Malvina Reynolds: Song Lyrics and Poems  

Song at the Core

The great things in poetry are song at the core...
Arthur Simmons

    There are quite a few different kinds of songs in this book, some that sound like folk songs, I am told. SHOW BUSINESS and VARIETY speak of "Turn Around" as being in the "genre of folk song, " and there is hardly a chairman that introduces me at a meeting where I am to sing but calls me a writer of folk songs--a contradiction in terms in a way, and so I always say.

    But this quality in the songs, to the extent that it is there, is not there because I go about to write a folk song or a folk-type song. When I heard the first folk song that I could so identify--it was an old 78, John Jacob Niles singing "Cherry Tree Carol"--I knew that that was my kind of song. I've only been more certain of this through the thousands of folk songs I've heard since, as the genre has taken over the field. The folk songs have lived long, and have survived even a mechanized and urban kind of world, because they have a greatness. Their absorbing stories, universal themes, and the cool, almost impersonal expression of violent or deep feeling, all this joined to simple but not common music as the flesh to the bone--it just naturally wears through generations.

    The best songs I write turn out to be something like folk songs because these traditional pieces say things the way I want to say them and am impelled to say them; they mean to speak surely and quietly, almost as an aside or half-heard observation, with a way of sticking in the memory as though they had something to say that you didn't catch the first time.

    Folk songs--and I am not going to define them here; so often definitions merely replace a meaningful word with a whole lot less meaningful--come in many forms and with many subjects, so that almost anything you have to say can find a proper home. If it's a story, there's the ballad; there are love songs, satires, angry songs, lullabies, work songs, kid songs for games, dances and pure nonsense. You find some of these kinds here. Again, not because I went about to write another "Aunt Rhody" or "The Two Brothers"! I had something to sing, and songs of that kind were in my mind, just as the words of my language are in my mind when I need them.

    Too bad the melodies didn't stay with me as well. But the teasing modal lines couldn't altogether displace the pop and show tunes of the '20's, most of them square as a chair. And when a song gets going a certain way, I have a bad time wrenching it another way. Sometimes it gets going with a melody I do approve of even from a musical point of view--with a touch of something strange and something familiar. We construct out of what we have, and what we have is what our mother sang us and what our father told us, and what we stubbed our own toe on, and what was in the air when we were singing the most.

    Any lyric seems to demand a certain tune; the idea has its own melody line, just as speaking does, and there is a song implicit in every sentence.

    When I can find someone to work with that has this feeling about lyrics--their innate demand for a particular music--I can collaborate with him, and that is a great teamwork. Sometimes even a first rate composer can miss the sense of words-in-music, and then it doesn't go, and I'd rather make it with my own thumb-worn three chord tune.

    Sometimes singers take my songs and sing them their own way, making something different from what I thought I was thinking when I wrote. Hearing such a transformation is a great experience sometimes. The singer finds something in the song that I didn't know was there, or he adds something of himself. He may not change a word, a harmony, or a note, but he sings it his own way just the same, and he makes something special of it. Sometimes a singer does something to a song that doesn't make sense--but you can't win 'em all.

    It's some twenty years that I have been writing songs. I wrote some fiction and poetry before that, but it didn't roll until I picked up a guitar. What an instrument that was! A big old F-hole orange crate with a crack in the back. I've given away, traded and sold and pulled my holdings to a couple of beauties with a lovely hold and action and tone to them, and some mighty pretty inlay.

    There are guitars everywhere now, and banjos, mandolins, dobros, autoharps, hand drums, recorders, whistles and fiddles. It's wonderful. There were not so many then; the collectors were beginning to report from the field, and a few little gangs were getting together in the big cities, working on chords and strums, singing the new-found old treasures, and making their own songs. Some of these singers and pickers became the early big-name groups in the folk-song revival.

    I'm lucky to be writing in the time of records, in the time of the widespread guitar and banjo picking, when suddenly a whole generation is singing again, making songs again, and looking for songs old and new.

    I write mostly what I feel like writing, and it's my good luck that some of my songs seem to fit the mind of some of the great performers of my time, and some of them fit the mind of a lot of people, many of them young ones and/or people like me who have a powerful anger about some things, or care about some things a great deal, so that they have to sing about it.

    I've been a protester most all my life. This could be a right solid world, with people at their best, working and not abused, but the abusers are rich and powerful.

    This book could be called "Singin Mad." But you can't be meaningfully angry unless you burn because you care truly about people and small children and birds, fishes, ladybugs and wilderness places, and there are songs here about all that.

    Who touches the old songs? I do. Someone did before me; that's why there are variants and variants. For better or worse, mine is just another one.

    Who translates the foreign songs? I do. You don't really translate, of course. You make a singing song of it, near as you can to the meaning and feeling of the original. This is especially difficult, because the genius of the language determines the music line in the French, Russian or Greek song, and if you can move it into our language without wrenching the music line or the English idiom, you've done something valuable, I think.

    But mostly I write my own.

    And here's to the people I learned from, and the tunes I pieced from, and the people who sing my songs and the people who listen and people anyway--they're the best thing I know.

I have a little tune, I picked it from the air;
Notes and phrases sung once are floating everywhere.
Some say that in the North woods they thaw out in the Spring,
But here they're flying all the time for everyone to sing.

Berkeley, California
June 1, 1963

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