Truth, Tears and Cash – Part 1

Rosanne Cash workshop 1997

“There is nothing more sacred to me than songs and songwriters.” After two and a half days of immersion in writing and listening to songs I felt proud to hear Rosanne Cash say this to our intimate group of songwriters. But I also felt a responsibility to be worthy of it and the example set by Rosanne — hit songwriter and daughter of Johnny Cash, Grammy winner, multi-gold recording artist and author whose career took a brave turn with the release of Interiors and The Wheel in the early 1990s.

In 2001 I was among sixteen songwriters selected from over 200 applicants to attend another of Rosanne’s “Essence of Songwriting” workshops at Omega Institute in upstate New York. Many of us had participated in the workshop before and were good friends by now. It was my second time, and to borrow singer-songwriter Caroline Aiken‘s words to an audience at the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance conference, I felt like I had truly “found my tribe.”

Rosanne Cash workshop 1997
Rosanne Cash (center) and students, “Essence of Songwriting,” 1997, Naropa Institute

It was a diverse group. Only a few of the nine women and seven men were professional musicians or songwriters; some were new to writing while others had been at it for decades. Some, like me, were just emerging as soloists while others wrote for bands; some had been having trouble writing, not writing much or not at all, and others wanted to simply be where writing and listening was the priority. Rock, pop, folk, country and more were represented.

We began by sitting in a circle of chairs in a comfortable room with an electric piano, many guitar cases, bright windows and lots of pillows. By the end of the weekend all of us would be sitting on the floor, lying on the pillows, sometimes in tears and often convulsed with laughter. I would have three revelations, would hear many intense, funny, and powerful songs, and I would write a song that would teach me a lot about myself as a person and as a songwriter.

Right away Rosanne said, “I cannot teach you how to write songs, I can only be with you as you try to discover your own voices.” She urged us to approach this experience with a beginner’s mind. “I have a lot of opinions about songwriting. A lot,” she said, explaining that her teachers — writers like Guy ClarkRodney Crowell and Townes Van Zandt — held songwriting as the highest form of honesty, honor and self-respect. She questioned the notion that songwriting is a craft, the word craft suggesting the songwriter is not as serious as the poet or the novelist. She asked us to listen as closely to each other’s songs as we would want them to listen to ours.

After making the wry disclaimer “I’m not much for new-agey stuff,” Rosanne led us in a guided meditation intended to remove the internal negative critic. The negative critic is that inner voice which scolds this isn’t any good, you can’t finish that, this line sucks, you’re hopeless, etc. The useful part of the negative critic, said Rosanne, the part that is honest and faithful in editing songs, would remain behind.

I had my first revelation at this point. I recognized the negative critic: fear, self-conscious and familiar.

A letter from Rosanne sent to us a week or so before the workshop asked us to bring a song for feedback and copies of the lyrics for the group. It said, “Please do not pick a song you feel really good about, as tempting as it may be to show your best stuff. Rather, bring a song that you feel has a lot of potential.”

While we listened to the songs each songwriter had brought, we made notes on our copies of the lyrics, discussed specific points after each performance, and returned the lyrics with our comments back to the songwriter. Many of the issues raised were familiar, such as avoiding the use of words that evoked grand themes: love with a capital “L,”  Life, Pain, even My Heart, because they have become meaningless clichés with overuse.

We heard three songs that night. The topic of the first song was a grown son’s lingering grief for his mother. Rosanne liked this unusual subject but urged the writer to cut unnecessary adjectives and syllables. The second song had lots of minor chords in both the verse and chorus. Rosanne told us that in old-school country music the writer’s rule was to save your minor chord for the chorus. For this song she suggested doing the opposite. Either way, the tension built in the verses should be released in the chorus. We returned to this structural principle often.

I loved this song’s opening line (“this is the last drink where I swallow my pride”) and I hadn’t found anything to criticize until Rosanne made her suggestions. My second revelation: I could insist that a song rise to it’s highest obligation without sacrificing my joy in it.

The third song described a sexual assault. Rosanne commented on how difficult it is to write about “issue” topics without sounding self-righteous. The story was harrowing but the song offered redemption in the chorus, “a baby changes everything.”

There were thirteen more songs to hear the next day plus a writing exercise. But before that there was the traditional late night song circle. It was good to be back in the tribe!

Go to Part 2

©  Patti Witten

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