I had a great session with around 15 Muhlenburg College freshman as part of a course called No Song Left Behind with my friend Roland Kushner. The course is a look at songwriting: Roland envisioned me playing and talking about songs and why some endure, for whom, how. It’s something that has always been on my mind as a performer, folklorist, and listener for decades. What makes a good song?
I started off cold by playing the bass line to My Girl and taking note of who picked up on the tune early, and, remarkably, who didn’t, and by the end of the chorus, all knew the song, some with remarkable detail (harmonies, arrangement). I then went further to see if the group would sing out loud together as a group building exercise. I then asked them to come up with why this song resonates. Great discussion: parents listening habits and family nostalgia, musical hooks, ascending harmonies, simplicity, modulation of keys, and I added the dance moves by the Motown groups and how they dressed sharp for TV. It was college level chat.
I then moved to Here Comes The Sun. Again I played it (pretty well, this time) and got the kids to sing the bridge ‘sun, sun, sun.’ We then dissected the tune. Song of hope/spring, bright and sparkling and different acoustic guitar sound (capoed at the 7th fret), simple and singable bridge, catchy non words (do do lo dos), and a great ending using all the elements in the arrangement. Again, great intelligence in the class room. I get high in these situations.
I opened up the discussion to talk about folk music and brought up some suggestions from my FaceBook entry that morning. Take Me Out to the Ball Game, You Are My Sunshine, All Along the Watchtower, Imagine, Home Sweet Home, Happy Birthday, Little Boxes, Good Night Irene. I played my version of Skip to My Lou. we discussed why these songs have lasted.
Roland then asked me to talk about Pete Seeger and how he involved people singing and why he did it. I reflected that he not only was a great songwriter but a keeper of the folk catalogue. I then talked about my dealings with being a infrequent songwriter and a prodigious collector and performer of a diverse panoply of songs and styles. I then did Lessons from Pete (did it well, phew…) and I think it got their attention.
We chatted about Godfrey Daniels and its uniqueness and strengths as an intimate listening club.
We talked about what songs they listen to and which of them might last for 30 years or more. They brought up Up Town Funk You Up, and, thank god, I knew this one from my No Pressure gigs. I agreed. A great song.
As the class was coming to a close, Roland asked me to do a contemporary song, and I took his cue to do John Gorka’s How Legends are Made. Again, I played it well and I think it sunk in. Several kids came up and thanked me, and I look forward to reading their reflections that Roland assigned to them. I will follow up with some of their reactions.
As in many of these ‘figure it out’ sessions, I came away energized with the process, the intellectual discussions and the connections with new faces, and for me, a different demographic audience. Good work, if you can get it.