Songwriting Part 17 - Immortality Through Songs

by SaskMusic

July 31, 2009 in Songwriting & Copyright

"Popular songs, because they are popular, reflect the feeling and spirit of their time. To become popular a song must have some element that makes it representative of its era. The essence of a popular song lies in this distinctive quality. The best popular songs have a strong, vital core that keeps them alive for any period."

Immortality: a pretty large concept. Itís the subject of books, movies, plays, and music. The mysterious fountain of youth. Sought through religion and science.

The basic driving force behind seeking immortality, I believe, is the desire for us to have our lives really mean something, to leave our mark on the world, and to not be forgotten.

Thereís a few ways to achieve immortality. Invent something fantastic, cure a disease, start a major war, become President, die young...or be a great composer. The debates arising from this immortality/songwriting issue were the inspiration for this article.

Exactly what elements need to be in alignment for a composer to become immortal? Think of all the songwriters whom you, personally, consider to be "great". Maybe your list would include such names as Mozart, Chopin, Listz, Paganini, Beethoven, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell or Diane Warren. If your list is like mine, it may even include composers whose music youíre not very familiar with, but who youíve heard so much about, you simply accept that they WERE great.

Many composers werenít recognized as "great" while they were still alive. Maybe they achieved some acclaim, but how could they have known that people would be listening to, playing and analyzing their creations hundreds of years later?

What I would give to have been present at the premiere of one of Mozartís works! To see if, upon the first hearing, chills ran up my spine and I would know that I had just witnessed an immortal performance. Or, is Mozartís work so popular with so many people because we have heard it in so many ways...if not in a formal concert, then on commercials, in movies, and other settings. Is it so enmeshed in our memory that it has "just always been there?"

I am amazed at how classical music has been passed down through the centuries, considering how hard it must have radio, no TV, no Billboard charts, no Internet, no email or mass communication. Picture it: Mozart plays a newly composed piece for a salon group of perhaps eighty. Those present write letters (by hand) and speak to their friends, perhaps travelling small distances where they spread their review. More performances, more publicity of the same kind. He dies young, and in debt. And yet more than two hundred years later, in countries all around the world, his music is performed on a daily basis. It is included in the required repertoire of classical musicians. I would venture to say that half the worldís population would recognize one of his compositions by ear, if not by name.

Today, we have the capability to beam a piece of music across the planet. And not just the composerís name, melodic theme, or sheet music (as in Mozartís day)...the whole recorded performance of it. Yet I highly doubt that the songs of certain pop groups (who shall remain nameless) ñ despite their worldwide popularity right now - will be analyzed and performed in 2300 A.D.

So what ís the problem? Is technology, and the constant availability of music, causing us to take music (and specifically, songwriters) for granted? Were people simply so hungry for music in 1700 that is was discussed, fervently, and among the most important news of the day? Were composers of any talent so highly touted that they are now carried merely on the momentum of their legend?

Or are composers today just less talented?

Perhaps it only seems that there are fewer prodigies in modern times because we are so saturated with mediocrity. There is such a sheer volume of music available that itís often hard to find the gems. In two hundred years, it will likely be perfectly clear who the great songwriters of the 1900s were.

Iím a little worried because it seems like weíre already forgetting a lot. Think of a hit song from 1900-1920. (Can you?) If we donít care now, these songs wonít survive in the collective memory. My other concern is that the separation of "great music" and "mass production" seemed to occur when recorded music became readily available. Perhaps the only effective way of relaying music is a first-person audience?

I recently sent out a survey regarding immortal musicians. Who do you believe people will (or should) be listening to one hundred years from now? And why? Here are some of your picks, and comments...

The favourite: John Lennon/Paul McCartney/The Beatles ("songs and images inserted into the public consciousness"; "poetry written to music")

Close runners-up: Bob Dylan; Elvis Presley ("the first real rock and roller with all the attitude and image"; "despite the hype, a great interpreter of song")

Other picks: Jim Morrison/The Doors; Neil Young ("if those who can't do, teach - then, apparently, those who can't sing write...a lot...of great songs");
Elton John/Bernie Taupin; ("soundtracks to our lives");
Randy Bachman/Burton Cummings/The Guess Who;
John Hiatt;
Jann Arden;
Jimi Hendrix;
Stephen Page & Ed Robertson ("they reached everybody, when all they wanted to do was reach themselves");
Steve Earle ("Brutal honesty refuses to cater to anyone but the writer himself and he makes no apologies, nor does he need to"; "storytelling with a conscience");
Paul Simon;
The Rolling Stones;
Led Zeppelin;
Peter Gabriel;
Rick Wakeman;
Carole King;
Joni Mitchell;
Eric Clapton;
Louis Armstrong ("the foundation of jazz");
Miles Davis ("changed the way artists and audiences thought about jazz...playing between the notes");
Stevie Ray Vaughan ("revolutionized blues");
Hank Williams Sr. ("feeliní and heart and hurt could make the simplest songs authentic"); Johnny Cash ("revolutionized the outlaw artist...longevity")
Leadbelly/Robert Johnson ("influence on the blues and music in general");
Eddie Van Halen ("guitar style/skill/writing has impacted many players");
Billy Joel;
Celine Dion ("she's just sold so many records I'm sure some will survive");
Gilbert & Sullivan ("they will continue to be performed forever, simply because so many people do love them");
George & Ira Gershwin ("music and theatre ñ no one has combined it better");
Ludwig von Beethoven ("passion, simplicity of compositions");
Mozart ("his music appeals not only to the ear and the spirit but is mathematically precise"); Leonard Cohen ("visceral yet tender");
Stan Rogers ("able to preserve the culture and diversity of Canadians");
Neil Diamond ("prolific and he writes catchy tunes");
Cat Stevens ("his ability to capture the energy and passion of generations");
Henry Rollins ("sheer honesty, rage, and passion mixed with lyricism and energy");
Sex Pistols ("oops - I though it said "immoral");
Mary Chapin-Carpenter ("use of language without equal");
Jimmy Buffett;
Hank Williams ("straight ahead lyrics and unencumbered singing style");
Tony Bennett ("a true interperter of the emotion and the motion of the music");
Ella Fitzgerald ("The Lady of Jazz");
Stompin' Tom Connors ("down-to-the-basics of living and laughing");
Captain Beefheart ("this is probably what music of the future will sound like");
Tom Waits ("both clever and emotionally evocative");
Sarah Vaughan ("once in a century range");
Chopin, Debussy and Haydn ("beautiful/exciting melodies, still as moving today");
Kate Bush ("unique melodies and arrangement");
The Ramones ("here is hoping that humans will always need to ROCK");
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan ("because transcendent music of spiritual substance always survives"); and the list goes on.

A few comments...

"...the quality of their lyrics is unparalleled. They are the poets of my generation (the boomers), a generation which might (I am prejudiced after all) have a lasting impact on generations to come."

"My list will comprise those who have touched me with their songs over the course of my life, in ways that have really impacted me as a person."

"Their music reached all ages and on many different levels."

"I think that any hope of such immortal artists being created (today) will have to be kept in an underground cult-like following, as popular culture continues to push forth such mindless taylor-made music...with any hope the same will happen that happened to J.S. Bach, where years after his death, his fame was brought alive and his music was enjoyed...if this is the case such artists as Tori Amos, Trent Reznor and Bjork will become icons..."

Common threads among "the immortals" include a universality of themes: love, or even politics. And some of these made your list even if you donít personally like them or believe in their moral structure.

So what, youíre saying to yourself, was my point? Simply to get you thinking about what ñ in your point of view ñ makes an artist immortal. Why do you revere the songwriters you do? Are you striving, in your own writing, to find those things ñ whether itís depth, social conscience, humour, beauty, or whatever else feeds YOUR imagination?

Here ís your project: Select eight to ten contemporary songs that you feel have a chance at immortality. (They should be ones that YOU like, not just ones that are popular.)

Analyze their chord structure and groove.
Analyze their lyrics. Are there any references which place them in the year they were written (slang, proper names, events)? Is the tense first person, second or third?
What is/was the social context at the time of their release or popularity? Does/did the mood of the song tie into the mood of the time?
Are there any similarities between the songs you have chosen? (Look beyond obvious ones.) Were you drawn to a particular trait (i.e., a very simple melody, or a very complex lyric)? Once youíve defined some elements that draw you in, look over your own songs and see if you have utilized these "triggers". More on this in a future issue.

By Lorena Kelly for SaskMusic. Originally published October/November 2001.

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