Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Lessons at a Concert

When you hear the same message several times in one day, maybe it's a good idea to pay attention.

My wife and I, with another couple, drove from Colorado Springs to the small town of La Veta. There we rode the Rio Grande Scenic Railway to their “Mountain Rails Live” concert near the summit of La Veta Pass.

We listened first to Dana and Susan Robinson, folksingers and songwriters from Asheville, North Carolina. Cowboy and country singer Michael Martin Murphey (“Wildfire”; “Carolina in the Pines”) headlined the show.

Having long been professional musicians, both the Robinsons and Murphey have experienced the tension of trying to:
make a living at their craft
please audiences
satisfy demands of publishers
communicate their own messages

Like many folksingers, the Robinsons followed in the tradition of using their lively narrative music to alert and inspire people to the need for change. One of their songs, “What Would Woody Do?” drew on the example of Woody Guthrie (born in 1912 and the author of hundreds of songs, including “This Land Is Your Land”).
What would Woody do?
Write about it,
Talk about it,
Sing about it too.

Murphey played songs from throughout his career, including when he wanted to sing encouraging love songs—in contrast to the lyin' and cheatin' songs that filled the country charts. Recounting his struggle to find positive lyrics—and to convince producers that such music would sell—Murphey paraphrased Woody Guthrie's philosophy that he never wanted to sing songs that made people feel worse.

Back home I found the full Guthrie quote, transcribed from one of his concerts:

I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you. I could hire out to the other side, the big money side, and get several dollars every week just to quit singing my own kind of songs and to sing the kind that knock you down still farther and the ones that poke fun at you even more and the ones that make you think that you've not got any sense at all. But I decided a long time ago that I'd starve to death before I'd sing any such songs as that. The radio waves and your movies and your jukeboxes and your songbooks are already loaded down and running over with such no good songs as that anyhow.”

In the early 1980s Murphey found and recorded such a counter-cultural love song, “What's Forever For” (by Rafe VanHoy), and it spent sixteen weeks in the top forty. He followed it with “A Long Line of Love,” by Dove award-winner Paul Overstreet and Thom Schuyler, which also reached number one on the country charts.

Murphey didn't preach. He spoke of his own experiences, his struggles, his convictions--then followed those statements with uplifting songs. Appropriate to the venue, he closed with “This Train Is Bound for Glory” and “Life Is Like a Mountain Railroad (by M. E. Abbey and Charles Davis Tillman):

Life is like a mountain railroad, with an engineer that's brave;
We must make the run successful, from the cradle to the grave;
Watch the curves, the fills, the tunnels; never falter, never quail;
Keep your hand upon the throttle, and your eye upon the rail.

Blessed Savior, Thou wilt guide us,
Till we reach that blissful shore;
Where the angels wait to join us
In Thy praise forevermore.

I came home wanting to “write about it, talk about it, sing about it too.”


Angie Arndt said...

Love those songs, Andy. Mother & I used to sing "Life is Like a Mountain Railroad" when I was little. She sang melody and I sang alto. Hadn't thought of that in a long time. Thank you.

And thank you for sharing Murphey's writing philosophy. It's takes a lot of conviction to stick to your guns when you could get rich doing the opposite. Given the books that are selling today, I guess we, as Christian fiction writers, are doing the same.

Thanks for the encouragement.

Diana said...

Thank you Andy. This post was very encouraging. A song to me.

Andy Scheer, Hartline Literary said...

The song is especially fitting right before you're about to get on a literal train that's fixing to twist around mountainsides.

sally apokedak said...

Thanks for talking about it and singing about.

Jenny McLeod Carlisle said...

When my son married, I chose "A Long Line of Love" for our special dance at the reception. So appropriate, and so hopeful. I hope to write that way, too!

Rick Barry said...

I recall that some time back you mentioned a story of your own that you were developing. I'll look forward to seeing how you incorporate these good points into your work.

Blessings to you.