Song Portrait #7: It’s Cruel to Scare a Rabbit

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It’s Cruel to Scare a Rabbit is a song that I wrote last month at a Songwriters in Seattle event called Songwriting Games. I immediately RSVPed when I heard about the event because I really like games. Forget about getting all dressed up and going out on the town – one of my favorite things to do is have some friends over for cocktails and board games. I own three different versions of Trivial Pursuit, two Scrabble games (Super Scrabble and the deluxe version with the spinning board), and a bunch of other games. Poker and charades are fun too.

I also like songwriting challenges and assignments, so I knew that I would enjoy this event. The event was led by Jean Mann, a very talented and prolific songwriter who has participated in February Album Writing Month (FAWM) several times. This is a challenge to write 14 songs in 28 days and the corresponding website offers a variety of inspirations, challenges and games to help welcome the muse. Seven songwriters attended the event. We played a game that involved everyone writing one sentence on a blank piece of paper. We passed the papers around the circle and added another sentence or phrase to our neighbor’s sheet. We then folded the papers so that the first sentence was no longer visible. The game continued with passing the papers and adding on to only the most recent idea until the papers had been swapped fourteen times. What resulted was fourteen sentences that really did not form any type of cohesive story. In the end, everyone got back the paper that he or she had started with. We also wrote a bunch of chord symbols on folded up pieces of paper and each picked four out of a bag. After this, we all went to different areas of the house to work on our songs for a half hour.

My paper started with the sentence I had written, “It’s cruel to scare a rabbit”.  This line seemed to have come out of nowhere.  It sounded like something interesting to build more lyrics on to. The next line also involved a rabbit. Strangely, the sixth line also involved a rabbit. The chords I pulled were C G7 E7 and D.

The sixth line on the paper was, “Pull out a rabbit, pull out a fish, whatever you wish”. The seventh line was “and a wish may move or walk with a will of its own”. These ideas became the main theme of the song and the opening line. Aside from enjoying the Dr. Seuss quality of the language, I find that dealing with the disappointment of wishes not materializing is a constant theme in my life – and pretty much everyone else’s. I wrote the song pretty quickly and intuitively, using C, G7, E7 and changed the D to A (the rules were loose).

When time was up we all went back to the living room and shared our songs. A few people used every line on their paper. One person used one line and used the rest for inspiration, and a few of us were somewhere in the middle (I used 8). Likewise, some of us did not use our selected chords, some of us made a modification, and some people used exactly what they had picked. One of the best melodies came from the person who picked a group of chords that seemed impossible to include in the same song and stuck to them. Everyone’s song was interesting and true celebration of the spirit of songwriting.

I did not go to the event expecting to have a song that I would want to keep, but I liked my song and worked on it a bit more at home. Aside from changing the fingerpicking pattern in the guitar part, I changed it very little. One change I did make was adding the line “It’s cruel to scare a rabbit” to the end of the song and giving the song that title. This line had not appeared at all in the original version I had presented at the songwriting event. The more that I thought about the song I realized why that line came out of my subconscious. I have been really in to Chinese astrology this year (which is pretty obvious based on the title of this blog) and my son is a rabbit. I find myself slowly having to introduce him to the idea that there is cruelty in the world. I want him to have amazing dreams and aspire to achieve them, but not crumble if circumstances make doing so difficult or impossible. My own career dreams may have not worked out as planned, but I could not have dreamed of a better son, so this song is for my little rabbit.

Overall, I found this to be an exercise in writing based on instinct. I usually start writing a song based on instinct, but then spend quite a bit of time editing and scrutinizing lyrics. This game was better than Scrabble – I’ll definitely try it again.

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Guest Song Portrait #1: Monongah by Robert Rial

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Regarding my song “Monongah” and writing The Great Disaster Song
By Robert Rial

I suppose I am a bit morbid, but historic criminal masterminds and epic disasters, especially ones causing massive body counts, have always been favorite song topics of mine. So far, I have written a song about John Dillinger and his demise outside the Biograph Theater, a song about the infamous serial murderer H.H. Holmes, who ran amuck during Chicago’s 1893 Colombian Exposition, a song about a Chicago mob hitman and boss named Felix “Milwaukee Phil” Alderisio, and two mining disaster ballads, one with a happy ending and one with a sad ending.
The song with a happy ending is called “Nine For Nine” and tells the tale of the 2002 coal mining rescue of nine men at Quecreek Mine, in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. The first line of the chorus is literally stolen from a headline I read on a Chicago Sun-Times paper as I walked by a newspaper box the day after the men were rescued:
“They tied themselves together so they wouldn’t die alone.”
I saw this headline and immediately thought to myself, wow, if that isn’t a lyric waiting to be written about in further detail. So I got some change out of my pocket and bought that Sun-Times, read about the rescue on the blue line train on my way home, and proceeded to write the song that very night.
But a rescue is hardly a great disaster. For this, we must move on to the subject at hand, “Monongah”. For a more complete outline of events, please visit the links below. But to give you the short and sweet version, the worst coal mining disaster in American history took place, killing close to 500 people virtually instantaneously on December 6, 1907. The deaths left 250 widows and more than 1000 fatherless children. It should be noted that ‘07 was a particularly bad year for mining deaths, with 3,242 American coal miners dying in that one year. The Monongah disaster paved the way for mining reform. Many safety precautions that could have prevented the explosion were simply not employed that day at Monongah, such as safety lamps (like the ‘Davy Lamp’), permissible explosives and mine preparation techniques. The disaster is believed to have been caused by the ignition of a mixture of coal-dust and methane, or “fire damp”, which caused an explosion that tore through Shafts #6 and #8. One might think the miners were killed by fire, but actually most died from suffocation due to the majority of their oxygen being consumed by the explosion. This is referred to as “after damp”. As you can see, there are numerous details in this story which I was able to mine during the writing of “Monongah”.
Writing disaster themed songs partially originated for me in the writing of several break up songs.  Break up songs are not necessarily disaster songs, but they can be.  Parting ways is sometimes the most disastrously painful thing humans can go through.   Some of my best material came out of desiring catharsis after a traumatic break up. When life itself was a disaster.  This harnessing and release of sorrow through song is powerful.
Writing the great disaster song is about embracing the absurdity and senselessness that accompany such events, and about reporting the facts in an entertaining way. Embellishing the truth is acceptable if it makes the story better, but I have found that most of these tales are so horrible that sprucing them up with hyperbole is unnecessary. There are as many different ways to approach a disaster ballad as there are types of disasters. Industrial disasters are sometimes due to criminal negligence, but seldom due to malicious sabotage.  There is a faceless anonymity to a natural disaster.  The chaos and randomness defy logic.
What is next on my disaster song plate? Many people dying all at the same time is very fascinating to me.  I plan on exploring that theme more in the future, if I have not chosen to write some happier material. Perhaps a joyful ditty about the atomic bomb…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monongah_Mining_disaster
http://www.historyinsidepictures.com/Pages/MonongahCoalMineExplosionMemorialPhotographsoftheWorstMiningDisasterinUSHistory.aspx

Song Portrait #6: Tale of a Missouri Girl

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Tale of a Missouri Girl came out of the main piano motif you hear over and over during the verses. It was something I came up with that I played with for a while. I liked this little riff because it was playful, yet sinister. I knew the right lyrics would present themselves eventually.

On a surface level, the story in the song was inspired by two movies I saw during this time. One was Barton Fink, a film set in 1940’s Hollywood. This film portrays the quest for glamour and success that so often ends in personal ruin for many aspiring actors and writers. The second movie I saw was 1408, a film based on a Stephen King story. In 1408, a writer researching a book on haunted destinations checks in to a room where he must live his personal nightmare and ultimately face his past and who he is.

The song is set in Hollywood, largely in a hotel, and the main character is an aspiring actress. The first line signifies that she is not being herself, either because she has something to hide, or because she has yet to figure out who “herself” really is. The rest of the song is her journey.

While it was fun to make up a fictitious story about a young lady in another time and place, the story was pretty easy to write because the story parallels my own life. As a young singer/songwriter in the 1990’s, I regarded Seattle as being my Hollywood.

I am from the Midwest. I transplanted myself to the West Coast. I pursued a dream and became a waitress. I was certainly never as naive about my ambitions as our lovely protagonist, and unlike her, I can honestly say that my intention is to have a life in the arts, not be a star. Still there are parallels. I am just retelling this story, which is the oldest story in the book.

This is one of my songs that the band I am in, Bakelite 78, performs. It is on our most recent album, What the Moon Has Done with the full band arrangement.

Song Portrait #5: Avant Garde Heart

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“Reality just is. It is the light that permeates the thin bedroom curtains on the morning of a fierce hangover, after all the nocturnal beer tears and boozy sentiments, and the self-annihilation disguised as fine art”.
-Koren Zailckas, Smashed

I read Smashed, by Koren Zailckas, four years ago and was absolutely entranced by the book. Aside from being able to relate to the author’s experiences on a personal level, I found the imagery in the book to be intoxicatingly beautiful. I found myself writing down passages, and they became the inspiration for this song. Some of the lyrics in the second and third verses were taken from the quote above.

The book is about the author’s struggle with alcohol abuse as a teenager and young adult. This book brought me to a time in my life when my social life revolved around one place – a bar in Chicago called the Inner Town Pub. I hosted the open mic night, ran the soundboard, and performed there every Thursday night for two years. The owl imagery in the song was inspired partly by the physical appearance of the bar. The bar was always very dark and everything was wood – the floor, the tables and chairs, the bar itself. There were also owls everywhere. They were gaudy owl relics from the 1960’s. The entire time I was at the bar I was surrounded by owl clocks, owl lamps, and owl figurines perched on branches and watching me with grotesquely large eyes. There was another type of owl who inhabited this bar: the patrons. They were mysterious and beautiful creatures who lived primarily nocturnal life styles. They would sit on their bar stools drinking, observing, perhaps looking for prey.

Of course, not all of the patrons were owls. As much as I was guilty of overindulgence while at the Inner Town, I was also living the life of an artist. I was writing new songs and showcasing them at the bar. I can say the same about all the people who came to the open mic every week. During this time I met many talented people who were extremely committed to the craft of songwriting. These people continue to be an inspiration to me today. Then there were the owls…….

The owls were not artists. They often posed as artists or hung out with artists as an excuse to live lives of hedonism and debauchery. This is where the inspiration for the main character in the song comes from. The narrator is a sleazy sort of guy who enjoys hanging out at this bar. He does not do anything creative, but to his credit, he does not pretend to either. He meets a young woman at the bar. He briefly enters her world and sees the things she creates. She could be a painter, a musician, a film maker, or a performance artist – it really does not matter. Either way, the man regards her work as being nonsensical. His reaction to her work is that he could have made that. In fact, anyone could have made that. Is this woman a genius creating avant-garde art, or is she a person with little talent making things just because she can in order to fit in with some sort of subculture? The owl man never finds out because he decides they should never meet in day light. He is too emotionally detached to get to know her, or anyone else well. He will go back to sitting on his perch and observing until another interesting looking mouse comes along.

When I starting writing this song, four years ago, I played it on guitar and it had a slightly different chord progression. During the chorus the progression meandered in to a different key and I could not figure out a way to bring it back to tonic. I stopped working on the song and then completely forgot about it. A few months ago I was working on a different song that had a lizard analogy in it. I realized that the character I was writing about was more like and owl. Then I remembered this song – that had been simmering on the back burner for a long time. I dug up the journal where I had written the lyrics and sat down at the piano. After all these years I was able to finish it really quickly.

Overall, this song is about a lot of things I wrestle with: the nature of art, the nature of the artist, substance abuse and substance abusers, and the fact that being a musician seems to be inseparable from living a semi-nocturnal life, where there are always owls perched on a bar stool.

Song Portrait #4: Nemesis

I had been working on a song about Narcissus when I got sidetracked by the detail of how the beautiful boy, Narcissus, ended up at the river bank where he ultimately met his demise.  Researching the story led me down another path which led to the creation of a whole other song.

Narcissus was quite vain and proud.  He was admired by many suitors, but none of them were good enough for him.  One of these suitors was a nymph by the name of Echo.  She had been a talkative nymph who was admired by Aphrodite for her voice and song.  This ended when she tricked Hera, the jealous wife of Zeus.  Hera put a curse on Echo so that the only thing she could say was the last word said to her.  Echo fell in love with Narcissus and followed him through the woods.  When he finally met this strange creature who could only repeat back his own last words, he rejected her.  After this, the heartbroken Echo withered away in despair, until only her voice remained.

The goddess Nemesis soon heard of this and decided to punish Narcissus by luring him to the river, where he would become mesmerized by the only creature perfect enough for him – his own reflection.  The name Nemesis is derived from the Greek word nemein, which means “to give what is due”.  She is an avenger of evil deeds and undeserved good fortune.  She is also a spirit of divine retribution for those who fall victim to hubris.  The words “echo” and “narcissist” clearly have meanings derived from the characters in the story.  The word “nemesis”, however has evolved to mean something different in modern English.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of nemesis is  “one that inflicts retribution or vengeance” or “a formidable and usually victorious rival or opponent”.   Most people associate the word with vengeance, when in actuality, Nemesis is a goddess of justice.

I starting working on this song during the peak of Occupy Wall Street, so I was thinking a lot about the ideas of justice and redistribution.  I worked on it a little bit over the course of a few days and the song pretty much wrote itself.  I’d say it is 1/3 current events and 2/3 classic mythology.  I am finding that every instance in modern life has some parallel mythological story – and that is why these stories are so loved and continue to be told.

So, what happened to Narcissus?  Well, because of Nemesis and his own hubris, he did perish.  I do not necessarily think of him as a bad guy though.  You will see how I feel about him when I finish his song – which I am still working on.

Song Portrait #3: Fruited Plains

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I wrote Fruited Plains in February of 2011 as part of my second RPM challenge. The RPM challenge is a home recording challenge where participants complete an album of original music in the month of February.

I was really enjoying my life this particular February. I only had to go to my day job three days a week on account of being seven months pregnant. I had free time. Aside from nesting, I was studying things that interest me, and working on the writing and recording required to complete the RPM challenge. I started out the challenge by recording a few songs I had already written. For one of the previously written tracks, “Ballad of a Folk Singer Waitress”, I had added a banjo track that I was quite happy with.

I do not really play the banjo. My husband plays tenor guitar and tenor banjo. I live with these instruments (we live with a lot of instruments) and I understood the tuning and a few basic chords.  It was not, however, an instrument I was truly proficient at. While adding the banjo track, I had become mesmerized with the timbre of the instrument. I had also been forced to learn some more chords and become more familiar with the instrument. After I finished recording a few previously written songs, I needed to write some new material. The banjo provided the perfect inspiration.

I wrote the music to the song and lyrics soon followed. The music I had come up with made me think of some documentaries I had recently watched about agriculture in the United States and the Monsanto Corporation. The topics covered included the legality of patenting seeds, the power of lobbyists, GMOs, and how farmers receive a subsidy for overproducing crops that are not fit for human consumption. There was a profound sadness in hearing farmers talk about how a once noble profession was being destroyed by greed, corporate bullies, and a system that works against what is best for farmers and consumers. I added some lyrical elements of “America the Beautiful” and then twisted them to create the image of a dystopia. Some songs take me years to write. This one took less than two hours.

Aside from the vocal and banjo tracks, I added an acoustic guitar part and some back up vocals. The recording I finished for the RPM challenge is available on my website, www.erinjordan.com .

I am a huge proponent of eating organic and my day job is actually working at an organic food restaurant. This song is particularly timely because the spending bill HR 933 which includes a “farmer assurance provision” (section 735) was signed in to law recently. Referred to as the “Monsanto Protection Act,” this provision was written with representatives from Monsanto and bars courts from restricting the use of GMO crops and seeds regardless of what new information comes to light about the harmful effects of GMOs.

There is a huge amount of information available about these issues.  If you are in to brevity, below are two articles that briefly explain the bill in question and how the Monsanto Protection Act became a part of it.   For now, I am going to continue working on my own organic garden.  The baby I was pregnant with when I wrote this song is now two, and is a great gardening assistant.   He picks out all the rocks and gives the worms plenty of love.  These are my small ways of telling Monsanto to suck it.

Monsanto Protection Act: 5 Terrifying Things To Know About the HR 933 Provision

How the Monsanto Protection Act Snuck in to Law

Song Portrait #2: Medusa

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This is the song that started my series of mythology songs. I have been intrigued by the character of Medusa for a long time. Twice I have spent a good chunk of the afternoon entwining rubber snakes in my hair to dress up as Medusa for Halloween. I guess I really am a snake lady. The process of researching the myth and writing the song was so interesting and enjoyable that I decided to write an entire series of songs based on Greek and Roman mythology.

I love these stories because the characters and the lessons are so universal and timeless. It was also interesting to revisit many of these stories as an adult. When we learn myths and fairy tales as children a whole lot of sex and violence is left out – and it should be. Just last week I checked out a children’s version of Snow White from the library. Upon reading it, I decided it was too scary for my toddler. It was, by far, not the most brutal version of the story.

Medusa’s story is particularly brutal, making the children’s version one of many misconstrued details and omissions. I have heard two of these versions. In one, Medusa is an extremely vain woman and Athena punishes her by turning her in to a hideous monster. The moral of the story is that beauty is temporary and skin deep. There is another junior version of the story that is not so kind to Athena. In this version Athena is in love with Poseidon and Poseidon is more interested in Medusa. Athena turns the beautiful Medusa into a hideous monster out of vengeance.

When I revisited this story I found that there are many variations. The following is the version I based the song on:

Medusa was an extremely beautiful woman who was pursued by many men. Despite her line of admirers, she chose a life of service as a priestess in the temple of Athena. Poseidon, the god of the sea, was attracted to her. She rejected him. She was then raped and impregnated by Poseidon. Athena was furious. Fornication was a violation of sacred service, and by some accounts Athena was in love with Poseidon. Either way, Medusa was the one who was punished. Athena turned her in to a hideous monster with hair made of venomous snakes. Anyone who looked directly at her would be turned to stone.

Ultimately Medusa’s secluded and lonely life was ended when she was slain by Perseus. With the aid of Hermes’ winged sandals, Hades’ cap of invisibility, and a mirrored shield provided by Athena, Perseus beheaded and killed Medusa. When she was beheaded , her fully grown offspring, a unicorn and giant warrior named Chrysaor, sprung out of her neck. The head of Medusa was given to Athena and attached to her shield. The head continued to turn onlookers in to stone.

Medusa’s name means “guardian” or “protectress”. The timeless and universal question in Medusa’s story is that of victim or villain. In my song she is clearly a victim. The relationship between her and Athena is that of women perpetuating a cycle of victimization instead of empowering each other. I could go on for a long time (a really long time……) about the symbolism in this song, how timely it is, how it relates to my own life, and meanings of specific word choices – but I am going to just shut up and let the song speak for itself. Enjoy!