What’s the point? …
There are different types of songs. Let’s ignore, for the moment, the emotional tone (happy, sad, funny, angry, love, hate, etc.) a song might possess, and look at the purpose-driven side of songwriting.
The following is by no means an exhaustive list, just some of the more common purposes found in songs.
- Satire – making fun of a subject via exaggeration or examining them from an unexpected angle. Tom Lehrer is a master of the art – give a listen to his A Christmas Carol where he takes a whole bunch of traditional festive season references and manages to make them all about money.
- Description – why the singer loves someone/something – Percy Sledge’s hit When a Man Loves a Woman,
a take on what makes a person tick – this great version of The Lady Is a Tramp by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga,
or the attractions of a lifestyle – Steppenwolf’s great rock classic Born to Be Wild.
- Protest – there was a great explosion of protest songs in the ’60s and 70s, with songs such as Bob Dylan’s Masters of War and Neil Young’s Ohio.
It’s a form that’s never really gone away – there’s arguably even more grounds for protest nowadays.
Later highlights of the genre include Leonard Cohen’s song of “Psychic terrorism” First We Take Manhattan and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s fundraiser for Puerto Rico which takes a sideswipe at Trump & Co.’s inaction and apathy Almost Like Praying.
- Storytelling – one of the oldest forms of song. There are story ballads dating back hundreds of years that are still sung today.
Check out Tam Lin by Fairport Convention,
or Dick Gaughan’s version of Floo’ers o’ the Forest.
In more modern times we find such songs as Marty Robbins’ El Paso,
the Grateful Dead’s Truckin’,
the Temptations’ Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,
or Queen’s mini-epic Bohemian Rhapsody.
Now, I write a lot of the last type of song cited above: storytelling.
So, I thought I’d look at one of those to give you an idea of how I put songs together. It’s a humorous take on a bit of personal “fake news” – Big Dead Bob.
Let me tell you a tale …
Here’s the story – as it actually happened!
A few years ago, I went to my regular Monday night at a session run by my friend Bernadette Collier.
When I entered the place suddenly went quiet, and people started nudging each other and whispering.
“What’s up?” I cheerfully remarked.
“You’re dead!” was the reply!
Apparently, local singer Michael Fagan had reported that, on the previous Friday evening, I had come out of Glasgow bar The Clutha Vaults and had suddenly dropped dead.
The rumour mill …
I collared Mr. Fagan and asked where he’d heard this.
Mick claimed that a mutual friend, folksinger Joe MacAtamany, had given him the news.
Joe told me he’d heard it from Big Sandy Watson, singer with the Clutha‘s resident Thursday-night band The Vagabonds.
And Sandy … told me he’d got the story from Mick Fagan!
Talk about the circle being unbroken!
I never found out how the rumour had started, and it didn’t seem to even be a case of mistaken identity as no-one had died coming out of the Clutha that night.
And it came to pass …
For a year or more, people referred to me as “Big Dead Bob”, and Bernadette suggested one night that the incident would make a good song.
So, I retired to my studio and started writing.
Break it up now …
Now, the trick to writing a narrative song is to first break the story into its constituent parts.
Make those as small and detailed as you can – you can always edit later. Then put them in order as they happened, and divide the incidents out over a number of verses.
So, here’s the sequence of events:
- Verse 1 – a very folky intro line “Word came from …” that led into how the rumour took wings
- Verse 2 – a description of my alleged passing
- Verse 3 – the “Ghost of Bob” arrives at the Monday session
- Verse 4 – I identify myself as Big Dead Bob, reveal that I’m very much alive, and thank everyone for mourning my loss.
Then I had to come up with a cheery chorus – since I intended it to be a funny song.
A few lines just jumped into my head immediately:
- “Big Dead Bob is in the building looking bigger than before” (the “b”s in “Big Dead Bob” made me look for more “b” words – “building”, “bigger”, and “before”)
- one based on an old Scots saying,
“Hell mend ye!”
(usually said to kids who were being naughty).
I also wanted a contrast between a cheerfully-alive “ghost” and an ashen-faced, shocked public.
After a bit of shuffling about, the lyric for the chorus ended up like this:
What’s that cheery cry
Who’s that coming in the door?
Big Dead Bob is in the building
Looking bigger than before
As I look around the table
Every face is ashen white
Oh, my God, it’s Big Dead Bob
Hell’s mended him alright
I set it to a fairly simple folky melody, and then built the verses on the same model.
Once you’ve thrashed out a shape for a lyric, it makes things so much easier!
Since my initial intention was for a throwaway-type fun song, I didn’t bother complicating it with a bridge, and just used the chorus tune for the verses too.
Imagine my surprise, when my “throwaway song” became one of my most-requested at gigs and sessions!
Retracing my steps …
- Lay out the narrative
- Divide the incidents into verses
- Scribble down some elements that you want in the chorus:
“Big” Bob – larger than life, contrast his cheeriness with the shock of the other people, jokey last line based on “Hell mend ye!”
- Devise a shape and simple tune for chorus, then fit the incidents of the verse into the same shape and tune
And here it is! –
Big Dead Bob © Bob Leslie 2017
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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter