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In the Labyrinth Garden


I should have realized that the Labyrinth Garden Earth Sculpture in West Bend's Regner Park wouldn't be a typical labyrinth. The words "Garden" and "Earth Sculpture" were the giveaways. The other labyrinths I'd walked in Wisconsin had been gravel paths between borders of stones and small boulders or they'd been paving stones between brick barriers, all leading to a bench in a center circle. Most replicated the medieval pattern from Chartres Cathedral, eleven circuits divided into four quadrants, rife with twists and turns; some followed the less complicated Cretan pattern of seven concentric circuits. But in the Cretan design of the Labyrinth Garden, a grassy path wound through barrier walls of well-tended flowerbeds. Beyond the outermost wall of flowers was a circling lawn ringed with inscribed commemorative "Celebration Stones." A low wrought iron fence enclosed it all and a huge metal dragonfly hovered above part of the path. It was as much garden as labyrinth.


Labyrinths are meant to inspire walking meditations, where you try not to think of the world beyond the labyrinth. Meditation guides advise you, "When you walk, just walk." You try to concentrate on your breathing or to focus on an emotion, like compassion or empathy or forgiveness. When you reach the center circle you hope to sit calmly, silently, and meditate a little longer or simply breathe, before winding slowly back to where you started.


But when I first walked the Labyrinth Garden, I found it hard to meditate. Rows of fragrant, colorful flowers, ornamental grasses, and herbs bordered the path on either side. Sometimes the breeze made the tallest flowers rock towards me and then sway away. Flitters of movement continually caught my eye: a goldfinch visiting one thistle after another, an upside down bee clinging to a pulsing flower, abundant butterflies drifting down or fluttering up. Once, rather than disturb an orange butterfly on an orange blossom, I waited for her to fly off before I moved past her flower.


I stopped often to bend and read identifying metal tags on low posts in the mulch. Some names were familiar, like Larkspur and Lupine and Prairie Smoke; some were whimsical, like Gryffindor Colors, Intelligent Design, and Panties in a Bunch. When I moved on, I would remember the names but not the images of the flowers. Further down the path I would stoop and read a name I'd read only minutes before, then mutter to myself, "Ah, Forget-Me-Not," as if I recalled it from before.


It took me a while to make my way to the center of the Labyrinth Garden, sit for a few minutes contemplating only morning air, then retrace the circuit at the same attentive pace as before. I circled the labyrinth, slowly reading inscriptions on the Celebration Stones. I paused once to watch a butterfly settle on one that read, "In Loving Memory." It was not my usual walking meditation. Still, after an hour in the Labyrinth Garden, in sunshine and warm breeze, gazing at flowers and grasses, at birds and bees and butterflies, I felt a meditative calm. I felt content. I felt at peace.


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Cave Crawling


(Broadcast on "Wisconsin Life" June 13, 2018)


I'm the only one signed up for the cave tour at the Ledge View Nature Center, but Jane Mingari, the assistant naturalist, agrees to lead it. Despite a fear of tight, dark places, I'd resolved to explore a cave. Now I have no excuse to back out.


We walk to the entrance on the roofs of caves. Jane explains how the solution caves below us were carved by seepage of rain and snowmelt that sometimes became underground streams and even waterfalls. The ground beneath us is honeycombed with chambers and channels. The Carolyn's Caverns cave system is over 700 feet long. It's accessible part of the year for tours but closed from October to May for bat hibernation. Its first room, the Bat Room, has an opening in its steel door for bats—big brown, little brown, long-eared, and tri-colored bats—to enter and exit.


Jane urges me to explore two side rooms. I smile gamely and commit myself to crawling and clambering. I squirm on my belly in and out of one narrow passage and climb down a ladder into a small enclosed space with a muddy bottom. I hope I've acclimated myself to what's ahead.


We wander through other rooms and passages, stepping carefully on the uneven floor, wary of protrusions near our heads. I bend, I stoop, I crawl on my hands and knees, and I slither outright. Only one place is especially tight, less so for Jane than for me, but crawling through passages like the Whale's Throat and the Kid's Passage means venturing into long dark holes with no chance to raise my head or propel myself by any means other than elbows and thighs. I try not to think about getting stuck and soon realize I don't need to think about it.


When we descend to Carolyn's Cave, the original entrance to the system, we're 17 feet below the surface; at the bottom of Dave's Sink, the deepest room, we're 36 feet—four stories—underground. At times, bending to look down a dark passage, I feel the lure of crawling in to see just how far it would take me, how tangled and interconnected the cavities might be.


Jane illuminates layers of Silurian strata, fossils, miniature stalactites, chert and cave coral. She steers me around "hungry mud," the sticky pools on the cave floors, remnants of times the caves have been flooded, at least once as much as eighteen feet deep. By the time we make the long crawl through the Whale's Throat back to the Bat Room, I'm busy thinking about the slow and relentless formation of the caves, the scale of their existence. Despite the weight of the rock strata above me, the density of the walls around me, the impenetrable darkness beyond this room, I feel no eagerness to leave the caves. When we reach daylight, I feel no sense of relief.


I suppose you could say I confronted my fear of crawling in caves and overcame it. It seems to me more likely that I was too absorbed in where I was to notice my fear. Neither the caves nor my guide would let me think about that.



Note: "Cave Crawling," Wisconsin Life, Wisconsin Public Radio, June 13, 2018

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Essays on Air


I stopped recording radio scripts for Michigan Public Radio in 1987 and concentrated on writing academic and literary essays, as well as a book about wandering Great Lakes states. When my wife and I spent a few years in Colorado, I wrote a book about wandering in the Front Range. In 2008, we moved to Wisconsin where I soon found myself writing a book about its foremost nature writers (Walking Home Ground) and later started another one about following the Niagara Escarpment from Waukesha County, where I now lived, through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario back to western New York, where I grew up. Occasionally, I revised segments of the book-in-progress and submitted them to literary journals.


Through all those years we routinely listened to public broadcasting in our car and in our home. That was how I became familiar with the "Wisconsin Life" programming on both Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television. The Wisconsin section of The Arc of the Escarpment, my book-in-progress, was full of narrative moments set in a chain of locations from my southeastern county to the northern limits of the Door Peninsula and beyond, and I considered excerpting some segments to propose to the producer of the radio show—I had once been a radio essayist, after all, and wasn't likely to attempt video stories for the snippets shown on television. The sample I sent her turned out to run too long but convinced her shorter ones might work. Eventually I drove into Milwaukee a couple of times and taped several submissions each day while she supervised me from Madison. I recorded six essays, half of them revised from chapters in my then unfinished book (I still had Ontario and New York research to do) and others that grew out of rambles around Wisconsin or excerpted from Walking Home Ground.


As it turned out, "Wisconsin Life" aired only three of the essays, one a year in 2016, 2017, and 2018, and the producer I worked with left the station. I was discouraged by the scant broadcasting of my writing and didn't try to submit more with a new producer. But recently, checking the program online, I learned that those three recordings still had links, all with additional background music and introductory remarks from the producers. "Synchronicity in Nature and Life," linking the Niagara Escarpment and the Ice Age Trail, was broadcast April 22, 2016; "The Welcome Oak," set in the section of the IAT I stewarded for a while, was broadcast May 17, 2017. Both have their texts online. "Cave Crawling," broadcast June 13, 2018, only has a link to the recording; I'll post the text of that essay next week. The following week I'll post "In the Labyrinth Garden," one of the unaired scripts, without a recording.


In the twenty-nine years between my final Michigan broadcast and my first Wisconsin broadcast, the nature of communication changed quite a bit. I'm aware that I'm now as likely—perhaps more likely—to publish a new essay online as to publish it in print. Since many of those sites are available on cellphones, publication is often possible on podcasts or at least with audio or video accompaniment—that way, readers don't have to only read but can also hear and/or view a reading while they walk or run or even drive. When my essay "Time and Terrain," another segment from The Arc of the Escarpment, was accepted by The Split Rock Review in Spring 2018, I was asked to record a reading of it; I also provided a short piece on writing about place for a Contributor Spotlight. They're still online.


I've just listened to all the essays I recorded for "Wisconsin Life" and The Split Rock Review and I'm not too embarrassed by them. At home, I read aloud a large portion of what we listen to at dinnertime, more often fiction than nonfiction, and try to adapt my reading to approximate the voices of characters and narrators. I suspect that, in the age of rampant (and too often necessary) self-publishing, it could be possible for me to do my own audiobook of something or other. I'm not much tempted to, but I'm glad I had the chance to be an audio essayist as often as I did. It was almost like keeping up with the times.



Notes: Links to Online Essays


"Synchronicity in Nature and Life," Wisconsin Life. Wisconsin Public Radio, April 22, 2016.


"The Welcome Oak," Wisconsin Life, Wisconsin Public Radio, May 17, 2017,


"Cave Crawling," Wisconsin Life, Wisconsin Public Radio, June 13, 2018,


"Time and Terrain," The Split Rock Review, Issue 10: (Spring 2018)


Contributor Spotlight March 13, 2018: Robert Root on "Time and Terrain"


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(Broadcast on WCMU-FM Morning Edition Fall 1982)


If traveling some six thousand miles in a single month taught me nothing else—other than the wisdom of getting to a place and staying put—it taught me the arbitrariness of the boundaries people project upon the land. After all, nature puts no boundary lines upon the earth; those that appear on maps are products solely of the lawyer's imagination and the surveyor's ingenuity.


I should have known all this before, of course—I've traveled enough to know that if you fall asleep in western Ohio and then wake up with only the landscape to tell you where you are, you really don't know if you're in southern Michigan, northern Indiana, or eastern Illinois. I've seen the flatlands of northwestern Minnesota become the flatlands of first North Dakota and then Manitoba with only highway markers and the colors of police cars to give warning that some people have divided this featureless landscape into two states of one country and a province of another.


But I only began to think about the ways the land contradicted subdivisions as I traveled west one August. Leaving Missouri and entering Kansas, I saw no difference in scenery. I watched the land change as we crossed Kansas, observing the lift of the land as we drove from the prairies of the Missouri River basin into the table-flat high plains section of western Kansas, on our way toward the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. But I never saw sharp distinctions—one topographic division led into another and, when we crossed the border into Colorado, I saw only more high plains before us. It would be another hour before the gradual incline led us to a place where the mountains would emerge on the horizon.


The remainder of the trip confirmed the suspicions about boundaries that Kansas and Colorado raised. At Mesa Verde, I looked out from Park Point at the one place in the nation where four states meet in a single location. The Park Point handbook could superimpose boundary lines on pictures of the vistas I beheld, but I couldn't see any natural borders between Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. In the days that followed, as we roamed the Four Corners area, I could see that changes in topography were always well within states, never between them. The canyonlands of Utah became the canyonlands of Arizona, following the Colorado River; the Guadalupe Mountains made no distinction between Texas and New Mexico; the Chihuahuan Desert extended from deep within Mexico to deep within the United States.


I could see as well that nature's indifference to boundaries extends to the zones of habitation it creates. Rivers are the centers of their environment, not the edges; nature works upward from them toward mountaintops, creating climate zones along the way, saying that here on the plains the pinyon may grow and here in the foothills belongs Ponderosa pine and here in the Montane Zone may grow Douglas fir. And yet a traveler up a mountainside will often see the zones overlap, pinyon growing with Ponderosa pine and, higher up, Ponderosa pine mingling with Douglas fir.


In McKittrick Canyon, in the Guadalupe Mountains, hikers can tramp through something like five biotic communities in a couple of hours, discovering the northernmost limits of the Texas Madrone tree, the westernmost limits of some deciduous trees more common to the Appalachians, the southernmost limits of some conifers.  Such a mixture of habitats causes a mingling of unexpected forms of wildlife as well.


The blurring of zones of habitation isn't confined to flora and fauna—it happens with people as well. I'd often noticed how southern Iowans behaved like northern Missourians and northern Iowans behaved like southern Minnesotans. In the west, I found the New Mexicans of Las Cruces not much different from the Texans of El Paso. Santa Fe seemed virtually a McKittrick Canyon of human habitation, where the styles of Greenwich Village, San Francisco, and Tesque Pueblo, of Eastern Jew, Western Gay, Mexican, cowboy, and American Indian, all blend in an adobe melting pot. In parts of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, the Navajo Reservation occupies a space larger than New England, unnatural boundaries overlapping other unnatural boundaries.


Nowhere can I find evidence that boundaries between states and between groups of people are anything more than the fictions of mankind, unnatural pretenses that sharp distinctions are possible. Nature seems to work by gradation, oblivious to unnecessary delineations. In place of continued conflict over imagined borders and hair-splitting distinctions of race, religion, and ideology, mankind might do well to ponder nature's example.



Note: "Boundaries" was included in Limited Sight Distance: Essays for Airwaves. Glimmerglass Editions. 2013: 64-66.

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In Deep Water


(Broadcast on WCMU-FM Morning Edition Fall 1987)


It's grey and overcast outside as I write this, but for a little while the pavement is dry and the puddles on the lawn are shrinking. In the three weeks since a deluge of battering rain triggered the worst flooding in Michigan history, the rain has seemed to be a permanent part of the landscape; such brief respites remind us that it's possible we'll spend a day in the sun again.


In such a month as this, after the devastation of swirling floodwaters, after days and weeks of virtually unrelieved gloom and damp, we struggle to figure out how to respond. We need distance from events to give us perspective, but the unchanging weather refuses us space to retreat to. Our collective spirits are being tested and we feel an end-of-winter gloom in the middle of autumn.


The physical damage of the flooding has been so widespread that everyone knows a host of horror stories—collapsed basements, ruined carpeting and furniture, lost books and papers and photographs. In my town the Pine River surrounded a local supermarket and department store, swept across downtown streets, closed every bridge connecting the two sides of town. What on the first day was a curiosity of raging water and limited inundation became on the second day a creeping threat and on the third a relentlessly spreading terror. From dry ground on impassable streets we stared uncomprehendingly at houses made uninhabitable by the floodwater. While I watched, playful canoeists out sightseeing paddled down the middle of Downie Street past a despondent couple in a rowboat—the men in the canoe trailed a mallard decoy, the couple transported luggage away from their apartment building.


Even those whose homes were safe on high ground had connections to the damage. A couple who had recently moved to a new home found five feet of water in their old one and pondered the impact on the unfinalized sale; an older house down by the river that we had thought of buying three years before, its exterior totally renovated by its new owners, was completely surrounded by water several feet deep. Friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers—everywhere you turned you found someone damaged or ruined. One day when the water had receded, we helped a couple empty their home, lugging waterlogged bedding to the street, disinfecting furniture, ripping up ruined carpeting and pulling up the spongy linoleum under it and watching the wooden floors begin to buckle as they dried. The smell of muck and mold and disinfectant stayed in our lungs for hours after we had returned to dry ground, a shower, and clean clothes.


The spiritual battering of the flood's aftermath has been even more widespread. As the rains continued and the waters rose again, we watched the weather with numbed disbelief, the initial shock and eagerness to rebuild replaced by a sodden weariness and persistent wariness—no time to ponder cause and effect, only dazed acceptance of a permanently waterlogged lifestyle.


If any good comes from the weeks of relentlessly rainy gloom, it lies in the constant reminder to those unaffected by the flood of the plight of those devastated by it. Those of us on high ground have a tendency to get on with our daily lives once our curiosities and conversations are sated with flood information; those still waiting for the waters to recede, still struggling to count and compensate their losses, still listening nervously to the rain at night and waking with alarmed alertness before dawn, know that the fabric of their lives has been altered and their sense of security perhaps permanently shaken. We highlanders need to stay aware of the lowlanders' situation: there but for the grace of topography go we.


If anything, these days in deep water ought to remind us that much of what we occupy ourselves with daily is of transitory importance, that ultimately what matters is the quality of life where we live. Moreover, the quality of our lives is inextricably bound to the quality of our neighbors' lives. In an age when our society continually invites us to isolate ourselves from one another, to value our individual desires above our communal needs, the lesson of catastrophe is that we can't survive in isolation. The flood's effect is paradoxical: at the same time the rising waters cut us off from one another, they remind us that no man is an island.


If we haven't learned that lesson these last few weeks, we are in far deeper waters than we can handle.



Note: "In Deep Water" was included in Limited Sight Distance: Essays for Airwaves. Glimmerglass Editions. 2013: 42-44.


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(Broadcast on WCMU-FM Morning Edition Fall 1981)



One morning this week, when I began my early morning walk to the university, autumn was in evidence all around me. The air was chill and moist, and wood smoke drifted in it from somewhere, reminding me of the smell of burning leaves that pervaded the autumns of my childhood. In the sky the bright fall harvest moon was low above the western horizon, reluctantly giving up the night, but still not dimmed by the onset of the dawn.


My usual route to school takes me down a street of older houses, where the neighbors seem to worry little about the trespassing of leaves from one another's trees. No homeowners here have scurried out to rake the lawn free of evidence of fall and prop up plastic bags at the curb like an honor guard saluting their compulsive tidiness. You can still hear the rustle and crackle of crisp dead leaves under your feet and occasionally plow through ankle-high drifts of colorful decay. Occasionally, disheveled mounds of leaves reveal the places where the disorder of nature has been improved upon by the chaos-making of children. Even in the stillness of the morning, more leaves detach themselves from the branches overhead and drift to the ground. About now in the season, the trees above your head and the carpet of leaves below your feet seem almost to mirror one another. The passage down an autumn street is hard to complete without thoughts of the season.


I've always been fond of fall, but never so much as this year, perhaps because I'm finally accepting the onset of my own autumnal season. The metaphor of the seasons for the stages of a man's life may be a commonplace, but it's durable because it's apt, even though we never realize its appropriateness fully until we've gladly given up attempts to make our summers linger.


Summer seems to me to be too intense, too extravagant. It celebrates its lush fertility in bursts of excess, expending the virility of its heat upon lengthening days with no acknowledgment that the days grow shorter midway through the season. Summer is all heat and light, all sensuality and ardor, all undirected energy and undifferentiated passion; its color is green, a sign of fertility but a mark of conformity as well, a willingness to be regimented in the pursuit of pleasure.


Autumn moves at a different pace. Its days are temperate, nights gradually cooler. As its heat retreats, and its light grows less intense, it heightens other senses, making you more aware of color and tastes and smells, making you more discriminating and alert about subtler pleasures. It's a more sober season, more reflective and thoughtful. It teaches you to understand, accept, and expect change; it focuses your attention on transition, on what you've learned and what you have yet to learn, on what you've done and what you've left to do. Autumn never deceives you about its ability to last; even as, in Indian summer, it lets you remember fondly the seasons past, it never lets you forget that winter is coming, that you have to accept its onset, that you have to be prepared for it.


I think there's something to celebrate in autumn, and I apply the season to my own life. If I take it more seriously than I do summer, I don't take it somberly. After all, I see myself as only beginning my season; there's hope that I'll display my brightest colors, channel my energies into a stirring achievement, right at the moment before I begin to let my powers fade. You could do worse than be a tree at the height of its individuality, its color, its perception and acceptance of the change of seasons. You could do worse than be a harvest moon, full, serene, brilliant, illuminating more and more the lengthening night below you.


I find comfort and reassurance in the autumn season. I'm really going to enjoy it while it lasts.



Note: "Autumn" was included in Limited Sight Distance: Essays for Airwaves. Glimmerglass Editions. 2013: 36-37.

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Thinking Out Loud


Having discovered a few recordings of my radio scripts on cassette, I searched our garage for a box with all the typed copies of essays written for my university's broadcast of "Morning Edition." My colleague Ken, who was taping film reviews for a local slot on that program, suggested I write book reviews for it. I did write a few, focusing on writers I liked and sometimes taught, but I wasn't comfortable doing it. I had no real alternative in mind when I asked John, the station's executive producer, if I could write something other than book reviews. "What would you write about?" he asked. "Just anything I feel like writing about," I answered. "Okay," he said. So, I did.


In 1980, when I started writing radio essays, I had completed my first book, Thomas Southerne, drawn from my dissertation research on Restoration theater, and written conference papers and articles on composition and rhetoric and English pedagogy. All that was about to elevate me from assistant professor to associate professor. I was a fully functioning academic. But as an undergraduate, I'd written a column for the college paper, The Lamron, succeeding a friend who had published satirical and humorous pieces. Titled "Root '66," my feature managed to amuse, entertain, or annoy those students and faculty who occasionally read it. I hadn't written that kind of thing in fifteen years and, probably because encouraging students to write personal essays had helped center my thinking somewhat, I had mellowed quite a bit. I felt ready to write short random essays.


The topics I felt like writing about were wide-ranging: our family life in Alma, my Western New York childhood, my reading, my viewing, the cycle of seasons, life on the road, the cosmos, a philosophy of place, and even, occasionally, current events. The first 20 scripts were written and recorded in the late summer and autumn of 1980, when Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter were competing for the presidency. My satirical piece endorsing Bugs Bunny for president made one colleague confront me about my failure to be more reverential about the nation's highest office. Two other essays, titled "The Voter's Prayer" and "Evolution and Education," were never aired. I tried for fewer opinion pieces in ensuing essays.


At the end of each school year, I collected my scripts into binders with general titles: Airwaves Essays I, II, and III, Alternate Route (a variation on my old "Root '66" title), and finally Thinking Out Loud, drawn from my habitual tagline, "This is Bob Root, thinking out loud." The series ran weekly two-thirds of each year between 1980 and 1987, eventually totaling 225 scripts and only ending when I felt the need to write longer, more complicated essays.


Twenty-six years later, hoping to better preserve some of that work, I included fifty-two radio essays in Limited Sight Distance: Essays from Airwaves. I claimed in the preface that writing around three dozen essays a year "forces you to be more alert to the world, to move through your life always open to the possibility that what happens to you—whatever you notice, view, read, observe, experience, hear or overhear, wherever you go, however you get through your days—might end up in an essay. You walk through your life ever so much more awake because, pressed by constantly recurring deadlines, a part of you is always testing potential opening lines, composing narrative or descriptive or expository or reflective sentences." I compared it to "having a play-by-play announcer and a color commentator piped in over images from a video camera attached to your head, permanently displaying your angle of vision."


Sometimes a broadcast would prompt listeners to get in touch. One man wrote me about how, after hearing my script about a small-town hamburger joint, he convinced his co-workers to lunch at a local restaurant rather than a fast-food chain. The restaurant made their own pies, and my correspondent reported having had a slice of both the rhubarb and the lemon. Other people approached me to share their own thoughts about that week's subject. Hans, my department chair, sometimes stopped by my office to say he'd been in the shower during the broadcast and only heard the final minute or so and wanted to know what he'd missed. These encounters taught me something about writing essays—that what really interests you enough to write about, whether ordinary or idiosyncratic, will inevitably set off vibrations in other people, a kind of sympathetic tuning, almost in spite of your intentions. You may be writing for yourself but that doesn't keep readers from connecting to what you've written.


I'm going to post some of my radio essays over the coming weeks, ones that resonate with me, ones that might have resonated with some listeners.


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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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Once a Songwriter


According to the list of titles in my "Root Songs" notebook, the first five songs were written in Iowa between 1970 and 1971, while I was in graduate school, and the remaining thirty-five in Michigan between 1979 and 1981, where I'd been teaching and my wife and I had separated and I'd become a single father trying to figure out how to move on with my life. When I read the lyrics, memories sometimes open up, some fond, some troublesome, but just as often they stay closed—What or who was this song about? Why did I write it? Some songs seem political, the ones written during the Nixon years and the Vietnam era, and some are intensely personal, lyrics about loneliness and change and grasping for meaning, lyrics for my children and my future wife and possibly for people whose relationship with me is ambiguous. Most of them are more personal than public-minded.


My songwriter friend John was on our faculty only a single year; we met in the 1980 fall semester and with Barb, another singer/songwriter, eventually started what we called the Michigan Songwriters Guild. When we performed at Hobie's Olde World, John and I were interviewed by Barbara Milstein for the Lansing State Journal. "'I sit down with my guitar and let the melodies tell me what's on my mind,' Bob Root said. 'Going from music to words is easiest for me. I always seem to have an idea in my mind. If I don't put it down as soon as possible, I'll forget it at the end of the day. I've probably lost more than I've written.'" The interviewer explained, "Root tends to compose introspective music—exploring the beginnings and endings of relationships. It's 'sort of like a narrator sitting back, thinking about and looking at his own life.'" She thought my song "The Highway Calling Me" "sums up its thought with the line: 'You're never more a prisoner than when you're really free.'"


I was influenced by songwriters I tended to listen to, mostly folk-oriented singers. My songs were often about trying to move on and come to terms with my life, and I sometimes introduced "Highway Calling Me" by referring to "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" and claiming mine should be "Bob Root's 13th Road Song." John and Barb sometimes suggested we each write a song in the vein of another singer or from an outlook not typical of us. I wrote some satirical lyrics, like "God Bless America (Bless Her Guns and Tanks)," and the rowdy country-flavored "Free-Rolling Man," with the lyric "The barroom queens in the barroom scenes/check your bankroll while they check your jeans." I worked on one lyric for a long time until I realized I was composing new words to a melody by the Lovin' Spoonful; it made me aware of my limitations as a musician. It also made me aware that I didn't want to write poetry that didn't have a tune underlying it.


The lyrics that affect me most are those that grew out of my situation in the years I wrote them. The ones about lovers separated were inspired by Sue's working for two years in Missouri while I still worked in Michigan. I can tell how far along we were in our relationship by some of the lyrics: in "The Words I Long to Hear" the narrator claims, "And now I'm on the Greyhound and I'm staring at the road/Thinking of the time we'll be apart/And thinking where you'll be the time you're not with me" and his need for confirmation and assurance is clear; "Spending Time" is a declaration of commitment and longing, as in the opening verse:


I know too much of wasted days

I know how much they cost

But counting all the empty hours
can't measure what I've lost
If time is really money, girl,
I know where you should be,
lying here right by my side
spending time with me


I'm pretty pleased that I can revive the melody in these songs and several others by reciting them aloud—something of rhythm and emphasis and pace surfaces as I do—and I'm disappointed that trying the same approach with others brings back no sense of their original tunes. I've found some scribbled sheets with musical notations for some songs in that same box of manuscripts and hope to locate those tape recordings of some of them. I'd like to know just what I was searching for on every level of the songs I used to write.



Note: The original article, "Songwriters find a cheerful home" by Barbara Milstein, Journal Correspondent, appeared in the Lansing State Journal June 6, 1981.


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Reading Lyrics


Having found that folder of my old lyrics and tried to remember their melodies, I've wondered how they sounded to other listeners than me. I used pop songs when I taught college classes on popular culture and workshops at local high schools. I focused on their rhetoric: the way we respond to the speaker in the song, the situation the song recounts, its effect on individual listeners. Just as we all have our own reactions to what we read or what we watch, we all have our own reactions to what we hear.


I played three recordings of the Lennon-McCartney song "Let It Be." Most familiar was the Beatles' original pop rock version; Aretha Franklin's was impassioned soul music; Joan Baez's was gospel-flavored folk music. The lyrics were the same in all three, which suggests that the meaning of the song was the same each time, but the singers' gender and race and the music they performed to varied. In class discussion students' preferences for one version over the others tended to be based on familiarity with the artist or the subgenre of popular music or their sense of the artist's sincerity.


This is a game you can play at home, comparing versions of songs in videos on YouTube—I just tracked down "Dream Lover" by Bobby Darin, Mariah Carey, Tanya Tucker and Glen Campbell, and Ricky Nelson, "Hello Young Lovers" by Frank Sinatra and Stevie Wonder, "House of the Rising Sun" by Leadbelly, the Animals, and Joan Baez, and "Heartbreak Hotel" by Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson. Or consider the music of three performers who just left us: Helen Reddy (she recorded two different versions of "I Am Woman"), Mac Davis (his song "I Believe in Music" was recorded by Davis, Helen Reddy, Perry Como, and many others), or Eddie Van Halen (look for an early song).


The other example I offered focused on how certain situations are presented differently in the lyrics and melody of thematically similar songs. Both Rod Stewart's recording of "Tonight's the Night" and Bob Seger's recording of "We've Got Tonight" are songs making a case for two people spending the night together, but the attitudes and the arguments of the male vocalists and their implied relationships with the women being persuaded vary quite a bit. Listeners might react to the vocalists' perspectives based on psychological or social preferences (and also to their possible preference for one singer over another), but if you read the lyrics without the melody, how would you react to either song—that is, to the message of the lyrics? If you heard the melody without the lyrics, in an instrumental version, how would you react to the song's attitude?


Only a few people ever heard live performances of my songs, always by me, so reading their lyrics provides little or no sense of their melodies. In poems we glean an understanding of pace and rhythm ("I think that I shall never see/a poem lovely as a tree" by Joyce Kilmer; "Whose woods these are I think I know/His house is in the village though" by Robert Frost). In my lyrics I can sometimes recognize the melody by reading the lines, like these from "Spending Time"


I know too much of wasted days

I know how much they cost

But counting all the empty hours
can't measure what I've lost


Or this chorus from "It Gets a Little Lonely in the Night"


It gets a little lonely in the night
It gets a little lonely in the night
By daylight I'm alright
But it gets a little lonely in the night


I recognize the stressed and unstressed syllables, the difference between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter lines from "Spending Time", the variations in feet in the repeated lines in "It Gets a Little Lonely in the Night." Emphasis and lack of emphasis determine the pace if I read them aloud. The texts of my lyrics tend to be metrical, but they aren't all obviously musical, at least to me. If you read both of these verses aloud, you might be aware of the metrical difference between them but be unlikely to intuit the melody underlaying them.


It's possible to find lyrics online with accompanying video or audio versions. If you read an unfamiliar lyric aloud, try to sense a melody, then listen to a recording to see how well your imagined song resembles the actual one. Your reaction might have something to do with how you're reacting to the lyrics. Those verses above trigger reactions in me; they open passages to memory and emotion that make me wonder how I'll feel about who the lyrics tell me I once was.


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