All my life I have been singing traditional Anglo-American songs, many of which are hundreds of years old. Why have they lasted so long even though many of the social values and practices described in them are moribund? How have they managed to survive the tests of time, of acculturation, of being transplanted geographically? Why do they appeal so strongly to a modern audience, to people who take for granted such features of civilisation as e.mail, space travel, shopping malls, Gary Larson, presidential elections, home pages, fast food, gun lobbies, dating agencies, etc.?
The situations described in the folk songs and stories are, of course, universal: jealous siblings, unfaithful lovers, nagging wives, violent husbands; the endless war between property and poverty; dramas of religious fervour and industrial strife; humorous scenarios of all sorts; murders (mostly within the family circle); in other words, the eternal human tragedy and comedy. I believe the linguistic and melodic idioms in which the songs are cast are linked closely to the spoken language, the history, the gender/social/economic relationships of each particular people or nation. Our traditional songs express our system of values in the code of poetry-set-to-music. Perhaps this is why we feel at home with them, often without knowing exactly why.
I like to think of each language as a pool of cultural genes which we pass down from generation to generation. Spoken language and sung language are directly connected, even if we may be unconscious of this relationship. The ways in which words and tunes are linked in folk songs are not arbitrary. I believe that the folk melodies take their form, their cadences, their scales from the way in which we speak, thus explaining why the musics of different nationalities are so varied. I am convinced that the songs have survived because people felt as familiar with them as they did with conversational speech and passed them on almost as a matter of course to the next generation.
I would like to make songs that will last, that not only speak for my time but that are sung past my lifetime. I would like to make songs that will lie easily in the mouths of other singers. That is why I usually write in what is known as a folk idiom. I usually make tunes that sound like folk tunes. I try to use language as folksongs do. Sometimes I even use a particular traditional song as a 'jumping-off point' towards a new song (and there are so many genres of folksong!). I am not alone in this way of working. Many modern songmakers are doing this, utilizing the subconscious appeal of the folksong to make their new creations immediately subliminally recognisable to the listener. And so many of the new songs are so good . . .
One technique in songwriting is to use the words and ideas of other people. For instance: Supposing I want to write a song about what it feels like to spend your life in a wheelchair - but I know nothing about it. So I take my recording machine to someone who is spending life in a wheelchair and who does know all about it. This not only gives me ideas but it often provides whole phrases and terminology that go directly into the new text. Occasionally, the lilt, pitch and speed of speech of the person being recorded will suggest the way the new melody should sound. A further spinoff: occasionally the recordee will feel that she or he has had a chance to say exactly what they want. Their feelings and the lessons they have learned will be communicated to the world in a new and unexpected way. I take the finished song back to them for their comments. The best comment I ever had on a new song was: I hear myself speaking.
When I teach songwriting, I sing quite a lot of folksongs first, followed by some new songs, showing how songwriters have used the lessons that tradition teaches. I find that people work in the folk idiom quite easily. The songwriting seminars are not really 'taught' - they are facilitated, for almost everyone has the ability to make songs. It is often just a matter of liberating them and polishing them up. We may start by making parodies of songs we already know. Or perhaps rhymed couplets - a short song! Then perhaps one verse - a longer song! Then we graduate perhaps to songs whose verses are dispensable and can be arranged in any order. We maybe start by making a chorus. There are a lot of 'maybes' and 'perhapses' because there is no set course. Everything depends on who is there, what their talents and expectations are and how much time we have. There is nothing quite so exhilarating as being with a group of people who are in the throes of creation - unless it's watching the proud parent leave the workshop with the new baby.