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Listening to Lyrics

Recently, deep in a crowded box in our garage, on a different shelf from the box with typed copies of all my lyrics, I found three cassettes with recordings of some of my songs. One cassette has seven songs on one side and six of my earliest radio scripts on the other side—I taped them the first year I wrote short essays for my university's "Morning Edition" broadcast. Another cassette has thirteen songs, including some on that other cassette. A third cassette records the audio of an interview on "Northern Michigan Morning," a local television show, where I discussed the Michigan Songwriters Guild and performed "When Does A Man Get Fully Grown?" The tapes all date from 1981.


The sound quality on the "Root Songs" tape isn't very good; my guitar sometimes drowns out my voice. I taped those songs at the kitchen table in my apartment. The sound is better on the radio essays tape—I understand almost every word I sing. Since I've found no other tapes with songs, I can't confirm melodies for other lyrics I collected in that binder, five written fifty years ago, the other thirty-five composed around forty years ago. I haven't written any newer lyrics since then.


Listening to lyrics performed by a self-accompanied singer creates a different sense of the song than reading those lyrics in silence does. If I read them aloud, I'd likely dramatize them, as if they were monologues designed for oral interpretation. (My undergraduate Advanced Oral Interpretation course served me well when I recorded those radio scripts decades later.) The dramatic reading attends to pace and tone and emphasis guided by punctuation and internal rhythms of the words; performance of the lyrics requires obeying the melody, conforming to tempo and meter, and being guided in expression by the musical notes. The melody affects the personality of the singer even as he expresses the attitude of the lyrics.


To compose songs, I once claimed, I would "sit down with my guitar and let the melodies tell me what's on my mind." I recall a few times when a melody told me I wasn't composing words to match the mood of the music. I'd learned a few different finger-picking strums watching Laura Webber's Folk Guitar show on "educational television" years before and found that shifting the time signature or picking pattern altered my attitude toward my lyrics. It wasn't until I played those tapes that I remembered how much else went into my songs besides the lyrics.


Listening to the lyrics, I felt, with relief, that most of the taped songs were pretty good. Perhaps I chose the best ones to record. I haven't played guitar in so long I couldn't guess which chords I was playing or which finger-picking patterns I was using, but, while I listened, at times I felt my right hand try to imitate the strums I was hearing and my fingers moved in some vague approximation of the finger-picking I might have been doing. But I'm unlikely to ever get my playing back up to the level recorded on the tapes.


I was curious about what the lyrics would say about the man who composed them. Some are pretty confessional: "When Does a Man Get Fully Grown?" admits to folly, loneliness, doubt, uncertainty, in plaintive images. Other songs reinforce the singer's sense of isolation: "Freedom of the Highway," "The Highway Calling Me," "Roll Like a River," "It Gets a Little Lonely in the Night." Later songs celebrate a more positive direction in the singer's life, songs of love and longing: "Standing at the Door of Love," "This Is My Love," "The Words I Long to Hear," "Spending Time." When I played a recording of one for Sue, we both were on the verge of tears. On the other hand, a few songs convinced me that I shouldn't write on political themes.


Songs often run through my mind. I wake up mornings with last night's tv show theme song or something I heard on the car radio playing in my head. (I don't know why I woke to the chorus of "Luckenbach, Texas" the other morning.) A song sometimes haunts me all day. Since I listened to those old cassettes, some of my own songs have popped up when I've entered a silence of some kind. Sometimes I try to sing along or pretend I could. I don't mind listening to them that way but I'm careful about how much attention I give them. Whether the song lamented or celebrated whatever inspired it, I need to choose how much lyrics from the past affect the way I feel about the life I live now, so far in the future.


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