Song Portrait #17: Mary Hawkins

 

Mary Hawkins is based on a ghost story from my home state of Illinois.  I actually wrote another song about this legend in the late 90s.  I was still in the infancy of my songwriting and it has long since been dumped from my repertoire.  Last October I was invited to participate in a ghost themed songwriting challenge hosted by Songwriters in Seattle.  I knew it was time to take another stab at telling this haunting tale.

This story takes place in Pemberton Hall, the dormitory I lived in my freshman year at Eastern Illinois University.  Opened in 1909, it is the oldest women’s residence hall in Illinois.   The building, particularly the third floor, is known for being haunted.  Generations of residents have reported doors locking themselves, strange scraping noises, and objects and furniture being moved.  It is believed that these mysterious occurrences can be attributed to Mary Hawkins, a young woman who worked as a Dorm Mother around 1917.   Late one night one of the residents, unable to fall asleep, went up to the music room on the 4th floor to play the piano.  It was there that she was brutally raped, beaten, and left for dead by a man believed to be the building’s custodian.  Mary managed to crawl down the stairs to the third floor.  She tried to get the attention of the sleeping residents as she dragged herself down the hallway of the third floor.  She was not able to make enough noise to get anyone’s attention until she reached the final door at the end of the hall.  It was the door belonging to Mary Hawkins.  When Mary opened the door she was horrified to find the girl’s battered, lifeless body strewn in front of her.

Prior to this incident, Mary had been known as a cheerful woman.  After that night everything changed.  She became depressed and paranoid.  She felt that it had been her job to protect the girls in the dormitory.  She never forgave herself.  She ended up going mad and was committed to a mental institution nearby.  She ultimately committed suicide.  After Mary’s death the strange occurrences started and have never stopped.

Did I see any of this?  Nope.  I lived on the first floor in an addition that was added on in the 1960s.   But I do feel haunted by this building nonetheless.   My Pemberton Hall sounds like Tori Amos’ “Under The Pink” and it smells like peach schnapps and whiskey.  It feels like glory and confusion of being in love for the first time.  It is lonely.  It is as vast and confusing as having your whole life ahead of you and endless choices…. a blessing and a curse.

For more on this legend check out Prairie Ghosts.

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Song Portrait #16: Covfefe

 

This song wrote itself when I was making up words that rhyme with “covfefe”.  I do not want to make light of what is going on, but it really is too scary to deal with in a way that does not involve humor.  It is not just scary, it is absurd.  Maybe it is my Gen-Xer self speaking (yes, I still buy CDs and magazines) – but part of me still clings on to the idea that the internet is for things like finding recipes, watching porn, seeing pictures of who your ex is dating.  In other words: Twitter and Facebook are not legit places for political discourse.  The idea that a president communicates regarding policy via Twitter is ridiculous.  The idea that the president communicates stupid rants, hateful tactless comments, makes jokes about nukes, and antagonizes (other) ruthless dictators is simply UNREAL.  He also does this without proofreading.  The worksheets my fifth graders turn in have better spelling and grammar than our president uses. It is so unreal I almost have to laugh – it’s like I am watching a Sci-Fi movie.  But I’m not.

I used to go to protests.  At the beginning of the Iraq war I went to many. Did it make a difference?  Not really.  History will show that there was a large movement against it and I guess that is good enough for me.  I don’t see the point now.  Maybe it is because I am older and more jaded, but during the George W. administration I could also see merit to the side of the argument I did not agree with.  Making a statement was worth my time and energy. With the Trump other “other side” is just idiocy and insanity and I do not see the point in debating idiocy and insanity.

So that is where I’m at.  I am isolated my bubble of “I’m going to fight this horrible regign by being kind and a good mom and a good teacher”.  Excuse me while I enjoy another glass of chardoneffe and then scream into a pillow.

Song Portrait 15: Full Bloom

 

Full Bloom is a love song to Memphis, youth, one of dearest friends, and maybe even Elvis himself.   The song was inspired by a road trip I took to New Orleans for New Year’s Eve of 2002.  I took this trip with my dear friend Ana.  We left from Chicago on an icy late December morning before the sun rose and hit I-57.  We did not stop until we came to a truck stop well into Missouri, the kind of place that sold trucker hats, hideously fabulous belt buckles, and those shirts with wolves howling at the moon.  We noticed that it was already considerably warmer that had been in Chicago.  After we got gas, we headed to our destination for the night – Memphis, Tennessee.  We made it there before sunset and were shocked to find that it felt like springtime.  We got some dinner without our coats on and found a hotel to check in to.  Then we set out for a night on the legendary Beale Street.  In my naivety I thought we were going to hear some authentic Delta Blues.  What we found was cover bands and Elvis impersonators.  That certainly didn’t stop us from having fun, although my definition of the word “fun” was complicated back then.  We stumbled back to the hotel room after a night of debauchery and I woke up with a fierce hangover that got worse as the day proceeded, but really, I was in a phase of my life where I just accepted that was being normal.  It was a sunny day and everything was in full bloom.

Ana and I had been on a road trip together before and had found that we were the ideal travel companions.  We were both vegetarians, we both liked to do strange quirky things, and we both tended to be introverted types.  We understood when we needed to split up and have alone time, something only two introverts would be able to understand.  Ana wanted to learn guitar and had decided a pawn shop in Memphis was THE place to buy a guitar.  We had both noticed that Memphis seemed to have an excessive amount of pawn shops.  I wanted to go to Graceland, something Ana had no interest in, so she dropped me off at Graceland and we spent the day apart.  I spent a lot of time waiting, and wishing I did not have a throbbing headache.  I saw the jungle room, the billiard room (the ceiling is amazing), the headstone, and lots of artifacts The King left behind.  I was glad I went.  Ana picked me up at our agreed upon time and place, and she took me to one of the pawn shops to inspect the guitar she had picked out.  It was a black Yamaha acoustic guitar.  It was a good guitar.  She bought it.

We rode off in to the night and headed to New Orleans.

Most of my songs have some sort of companion song, and the companion piece to Full Bloom is called Southern Belles.  This trip has a special place in my memory, because looking back, this trip presented me with many eerie premonitions of what to come…..but more about that in my next entry.

 

 

Song Portrait #14: Middleman

Video

Many years ago I was bumming around the Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle, and I decided to visit the Gold Rush Museum.  The museum celebrates the history of Seattle during the years of the Klondike Gold Rush. In 1896 gold was discovered in the Yukon Territory of Canada.  When word of this reached Seattle, merchants rushed to make Seattle the official “Gateway to the Gold Fields”.  A rumor existed that prospectors would not be allowed to enter Canada without a year’s worth of supplies.  Shop owners quickly exploited this rumor.  Why mine for gold when they could mine the miners? 

Most artists are gold miners.  We give up comfort and stability to chase after a dream that will probably not come true.  The gold we are mining for is recognition.  Most of us will compose/paint/choreograph/sing/write/act/dance/perform whether or not we receive any recognition, but having one’s work recognized is the ultimate golden nugget.  It is the chance to quit that soul sucking day job.  It is the chance to have more time and money to put into creating more art. It is a validation that the trek was worth it.  Of course, where there are miners, there are always folks waiting to mine the miners. 

I started writing songs in the late 90’s and became very serious about pursuing this whole singer-songwriter thing around 2000, so when I started this endeavor I was living in a pretty low tech world.  Independent musicians were starting to have websites, but social media sites did not exist.  It was normal not to have a cell phone and smart phones were still years in the future. That said, calls and emails were not expected to be responded to instantaneously.  Sending a venue a CD was a normal part of the booking process. 

Over the next decade technology advanced tremendously!  Making decent quality recordings and videos became cheap and easy. Social media sites sprang up.  It became increasingly easier for independent musicians to manage their careers and book their own shows and tours.  Club owners and bookers found themselves overwhelmed by independent artists trying to book shows via email and social media.  It is not surprising that a market opened up for a bunch of middlemen. 

Over the years I’ve watched so many artists who are truly talented and original pour money into companies like Sonic Bids or X-Ray and never get anything in return.  Even music teachers get screwed by companies like Take Lessons.  All of these middlemen have created a business model that aids consumers and creates endless frustration and financial hardship for musicians.  So why do we go through the middlemen?  Because more and more venues or festivals will not listen to your material unless it is submitted through Sonic Bids.  Because the first thing that comes up when I google “guitar lessons Seattle” is TakeLessons.com. 

After I went to the Gold Rush Museum I had the idea of writing a song about mining the miners that used the Gold Rush analogy.  The idea sat in the back of my head for years.  Then this song just came out.  It came out without out any references to Victorian era Seattle, panning for gold, or trekking through the Canadian wild.  I was just pissed one day and wrote this song in about an hour.  It also came out with power chords. 

Power chords are two note chords consisting of just the root and fifth of the chord.  They are usually found in punk rock and are easy to play.  I have to admit, I’ve prided myself on being a good finger picker and playing fancy jazz chords for a long time, but the last three songs I have written on guitar (I See Gold, Las Vegas Bride and this song) have been all power chords.  I have been really into Amy Ray for the past few years….she rocks.  I think I am having a power chord revolution.

Song Portrait #13: Las Vegas Bride

It has been almost an entire year since my last post.  I wrote my last blog entry on January 1st, 2015 and gave birth to my second child the next day. Somewhere in that post I stated that I hoped to work more on this blog in 2015, knowing full well that this was probably not going to happen. But that is just me wanting to have it all: my music, my family, a roof over my head (unfortunately not provided by music…) and a fabulous blog about songwriting.

Really, though, I do have it all. My two sons and husband rock my world. I do manage to find time to be a mom, work for money, and work for personal fulfillment. Some of my creative projects have just had to simmer on the back burner. They are simmering and my creative kitchen has some interesting aromas coming out of it. One thing that has happened quite a bit this year is going back and finishing unfinished songs that I started writing years ago. I never try to force writing, so if a song creeps out the back door or just tells me to “fuck off,” I listen. Sometimes they come back and tell me they are ready to be finished. Such is the case with Las Vegas Bride.

I started writing this song in 2006. Originally the song was about someone who marries the wrong guy.   Most of the lyrics and the chord structure were very different from what they are now. The song told me to fuck off. Between that time and now I’ve been through many phases of my life. I watched other people my age cohabitant, get married and have babies while I lived in a studio apartment with my cat. Sometimes I looked at them with jealousy – as if it must be nice to be so normal and do what you are supposed to do. I wondered if I was chosen to be a slave to the muse or if I was truly in a state of arrested development and destined to become a crazy cat lady. Then I actually did cohabitant, get married, have babies and move to a not very cool neighborhood.

A few years after I stopped working on this song, it came back to me. I was in my house (which is in a cul-de-sac) with my first baby.  I spent so much  time walking him in the stroller that I had little time to actually play an instrument. While I was taking these long walks I worked out this song in my head. While some of the imagery and ideas come from the older version, it really became an entirely different song.  When I finally got the chance to sit down with it at the piano I found I had written it in a key I hate (A flat!).  I played with it on piano, and then it went to guitar. Then it went back to piano in a different key (A…with a modulation to B flat, much better). Finally it made it’s way to guitar in the new key and said “I am complete now”.

So what is this song about? The choices we make in various emotional states, the struggle between what we want to do and what we are supposed to do, what happens when multiple dreams can not co-exist in one’s life, and my personal lifelong conflict between wanting to have a family and wanting to live in a van.

 

Song Portrait #12: Dance of the Maenads

Do you like my laundry room? Why am I wearing a muumuu? Where have I been? I will address these important topics later. Right now I speak of Dionysus and the song at hand.

Dance of the Maenads is the seventh song I have completed for my song cycle based on Greek Mythology. Just as I have struggled with Dionysus over the years, I have also struggled to complete a song inspired by Dionysus, despite the fact that I find this god of drink, lust and general debauchery to be one of the most intriguing characters in Greek Mythology. I had started writing two songs prior to this one told from the perspective of Dionysus. I was not feeling either of them and dumped them, as I always do when the process of writing a song feels forced. Then I saw a production of The Bacchae.
Euripides’ The Bacchae, tells the tale of Dionysus and his plot to seek vengeance on the city of Thebes.

Dionysus is the child of Zeus and a mortal woman by the name of Semele. Dionysus was born when the jealous wife of Zeus, Hera, made Zeus send himself down as a lightning bolt to kill the pregnant Semele. This caused the premature birth of Dionysus. Most the inhabitants of Thebes do not believe this story and think the story was made up to cover Semele’s illegitimate pregnancy by a mortal man. Semele’s own sisters believe that Zeus killed her as a punishment for lying. Dionysus shows up in Thebes with a plot to introduce Dionysian rites to the city, avenge the slander of his mother’s name, prove his divinity, and inflict pain on those who have perpetuated the belief that he was not born a god. Among those who deny his divinity is King Pentheus, who is his mortal cousin. To carry out his plot, Dionysus sends many of the women of Thebes, including his aunts, in to a mad drunken frenzy. These women, known as the Maenads, go to the hills where they use their new found feelings of liberation to engage in all sorts of debauchery and worship Dionysus. I will not give away the tragic ending, but not surprisingly, the intoxicated Maenads lose sight of who they really are and allow Dionysus to use them to carry out some despicable acts.

After I saw the play, I realized that I can not write from the perspective of Dionysus because I am not like Dionysus. I am a Maenad. After I shifted my perspective the song came out really easily. Dionysus is the god of wine, fertility, ritual madness, religious ecstacy and theatre. He is most associated with the grape harvest and wine making. He is known as a volatile god who can bring both extreme pleasure and extreme pain. The song is about the dual nature of Dionysus and all that he brings, how the the thing that makes you feel free can quickly turn into your worst nightmare.

Oh, so about my laundry room, muumuu, and disappearance from this blog. I have been very tired due to being pregnant with my second child. Today is actually my due date. I have also not had the time or privacy I need to work on this blog or music in general as of lately. Today I had a few hours of glorious free time to shoot this video in my laundry room (which doubles as my late-night-practice-with-headphones-on-room). I really hope I can make more time for working on this song cycle in 2015.

Side note #1: The production of the The Bacchae I saw was a Hard Bard production. It was a really well done, lusty, freaky, modern take on the classic Greek tragedy. The actors were all superb, especially the gentleman who played Dionysus and played him as rather flaming. If you live in Seattle I highly recommend attending a Green Stage/Hard Bard production.

Side note #2: One of my most vivid memories from high school is the moment my freshman English teacher, Ms. Johnson-Manos, bluntly stated “I AM TALKING ABOUT THE GOD OF WINE AND ORGY AND YOU ALL LOOK BORED”. Believe me, I was not bored. I was enjoying your class……so please do not despair, brilliant English teachers of the world who are forced to teach unenlightened suburban freshman who don’t realize how cool you are……you are appreciated.

Year of Snakes is accepting submissions!

It has been about a year and a half since I started this blog about songwriting.  I started it during the Year of the Snake as a way of showcasing and celebrating my songwriting during my Chinese zodiac year.  If you are interested in the snake and my relationship with this mystical creature, read the first two entries!  Even though the Year of the Snake is over, I will be keeping the name because I think the life of the snake is a good analogy to songwriting on multiple levels.  Writing a good song makes me feel like I have managed to unhinge my jaw and devour something larger than myself.

It is now the Year of the Horse.  Last year I featured a few “guest song portraits”, featuring other songwriters I like.  This year I plan on using this blog/vlog mainly to showcase the talents of other songwriters.  I don’t have much time to make these videos, and I want to hear more or YOUR excellent songs.  That said, I am accepting submissions:

Guidelines:

1. Please read and view the blog/vlog so you can see what the format is.  The format includes a video as well as a written piece about the song.

2. I am interested in showcasing songs that have an interesting story behind them or interesting compositional elements.

3. Your video needs to be posted to YouTube, so I can access it easily.  I am more concerned with good audio quality than good video quality, but please make the video as high quality as you can.  The written piece can be about the inspiration behind the song, the process of writing the song, the compositional elements of the song, or all of the above.

4.  If you have a submission, send an email to erinherself@erinjordan.com with a link to your YouTube video and a draft of your written piece.  I will get back to you as soon as I can!

5. If you send a submission please subscribe the blog!  You can also “like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.