Thursday, May 8, 2008

You're OK

Oh, no, not another quote from the title song of "Oklahoma!" Don't worry. The title of today's blog is a take on a book title from somewhere back in the era of helpful advice....I'm OK, You're OK.

I'm thinking about how the path to greatness begins with OK. It almost never begins with GREAT. With luck, it might begin with GOOD, but if greatness is the prize at the end of all the work, good is not usually something you achieve at the beginning.

It turns out that I am an expert on being no good at the beginning. When I was 18 or so, (OK, I'll fess up; when I was 20 or so), I thought that poetry was something that sounded like the verses we were trained to revere in high school, and I thought it was necessary to write sonnets, so when I noticed that all of what passed as "folk music" in the mid-sixties was pseudo-folk pop music, I composed a disgruntled sonnet that began:

Someone has fashioned an arid, barren plain
Where hordes of rhymesmiths forge false yesterday

I was right proud of the assonance in the first line, the aa sounds of arid and barren, and the way they struck the ear like small anvils in a forge. My pride increased when I noticed that I'd placed internal rhymes in the second line (hordes -- forge), and I nearly knighted myself over the repeated effs of forge and false.

Luckily for you, I can't remember offhand how that embarrassing beginning continued, and it is SO not worth the time to see if it is in my stash of saved garbage. I sent it to my high school English teacher, Reese J. Frescoln, Jr. He was tactful and kind in his note of reply, as I recall, stressing his happiness to have heard from me and saying very little about the sonnet.

About that time, perhaps a year later, I began to waste my free time writing pseudo-folk songs in the style of the day, which is to say, absurd on so many levels, yet so indicative of what might pass for "promise" on a bleak, dry day, where creative juices never flowed, but just formed dust bunnies.

I'd had it with singing covers of Bob Dylan tunes and Pete Seeger tunes and I decided to be a song writer at the lone coffeehouse in town, The Jawbone, an outreach program of the Lutheran Campus Ministry. So I wrote up a repertoire of love songs and topical songs and inflicted them on my peers.

Love songs had to include the phrase, "my love," I imagined, and there had to be some overt sensuality in the lyrics because Eric Andersen had changed the rules of the game with his "Come to my Bedside, My Darlin'."

I was sort of smart enough to realize that Andersen's line, "lay your body soft and close beside me/And drop your petticoat upon the floor" was horrible writing, as if "your body" were something disconnected from "you" and subject to being set down like a coverlet or shoe, but Andersen was BIG at the time, having written an even worse line in "take off your thirsty boots and stay for a while."

He was the one to beat, though, so I worked out a little musical hook that lay easily under my fingers and "wrote" a lyric that began like this...

Relax your mind and close your eyes and linger for a while,
And I will spin a thread of sound and it will be your smile,
And if you want to hear another song on my guitar,
Well, relax your mind, my love, I won't be far...
I'll save a song for you.

The highways of light are fading now to a gentle hue,
So let your spirit sail with me and I'll play you a dazzling view,
And you will feel your senses rise and float across the glen
To settle on the mornin' dew and then float back again.

It went on for a few more verses, and I can testify that this song did not turn out to be a "chick magnet." Nosir! It had most of the requisite veiled references to love, "morning dew" being a favorite of mine, but on any scale from OK to Great, this was "not OK." I fell into the same trap with "relax your mind," as if "your mind" were disembodied from "you." The remainder was earnest silliness.

This next perilous dive into the deeps of Metaphor was much admired by my friend Lynn, though not for the lyric. She smiled at the fetching little guitar hook I'd provided for it.

My love, my love, my lo-o-o-ove,
She greets me every morning with the dawn.
My love, my love, my lo-o-o-ove,
Her breath has made the sky no longer wan.

My love's a steady breeze of true devotion,
Blowing kisses in the sun from off her palm,
And I'm a lofty ship on the briney ocean,
Without her I'd be lost in a boundless calm.

I should have been jailed then and there for literary abuses, and I was still Not OK as a song writer.

In my senior year, inspired by a new knowledge of classical art songs and by a poem that began "Oh, death will find me long before I tire of watching you," I composed a one-verse song and recorded it at The Jawbone for an album that showcased all the student song writers.

Death will tire me.
Death will tire me long before I see your face again.
But everywhere will your swift shadow be:
Here your perfume in someone else's hair,
And here are lips like those in darkest night
That warned me not to share.

A little closer to OK, I think, but still struggling with overripe linguistic effects.

One rainy day two years later, in a state of angst, I wrote a song I called "Slowly Failing:"

Dark all day on the lonely side of town,
The light behind the clouds is slowly failing.
I will set my mind at peace before the night comes trickling down,
I'll provision all my thoughts and set them sailing.

The song never got beyond two verses, a rather tiny fleet to set sailing, and the persistent awkwardness in my style shines through unmistakably, though I like the feminine endings and the final metaphor. Not on the Map of OK yet and my sophomore year is at this point four years behind me.

Five years later I tried another, for my little girl:

One more night with the window wide open,
One more phrase of a song to recall,
All the sounds I could sing but a token
Of your bright spirit's rise and fall.

Ride a weathervane,
Ride a weathervane,
The wind, it will blow it,
I'll come if you call.

In my opinion, this one is on the map of OK.

Eighteen years later, with the sound of baby talk still in my mind, I wrote a song called "All The People," my daughter's way of requesting a repetition of the Humpty Dumpty rhyme. I worked out a tune that went round and round, postponing musical resolution, as if in suspended animation, and I put words together with an ear for elision, all syllables flowing together easily. My daughter was leaving to continue her education in Texas, prompting the line about "when they are leaving" near the end of the song. The year was 1991, and it's the end of my songwriting story. I'm very attached to this one, both music and verses, so whatever you think of it, this one and "Ride a Weathervane" are the peak of my abilities in a genre I was not meant to master, but where I made a little journey from Not OK into OK.

Someone's playing on a guitar,
Songs of long ago...
Swaying dancers seen from afar,
Round and round they go...
Gentle music over the lawn,
Rainbow, sunset, and sky.
I remember days that are gone,
Seen with a toddler's eye.

Sing me a ballad, sing me an air,
Sing me a girl with yellow hair,
Radiant hair, delightful to see,
Sing me the woman who married me.
Radiant hair, radiant eyes,
Sing me a ballad for all our lives.

Someone's playing on a guitar
All my bygone days...
Ocean water...rides in a car...
Rows of new-mown hay....
Conversation, people at ease,
Tying ribbons and bows...
Bedtime stories, all that we please,
Only Daddy knows.

Sing me a ballad, sing me an air,
Sing my family then and there.
All the people here tonight,
When they are sleepy, bid them good night.
All the people ever I'll know,
When they are leaving, let them go.

Sing me a ballad, sing me an air,
Sing me a daughter ever fair,
Sing me a boy who looks like me,
Sing me a woman happy with me,
All the people in my song,
May they be dancing all night long.

Update, August 4, 2008: I found a recording I made of this song in 1991, shortly after I wrote it. I had adapted it for a friend's 50th birthday, so "yellow hair" became "auburn hair" in the first verse. This is an mp3 recording.

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