Were you like me, and as soon as you had a child, if you have a child, crazy little songs started pouring out of your mouth on every possible occasion? Pants, pants, do a little dance! when I got her dressed, Mmm, mmm, breakfast, while we walked to the breakfast table, Munch, munch, have some lunch! you can guess when. The Beatles’ “Nowhere Man” became He’s a real diaper man, driving in his diaper van, bringing all the diapers to the babies. Classics in the making, I know. But songs are a human birthright. Babies need them, so of course they spill out of us in our sleep-deprived haze.
Many years ago, I saw Gary Snyder speak at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall. A black bear had recently wandered into the middle of the city and been killed, and someone asked Gary Snyder what else people could have done. Sing to it, he said. I remember this because it seemed true. Song is a human gift bears don’t have. Maybe they’d like it if we shared.
Yeah, songs are important, but how do you write them?
I sing together with my classes to end the day – twenty raucous minutes of camp songs and rounds. And I always make the parents sing (or hum or lip sync) with us at our end-of-quarter poetry readings. Singing together feels good. The parents are good sports. I also write songs with my students. I usually get nervous about it beforehand, but they love it. I’m not a good guitar player, and despite many years of childhood music lessons, my silly parenting songs are 95% of my songwriting. When I try to write songs, they get clichéd and rhyme-locked. How can I teach something I don’t do? But it doesn’t seem to matter. The kids have the songs in them already.
We’ve written songs many ways. We’ve put new lyrics on old tunes. We’ve had better guitar players than I give us a chord progression and then worked as a group to put lyrics over it. But my favorite way begins with listening. I learned this from one of my first class parents, Sommer Carter, herself a beautiful songwriter and instigator of family music-making.
Listening for songs:
Begin by taking turns playing one note on an instrument – guitar, banjo, recorder, piano, anything. Listen to that note until it fades away. Then let someone else play another. Listen to the notes that return again and again as you pass the instrument back and forth. What images come into your mind when you hear those notes? Brainstorm a list. Then using the repeated/central notes and your brainstorm list, what could be the first line? Perhaps a tune comes first, perhaps the words do. Either way, what could come next? Keep going. If you’re stuck, maybe it’s time for a chorus, or a bridge.
I’ve also had great success using human voices instead of an instrument. We went around in a circle and each sang one note, a tune forming out of those notes: a delicate tune, punctuated with a loud BLAH at the end of each line. This song is very popular and has many more verses:
The BLAH Song
A graceful swan BLAH
choked on a frog. BLAH
The frog said ugh BLAH
and hopped away. BLAH….
The unknown life of songs:
Some songs we write are never sung again. Others are perennial favorites; The Squinchy Song, featuring my dog who comes to class, was even revived years later by a younger sibling of one of its songwriters, and has since become one of our most-sung songs.
The Squinchy Song
I have an old penny, made of rust
His name is Squinchy and he loves to ride the bus.
Squinchy is awesome. He loves his possum.
He looks like a blossom and he loves to do summersaults.
(faster) He has black fur with white spots.
He has a black nose with brown eyes.
He’s Squinchy! Squinchy! Squinchy!
He swallowed that penny made of rust.
He jumps up and down when he rides the bus.
He has a habit which is quite plain
Of hitting me on the head with a windowpane.
(fast again) He has a red apple with a blue bone.
He likes to dig for moles that turn hard as stone.
He has a model of a flying drone.
He’s my hero! Hero! Hero!
(repeat first verse and chorus)
The following song never took off in my class, but I’ve always loved its absurdist humor. I sang it to my daughter and she and her cousin took it as their rocking horse and baby swing anthem. Sometimes when we make things, we don’t even know who needs them. But art seems to find its way.
A Crazy Cowboy
A crazy cowboy
Riding a horse
into the sunset
spurs are those things
on cowboys' boots
He's seen a lot of things
but never has he seen
A mongoose riding on a cowboy riding on a meerkat
riding on a horse
riding a tarantula riding a king cobra into the water
there goes the horse
In comes a shock wave
with some smiling light waves
to control the microwaves.
Secret agent cowboy
riding a velociraptor
who has never flossed-a-raptor
flew away til
 Because of his chaps, you see.