Sunday, June 22, 2008

Songwriting: Let Them In

John Gorka: Let Them In


David Wilcox: Let Them In


The question of source material and song ownership is one I have considered at length in my tenure as a coverblogger. But the study of coversong deals with songs first and foremost as found and re-manipulated objects, not constructed objects. Which is to say: although taking existing materials and making them your own can be an illuminating and transformative process, covering someone else's song wholesale isn't songwriting.

But in my search for great covers and the stories behind them, I also find myself encountering half-covers, reworkings, song combinations, translations, "based ons", and other ways in which songwriters adapt and play off of existing material to make something carefully crafted and new.

The pastiche method of songmaking -- in which songs and source materials are transformed not simply through new performance, but through reworkings of those original materials -- falls somewhere between our traditional models of true songwriting and coversong, I suppose. But it is the origin story for some of our greatest songs. And, as any good ghostwriter or translator knows, the act of turning raw material into something else entirely is a form of creation, too.

This week, as befits a cover blogger's approach to a songwriting theme, I'll be touching on a few such rewritten or reconstructed songs, and the process of collaboration with found or borrowed material that gave them their birth. Today's focus: found poetry as source material.

Adapting existing poetry and prose into song is nothing new. For centuries, Biblical texts formed the lyrical basis for classical music; just check any Unitarian Universalist hymnbook, and you'll find many entries which were not set to music until after their original authors had passed on to the great chorus in the sky. Though I hope to look at a notable exception to the rule later this week, however, for most of the history of musicmaking, the sacred source text was perceived as immutable. Poetry, not so much.

Years ago, someone sent singer-songwriter John Gorka a poem that had been found written on the wall of a military hospital in the Philippines after WWII. Struck by the poignant sentiment and simple, down-to-earth imagery of the poem, Gorka chose to adapt the lyric, giving it line breaks and a few tweaks of spelling and phrasing, rearranging and adding a few lines, deleting an entire duplicate stanza, and setting it to a simple tune. The end result:

Let them in Peter
For they are very tried
Give them couches where the angels sleep
And light those fires

Let them wake whole again
To brand new dawns
Fired by the sun
Not war-time bloody guns

May their peace be deep
Remember where the broken bodies lie
God knows how young they were
To have to die

Give them things they like
Let them make some noise
Give dance hall bands not golden harps
To these our boys

Let them love Peter
For they've have no time
The should have bird songs and trees
And hills to climb

The taste of Summer
In a ripened Pear
And girls sweet as meadow wind
And flowing hair

And tell them how they are missed
But say not to fear
It's gonna be all right
With us down here

Interestingly, though the song was written in the late eighties, Gorka did not record the song himself until 2001 -- and by then, his work, though still powerful, was starting to suffer from lengthy fade-outs and bass-heavy production that, frankly, just doesn't fit the song as well as his live setting does. But somewhere along the line he handed it off to fellow folk performer David Wilcox, whose simple, acoustic 1991 recording of the song is arguably both the better and the "original" version, recorded with no ornamentation save a pure voice and a slow guitar.

In recent years, both the original poem and Gorka's lyrics -- often listed as "A Prayer to St. Peter", and sometimes attributed directly to the hospital wall, though many of these postings show Gorka's restructuring of the lines -- have found their way onto numerous bulletin boards and web tributes for soldiers lost in wartime. Edwin McCain's even more recent recording of the song pops up on those tribute blogs a bunch, too, set to slow slideshows of fallen boys in better times.

The universal sentiment of the lyric transcends even McCain's maudlin lite-rock setting, but I still think Wilcox's setting of Gorka's tune and adapted lyrics is the powerhouse here.


Paul said...

Before copyright laws and published musical scores, almost all "songwriting" took this form. Most great folk art has developed in this manner as well.

Of course, I could be wrong...

boyhowdy said...

Well, yes and no.

The idea of song ownership is relatively new, historically speaking; And, as Dean's post alludes to, some styles of music were slower to adapt to the concept of song "ownership".

But until very recently, there was very little recorded, raw material to scavenge FROM, regardless of media.

The idea that someone could take something which was both written and source-able and use it as raw material is rare, then, because it happens in that small window of time between recording and attribution -- small, because the act of recording as a mass conceit pretty much automatically creates the conditions for attribution to matter.

What can I say -- I'm a media scholar and a McLuhanist. This stuff, I actually know.