Write a topical song

John McCutcheon

A few years ago I took a songwriting workshop with John McCutcheon.

Among the many bits of songwriting wisdom he left us with, I remember most the type of song he calls short shelf-life songs.

Another term for a short shelf-life song is a topical song. He gave this example. What if you had a performance scheduled on the day of, or the day after the London bombings? That event would be on everyone’s mind. What if you showed up and played an original song about the event? Not a generic song about bombing or peace or terrorism, but a song specifically written about that event and your feelings about it.

You would be giving voice to things most of your audience is already thinking. You would be acknowledging the elephant in the room (that subject in the back of everyone’s mind). Such a song could bring everyone in the room together. What a way to set the tone for the rest of your concert.

It doesn’t have to be a tragic event. It could be a humorous event in the news, like one of George W. Bush’s malapropisms.

So the very next question is, how could you possibly write a song that fast? Remember, this song doesn’t have to be a masterpiece that passes the test of time. It only has to honestly address the news of the day. Some events are forgotten a week later and likewise your song may lose its usefulness and be forgotten. That’s OK, it has already served its purpose.

John showed us some tricks. Use a template. A template is like a pre-set outline that you can follow. A template can show where the rhymes are and/or where a certain line or lines are repeated.
One of the easiest is a blues template. That’s where you have a four line verse and the first three lines are the same. If you’re OK with writing a blues song, this is a real boon.

Another template would be to use the title of the song as the first and last lines of every verse. Make up your own template or copy one from an existing song. A template like this provides a real shortcut. We did some exercises where we were assigned to write a song in 15 minutes and it was amazing to hear the results. Try it.

Did you notice his web address? It’s www.folkmusic.com. He must have had a lot of foresight to snag that one. It’s a very well designed site, too.

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One Response to “Write a topical song”

  1. Bookmarks about Write Says:

    […] – bookmarked by 3 members originally found by derekhty on July 13, 2008 Write a topical song https://songwriterstipjar.wordpress.com/2008/07/03/write-a-topical-song/ – bookmarked by 2 members […]

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