Measure To Measure: The “Fuzzy-To-Focused” Songwriting Method, Part 2

The following compendium of sad songs supplements the November 2017 column, which discusses sad songs in general and a method of songwriting called “fuzzy to focused.”

The first step in the fuzzy-to-focused method is to put aside the pressure to be creative and immerse yourself in research instead. Experience shows that creativity seems to take over all by itself once your intellectual muscles get tired. Really tired. Yes, a little blood, sweat, and tears are required, but the results are rewarding. The sad-song list provides plenty of material for your research.

Incidentally, the fuzzy-to-focused method works for writing essays, articles, blogs, fiction, or music columns (it has fueled over thirty columns for me). My first acquaintance with fuzzy-to-focused came in art school in conjunction with painting and drawing, and I have successfully adapted it to all kinds of creative projects, including music, in the years since. Try it and you just may outdo yourself.

Since intense immersion is the goal, no attempt has been made to limit the category of songs considered: Some are ancient, others are modern. Some are country classics, while others come from the Top-40 or rock charts. Folk songs appear. Jazz standards, too. Some songs are tragic, while others border on silly. A few cross the line into maudlin sentimentality even obsession while a small subset evoke an air of wistful melancholy. A rare song or two, such as “Strawberry Fields Forever,” qualify as works of genius. Others, such as “It’s My Party And I’ll Cry If I Want To” deftly summon up an atmosphere of teenage angst with a catchy hook, a dance beat, and a sincere delivery.

Listen to the songs multiple times, taking notes on one thing at a time, such as song form, phrase structure, melodic arcs, harmony, and imagery in the lyrics. Lose yourself in the task, and when you come up for air, you’ll probably have a song idea in hand. The rest is craftsmanship.

One other thing. To quote from the column:

“Get out your handkerchief and a notebook, and as you listen, ask yourself one question: ‘When have I felt like that?’ Answer in specifics: ‘Who, where, what, when, why.’ Bad answer: ‘When I was eighteen.’ Good answer: ‘Senior prom, when Zoey dumped me because…’ Be sure to write down your response, because this is where you’ll find your song ideas.

Let me add a word or two to the above: Obviously, there are songs where you will struggle to find a similarity with your own experience. Take “Waltzing Matilda,” for example. You may not have been to Australia, and you may have no idea what a “billabong” is. But if you quit now, you’ll miss the whole point of the exercise. “Research” means dig.

For the record, a billabong is a stagnant pool at the end of a dead-end channel that a river leaves behind after a flood. “Stagnant,” “dead-end,” “sweet smell of decay,” come to mind. Do these words have any associations for you? A fuzzy sketch is forming. Let’s keep going.

“Waltzing Matilda” is a song about a swagman, an itinerant laborer who walks from place to place, looking for work and carrying all his worldly belongings in a sack. Think Of Mice and Men. Have you ever been down and out, or close to it? Have you ever looked at someone who is homeless and thought, “That could be me”? Have you ever dug a ditch all day, or felt like you have? Have you ever been exploited, kicked around, fired from a job, treated like dirt? Powerful emotions lurk in the stagnant pools at the ends of these sad streams…

Apparently the swagman was hungry, because he grabbed jumbuck (a sheep) and stuffed it in his tucker bag (food bag closed with a drawstring).  Unluckily for him, some troopers spotted him doing it and rode up on horseback (“thoroughbreds,” a telling detail, just the kind you want to mine from your own experience). Poaching carried the death penalty in those days, and rather than face the noose, he jumps into the billabong that stagnant, dead-end pool and drowns. “Waltzing Matilda” refers to the death throes of someone being hanged. Grim stuff, but the song makes light of the whole thing. Still, the twists and turns of melody make you feel the underlying sorrow of it all. You might ask, “How does the song do that?”

This is where research can take you, if you allow it. Now you may never have come near a hangman’s noose, but don’t forget that “The Hanged Man” is also a Tarot card. Yes, he’s hanging upside down by one foot in the card, but the mere presence of a hanged man in the deck means that it’s a universal symbol.

So what is the undercurrent of “Waltzing Matilda”? Why has it touched a nerve for generations? Is it the dread that we’ll come a croppers with fate through some fairly innocent misdeed? Is it that we’re all like the swagman, in a sense, waiting for the troopers to come and end our short, desperate little run at freedom? Is this the kind of feeling you get when you’re pulled over by a traffic cop and you’ve had two beers? You know this feeling. Ask yourself how and why.

Meditating on what the song means to you is where you will find the wellsprings of your own feelings of hurt. That’s what makes this part of the immersion exercise so important. You will have to do some soul-searching to find your pain, because we all tend to bury it. And it may be buried deep. Very deep. Sad songs bring us close to it and relieve the pain by reliving it at a distance. By finding what is resonating within you, you will find something to write about. Something powerful and personal.

*     *     *

While writing the November column, I consulted with an old friend, Todd Walton. Todd is a multitalented artist who is best known for his highly readable, intriguing fiction. You may be familiar with a film based on one of his novels called Inside Moves, starring John Savage and David Morse, directed by Richard Donner. It just happens to be about depression, suicide, and redemption.

Todd is also a singer/songwriter and musician (piano, guitar). I was familiar with his jazz compositions, but unbeknownst to me, he used to have a regular gig at a Santa Cruz, California, nightspot called “Positively Front Street” back in the 1970s, where he covered country classics and sang his own originals. When I told him that I was writing about sad songs, he referred me to a blog post he had written concerning “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” It told a true tale about the relationships between a performer, his bandmates, a rowdy audience, and a difficult club owner.

Along the way, Todd made some cogent observations on Hank’s classic song, which I condensed down to a single sentence in the column, saying, “Even ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ is not about blame.” Todd’s original words are far better (quoted with permission):

“I think what makes these simple lyrics so meaningful to so many people is that Hank not only speaks of his ex-lover’s heart, but of his own. ‘You’ll walk the floor the way I do’ makes it clear that the craving and pining go both ways; the sorrow shared.”

You can see Todd’s full post at:

http://underthetablebooks.com/blog/archives/861

It is well worth reading, as his story perfectly illustrates the eternal, universal appeal of a sad song.

Here’s the list, categorized by type of sorrow, rather than genre. This seems to be a more useful way to pursue the immersion experience. The artists listed after the song title may or may not be the songwriter. Some effort was made to sort out the best version of the song, but as always, “best” is a matter of taste. The list is far from exhaustive, and you may want to add some titles of your own:

1) PARTING IS SUCH SWEET SORROW

Ain’t No Sunshine – Bill Withers

Baby Don’t Go – Sonny and Cher

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do – Neil Sedaka

By The Time I Get To Phoenix – Glen Campbell

Bye, Bye, Baby (Baby Goodbye) – Four Seasons

Don’t Say You Don’t Remember – Beverly Bremers

Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic – The Police

Greensleeves – Traditional

Here, There, and Everywhere – The Beatles, by Paul McCartney. A love song, yes, but lines such as “Each one believing that love never dies, watching her eyes, and hoping I’m always there,” evoke a mood of wistful melancholy. We are all haunted by an awareness that every new love contains the seeds of its own demise within.

Hurt – Christina Aguilera

I’ll Walk Alone – Dinah Shore

It Might As Well Rain Until September – Carol Ivy

Just A Song Before I Go – Crosby, Stills & Nash

Leaving On A Jet Plane – Peter, Paul and Mary

The Long And Winding Road – Beatles

Lost Without Your Love – Bread

My World Is Empty Without You – Supremes

One Of Us – ABBA

The Shadow Of Your Smile – Astrud Gilberto

Talking To The Moon – Bruno Mars

Time To Say Goodbye – Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman

Which Way You Goin’ Billy? – The Poppy Family

2) SHE (OR HE) DOESN’T KNOW I EXIST

All Her Favorite Fruit – Camper van Beethoven

Bobby’s Girl – Marcie Blane

Catch The Wind – Donovan

Cherish – The Association

Girl From Ipanema – Astrud Gilberto with Stan Getz

If – Janet Jackson

It Must Be Him – Vikki Carr

Jessie’s Girl – Rick Springfield

Just My Imagination – The Temptations

My Cherie Amour – Stevie Wonder. An upbeat song, but a sad subject.

To Know Him Is To Love Him – Amy Winehouse (The Teddy Bears, Nancy Sinatra, Bobby Vinton, etc.)

Turn Around, Look At Me – The Vogues

What Does It Take (To Win Your Love) – Jr. Walker & The All–Stars

You Don’t Know Me – Ray Charles

3) IT’S ALL OVER NOW, BABY BLUE (breaking up, sans hope)

Back To Black – Amy Winehouse

C’Etait Toi (You Were The One) – Billy Joel

Crying – Roy Orbison

Don’t Expect Me To Be Your Friend – Lobo

The End Of The World – Skeeter Davis

Heart – Bee Gees

How Can You Mend A Broken Heart – Bee Gees

Hurt So Bad – Little Anthony & The Imperials

I Go Crazy – Paul Davis

I Got The Feelin’ (Oh No No) – Neil Diamond

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue – Bob Dylan. Rich in imagery, this song seems to be a looking glass in which everyone sees themselves. No-one does this as well as Dylan. But somewhere behind it was a core experience. Once you locate yours, you might try free-associating yourself into a world of dream images, too. And sometimes just one vivid image is enough.

It’s Over – Roy Orbison

It’s Too Late – Carole King

Nothing Compares 2 U – Sinead O’Connor

One Less Bell To Answer – The 5th Dimension

Our Last Farewell – Dan Fogelberg

Promises – Eric Clapton

Rolling In The Deep – Adele

Sacrifice – Elton John

Scarborough Fair – Simon & Garfunkel

So Very Hard To Go – Tower of Power

Standing In The Shadows Of Love – The Four Tops

That’s All There Is To That – Nat King Cole

Think Of Me – Todd Rundgren

The Thrill Is Gone – B. B. King

The Way We Were – Barbara Streisand

The Winner Takes It All – ABBA

Without You – Nilsson

You Don’t Bring Me Flowers – Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond

You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ – The Righteous Brothers

4) SHE (OR HE) TREATS ME BADLY BUT I CAN’T END IT

Achy Breaky Heart – Billy Ray Cyrus. Again, an upbeat song, but a sad subject.

Don’t You Care – Buckingham

Everything I Own – Bread, Ken Boothe

Find A Way To My Heart – Phil Collins

Give Me One Reason – Tracy Chapman

Grenade – Bruno Mars

How Can I Be Sure – The Young Rascals

Hurting Each Other – Carpenters

Hurtin’ (On The Bottle) – Margo Price

I Can’t Make You Love Me – Bonnie Raitt

I Hate Myself For Loving You – Joan Jett

Knowing Me, Knowing You – ABBA

Layla – Eric Clapton

Long, Long Time – Linda Ronstadt

Never Can Say Goodbye – The Jackson 5, The Communards

Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town – Johnny Darrell

Spanish Guitar – Toni Braxton

Un–Break My Heart – Toni Braxton

Where Is The Love – Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway

Wicked Game – Chris Isaak

You Keep Me Hangin’ On – The Supremes

5) LOSS (poignant regrets, yearning, nostalgia, forlorn hope, grief, tearjerkers)

American Pie – Don McLean

Aubrey – Bread

The Ballad Of Sally Anne – John Cowan and Mark O’Connor

Blue Bayou – Roy Orbison

Blue Velvet – Bobby Vinton

Both Sides Now – Joni Mitchell

A Candle In The Wind – Elton John

Early Morning Rain – Gordon Lightfoot

Eleanor Rigby – Paul McCartney & John Lennon

Fix You – Coldplay

Flow My Tears – Sting (aka “Lachrimae,” by John Dowland)

Hazy Shade Of Winter – Simon & Garfunkel

Holding Back The Years – Simply Red

Honey (I Miss You) – Bobby Goldsboro

The House That Built Me – Miranda Lambert

In Dreams – Roy Orbison

In My Life – The Beatles

Jamaica Farewell – Carly Simon

Kingston Town – Ken Boothe

Leader Of The Band – Dan Fogelberg

Moody River – Chase Webster

Morningside – Neil Diamond

Old Shep – Elvis

Puff The Magic Dragon – Peter, Paul and Mary

Red Red Wine – Ken Boothe

Roses For Mama – C. W. McCall

Slipping Through My Fingers – ABBA

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes – The Platters

Tears In Heaven – Eric Clapton

Tell Laura I Love Her – Ray Peterson

The Water Lets You In – Book of Fears

When She Loved Me – Sarah McLachlan

Yesterday – Paul McCartney

6) LOSS OF FACE, SOCIAL WOES

At Seventeen – Janis Ian

Cathy’s Clown – The Everly Brothers

It’s My Party And I’ll Cry If I Want To – Lesley Gore

Norwegian Wood – The Beatles

Rag Doll – The Four Seasons

Since You Put Me Down – Margo Price

Society’s Child – Janis Ian

7) LOSS OF SELF (drugs, alcohol, ruination, despair)

Cocaine – Eric Clapton

House Of The Rising Sun – Animals

Hurt – Johnny Cash

It Never Rains In Southern California – Albert Hammond

Strawberry Fields Forever – John Lennon

Lodi – Creedence Clearwater

Loser – Beck

Losing My Religion – R.E.M.

Mad World – Gary Jules

Needle In The Hay – Elliott Smith

Nowhere Man – The Beatles

Young Girl Blues – Donovan

8) BEEN DOWN SO LONG, BOTTOM SEEMS LIKE UP (depression)

500 Miles – Peter, Paul and Mary

Another Day In Paradise – Phil Collins

Fire And Rain – James Taylor

Hands Of Time – Margo Price

Rainy Days And Mondays – The Carpenters

What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted – Jimmy Ruffin

9) LONELY BEYOND WORDS

A World Without Love – Peter and Gordon (Paul McCartney)

Alone Again, Naturally – Gilbert O’Sullivan

Another Saturday Night – Rod Stewart

Bert’s Blues – Donovan

Blue Moon – Elvis Presley

Handle With Care – The Traveling Wilburys

Heartbreak Hotel – Elvis Presley

I’ve Been Lonely Too Long – The Rascals

I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry – Hank Williams

Only The Lonely (Know How I Feel) – Roy Orbison

Somebody To Love – Queen

Tired Of Being Alone – Al Green

10) THE WAGES OF EMOTIONAL DISTANCE

The Ballad Of Geraldine – Donovan

Cats In The Cradle – Harry Chapin

Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley

Heart Hotels – Dan Fogelberg

I’ve Got To Get A Message To You – Bee Gees

Sad Dream – Sky Ferreira

She’s Leaving Home – The Beatles

So Far Away – Carole King

Someday Never Comes – Creedence Clearwater Revival (1,803 comments on YouTube)

Sweet Disposition – The Temper Trap

That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be – Carly Simon

11) DESPAIR, DEATH, SUICIDE

5:15 AM – Mark Knopfler

A World Without Love – Paul McCartney

Barbara Allen – Joan Baez (Scottish ballad)

Heaven’s Only Days Down The Road – Shelby Lynne

Heroin – The Velvet Underground

Hurt – Johnny Cash (Nine Inch Nails song)

In Darkness Let Me Dwell – Sting (John Dowland)

Jumpers – Sleater-Kinney

The Little Tin Soldier – Donovan

Paint It Black – The Rolling Stones

Sweet Old World – Lucinda Williams

The Three Ravens – English folk ballad

Waltzing Matilda – Slim Dusty (jolly melody, sad song, a bit like “The Ballad Of Sally Anne”)

12) BLEAK VISIONS & PROPHECIES OF DOOM

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall – Bob Dylan

All Along The Watchtower – Bob Dylan

Desolation Row – Bob Dylan

Eve Of Destruction – Barry McGuire

In The Year 2525 – Zager and Evans

Sound Of Silence – Simon & Garfunkel

Who’ll Stop The Rain – Creedence Clearwater Revival