Anatomy of a Song

“… writing a song can be like chasing a wounded bird down a road.”

Lori McKenna

Trail marker to Mt. Defiance.

I’ve been writing cringe worthy poetry for more than 60 years. I’m always thinking in rhythm and rhyme, listening for the music in words. I can’t stop scratching the itch to write.

My last post, The Indifferent Gardener, linked a song, I Recall You When I Sing. In it, I muse on the death of two friends who I knew from the years I lived in Yosemite National Park. So, how did it come about? Was there a method to the madness?

The process (ha ha 😊) began with a single line, When the snow is gone from Mt. Defiance. I’ve carried that line in my writer’s backpack for over 40 years. Defiance is a mountain in Oregon’s Hood River County, where I live. At 4,960 feet, it’s the tallest peak in the Columbia Gorge. 

A local adage states that gardens should not be planted until the snow is gone from Mt. Defiance. It’s good advice, corroborated by years of ruined plantings that tried to defy that bit of horticultural wisdom.

I started by trying to rhyme defiance. I matched it and loved it with the word triumphs. That led to a phrase, which paired the first and third lines. After that, the second and fourth lines virtually wrote themselves. I’d no idea what was to become of my infatuation, but this was a chorus, not a verse, and it had a story to tell.

When the snow is gone from Mt. Defiance,

And the rivers race high in the spring,

We once shared the glory of our triumphs.

I’m alive and recall you when I sing.

Mt. Defiance above Rainy Lake in the Mark Hatfield Wilderness.

I noodled with chords on my ukulele. I paid attention to meter, counting beats. Where was this going? Obviously, someone has died. Who?

I wandered through my messy notebooks. I found unused verses that might fit the mood. From a friend who shares stories about wildlife near his home, I had imagined:

Up on Cook-Underwood mountain,

The road ends at the old blue barn.

There the elk graze on the bunch grass

And wild turkeys gather at dawn.

At dusk, cougars scream like banshees

Riddled with the passion of their heat.

They prowl the Columbia River Basin

Looking for a little something to eat.

Ok, I had a chorus and possibly two verses, but it was all non-specific. What or who was the song about? Like a child playing with legos, I fastened words onto one another hoping to create … something.

Mono Lake in California.

I continued to noodle. Then, I noodled some more. If what’s past is prologue, my deceased friends were destined to stop by for a visit. And, they did. An apparition? Perhaps, I don’t know. But, once the feather of that idea floated before my dreamy writer’s eyes, the collection of images became a song. 

Soon, those two verses migrated from the forested slopes of the Northwest to the desolate Mono Lake Basin and I was chasing that wounded bird down the road.

East of the border town of Lee Vining,

A few years after the Vietnam War,

A wild wind tumbled out of the desert,

Drowned Little John Gable and Phil Dufour.

At night coyotes cry out their love songs,

Riddled with the passion of their heat.

They prowl that lonely Mono Lake Basin,

Looking for a little something to eat.

Mono Lake Basin

I juggled the poetics of the last two verses. I added and dropped words and rhymes until I could keep a credible assortment in the air. The message was never in doubt. Friends had died. I had lived. The particular became universal. Rhetorically, I wondered, “What are any of us doing with the precious time we are given?”

I been meanin’ to try and do more with less.

And stayin’ busy might just see me through.

It’s better than doing nothing, I guess,

When everyday it seems there’s somethin’ new.

Maybe I’ll teach me how to meditate.

Be mindful in a way the holy can do.

It’s all a gift and on loan while we wait,

Lucky to see them stars are me and you.

The finished product has four verses and a chorus. There’s an instrumental break. The pot pie of content simmers in the dough of 3/4 time. It’s typical structural songwriting stuff.

Methodology? Process? There was no plan. I played with words. I awakened some ghosts. I had fun. I wrote a song.

The latest rendition of:

I Recall You When Sing


16 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Song

  1. John-
    I don’t sing much, but I do recall often the shared glory of our triumphs together. Thanks for the music lesson and your creativity.
    Talk to you on the 27th.

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  2. John — Thanks so much for this. It is a touching song sung sweetly. You and the ukulele have become good friends. We endured the threat of two fires this summer. The Dixie fire is nearly a million acres (still smoldering). It’s western flank roared up into Lassen Volcanic NP and came within 8 miles of our house .. not a great distance for a wild fire to travel. Fortunately for us, the wind mostly blew it east. The little town of Greenville south of Lake Almanor was burned to the ground and the whole Almanor area was either burned or threatened. This fire made it all the way to Hwy. 395 and put the Susanville area in danger. The Caldor fire started along Hwy. 50 west of Echo Summit. It headed toward South Lake Tahoe. Our family cabin is on the West Shore near Meeks Bay and that area was evacuated as well. Both fires are no longer a threat to us, I am happy to say. Of course, the fire season is not over yet. We have had a little rain. We are grateful for it, but the whole west hopes for a lot more this winter. Keep those songs and poems coming and be well. Best Regards, Jeff

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    1. Hey Jeff. Thanks for commenting. Such a joy to here from both you and Chuck! Hope your family is well.

      I have been watching those fires closely. We had so many long smoke events in the Northwest in 2020. This year, not so much … yet. 👌 We managed to miss most of the poor air quality resulting from the Dixie and Caldor fires while enjoying a family reunion in August at Sunriver.

      However, the “heat dome” in June of this year was the most dangerous weather phenomenon I’ve ever endured. We are literally ‘toast’ should that become a persistent occurrence. 🥵

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  3. I love learning about the process of writing a song. So cool that the wonderful originating line “When the snow is gone from Mt. Defiance” stuck with you for 40 years! Beautiful, moving art can take a long time. The melody and the words are full of love and wisdom – like “I been meanin’ to try and do more with less.” Merci beaucoup, John.

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  4. Thanks, John, for sharing with us the path that led to this beautiful song. Coincidentally, I’m reading about Bruce Joel Rubin’s struggle to get his script for Jacob’s Ladder written and produced. I think all writers struggle mightily, so I have much respect for anyone who completes a poem, a song, a book, or a screenplay.

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    1. Hey Gary. One of the joys of blogging is the control over content. You become the writer, editor, and publisher. Much of the reward comes from comments and acknowledgment of the effort. Thanks!

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  5. Ah the mystery of word weaving😊 Thanks for the insight into yours.

    “What are any of us doing with the precious time we are given?” Such an important question that so many avoid.

    Wishing you a beautiful autumn, John.

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  6. The beautiful chaos of creativity, is there anything better when you are in the middle of it (eye of the storm), even if it spreads over forty years 🙂 Great to read about your process ~ how the journey is the inspiration behind the glamour of the destination. Wonderful work.

    Like

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