The difference between lightning and a lightning bug
By Dave on Sunday, April 19th 2009 1:15 am
The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. ~Mark Twain
After several starts and stops I've made some progress on the lyrics front. As you might recall the Epic piece for the new record while largely instrumental has several key parts with vocals. These I had intended to fill with lyrics adapted from three 3 poems by Anne Sexton. Well I contacted the publisher but there has been no response.
There is the possibility that it might just take a long time for the publisher to get back to me. But it is also just as possible they might not bother. I figured I'd better have a Plan B. I started to look though amateur poetry blogs and see if I could find something with the feel I needed for the piece, and more importantly be able to work with the existing melody lines I had written for the Sexton poems (this part is like finding a needle in a haystack). I spent 2 weeks combing through the work of dozens of poets.
I finally found one that worked pretty well, in some ways it fit the music even better than the lyrics I had written the music with. I spent 3 days working them into the music, tweaking the melody here and the words there. Once that was done and I was confident I had something workable I contacted the poet via their myspace page. Weeks later, no response.
After spending a few more nights futilely combing through more poetry blogs I decided to just take matters into my own hands even though I have no skill whatsoever with lyrics. First question of course is what to write about.
Given the current economic crisis I thought I'd do something that was themed around the Great Depression. I thought perhaps I could find some letters written by people at the time that I could adapt as lyrics... that way even if the words aren't constructed in the most artistic manor, they have the virtue of being real. Google lead me to the Lindsey Family Biographies which is a gold mine of depression era letters written between a Father who went off to find work and this wife and children who stayed behind on a farm.
I spent a few nights reading those but it wasn't quite right for what I was doing. First of all, the letters are generally grounded in everyday tasks - and I wasn't sure I could do a 30 minute epic based on how to thaw out a frozen hand water pump in minus 10 degree weather. Second, the family came to view this time in their lives as a strongly positive experience. And while I do want the piece to have a ray of hope to it, I also don't want to make the Great Depression out to be like a trip to Disneyland. So it was good background research but time to move on.
Eventually I came across a collection of materials stored at the Library of Congress called Voices from the Dust Bowl. This collection includes a series of recording made by migrant workers living in the FSA camps in California in 1940. Many of these people were refugees from the Dust Bowl.
Most of the recordings are songs performed by the workers, but there are also several interviews where people talked about the conditions during the 30s, how they came to be where they were, how they did in the camps, etc...
Two interviews from "Okies" caught my attention. The first being the very detailed account of Flora Robertson experiencing her first dust storm. The second was from Gene Dinwiddie whose story covered a wide range of experiences.
He talked about watching the soup lines from his Uncle's Hotel in 1930 (as he says "There happened to be a depression at that time"), then working on his Uncle's farm for 5 years until the crops failed due to the dust storms. He talks about moving out west stopping in New Mexico and Arizona to pick cotton for 75 cents per hundred pounds, then finally landing in California in 1938, just as they started to have terrible floods in LA. He tells a story of how people were basically starving to death in Point Conception and how the local Minister got his mother to wire him some money then opened up a makeshift pawn shop so the migrants could pawn whatever junk they had and go get some groceries. Gene eventually ends up working at a couple of the relatively comfortable FSA camps in Winters and Visalia California and and even goes back to school for a time.
So I transcribed Gene and Flora's recordings and have spent the last week attempting to craft them into a lyric that would give some sense of experience of a dust bowl migrant. At times I use their words nearly verbatim including some of the characteristic grammar (again - if it isn't high art it at least has the virtue of being true). Other times I've reworded their stories so that they work melodically. I've also taken some inspiration from other works I've read describing prairie life to come up with a few descriptive phrases of my own.
Oddly enough, the hardest part was having to edit down the material to fit the fairly limited vocal parts.
I guess I can't complain too much about my lyric struggle over the last month given the conditions of the people I'm writing about. But still, someone remind me to stick to instrumentals from now on!
Here are links to the interviews.
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