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Beth DeSombre: Blog

This Year's Song Critique

Posted on August 15, 2015
Though none of us would admit it, I suspect in some ways all of us who do that are silently hoping that our songwriting heroes will hear our songs and be instantly impressed with our brilliance. I’d like to think that I’m past that fantasy, but I saw it happen today for someone else. And it most certainly did not happen for me.

Wednesday in Richard Shindell’s class I shared my song Slide Guitar, because we were talking about sparse songs, and it’s among my most sparse. I generally try only to offer songs for critique that I’m actually comfortable with the idea of changing, and it’s not a song I’ve had any particular plans for. He didn’t have much to say about the song though seemed to like it and said that it worked within its universe (one of the aspects of authority we’ve been talking about all week).

Thursday morning Richard wasn’t there when songwriting class started, so those of us in his class joined Lucy Kaplansky’s class at the next tent over. When Richard showed up, we all decided that he should just join into the existing group. Lucy was doing songwriting critique, so I offered up If I Could Tell You, since it’s a song I’ve never quite known what to do with.

Lucy pushed me to figure out how I was feeling about the situation in the song, which is unresolved (and might remain unresolved, but I should at least be resolved about what isn’t resolved). Richard’s responses were all about words and phrasing – the syntax in the song is pretty awkward. He was sitting next to me and just took the lyric sheet and started doing line editing on it.

Many of the suggestions are useful. I need to rethink some of the big picture things about the song, and paying attention to the wordsmithing suggestions while doing that will help (and in some cases help nail down what I’m trying to communicate about the situation in the song). One of the themes Richard focused on during the week was the importance of serious word editing, getting rid of any extraneous words and making sure that the words you choose are the most evocative ones.

Because Richard didn’t meet his regular class, he offered to meet privately with any of us, so I took him up on that. My mistake was presenting songs that are pretty close to finished. I thought that the kind of phrasing streamlining and word clarification he was doing in the morning would be useful in getting those songs ready for recording.

The songs I presented were Susanna’s Song and Dandelion Wine. I thought they would fit in his songwriting universe. One of the things I love about his songs is that he frequently writes from the perspective of other people, in unusual (and often historical) contexts. And I thought that both of them fit the bill as songs that drop the listener into the situation without explaining too much (Susanna’s song for sure), and try hard to be authentic to their contexts.

***** I should pause here to say that I’m actually quite good at taking songwriting criticism. I judge people who, when having a song critiqued, try to argue back, especially about what they were trying to do and how that meant that the way they did it was the only way to do it. Which is one of the reasons that what followed disturbed me as much as it did.******

There are some useful things that came out of Richard’s critiques of the two songs. He is right that I use too many unnecessary words in my writing; he had some specific suggestions I’ll almost certainly take, and I appreciate the general perspective that I need to be merciless in going through my songs to do that kind of editing.

And on Susana’s song he was dogmatic that it wasn’t okay to keep the phrase that has the emphasis on the wrong syllable. (“No one can break the tenderness we feel.”) I’m usually pretty dogmatic about that too, and I’d even previously changed that phrase to “none,” which screws with the grammar but fixes the meter, but it didn’t really work for me so I’d switched it back. I’m glad he pushed me on that, and I think re-building that line from scratch is doable. Especially because the version as he looked at it was a re-writing of the original version (“No bondage breaks the tenderness we feel”) which I changed because it seemed a bit too heavy-handed.

There are also a few places he pointed to in both songs where the language doesn’t entirely match the situation or the perspective of the narrator. It’s worth going through those songs – and others – with a clear eye towards ferreting out those things.

The problem was the bigger picture. He didn’t get, or even accept, the premise of either song. Susanna’s song is a re-telling of the Oh Susanna song from her perspective, and with greater sensitivity to the racial/historical context in which it was written. It is meant to work even if you don’t know what it’s about (it’s a song of longing for someone you’re separated from), but it’s also meant to reward those who pay attention, because it has various hints that are there, if you happen to recognize them.

I could go into much detail (because he did) about what didn’t work for him, but the short version is that he didn’t accept the approach of not signaling clearly what the song was about from the beginning (even though his song “Before You Go” does exactly the same thing and we even analyzed that song in class), didn’t like that the style of music was different from Oh Susanna, and didn’t buy the practicalities of the plot. He kept suggesting fixes for these things, but once you take all those things out, you no longer have the reason the song exists.

The disconnect is even easier to demonstrate with Dandelion Wine. He started in on the grammar of the chorus, having trouble parsing the syntax as he read it. I think he started in misinterpreting the first phrase (“but I can make a pie with crackers almost taste like apples” -- he kept thinking I was trying to say “this pie tastes pretty much like it’s an apple pie”) and nothing I could say would untangle him from his note-quite-right perspective that he was trying to rewrite.

It sounds subtle, but it’s central to the point of the song – the narrator is essentially saying “life is tough, but here’s what I can do despite the fact that we have almost nothing” – even though the only pie I can make is with crackers, it ALMOST tastes like there are apples in it, and here are these other creative foods I can make to keep my family fed. He, on the other hand, said that the chorus, in its entirety, should be “Ritz cracker pie tastes like apple pie” (maybe repeated). Yikes.

I’ve been trying to process all of this. I can – and will – take the wordsmithing suggestions without taking the big structural ones; I’m not going to take the big ones, because doing those things would be undermining the whole reasons for writing the songs. A “Ritz cracker pie tastes like apple pie” song is not a song I have any reason for writing.

But the thing I’m struggling with is that those songs – and a lot of my songs – only work if you get what they’re trying to do. And my songs are not the standard “here’s my latest breakup – or crush;” they require listeners who are able to enter into the songs, and I know that’s not everyone. But I would have hoped that someone who writes what I think of as that kind of song would be more likely than average to be able to access them. If he doesn’t get them, will anyone?