Sunday, October 19, 2008

What Will Happen to the Old Chestnuts?

Recently there was an animated discussion on Maplepost about the fact that many performers today only sing their own songs, which raises questions about what will happen to all the songs that we used to sing, the old songs, the songs by other writers. And what about the current crop of songs? If no one other than the songwriter sings them, will they survive?

I'm a performer who has gone from mostly singing other people's songs and traditional material to mostly singing my own songs. When I first began performing, I didn't write songs at all. I had grown up in a folkie household, exposed to lots of traditional music, and lots of singing in groups at song circles and jams. At the time, I thought I just didn't have anything to say that hadn't already been said by someone far better than I ever could.

The songs I chose to sing were songs that meant something to me. I spent a lot of time learning songs, getting inside them, and making them my own. I also spent a lot of time making music with other people, and through that I learned about listening, making space for other voices and instruments, and creating something spontaneously that is larger than the sum of its parts.

I firmly believe that if I'm any good at writing songs, it's because I spent so much time inhabiting other people's songs, and making music in groups. Without realizing it, I was absorbing the essential elements that make a song work.

When I write songs, I am absolutely writing from my personal experience - like it or not, I am the centre of my own universe, so it's impossible for me to do anything else. But my aim is to use my personal experience as a springboard to say something about that personal experience, hopefully something that will resonate with other people. There are certain things that all human beings go through: We are all born, we all grow and change, we experience joy, love, pain, loss, triumph and so on, we work and struggle, we try to improve our lives and the world around us, we mark important moments, we fall in love, we fall out of love, and then eventually, we die. In my experience most songs with any staying power somehow touch on those universal human experiences.

Recently I've been thinking about the fact that I mostly sing my own songs now. In a way, I wish it weren't so. There is a vast body of brilliant, beautiful, and compelling music out there that deserves to be sung and played. But there are many factors that discourage working musicians from playing or recording anything other than their own songs -- a few people already mentioned royalty income, but there is also the structure of many granting programs in Canada, which subtly, and not-so-subtly encourages musicians to write and record their own songs in order to get the maximum funds possible.

I love writing songs, but I also fear that by singing more and more of my own songs, I'm losing touch with my musical bedrock. And on a larger scale, I wonder if that's happening to us as a musical community. It's exciting that so many great new songs are being written, but I hope we aren't losing the old chestnuts and bits of gold from days gone by.

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