Why I Write
The Internet is a fantastic resource. The World Wide Web has transformed our lives. The computer has expanded our ability find answers and to share our knowledge. But in hearing these claims, many will say, “Yes, but can you trust what you read?” How do you know that it’s not just some crazy conspiracy theory, or half-baked pseudo-science hack that has attracted your attention for the moment?
My answer to that concern, and it is a valid concern, is that with a multiplicity of sources it’s possible to arrive at a clearer resolution of complex issues. With a wider sampling, I believe you can come to a truer understanding of an issue and its related aspects than any one college professor or ‘official’ explanation can provide.
It’s fine to look for someone who will tell you the truth, but isn’t it also the responsibility of the listener to know the truth when he hears it? In the twenty-five years since I began to explore the Internet, I’ve found a couple of dozen voices I trust and feel I can rely on to explain the ways of the world.
Noam Chomsky is universally acknowledged as a reliable witness to the history of the last seventy years and, as the man who practically invented modern linguistics, he has a scientist’s skill at parsing the myth from the fact. Chris Hedges is a man who has the education of a scholar, the experience of a decade of reporting on Europe and the Middle East for the New York Times, and has the additional credibility of being someone who left the Times to preserve his integrity as a journalist. He teaches at a prison, and has written a dozen very informative books.
In addition to the historians C. Wright Mills, Walter Lippman and Howard Zinn, I have found that Peter Dale Scott is a reliable voice on the political history of our time, as are Seymour Hersh, Webster Tarpley, Paul Craig Roberts, Russ Baker, Arundhati Roy, Jill Lepore and Gerry Docherty. From a newer generation, Matt Taibbi and Max Blumenthal are speaking truth to power, even if they don’t have standing in the corporate media.
In the realm of economics, I rely on James Rickards, Alisdair Macleod, Catherine Austin Fitts, Peter Schiff, Nomi Prinz, Mike Maloney and Max Keiser and Stacy Herbert. Money is such a controversial topic that you find a wide range of opinions. Some of these folks have butted heads, but eventually you come away with an impression you can live with. You could generalize from this wide sampling that printing trillions of money is a criminal debasement of the currency, and benefits only the one percent to the detriment of the rest of us.
On a subject as specific as JFK or 9/11, I have relied on James Corbett, Colonel Fletcher Prouty, John Luftus, David Talbot, Richard Grove and Christopher Bollyn. Again, not all agree on all points, and that is a good thing. On JFK alone there must be a thousand YouTube videos. Many of them are specious, but it’s pretty clear by now that anybody who still buys the lone gunman theory just hasn’t been paying attention.
This week I came across an article by James Corbett on his Corbett Report website about George Orwell’s 1946 essay entitled "Why I Write". In the essay, Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair, lists what he believes are the four great motivations for writing. I had not seen the essay, and was grateful to have it brought to my attention. I also immediately felt that there was a lot there for songwriters to think about, with perhaps the need for me to raise some additional points about the musical/emotional aspects of songwriting, that second language of song.
Here are the four things Orwell listed that compelled him to write:
- Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one.
- Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement.
- Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
- Political purpose. Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.
In Corbett’s article, he explains that these motives, to quote Orwell, “exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living.” He writes about his own early ambitions to be an author, and how that ambition gave way to another vision of how his writing talents and efforts could be effective, as he awakens to the atmosphere of his own time. He wrote that if Jonathan Swift were alive today, he’d have a website. I suppose George Orwell would too.
Corbett has gone on to create a very successful blog with widely valued pieces on the major issues of our time. I always respect the discipline of his research and rely on his scholarship. In the large matters of the nature of the Federal Reserve banking system, the New World Order, the history of the World Wars, the power of Big Oil, and the unacknowledged facts of 9/11, his work has been a beacon, and I recommend it.
In his article on the Orwell essay, he says: “Orwell’s importance only grows with each passing year. He has, after all, provided the very vocabulary — from ‘double-think’ and ‘thought-crime’ to ‘memory hole’ and ‘Big Brother’ — with which we describe the events taking place around us, and, as I am constantly at pains to note, it is nearly impossible to encounter yet another story of the encroaching technocratic police state without referring to it as ‘Orwellian.’”
Joan Didion wrote her own version of the essay in her book Let Me Tell You What I Mean. She admitted to borrowing the title from Orwell. She explained that she did that intentionally because she liked the alliteration of the title, the ‘i’ vowel sounds, and the fact that it set up the ‘I’ as the speaker, the individual speaking from her own point of view in a way that prepared for the message of the essay.
She says: “In many ways, writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions — with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating — but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”
All of this is true for the essayist, but for the songwriter there need be no apology for singing out, for celebrating the moment with one’s tune. Songs do also have a textual component, but the songwriter can interweave his message with the music, and if the two seem married, that is, mutually supportive and harmonious, then the message is clear and self-evident.
Besides, a little seduction is to be expected with songs, whereas in the essay there is more of an expectation of scholarly justification for what is expressed. I prefer the song. What was that joke about the goat in the trash heap eating a roll of film? He said, “The book was much better.” Songwriters know when they are succeeding because the words and the music are in tune. If not, they know they don’t yet have a song.
So there is this other dimension for songwriters to consider. Certainly the four that Orwell listed are relevant, but the celebratory, ‘bird-song’ aspect of music is a natural outpouring of a very human energy. This is something that may require us to rediscover the motivations that brought us into the world of playing an instrument and raising our voices to be heard, and which have encouraged us as we grow out of the early awkwardness that must accompany our first efforts. What is it that drives us, and how can we best honor it?
Gratitude is the word that I would invoke at this point. Many say that coming from a place of gratitude is the best way to activate our creative abilities. It’s not clear what should be the focus of that gratitude. Admittedly, for some it is a religious observance, and that’s understandable. This is an area I’d like to explore more carefully. I think it’s important to decide whether one must declare fealty to a supreme being, or if it is possible to be grateful to a more general spirit of life, a salutation of the miracle of existence without limiting it to dogma.
I recognize that this is a very personal question, and I can only say that whatever stage of spiritual growth has been attained, it may be the platform for strong work that will engage the listener, and perhaps even effect a conversion. In the case of most writers I know, there has been a progression from the childlike fascination with Bible stories to more of a generalized love for all humanity and the tolerance of different views on the meaning of life. There is an expectation of mutual respect for individual choice.
What I’ve said from the stage, and which has often engendered knowing laughter is this: “It may take a thousand years, but I believe we will arrive at a place where we have put the strife over religion to rest. It will come about in one of two ways. Either we will all believe the same thing, or we will all agree that each of us is entitled to his or her own beliefs. Personally, I prefer the former, as long as it’s the latter.” It seems strange for me to see quotation marks around something that I have said myself, but I think it’s a good literary device, if maybe a little more wordy than the great aphorisms of my heroes. Still, I offer it as nourishment.
But, I don’t sing it. Music takes wisdom into a whole different dimension. Songs are conversational and straightforward, and generally don’t require much concentration to ‘get it.’ If anything, songwriters take great care to underline the thought with rhyme, proper scansion, melodic support, harmony that invites speculation and then hints at closure as the thought completes at the end of a succinct and memorable line. What some have called ‘the money line,’ or the ‘hook.’ It does seem to be all about communication and bringing our skills to getting the point across in a clear and hopefully, celebratory vehicle. That’s what I look for in a song.
Why do that? Why put years into a study of songwriting technique and music theory? The better to communicate, to be sure. Is it about wealth and fame? Yes, it is; but I think that most of those I know who have attained that would say that there’s still something to be desired and acquired. And maybe that’s an ideal that can only be approached, never achieved. For me it’s the thought of creating a song that will live on, hopefully giving pleasure for many decades, maybe even centuries after my passing. We can all name songs that have done that, although, awkwardly, the names of the songwriters are rarely remembered.
Wikipedia provides hundreds of titles including these: “All My Trials,” “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep,” “Barbara Allen,” “Barnacle Bill the Sailor,” “Children, Go Where I Send Thee,” “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies,” “Cotten-Eyed Joe,” “Darlin’ Cory,” “The Drunken Sailor,” “The Farmer In the Dell,” “Frère Jacques,” “Froggie Went a-Courtin’,” “The House of the Rising Sun,” “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier,” “Little Miss Muffet,” “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Red River Valley,” “Rock Island Line,” “Scotch and Soda,” “Shady Grove,” “The Sloop John B,” “There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe,” “Three Blind Mice,” “The Water Is Wide,” “The Wayfaring Stranger,” “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
Except for classical pieces which have been carefully cataloged and have benefited from Royal patronage so that they are part of an official establishment, most music is of an oral tradition and until recently, largely anonymous. So that may be our first conundrum. Is it worth the trouble to write the memorable song if I’m not remembered for writing it? Many of us approach songwriting as a business, a livelihood for those who can provide for their families with the earnings of their songs. But always, it seems to me, there is an accompanying desire to be remembered and valued for the work aside from payment.
In his article, “Why I Write,” Orwell goes on to say: “The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.
“What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
In his article about Orwell’s essay, James Corbett wrote: “Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are, by now, known to all. But there can be little doubt that they would have never flowered at all had Orwell not lived through the tumultuous events of the 1930s.”
“And just as Orwell could observe that it is “nonsense” to think that any author of his era could avoid writing of the totalitarian threat that was at that time menacing the world, so, too, do I think that it is nonsense to believe that any writer of our era could not in one way or another address the totalitarian threat of our own age: the move toward a global technocratic bio-security state predicated on complete control of every human down to the genomic level.”
All this is true as far as I can tell, and it’s worthy of more thought and action, but ‘right action’ may require careful study. Again, to cavalierly quote myself once more, I’ve been saying that I don’t want to show up at the wrong castle with my pitchfork! In this article, I’m not advocating political action any more than I would always want to encourage awareness in that realm. But this article is about songwriting, and while I encourage writing songs that might have a direct bearing on the political awareness of one’s listener, I want to emphasize the benefits of applying good writing technique to whatever kind of song is desired.
And again, I would emphasize gratitude as a starting point. That may seem inconsistent with Corbett’s and Orwell’s concern with totalitarianism. But it seems that the bird song with all of its other attributes, mating, territory, etc., is a celebration of the beauty and magic of life. And that’s the place the listener wants to go when they put the needle down in the groove, or whatever thumb stroke or mouse click is the current equivalent.
Grave of Eric Blair (George Orwell), All Saints, Sutten, Courtenay, UK