Why Write Songs

by Mitch Gordon

From The Folknik Jan/Feb 1999

At some point or another, it probably occurs to most of us to write an original song, perhaps because a snippet came to mind, or some subject seemed to need a song written about it. But as soon as the urge strikes, the difficulty of the task sets in, and nagging self-doubts surface. Why should you bother? Aren't there already enough songs? Why would yours be anything special?

Well, even experienced songwriters find these doubts gnawing at our psyches and undermining our creativity. It can only be that much worse for people who are new to writing songs. Questioning the value of what you do is an easy trap for all creative people and creative endeavors.

It's true, there are a lot of songs in the world. And a whole lot of people are writing and performing original songs. But often the quantity overpowers the quality; and a great new song coming from an unexpected source is truly special. Your song, which you've convinced yourself not to write, may well have both a place and a beneficial purpose in the world. It's a shame to leave songwriting entirely in the hands of the "professionals" because you think you or your song idea is not worthy.

Some of my favorite experiences hearing original songs have been from people who have only written two or three songs. Just a few weeks ago, when Roz and I were playing music with another couple, the man shyly presented his two original songs: one about an uncle who had died in the Appalachian coal mines, and the other about the cannery days in Antioch in the early 1900s. Great stuff. It completely pulled us in, and made us feel connected with our new friend in a different, deeper way.

When you write a song and sing it for someone, you share part of yourself and your perspective on the world. Your writing the song makes it unique, because you are unique. No two of us are exactly alike, and neither are our songs.

When two songwriters write songs on the same subject, they'll come up with unique perspectives. This happened to me recently. I have a song about multiculturalism called Salad Bowl. The refrain is "we're living in a salad bowl ... a melting pot it's not." I found out through a friend that Tom Chapin has a song about multiculturalism called My Town is a Salad Bowl," that uses the salad bowl/melting pot metaphor too. His is a children's song - charming and idealistic. Mine is adult, somewhat darker, and chronicles our years as a couple in low-income inner-city neighborhoods. Songwriting is like an art class: all of the students paint the same model or scene, but each painting is different.

If you find self-doubt crippling your attempts to enter a creative pursuit such as songwriting, I can prescribe no better treatment program than a book by Julia Cameron called The Artist's Way. Ms. Cameron's central thesis is that creativity is the natural fabric of our lives, and that we may choose either to open ourselves to it or resist it. When we open to our own creativity and that of others, we embrace the natural order of things. When we close off, criticize, evade what we dream to do, we hurt ourselves and our world. Thanks to The Artist's Way, I've rethought a lot about my own creativity and know several other folks with similar experiences. Borrow or buy a copy, and see if something clicks. Know that there are ways to get yourself unstuck from a negative belief system about yourself as a creative person.

Returning to songwriting, let's pose the question again: Why write songs? Perhaps you want to entertain and teach children; to delve into and express strong feelings or personal experiences; to be playful; to motivate people to act an important social concern; to tell a story from history or cultural traditions. And that's only a partial list; make up your own reasons.

OK, so that's WHY to write a song. Now, HOW do you write and perform a song? You're in luck, because you're in the San Francisco Folk Music Club. SFFMC, like similar folk organizations elsewhere, provides supportive situations for trying out songwriting and performing. We emphasize songwriting for yourself and for the community, not to sell to the music industry.

Songwriting workshops occur at most of our camps and festivals. You bring in that idea or verse or melody that you're carrying around, and get ideas on what to do next, or get feedback on a song in progress from sympathetic, interested listeners. You'll be surprised in these workshops to find what a variety of ways there are to write a song, and reasons for writing one. When you're ready to try performing in front of a group, every night at every SFFMC camp there's a concert where you can sign up to perform two songs. We promise to listen, applaud, and encourage. No espresso machines and clattering dishes and loud conversations here!

I owe a big debt to the SFFMC for unearthing my dormant songwriting skills and getting me to perform. When I was introduced to the club 12 years ago, I had given up songwriting and performing for over a decade. I had done some of it in college, but there was just no support for what I was doing. And my commercial music idols of the time played to big halls with thousands of people. I knew I'd never be up on stages like that. So I quit.

Now that I'm in the folk community, I write songs, I perform, Roz and I even recorded an album. Why the turnaround? It's because of a supportive community of mostly amateur (and some professional) musicians. We don't need the big audiences, big record companies, or big egos. I can do something very rewarding and positive in a house concert playing to 20 people. And you can too if songwriting and performing are dreams you've been suppressing - you just need to take that first step.

Back to this folknik issue's contents page...