If you are a writer of any sort, you will have experienced writer’s block. People that say that they have never had writer’s block are big stinky liars, or so perfect they should not even be talking to us mortals. So what can you do to prevent/end/mutilate writer’s block? Pull up a beanbag chair and listen to another of my-know-it-all diatribes.
In the spirit of full admission, I will say that I have experienced writer’s block and there have been times that none of the brilliant ideas I will attempt to regale you with worked a darn. That’s because we are psychologically impaired human beings and sometimes things just are.
To attempt to relate this to folk music, let’s talk about songwriting. If you are a lazy songwriter, totally driven only by the muse, then having a dry spell is more the rule than an exception. Waiting for the bolt of lightning to hit can require a lot of patience. Disciplined daily writers power through dry spells by forcing themselves to write. The philosophy is that a bad song is better than no song, and in the world of pop music, many a bad song has been cut, released and become a hit. The writer probably began to like the song a lot better after the second or third check…
We often write what we know best, or at least we think we do. But if you look at your list of songs, are the themes remarkably different? Let’s see, a song about love gone wrong… a song about love that didn’t work out… a song about someone you love and how great everything is… a song of love and how it used to be so great but now it’s not so hot… etc. I am as guilty as the next writer, so I’ve forced myself to diversify. Have you ever written a song about a movie? Or a book? Depending on the source, you have John Steinbeck either envious or pissed off that Woody Guthrie could synthesize The Grapes of Wrath in 17 verses in Woody’s song Tom Joad. Using other types of art to inspire songwriting is a great thing to do. Sometime when you have several hours to kill, let me elucidate on how Bob Dylan’s Tambourine Man is filled with imagery from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. That’s the kind of important stuff I did in college.
Musically, one can be inspired by listening to others. One such tactic is to listen to musicians who play in different genres of music than you do. Much has been made about the John Coltrane influenced solo in The Byrds’ Eight Miles High, or the East Indian music influence in Beatle George Harrison’s work. Another tact is to incorporate other instruments into your instrument. As an example, jazz guitarist Larry Coryell has said he listened primarily to horn players as he was formulating his style.
Or you could become a harder worker and write even when you don’t feel like it. Supposedly Chip Taylor’s Wild Thing was improvised on the spot. In 1961, guitarist and studio musician extraordinaire Billy Strange wrote a silly instrumental called Monotonous Melody in five minutes to win a $100 bet. He won the bet and months later hit the jackpot when he got a royalty check for $63,000. Unbeknownst to Strange, Chubby Checker had a big pop hit with Limbo Rock. Just add lyrics about limbo to monotonous melodies and… voila!
So challenge yourself, don’t be afraid to write a bad song, and support live music. Try to avoid the limbo and the twist.
Dennis Roger Reed is a singer-songwriter, musician and writer based in San Clemente, CA. He’s released two solo CDs, and appeared on two CDs with the newgrassy Andy Rau Band and two CDs with the roots rockers Blue Mama. His prose has appeared in a variety of publications such as the OC Weekly and MOJO magazine. Writing about his music has appeared in an eclectic group of publications such as Bass Player, Acoustic Musician, Dirty Linen, Blue Suede News and Sing Out! His oddest folk resume entry would be the period of several months in 2002 when he danced onstage as part of both Little Richard’s and Paul Simon’s revues. He was actually asked to do the former and condoned by the latter. He apparently knows no shame.