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"steamboat Bill" And The Writers' Guild...


Looked up the top songs of 1911, the year the railroad to the Coast was completed; “Steamboat Bill” was #20 that year—and it’s the only one with any connection at all to trains (and a pretty thin one at that). There are maybe half a dozen songs from that year that were memorable; most famous is probably Shelton Brooks’ “Some of These Days,” which Sophie Tucker made famous. (That one would be fun to learn primarily because Candice could probably sing it really well. I doubt the chord progression would be easy.) Most of the top songs of 1911 were quite forgettable (and have been appropriately quite forgotten).

One might be able to put together a setlist of train songs, however (I have had a tentative invitation for Deathgrass to perform at the “Rails 100” celebration October 1-2). “Tillamook Railroad Blues” is a Deathgrass standard, of course, and Skip Johnson said he’s got a train song he can send me; might not be hard to find others. I’d still want to stick to originals and traditionals; I think that’s possible (and important).

Six at the Writers’ Guild meeting Thursday night. Jim Nelson had us all do an idea exercise referred to variously as “mind mapping” and “vomiting on paper”—writing down as fast as possible all the words, phrases, &c., generated by a single keyword (in this case, “ocean”). Some people did get beginnings of songs out of it; I didn’t—though a couple of catchphrases, “Bubbles, Queen of Whales” and “Treasure of the Vampire Fish,” could turn into song material later. For homework (homework?) we are supposed to turn our “ocean” ideas into a song. (Bubbles? You there? C’mon, honey—we got work to do.)

Next week—we are still getting together weekly—it’ll be my turn to be the presenter. I expect I’ll want to talk about inspiration, and where it comes from (which is everywhere, by the way—I am fond of my “Bill Shakespeare” mantra, “The world is a very strange place, and people are very weird critters”).

And for an exercise, could we maybe try to improve on something? Would that be too outside people’s comfort zones? The Dodson Drifters did it constantly (with two writers in the band, it was almost second nature—we even improved Hank Williams and Bob Dylan). The classic example I’d cite is that old bluegrass turkey, “Wreck of the Old 97,” which really is not a well-written song (it is beloved by bluegrass musicians for other reasons)—but Johnny Cash added a verse, and then I changed the last verse, and it got a whole lot better. The task might be to take a one-verse song (there were a lot of them written in the early days of phonographs, when you couldn’t fit a lot on a record), and expand it to where it’d be marketable today—i.e., 3-1/2 to 5 minutes, with at least two verses and a chorus (and maybe a bridge). I do have around somewhere a sweet little one-verse French two-step from the 1920s about the dangers of premarital sex—and obviously the message is still current.

We shared songs, too. Some folks had works in progress, and I applaud their courage in exposing them early. I’m still not comfortable doing that. I did mention I was working on a “werewolf bluegrass” tune, and maybe next time I’ll have something I can expose. It was good to have writers tearing into each other’s material from a wide range of perspectives—that’s a kind and quality of input the pros never get, and I think it’ll be really helpful. One lady had a song I believe I can set to music (I warned her it would come out country if I did); with luck, she’ll send it to me. It’d be my first musication this year (and the Worklist says I should be doing a dozen of them).

Open mike Saturday night at the Arts Center; I’ll host, because Jim will be out of town. Several folks have said they’d come, and it should be fun. (And Charlie will videotape.) With luck, I’ll have help from Jim setting up the sound before he leaves town.

Oh, and for those who were wondering—I think the washing machine is fixed.



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