I’m not naturally called to be a songwriter, but I have my reasons for wanting to do it. Partly it’s to avoid copyright issues that arise from distributing recordings of songs other people wrote. But mostly it’s because I think that life is a lot richer than you can tell from the songs being written these days.
Two of my songwriting heroes are Randy Newman and Mark Knopfler, precisely because most of the songs they write are not love songs. Newman was the first to point out for me that there’s an awful lot to life that isn’t romatic love, and therefor isn’t being addressed in songs. Knopfler never said so, but just look at the range of topics he’s written on—Mason and Dixon, NASCAR, prairie weddings, MTV, war, Sonny Liston, itinerant gospel singers, Ray Kroc—and you’ll see that he’s one of the few that gets this.
Perhaps that’s why Appalachian music appeals to me so much. There are standard topics that crop up—coal mining, leaving the farm, mother, relatives dying—but at least they aren’t romantic love songs.
There is a theme that ties together most Appalachian songs, but it’s not romantic love (or the current-day equivalent, sexual attraction). I don’t know yet how to describe it accurately, but it is a sort of yearning, for things that were lost (e.g. home, mother) or never achieved (success, marriage) or might be achieved in the future (heaven). It’s not despairing, or even melancholic, but rather a recognition and an acceptance of our fallen state.
Those old songs still have their power, but they are increasingly unable to touch modern souls as they should. Not because we’ve conquered the deeper issues they raise, but mostly we can’t relate to the circumstances they describe. We’re not coal miners or oppressed farmers, our mothers and fathers don’t die on us like they used to, we don’t see marriage anymore as the capstone of an adult life.
I’d like to find ways to tap into that yearning which speak to modern souls. So I’m working on a list of situations that challenge us today. Feel free to make your own suggestions.
- Boomerang children
- Aimlessness in the early adult years
- Letting the biological clock run out
- Fear of commitment
- Wage slavery
- Consequences of promiscuity
- Addiction to technology
- Dependence on state services
- Helplessness in the hands of medical science
- Slaves to fashion
- Alienation from the church
- Weak or nonexistent community
- Being at the mercy of powerful financial/political interests
- Us vs. them
- Fragility of a complex society
- Chronological/cultural snobbery
And let’s not forget the timeless seven: