Before The Words

By Donna Ulisse
As I sit here in the quiet of my home office with the computer screen throwing contrived lighting across my hands, I am reminded of how natural and unchanged the craft of song writing is. We can invent all these wonderful new tools to use for writing songs but it still comes down to the very basics; a good idea and the ability to tell a good story in a musical way. At the end of a day, all you need is some time, a pen and paper and perhaps an instrument. Gosh, in the days before folks could document through writing things down in books and pamphlets, history was retold through ballads and poems, passed down from generation to generation in a rhythmic way that could be memorized and kept alive. They wrote songs for the ages, literally!
To a degree we are still doing that very thing today. When a great event happens, songwriters sit down and write about it. The sorrow or joy experienced by a driven author must be purged and expressed. When 9/11 happened there were sad, comforting, uniting songs written and recorded. One that comes to mind is Alan Jackson’s self-written song, “Where Were You” (When the World Stopped Turning). I remember hearing that song for the first time and connecting to the lyric. He tapped into what so many Americans were feeling because he was feeling it too. He poured his songwriting heart into capturing a moment in time and by doing so it is now preserving that part of our history. Writing how you feel at the moment of one of these life experiences is important and a bit like taking on the role of a historian.
I was told once that to be believable, to capture and hold a listener you must write what you know. For a long while I was unsure that I knew enough of anything to be able to sell a song. There is something to be said for having a little life behind you, some experience in living the ups and downs, walking through a few trials, having felt loss and known triumph first hand so that you can pull from these emotions and put them to music.
I am no longer hung up on the feeling that I must live through one of these experiences to write about it. I now use a well to draw from that I have been accumulating for years. If I had my feelings hurt, I threw that into my well, if I had an “ah ha moment” I tossed it in the well, if I felt a love that took me up to the heavens, into the well; all these things are safely stored and ready to be dredged up when needed.
These days I take my songwriting job so seriously that I actually go out and interview and research for my lyrics. If I haven’t lived through whatever I’m writing about, I try and name what emotion needs to be present in the body of the song, pull from a past, similar emotion hidden in the well and then go about finding out details and write the story as accurately as I can.
My husband and I wrote a song a few years ago that is loaded with a fictitious plot of characters and a made-up storyline. It is during the Civil War, which we all know I didn’t live through. To make the story thrive we did a little research and came up with some details that added a believable edge. I want to share this example of writing a song that I did not live through but by pulling on emotions that are mine and by adding some accurate elements I feel as though we gave this story life. The melody is very old-time, Celtic, haunting, Civil War, campfire like…very fitting for the lyric.


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