"Courting the Muse"

--from Sing Out!, volume 37, No. 2 Copyright 1992

The question "Why write songs?" is a valid one, and should be asked first. The question "How do you write songs?" will have different answers depending on one's response to the first question.

My reply to these questions rests in my own history, and the discovery that my own healing has been tied inextricably to my community, whether I've chosen to define that community in family, local, intentional, or religious terms. My own quest for fame had come to a screeching halt midway through the 1970s, as I prepared to leave street singing for what seemed a more "responsible" full-time job maintaining candy-making and candy-wrapping machines (my training for which was being a folksinger who'd had to learn how to maintain old cars to get from one gig to the next).

The advent of fatherhood demanded that I reexamine my life and make the appropriate adjustments. I prepared with some anguish and bitterness to turn my back on the idea of making music for a living, but in the process, some unexpected things happened. First of all, the process of reexamination revitalized my songwriting. Secondly, other artists, many of whom had played at the community coffeehouse I'd started in Marblehead, began to be attracted to my songs and started singing them. And because a lot of people my age were reexamining their own lives, the songs became popular in folksong-oriented communities. "Amateur" singers (etymologically, those who sing for love) began to sing my songs at important points of their lives (e.g. weddings and funerals), and through them my songs found a wide audience.

Since those days it's been clear to me that I write songs for my own healing, that of my community, and that of my culture, and that those circles of healing are much more interdependent than might be assumed. Song is such a powerful medium that being a songwriter is a tremendous responsibility as well as a great privilege. As long as one looks for the points of connection among one's own struggles, those of one's community, and those of the larger (if not greater) culture, faithfulness to the truth (a spiritual discipline in itself) can result in songs becoming artifacts that go out on their own and facilitate healing in unknown lives and on unknown levels. I am currently making music full time, and it's not so much an industry that supports me in this, but rather a collection of small communities. It's from those communities that I get direct support from people who tell me that my songs are important in their lives.

My advice to all songwriters, "amateur" or professional (and at this point I believe that these categories are irrelevant), is that they write songs for real audiences and real communities rather than imagined markets. "Amateurs" thus stand a chance of doing some good in the lives of those around them: the most vitality to be seen in any kind of American popular music is seen when that music is tied in to living cultural communities, whether urban or rural, whatever their ethnicity. "Professionals" can unleash creativity onto the media culture that may move it somewhat toward reality and health. It may take a while for the necessary risks of art to pay off to the business mind, but after a while they do. The money processes of capitalistic society tend to break up intentional artistic communities as they recruit their best artists for popular music, but new communities form.

The music industry itself is breaking up and reforming as risk-taking small companies move in to serve markets abandoned by the major labels. When the majors see the success of smaller companies, they occasionally modify their own behavior accordingly. Rather than waiting for this or courting it, the sanest course for the many brilliant young writers out there, I think, is to stick to the job at hand and look to the community (and other communities) for support, This country is loaded with small venues and public radio stations that need genuinely good work.

The personal computer is a great tool for accessing those venues and keeping in touch with a developing audience (and this, I think, is material for a whole other column). The alternative (spending lots of energy looking for a big contract) seems to me to be rather like staking your life on a lottery ticket. The risks of being an artist can and should be more properly broken up and taken one day at at time; the corresponding rewards are steadier and surer, and because they involve intimate contact with audiences, are more soul-nourishing as well.