https://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2016/03/04/the-mystery-of-melody/

My most recent article at PJ Media on the trouble of getting it right on the guitar and in other endeavors:

 

https://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2016/01/29/in-the-zone/

An essay about my search for the perfect guitar is up at PJ Media:

 

https://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2015/12/21/the-perfect-guitar

I've been reading about Lucas Debargue, a 24-year-old French pianist who came last in a Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow a few weeks ago, igniting a storm of controversy and commentary among jury members and the general public. His technique was, to say the least, highly unconventional. He plays scales with only the thumb and index finger, for example! Perhaps this is owing to the fact that he taught himself piano, receiving no formal instruction until well into his teens. Aside from the intrinsic interest of such a story, I find myself, as a self-taught guitarist, inspired by it. If Debargue can go so far playing with his thumbs, perhaps I'll do all right on the guitar also, despite unorthodox fingering and sometimes-cumbersome self-taught technique. Wish me luck!

I have been spending a much bigger part of each day lately playing my guitar and composing songs in preparation for a new album. Our big project for this summer is to get some of the new songs we've recorded (there are 12 in total so far) up on Youtube so that we can share them with you. Now that the weather is good, I like to spend time at our 'rock' in the Thousand Islands, enjoying the beauty of the natural surroundings, taking a refreshing dip now and then (keeping the guitar dry, of course), and letting inspiration takes its course. Not a bad life, not bad at all!

 

 

Installations

David Solway’s 14th book of poetry is haunted by transformation. Few poets possess as commanding a gift for metaphor or can use it to masterfully conjure the ever-changing landscape of the natural world. Like the jerry-rigged farmer’s contraption that stands in for "eclectic grandeur and jumbled eloquence," this collection celebrates the way ordinary elements can be yoked to create wholly original insights. Be it through rhyme or free verse, slang or lyricism, and roaming a dazzling range of tones—satirical, philosophical, scabrous, tender, celebratory—Installations offers up a world depicted and inhabited in all its manifestations.

 

Installations was released by Signal Editions in the Fall of 2015.

 

 

This is a piece that I posted a year ago on PJ Media. I consider it to be perennially current. I also enjoy looking back at the often feisty, funny, and intelligent comments from my readers.

http://pjmedia.com/blog/why-i-write/

 

Here is my latest piece up at PJ Media, deliberately controversial but I think essentially correct:

 

http://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2014/12/30/does-canadian-country-music-have-an-identity/

 

My article recently posted at PJ Media on the September 11 attack and the response of patriotic musicians versus of the left-leaning traitors in our midst:

 

http://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2014/12/09/where-were-you-when-the-world-stopped-turning/

 

An expanded version of "Three Reasons I Like Country Music" has just gone up at PJ Media:

http://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2014/12/04/3-reasons-why-i-like-country-music/

 

I’ve been writing on political subjects since 9/11—three books and 400 articles worth; Blood Guitar and Other Tales, however, represents a new departure.

 

Aside from military marches and national anthems, music is for the most part not the right medium for political analysis and themes. Some might be tempted to make an exception for rap, in my estimation a sign of an increasingly degenerate culture and hardly to be taken seriously as music. There are, of course, the oratorios of composers like Mikos Theodorakis, which resemble in their way the stolid, monumental architecture of fascist regimes; I consider these equally monumental failures. Oddly enough, I was recently informed by someone who has my album that he enjoyed “the political song,” though I have no idea what he is talking about.

 

Admittedly, there is a sense in which the political world can be brushed tangentially by reference to current events, leading in turn to the reinforcement of traditional values, as in Alan Jackson’s heartfelt 9/11 threnody, “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?” The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of politics and poetry (e.g., William Butler Yeats, W.H. Auden). But generally speaking, politics and music, much like poetry and music, live in separate worlds whose trajectories rarely intersect. They go together like Karl and Groucho.

Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?”, a loving and poignant tribute to the victims of the 9/11 atrocity, is country’s version of Billy Collins's poetic memorial "The Names." Like Collins (“Yesterday I lay awake in the palm of the night”), Jackson is modest and understated (“I’m just a singer of simple songs/I’m not a real political man”), but the political and communal messages in his work are powerful.

 

For Jackson, the assumption of inviolability and non-involvement had crumbled with the Towers and been replaced by an unexpected feeling of responsibility, coupled with a deep sense of anger, sorrow and resilience. “No man is an island, entire of itself,” John Donne wrote in the 17th Devotion, “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Wherever many of us were on the day the world stopped turning, we were also in New York. I was marooned (no boats, no planes) on the Greek island of Tilos, but rapidly understood that Tilos was a part of the North American continent.

 

Jackson may not be a “real political man” but he’s the real thing, a man with a big heart and clear mind, so indefeasibly different from our complacent and wrong-headed intellectual elite, whose range of responses ran between outright commiseration with the terrorists and a kind of Houyhyhnm-like complacency—that is, between palpable madness and ineffable foolishness.

 

One recalls that, while Ground Zero was still smouldering, influential “rights activist” and former head of the University of Colorado’s Ethnic Studies Program Ward Churchill published an online essay praising the “gallant sacrifices” of the terrorist “combat teams” and referring to the victims of the attack as cell-phone-toting “little Eichmanns.”

 

Shortly afterward, Susan Sontag, in an article for The New Yorker, claimed that 9/11 “was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack … undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.” Similarly, and on the same day, Peter Dale Scott, a transplanted Canadian and the author of several books of crepuscular verse, jumped on the anti-American bandwagon, proclaiming to a class at the University of California at Berkeley that the terrorists “aren’t cowards, if nothing else, it surely isn’t cowardly to ride the plane in for something you believe.”

 

Less than a month later, Naomi Klein, writing in The Nation, responded to the bloodbath of 9/11 by considering that “Now seems like a good time to challenge the forces of nihilism and nostalgia within our own ranks”—by which she meant people like Billy Collins and Alan Jackson. In a speech delivered at M.I.T. in the same month, titled “The New War Against Terror,” Noam Chomsky asserted that the American retaliatory strike against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden should be understood as “some sort of silent genocide.”

 

Obviously, the majority of the scribbling class had (and have) no compunction about trading in accusations as ill-timed and manifestly absurd as they were (and are) brazenly false.

 

We know where these people were when the world stopped turning. The singer of simple songs sees more clearly, feels more deeply, speaks more eloquently, and knows the “country” far better than the smug patricians who have neither music nor love in their souls.

 

I enjoyed the film Mars Attacks!(1996) and consider it an apt metaphor for the situation of many western countries today. With the best of intentions, the good-hearted citizens in the film open their arms to an alien culture, who proceed to take advantage of their accommodating hosts. Too late, the hosts discover that the aliens are bent on conquest rather than friendship, and the result is bloodshed and impending takeover. 

 

Fortunately, the invaders are ultimately routed. But they are not killed with kindness. It takes a blast of good old traditional American country music, which the aliens are unable to absorb and which reduces them to quivering heaps of head-exploding gelatin.

 

We recall, too, that the major theorist of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, as he recounts in Milestones, couldn’t tolerate the innocent waltz music or cheerful jitterbugging at American church dances, which drove him mad.

 

The lesson the film teaches is obvious. It is not simply the heartland music as such that defeats the “aliens” but the attitudes, codes, mores, standards, originality and self-confidence that the music enshrines. It takes a belief in ourselves, our culture, and our history, and a commitment to celebrating who we are, to resist the sinister blandishments of the Martians among us.

 

The recent discovery of one of the ships from Sir John Franklin’s doomed Arctic expedition has made me think once again about that suffering crew and their calamitous attempt to find and map the Northwest Passage. I had long been fascinated by Franklin’s last, failed, Arctic exploration, reading everything I could about it: conflicting accounts by historians, imaginative reconstructions of explorers’ journals, and a number of novels. Then, in 2002, I wrote a book of poems about the Franklin expedition, including the mysterious fate of the ships, entitled Franklin’s Passage (McGill-Queen’s UP, 2003). In my treatment, the tragedy becomes an occasion to reflect on the various ways human beings can be lost, with the Arctic as a personal interior space which we strive to negotiate.

 

That was the year summer didn’t come to the Arctic.

Our ships beset by ice,

crushed in the glacial jaws of its vice

north of King William Island,

we abandoned our once-unsinkable homes—

reinforced bomb-boats driven by locomotives

that could not budge the pack by an inch—

and trekked like solemn migratory wraiths

south toward the river and the fort,

pulling sleds filled with books and fine china,

leaving a pyramid of tins behind

to mark our passage to the underworld.

Exhaustion brought no peace,

conferred no balm of sleep or resignation

as we staggered in harness

tormented by the music of the elements

that tugged us toward the inevitable coast,

teased by an occasional patch of green—

rugs of sorrel, bladder campion, chickweed, stitchwort—

by sparse clumps of plumb-black crowberries

poking out of the hillside drifts,

driven by the red spurs of our own butchered flesh

that kept us going just long enough

to cross from one season into another,

to bridge the strait to the mainland

as far as Point Booth and Starvation Cove

where the last of us lay down together in the snow

and sank into the century without a trace.

That was the year summer didn’t come to the Arctic,

the year we trudged into History

and not one of us lived to tell the tale.

 

The endeavor of every songwriter is, of course, to write a good song. It’s hard work, and sometimes one labours for a long time on a melody only to discover that it has no life.

 

There’s no sure-fire recipe for a song that lives. One only knows it when it has been born.

 

Michelangelo once said that he understood his task as a sculptor not as creating form out of a block of marble, but of liberating the form that was already there within.

 

Songwriting is like that too: a good song is one that, once formalized, seems not made but as if it has always existed somewhere (where?); the songwriter has merely embodied it successfully.

 

Janice says that sometimes she catches herself humming a song I’ve just written—and it feels like one she’s always known. Then I feel lucky to have plucked a living song from the air.

When I was younger, I thought country music was beneath me: I didn’t listen to it and felt contempt for the idea of it.

 

One day, I was in a coffee shop buying some donuts for the road, and I happened to pick up a Brooks & Dunn record, having no idea who they were or, indeed, how famous they were. I figured the CD might give me a few ideas for my own songs.

 

I was immediately hooked. What I came to like in Brooks & Dunn, and in other country singers I have come to admire—Alan Jackson, Jimmy Buffet, and Tim McGraw—are the following:

 

1. Country Music is not obsessed with the new, continually declaring a previous generation ‘dead.’ Country music honors its ancestor and traditions.

 

2. Far from what I once thought, country music lyrics are not stodgy and sentimental: though they give the sentimental their due, they are often sharp, pungent, profound, and –perhaps most surprising to me—witty and tongue-in-cheek. I think of Brooks & Dunn’s ‘North of heaven, south of Santa Fe,’ which is at once dreamily romantic and piquantly ironic. Country musicians take their audience and their subject seriously enough to write about what is perennially meaningful—emotional crises, the redemption of love, the value of hard work and faith—while never taking themselves too seriously.

 

 

3. Country music loves America and cares about those Americans in ‘fly-over country’ whom sophisticated New Yorkers and CBC listeners love to hate: the farmers, ranchers, truck drivers, waitresses and cowboys who still work the land, go to church, and fight the wars that keep other Americans safe (at least for now). Country music honors parents and the generations that came before. It believes there are still American values worth fighting for. And it makes beautiful, memorable music out of its faith in those people and that land.

Where does inspiration come from? For many years, Greece was my muse, the place where—happy or not (and I wasn’t always happy there)--I felt most alive, closest to God, most aware of a source of creative power within me. Recently, though not so dramatically, I catch something of that feeling in the Thousand Islands area, where I now make my home. Today I had the good fortune to spend a day on the water with friends Ted and Margaret. With capable Margaret at the wheel and my Janice by my side, we motored across Gananoque Lake, stopping at Blueberry Island, having a swim off the boat in the fresh clear water. We watched a family of loons diving, saw a turtle sitting on a rock, and caught a glimpse of some raccoons drinking at the water’s edge. Everything was dappled with mellow light. The beautiful setting and the company of good friends—Teddy and I played guitar and sang some silly songs, then we ate some cheese and sausage—was like a tonic. This water, these islands offset the dark moods that sometimes grip me. Such days allow me, as I like to joke, to ‘fight my wars in peace.’ 

David Solway and Janice Fiamengo

Blueberry Island, Gananoque

David Solway on Ted Paull's boat  

I have watched and enjoyed two seasons of the television drama Nashville over the last few months. Aside from the engaging soap-opera narrative, there are some great songs on the show.

 

As everyone knows who has watched the series, one of the rising (and then crashing) starlets is Scarlett O’Connor, a sweet young girl who came to Nashville with her then-aspiring-musician-boyfriend. She had always written poetry, and one day she and a friend start turning some of those poems into song lyrics. Song is just poetry set to music, she says ingenuously at one point—articulating a popular misconception in our culture.

 

It couldn’t be more wrong. As a poet of many decades and latterly a song-writer, I can say with absolute certainty that there is a vast difference between a good poem and a good song.  A poetic sensibility can infuse a song and a melodic sense can animate a poem, but the practice of composition and the structural scaffolding are distinctive to each.

 

Good poetry is either metrically strict or lyrically cadenced. It contains its own particular “music,” but is rarely intended to be sung or played. There are exceptions, of course—like Edmund Waller’s “Go, Lovely Rose,” which was set to music by Henry Lawes and others or Loreena McKennitt's setting Alfred Noyes' "The Highwayman" to a Celtic lilt—but such phenomena are relatively uncommon.

 

Good poetry exists in its own right, never uses filler, and eschews melisma [a form of embellishment that extends a single syllable across several notes]—except ironically. Songs, on the other hand, will often introduce filler words (“My baby, she done left me”) and toffee-like syllables (“oh – oh – oh”) to accommodate the beat, a poetic no-no. In song, the melodic line dominates at the expense of lexical propriety. In a poem, this is merely sloppy.

 

Another difference has to do with complexity. Folk music, Country and Western, Blues, and so on cannot survive when they become too intellectually intricate or verbally sophisticated. Simplicity is the key. Obviously, poetry may also work with simple themes, but intellectual convolution and initial puzzlement are its stock in trade, which may explain why it enjoys a comparatively limited audience.

 

Song and poetry are both viable art forms, but they rarely coalesce. A good poet is likely to be a bad song-writer, and vice versa—unless they recognize the difference between the two media and compose accordingly.

 

Scarlett probably never wrote a good poem; but she can write a damn good song ("Black Roses"--wow!).

At dinner last night, my friend mentioned a dichotomy between two kinds of song: one in which the music exists to serve the lyrics, and another in which the lyrics exist to support or accompany the music. In some cases, she said, the words don’t really matter at all: the music is everything (this is why I have found some Blues songs utterly tedious).

 

I think there is a another kind of song, the ideal kind—where there is no privileged element, where the music neither serves the lyrics nor controls them, where words and music exist in synchrony, neither possible without the other, neither dominating in import or resonance. Or perhaps it is really not so total as that, but instead sinuous and variegated, in which sometimes the lyrics, sometimes the melodic line alternate in precedence, play off each other, take turns coming to the fore, support and carry each other to differing degrees at different points in a song.

 

In my own music writing practice, I have found that sometimes a series of lyrics came to me on their own, demanding a melodic expression I had to discover; on other occasions, I began humming a melody first and picking it out on the guitar, sometimes carrying it around with me for weeks or months, before finding suitable words. And sometimes the two came together, an agreeable pairing, a good marriage.    

For many years, I resisted the suggestion to start a website. The demands on my time and on my (non-existent) technical expertise were too onerous, I thought. Indeed, in my books on education (Education Lost, Lying About the Wolf, and The Turtle Hypodermic of Sickenpods), I wrote against the effect of the Internet, in particular the cultural privileging of the visual image, on the intellectual discipline of the mind. Now I find myself in precisely the domain that I so vigorously attacked—and liking it! Will wonders never cease?

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