Chapter One - Page 5

The Birth of a Song

Man with Guitar


‘Where do they come from?’ ‘How do you start?’ ‘Do you write the melody first or the words? ‘ ‘Where do you get an idea for a song?’ These are all questions I hear often in classes and workshops I teach.  Is there an easy answer? Well, yes and no. I’ve learned after talking to countless songwriters that it works every which way. Some folks like to write the words first, some the melody. Some work on both at the same time.  Many write with an instrument but some write acappella. Is any approach superior to the others? Not from what I can tell. Try to figure out what works best for you. Neil Young says that the songs are in the air and like radio waves all you have to do is put up your antennae and dial them in!

Here’s a great songwriting story about writing songs while asleep by the great Townes Van Zandt recounted in Songwriters on Songwriting, edited by Paul Zollo.

Townes Van Zandt playing guitar and singing.

When asked about songs coming to him ‘so fast it was like a frenzy’…

"Another strange experience came with the song," If I Needed You." I was in Nashville that he and the late great Townes Van Zandt album, and I was staying with Guy Clark and Susanna Clark, old friends. They had this little bitty old house in East Nashville and we all got the flu. It was such a little place that if one person got it, we all got it. Serious flu. We were all taking antibiotics and cough syrup.

And because of the cough syrup, and the fever and everything, I'm sure, my dreams that week were blazing Technicolor vivid dreams. One night, I went to bed and had a dream about being a folk singer. I was on stage somewhere, I played this song. It was so vivid that I remembered it, woke up exactly after it was finished, turned on the light reached for this little pad and pencil, wrote down the verses in the middle of the night, remembered the guitar part exactly, rolled over and won't back to sleep.

In the morning I woke up, got some coffee, what to Guy and Susanna and said, ‘Hey, you all, listen to this.’ I played it and it seemed like my fingers knew the guitar part. It took one second to figure it out.

I played the whole song through and they went, ‘Hey, that's a great song! When did you write that?’ I said, ‘Last night.’ They said ‘No, you couldn't. He went to bed before we did. Did you wake up or what?’ I said, ‘No. I wrote it in a dream. I just had time to write it down before I went to sleep.’

That's the only time that ever happened that I can remember. I remember playing songs and dreams before that I didn't know, but it was never clear enough to write down."

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