Picture the scene.
I’m in Liverpool with my beautiful wife and 4 adorable kids. Behind us, an open top bus trip and a visit to an interactive museum. Ahead of us, as much Beatles related sightseeing as you can fit into one week. We’re taking a lunch break from the museum, sitting, eating sandwiches in the sunshine next a war monument. On the other side of the monument is a big guy late 30’s, close cropped hair and tattoos, his skin that particular angry red unique to really white people who just don’t understand that they’re NEVER going to get a tan.
As we eat our lunch (deliberately sitting where he can’t see us) the man begins an angry monologue to anyone within earshot about war. Whether this current war, war in general, or even the war commemorated in stone between us I have no idea. He is riffing on the theme of leaders sending young men to die in battles that they’re not prepared to fight themselves. I actually agree with his sentiments as far as I can make them out. But I do not agree with him. The strength of his emotions & the vehemence with which he’s expressing them scares me and I want him to stop. I begin to think about moving my family’s picnic somewhere else.
Then something very odd happens.
I hear an acoustic guitar begin to play and in a clear bell like voice someone begins to sing one of Dylan’s antiwar songs. The poetry captures the same torment the man was expressing but whereas I was threatened by the sermon, I am drawn to the song.
Suddenly feeling a strong and irrational desire to put my food wrapper in the farthest bin I make my way around the statue to see what the drunken ranter is making of being upstaged in such a creative way.
The tattooed guy is still sitting there in the same spot, but is now cradling a guitar and distilling his impotent rage into song.
The same guy. The same theme. The slurring in his voice is no longer the kind that marked him out as a midday drunk. It’s transformed into a rough throated glissando aching with resignation and pain at all the needless deaths on foreign soil.
And now I agree with him.
Out of the Ashes
2600 years ago the prophet Jeremiah was living in a city under siege. He watched the city he loved systematically torn apart, and the people he loved reduced to cooking and eating the corpses of their children to stay alive. His anguish was unbearable, compounded by the fact that the siege had been brought on by corrupt governors who had spurned his counsel. He left a written account of those awful times called Lamentations. You can find it in the Bible. But there’s something that gets lost in translation.
There are 5 chapters. Chapter 5 is in a poetic metre of 22 verse. Chapters 1,2 & 4 also have 22 verses but are acrostics, each verse starting with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chapter 3 has the same acrostic structure but is 3 times longer than the others.
All the pain poured into these poems, the horrors that Jeremiah had witnessed first hand. And yet he spends hours, maybe days to craft something of beauty out of the ashes. Why?
Pack Up Your Troubles
Strong emotions are like fire. When the flame is safely contained in a fireplace, people are drawn to the light and heat. When it’s loose and spreading, our natural reaction is to run (or stamp out the flames).
What do you feel most passionately about? Is there a way you could begin to express that in song? It could be the most emotionally raw time you have writing, but catharsis is good for the soul. Just don’t let it remain at the level of musical therapy though. Craft it into a form that others can understand.
It’s been said that if something is too silly to say you can always sing it. But the opposite is also true. If something is so fundamental to who you are and what you believe that you struggle to express it in any coherent way, you can always sing it.
That’s what I learned about songwriting from a crazy guy in Liverpool.