Why I write songs …

Coming on the heels of my posts of Why I Blog and Why I Read, I thought I would look at why I write songs. I began writing songs decades ago when I first moved from the saxophone (my main instrument) to the guitar and began to use some of my poetry as lyrics. I wrote for myself, and played for myself, and it was only after doing some experimental recording with a friend that I realized just how much I loved the experience of creating something original and moving it beyond my own field of vision.

Songwriting allows me to push in different directions than other forms of writing, and I lose myself in the process. Literally. Time passes without me knowing it when I am full in the moment of birthing a song. Writing a song is so unlike writing a story or a poem to me. The music does something to the angle of the words, and sometimes, I write with one meaning that others may hear as a song, but they don’t fully understand because they don’t have my lens to hear through. I love how undercurrents of meaning can float through a song.

I am not suggesting that I create hidden masterpieces when I write. I don’t. I write a lot of junk. But I often find a keeper here and there among that musical flotsam and jetsam and when I do, it’s as if I hit a home run and won the game.

How I write is by letting myself go and I stumble more than fly when I am songwriting, but it is the mistakes that lead to something interesting, I find, and so I let myself make those mistakes. I wait for that note, that chord, that progression that speaks to me.

I am often asked if I write the words or the music first, and the answer is: I don’t have a set method. Sometimes, I come to the guitar with a phrase of words or some direction; Other times, I find a chord I like and build a song around that. When I was in a band, one of the most amazing things was when I would bring in a song and watch it become something else in the hands of others. It didn’t always work — I canned more songs than I kept — but it was always a fascinating experience. You have to learn to let go of your creation if you expect it to be transformed.

A few years ago, I was right at the start of writing a song and I turned on my Flip video to capture the experience. It’s a bit long (about 18 minutes) so feel free to scan through. I did it more to capture the experience for me (and my kids, perhaps?). But it does give you a glimpse into my process.

And here is the song in a sort-of final version (the song never went anywhere, but I like the melody):

Man of Contemplation

I wish music and songwriting were part of more writing classes because I think the act of learning about rhythm and rhyme, and texture of words in relation to the theme, and repetition and development of ideas, all have great value to young writers.

For me, songwriting was always a way to release emotions and feelings in ways that I could not express otherwise. I found my voice as a writer when I found my voice as a writer of songs, and that has spilled out into my stories and my poetry and more.

I write songs because they give me a path to inner exploration. I write songs because I am a writer (this is my refrain for the three posts so far, so I figure, keep it up, right?)

Peace (in the melody),

Sharings Songs: Achilles’ Heel

This is the third and final song that my friend and I recorded the other night (see Katrina Blows in and Beacon in the Night) as a sort of demo. This one is called Achilles’ Heel and I wrote it after reading a bit about the Trojan War and wondering how this concept of story took hold — how one beautiful woman could set the world aflame.

Peace (in beauty),

Sharing Songs: Beacon in the Night

This is the second song I am sharing here (see Katrina Blows In) from a home video session my friend and I did the other night as we prep for possible open mic nights.

This song is called Beacon in the Night and we wrote it together for our old band, The Sofa Kings. John wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics. The song is about someone seeking out their loved on in the midst of uncertainty and how even as the world puts up barriers, you need to keep looking and keep the light on for them. You need to become their beacon in the night.

Peace (with a light),

Sharing Songs: Katrina Blows In

Here is the first of three songs that my friend, John, and I have been practicing for a local open mic night. This one — called Katrina Blows In — was written in the aftermath of the hurricane and I performed it at huge fundraising concert that my school put on to support survivors. I was trying to get at a first-person narrative of someone stuck up on the roof.

I’ll share the other two videos in the coming days.

Peace (in songs),

You Gotta Listen to the Kids on Leadership Day 2009


Scott McLeod at Dangerously Irrelevant is once again holding a blogging Leadership Day tomorrow, in which he asks folks to blog about advice or help for administrators.
This year, I decided to write a song that tries to capture the idea of administrators and leaders getting out of their offices and into the classrooms to talk to students about what they do and what they need and what they hope for. Also, I want to say again that technology should be integrated into the curriculum, not the old model of “drop my kids off into the lab for a planning period” kind of integration.


You Gotta Listen to the Kids
(by Kevin Hodgson)

Here’s what I fear
Tech won’t disappear
It’ll still be apart from the whole

When everybody knows
that kids will grow
when they connect their school to home

‘Cause kids are gonna text
explore what’s next
but they need us as a helping hand

So listen up, leaders:
we need you as believers
and support us any way you can

You gotta listen to the kids
’cause they’re gonna show you the way
You gotta listen to the kids
they’ve got some things to say

None of us knows
where this all goes
so the tool doesn’t matter much

But if they can explore
it’ll open up doors
and the world will be right in touch

You gotta listen to the kids
’cause they’re gonna show us the way
You gotta listen to the kids
’cause they’ve got some things to say

Peace (in the song),

PS — the song is also at this link.

Twitter This! (and pass it along your network)

I had the idea to write a quick song about Twitter, so during one of my last writing classes with my students — as they were working on writing their own songs — I jotted down some lyrics. I think I was inspired by my students’ enthusiasm.

Last night, I worked on the song with my music loop program and then recorded it.

Twitter This

I get up in the morning and I twitter all my dreams
140 characters is just enough for me
Then, each moment of the day becomes a Twitter storm
until the world is at my doorstep and everyone belongs

This Twitter space
inside this Twitter place
I’ve got a little bit of smile
on my Twitter face
Take me as a friend
or leave me out cold
I’m gonna keep on Twittering
until the platform gets old

I’m reading all my friends — the ones I haven’t met
from all across the globe, it’s a safety net
We’re putting pressure on Iran — let the China wall fall
let the information flow so we can all crawl

This Twitter space
inside this Twitter place
I’ve got a little bit of smile
on my Twitter face
Take me as a friend
or leave me out cold
I’m gonna keep on Twittering
until the platform gets old

If you like the song, do me a favor and send the link to the song (http://www.box.net/shared/5848z0cba8) along to your own Twitter network (if you Twitter and I am @dogtrax on Twitter) or blog space. I’m just curious to see how far the song might go along various network lines.

Peace (in the groove),

Making Songwriting Visible

My class is moving from poetry into songwriting (even as they finish up a Hyperlinked Poetry Book project) and yesterday, we took a look at a Green Day song (and sang it together, with me on guitar) and some songs that I wrote and performed with my old band (The Sofa Kings). We talked about establishing a theme or message in a song, how most pop and rock songs use a verse-chorus structure, and what rhyming patterns might emerge (mostly couplets).

We’re going to rock the room today, with my electric guitar, drum machine and PA system and a song that I wrote a few years ago that has a missing verse. They’ll write the missing verse (theme: believe in yourself) and then come on up to the microphone tomorrow to perform with me. Then, I want to get them writing their own songs before the school year ends next week.

But this reminded me of a video I made about a year ago as I sat down to write a song. I used my little Flip video to capture my process of writing, rewriting and thinking out loud about what I was doing. So, here I share the video again and also, below it, the song that I quickly recorded after the video had ended and the song came together.

The song: A Man of ContemplationPeace (in the song),


When the teachers sing … in protest of tests

The other day, I shared some lyrics I was writing for our school Talent Show. Each year, a bunch of staff members get together and perform. I re-wrote the words to Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” to become “I’m So Bored” to offer up some solidarity to our students now in the midst of many hours of state testing.
We performed last night. Here we are (that’s me, with the soprano sax):

If you want to read the lyrics I wrote, here they are.

Peace (in protest),

We Find Love — a song about love

I am really happy with this particular new song, which is part of the storu/poem/song cycle I am working on (OK, so I need to come up with a catchy name for this thing). I was trying to find a way to end the whole story on a positive note, in which the main character re-connects with his real love as they both near the end of the their lives and fate brings them back together. This song — We Find Love — captures that positive energy of love tying us to others, I think, and so I made this video with Animoto after a simple recording with a mic and Audacity.

Peace (and love),

Envisioning a Digital Writing Resource and other creative ventures

I’m taking a bit of a break from blogging because I have been working on a few different projects that have me otherwise engaged. All of them are pretty exciting, I think, although for different reasons. And I continue to blog small poems/podcasts every day over at Bud’s blog site, where he is posting daily pictures as inspiration for poetry. It’s been a lot of fun and challenging, too. The poems are pretty rough but I am enjoying the ideas running through them and it is fascinating to think about photos as inspiration for writing.

This past weekend, I joined a group of other teachers in the National Writing Project to begin planning a future online space to showcase ways in which technology and writing are coming together in meaningful ways for students. This is not going to be a “how to” site, but a “why do it” and “what does it all mean” site for sharing and reflecting. The philosophy behind the concept is to design a portal and insight into projects, with reflections. The conceit is that we are “beyond the moment” of technology making an impact on learning and now we need to understand what is going on with it. The NWP is a partner with the MacArthur Foundation on this venture, so there are many exciting connections to be made with other MacArthur partners in the future.

I am working on a prototype of a resource around last year’s Many Voices for Darfur project, in which my students joined others to use technology (podcasting, images, videos, etc.) for social action. As I go back to that time, I realize now just how powerful it was for my students as they joined hundreds of others from around the world to advocate for peace in the Sudan.

Meanwhile, on a personal musical note, a friend and I are in the midst of developing an entire “song cycle” story that is a bit hard to explain, but it is a big project that tells the life of a man through the use of poetry, with songs as part of it all, as he struggles to connect with the world, falls in and out of love, and then comes to terms with life. It stretches from childhood to the end of his life. We are thinking of this as a multimedia production, although what that will look like we can’t quite say yet. It’s been a great source of inspiration to be writing the poems of this story and also, the songs. In the past two weeks, I have composed about eight new songs for this project and I can “see” the whole thing before us, even if I can’t quite articulate it yet.

So, how about you? What have you been up to?

Peace (in sharing),