Do We Know
Where We’re Coming From?
I find, in talking to prospective students and other songwriters, there are those who respect roots and those who have no idea of them. Some of them, like my former student and friend, Mark Islam, know more about who wrote what in the past than I do. They’re walking encyclopedias of songwriter credits. And I find that the kind of writing these people do is usually richer, more impactful and less derivative, strangely enough, than the writing of those who have ignored what came before.
Some songwriters I talk to boast that they never listen to the radio or records; they don’t want to be influenced by what anyone else has done. They just haven’t had the benefit of choosing something they really love and analyzing what’s great about it—playing it, letting it run through them and being affected by it. What they may not realize is that, while they’re shopping for groceries or riding in an elevator, they’re hearing melodies from the thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties and two thousands being piped in. So they’re being influenced, but not by choice.
Recently I was working with a rock group of eighteen-year-olds. The songwriter of the group admitted his main influences were Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell. I was impressed. Then the guitar player unfortunately opened his mouth when the name, Don Henley, was mentioned and tossed off some sort of unthought-out derogatory remark. As most of my colleagues know, anyone who speaks disparagingly of Don Henley around me counts himself lucky if he lives long enough to be humiliated by my response. I’m proud to say I allowed the guitar player to live.
I’ve thought a lot about why songwriters sometimes ignore the great talents that preceded them. Picasso copied the masters of realism when he first started painting. He was fascinated by them. Even up to the end of his life he continued to sketch, realistically. His style was, therefore, from choice. Some songwriters I know write the way they do because they have no choice. They literally cannot duplicate something they’ve heard. So they are like an artist who splashes paint on the canvas because that’s all he can do. He couldn’t draw a table anyway, so he just throws paint. Such a person is an impostor in a way. He’s infiltrated an art form and is trying to pass as a “contemporary” artist.
As outside as this may sound, I really think this phenomenon of ignoring musical roots has to do with the disintegrating communication within families. When I was growing up, I learned songs my father taught me (as Linda Ronstadt did). He’d play the marimba and I’d play the piano. Before I taught him the Beatles and Ray Charles, he had taught me Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter, and Rogers and Hart. I was too young to know what “old fashioned” meant. So, I lucked into having a rich, melodic background before I started plunking out my original ideas and developing “attitude.” I guess in a family where the parents are cautioned to be “seen and not heard,” their music gets ignored along with their philosophies.
Even though I’ve talked a lot in here about songwriters who ignore their artistic heritage, I still maintain they’re in the minority. Certainly, they are the minority of successful songwriters. I think if you went out and surveyed songwriters who make a living at it, they’d all have their favorite legends they listen to and continue to be influenced by. And, of course, these influences may change over a lifetime and a career.
I respond to current singer/songwriters but I also am aware of their influences. Sure I enjoy hearing Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift but it’s also fun to listen to their influences. A few years ago, I went to a Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan triple bill and and the young fans in the audience enjoyed the heck out of it, even if they’d only heard their parents playing the records. It’s not surprising that there’s such a resurgence of interest in seventies music. It’s what’s influencing a lot of the good current writers. Not to know anything about one’s musical heritage is like calling yourself an architect and saying Frank Lloyd who?