foster.”…
“I always admired true artists who were dedicated, so I learned from them,” Dylan says, rocking slowly in the hotel room chair. “Popular culture usually comes to an end very quickly. It gets thrown into the grave. I wanted to do something that stood alongside Rembrandt’s paintings.”…
“To me, Woody Guthrie was the be-all and end-all,” says Dylan…his curly hair still framing his head majestically as it did on album covers four decades ago. “Woody’s songs were about everything at the same time. They were about rich and poor, black and white, the highs and lows of life, the contradictions between what they were teaching in school and what was really happening. He was saying everything in his songs that I felt but didn’t know how to…
“I had read a lot of poetry by the time I wrote a lot of those early songs,” he volunteers. “I was into the hard-core poets. I read them the way some people read Stephen King. I had also seen a lot of it growing up. Poe’s stuff knocked me out in more ways than I could name. Byron and Keats and all those guys. John Donne…
“I’m not that serious a songwriter,” he says, a smile on his lips. “Songs don’t just come to me. They’ll usually brew for a while, and you’ll learn that it’s important to keep the pieces until they are completely formed and glued together…I’m not thinking about what I want to say, I’m just thinking ‘Is this OK for the meter?’ “But there’s an undeniable element of mystery too. “It’s like a ghost is writing a song like that. It gives you the song and it goes away, it goes away. You don’t know what it means. Except the ghost picked me to write the song.”
There are a number of interesting things in that interview. When he says he is not a "melodist" and that he bases his songs on old Protestant hymns and Woody Guthrie, this makes sense. It also makes sense that he says he has read a lot of poetry. Dylan is really a great writer of song lyrics and his musical settings are very traditional in many ways. There are no fancy melodies in his songs. This is probably as articulate as someone like Dylan is ever going to get about how they write songs.

The reason is that these kinds of questions, "how do you write your songs", like asking a writer "where do you get your ideas", are questions that artists often regard as "centipedal" ones. That comes from an interview with Glenn Gould. He tells the story of the centipede who, when asked which of his hundred feet he started with when he walked, became so perplexed that he couldn't move and fell over and died. Gould, for one, does not want to think about how he does something for fear of disturbing the automatic intuitiveness of it. Similarly, questions about creativity are often uncomfortable for artists to answer--they really don't want to think about it!

The other problem is that talking about the process of writing music in detail is impossible because it is a musical not a verbal process (though I'm not sure how that would apply to a writer talking about writing...). This quote gets pretty close:
I’m listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song.
"Listening to the song in your head" and sensing it change into something else is sort of what goes on. When I am writing, once I have some sort of germ or fragment, I am trying to hear what "comes next". In music it is a lot about what comes next. Where is this going? Getting more specific means talking about details. The only place in popular culture where I have seen this almost happening was in the scene from Amadeus where Mozart re-writes Salieri's march. But, of course, it was so brief and sketchy that you don't get any real idea of what happened. A better exposition was in the movie La Belle Noiseuse where we get to watch the painter sketch his model. That hesitant and scratchy exploratory process is the closest I have seen to the creative process being depicted.

When Dylan talks about "the ghost" I think I know what he means. Sometimes a little musical idea just pops into your head. That is just the beginning, all the work is yet to come because you have to figure out what to do with it. One morning Paul McCartney got up and the whole song "Yesterday" was just in his head. All he had to do, according to the story, was figure out the chords. Mind you, there were no words. It took him months to figure them out. In the beginning he just called the tune "Scrambled Eggs" because that went with the opening:

Click to enlarge

Yes, I contributed the rest of the first line!

Schoenberg's comment to a student that the eraser end of the pencil was the most important end is also good to know. Sometimes--pretty often, actually--what you need to do is throw something out completely. I had the beginning to a nice little fugal scherzo in the string quartet I am writing right now until I realized how unsuitable it was and tossed it out.

How do you learn or study composition? Just listen to a lot of music and study a lot of scores and absorb whatever else you find creatively stimulating and then just let your mind freewheel. If you are a composer, things will start occurring to you! Then you can start to work hammering them into a piece of music.

As the writer Gene Fowler once said of his creative process:  “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

Or you could sell your soul to the devil like Robert Johnson...

Now for some music:

1 comment:

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Rakib. But while I might put up something like this from time to time, my real focus is in the classical area.