Ever thought about writing your own song ?

By | April 9, 2024

Sylvia Watts thoughts on songwriting.

Writing about writing songs – where to start? At the beginning is a good point.
Then, so very many years ago, there were few females actually singing from the floor, let alone writing their own songs! My first foray could be viewed as an act of self awareness, but no arrogance. As a matter of fact, no one has ever heard the first song I wrote. It came out a bit jazzy and bluesy, and used the allegory of a predatory spider for womankind. It was inspired by someone cheating on their husband. It was a start, that’s all.

Going to folk clubs was a revelation. I wouldn’t have started writing songs had I not been singing at folk clubs.
How could everyone know everyone else’s songs and choruses? Not only that, how could they harmonise without dots? (thought the church choir alto). I slowly learned what they all knew, and enjoyed the process. The guys in Berkshire were very much into their shanties… I cut my teeth on The Watersons, the Wilsons, Crows, Isca Fayre , and not least, the Young Tradition. All these and more, permeating my brain, memory, psyche, however you like to think of it. Then one day I decided I would write a song with a chorus that would lend itself to harmony, that expressed some feeling I had, yet to be identified, and that was crafted. I had a few short poems in my ‘opus’; they seemed to be focussing on the natural world – watching a wren alight on a hazel bush triggering clouds of pollen – a sonnet on the theme of freedom . So here is my theme. The natural world. Certainly not the first, as centuries of poets have so been inspired, and not the last. When I had finished it, and told a friend the title, he said ‘So-and-so sings a song called that’. My ignorance was an advantage in some ways – no chance of plagiarism even had I wanted to – so I merely tweaked the title to ‘The Seasons of the Year’. I think it has now reverted to Seasons Turn. This song has been a good friend to me in that it has introduced me to many other friends, some of whom have done me the great honour of singing it. Occasionally I also will sing it, not too often, and it is a delight to hear the harmony coming back. I have always tried, and succeeded in this case, to adhere to what I call the ‘John O’Hagan Five Verse Rule’. Cockersdale were singing at Reading Folk Club, and John waxed passionately about self penned songs that are overly long. Maybe he was joking, maybe not, but I do think economy in language is a virtue. Nothing wrong with a girt muckle ballad though. That was also many, many years ago and I have since heard others refer to this ‘Rule’.
Since childhood I have been inculcated by my mother and grandmothers in a love of birds and birdsong, and flowers of all kinds. Having been born into a post-war frugality and poverty to be fair, I had few toys. I do remember fondly a wooden pram, but no doll. Several disgruntled kittens, cats and rabbits have been forced under the covers, usually for very short periods of time. I had a green and yellow elephant. I lived in a weird world I think. I was often sent out to pick as many different grasses as I could find, or the smallest wildflowers to make a miniature arrangement. If I was bored and it was after dark I would be told to lie on the grass and count the stars! One year a glut of ragworms, the caterpillar of the cinnabar moth, munched all the ragwort down to the stalks. I still look for ragworms every year. I mention these rambling memories as I think we are all, this is now widely accepted and not my personal theory, products of childhood experiences. These bear on my songs when I write, for instance, Flowers of England, or Rise Like Larks. The latter is a memorial to my mother; the middle of the five! verses is about her.

Occasionally a phrase will echo in my mind, as in Rise Like Larks. I was browsing through a school text book when out jumped the words ‘Everyone suddenly burst out singing’. Many weeks and months passed, and I had moved back from Shetland still occasionally mulling over the words, before I applied myself to writing. I decided to interweave themes of friendship, birdsong, and singing. And so it got written. It’s a bit wordy, nevertheless I was pleased yet again that other people liked it enough to learn it and sing it out. Then I decided I would research the phrase. To my amazement the poet who originated the phrase had a not dissimilar theme. Here is my chorus and his poem. Honestly, I had not read it before – EVER.
Everyone suddenly burst out singing
Filling the room with a warm delight
Sing like birds who’ve found their freedom
Rise like larks at the break of light
And their singing will never be done.

Everyone Sang by Siegfried Sassoon
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on- on- and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away… O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done
Other themes that have called to me are drinking cider, out of which came Cider For Me. It’s good to have a song I can do at cidery events, and at wassails. The chorus was the starting point for this, and grew out of the necessity I felt to read the whole of the bible from cover to cover. And which words did I recall long after? ‘Comfort me with apples.’
. 5Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love. 6His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me. 7I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, till he please. 8The voice of my beloved! behold, he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills SONG OF SOLOMON 2:5
The middle verse of the FIVE is lifted from Thomas Hardy’s poem Great Things. When I first sang the song a friend said he thought that it would fit the tune. I had not at that time read the poem but dutifully researched and subsequently pinched it. Not sure what the copyright laws are on these matters, but as I have never made a groat out of songwriting I am not bothered.

I came across four lines written, it was claimed, in the margins of an illustrated manuscript. This was a change of direction for me; I had never written a song which was a work of fiction. I have created a young man in a monastery yearning for home and family; I have mentioned ‘wars’ although I have done research and have no idea if this could be possible. Still there it is. Below are the four lines that inspired me. Since I wrote it, I have learned that it is a well known medieval song .
I have not sung it more than once or twice, so maybe this is not a keeper.
‘Westron wynde, when wilt thou blow,
The small raine down can raine.
Cryst, if my love were in my armes
And I in my bedde again!’ – early C16

I usually wait a very long time before singing a song out. At the moment I have one called O England Wait for Me. It is a genuinely autobiographical – about the places I have lived overseas, and been glad to leave for various reasons. I suppose I am again not living in England. It focuses on the natural world yet again.

There is still running – they held it again last week – a songwriting competition in Maidenhead folk club. I now no longer think I wish to be judged as a songwriter, but I was happy enough to win it (twice). That, and other singers liking my work, has given me the confidence to continue writing. A confidence that was by no means present when I started about 45 years ago. Those two songs, and one other , make socio-political statements about matters I feel strongly about. They are not rants. I hope they are subtle. The Singer Cried , considers the idea of carpe diem, the oppression of the weak by those who should know better, honour and truth, and freedom of speech. All of that in four verses…J O’H would be proud of me.
The Singer Cried
Dance while you may till daylight goes, and the last lean note decays
The blight of age is on the rose, the dew all blown away
And yet we hear fine and clear the drift of a song long ago
Sing it we will till time is still, forever and a day,
Forever and a day.

Strong bind the weak, rich bleed the poor and those who dare to defy
TO the glory of God or in the name of the law they made the song of the people to die
But memory holds though hopes lie cold, harmony ebony hard
Sing it we will till time is still forever and a day
Forever and a day

On our island hills we stand in pride, proclaim that we are free
Free to run, free to hide, from the fools we’ve come to be
Truth not lies will take the prize, our song will not be denied
Sing it we will till time is still, forever and a day
Forever and a day

So dance while you may till daylight goes – sing and dance and play
On a sandy beach a river flows and slowly seeps away
Damn the tide the singer cried, voice bitter as sloes
Sing it we will till time is still forever and a day
Forever and day
Forever and a day.

Another offering in this genre is a song I am very proud of. I do not sing it often as it is bleak. However, considering I wrote it in the 80’s at the time of the ghastly famines in Africa, and the environmental summit meetings, it is sobering to realise progress is not being made. I did try to lift the mood in the last verse. I call it The Winter of the Earth. How can political matters be separated from the natural world?

The winter of the earth

From spring’s unfurling leaves to the flaring heat of summer
Reap the year’s promise on a golden day
Wrap it all around to ward off the winter
:The winter of the earth is well on its way:

We have converted the cornfields to a cash crop of housing
Secret fields of orchids lie beneath the clay
Copses and dewponds have vanished forever
Forget the flowers and hedgerows. They don’t pay.
The winter of the earth is well on its way.

The grey ribbons run from the northland to the southland.
Tangling the cities. Strangling all the towns.
The free land between – diminished and degraded,
As slow streams of nitrates seep into the ground.
The winter of the earth is well on its way.

And our green northern oceans, swelling still and sparkling.
Surf pounding south seas on beaches clean and white.
From the herring to the coral, life’s dying and sinking.
The seas of the earth are losing the fight.
The winter of the earth is well on its way.

The hawk can see as it swoops down on the sparrow
The marble of ages decaying in the haze.
Who cares if the dove carries the olive?
If our time be numbered in days.
The winter of the earth is well on it way.

But there are those who endeavour to work towards a future.
Hope lives on while there still is life.
Success to our friends who fight to save our Mother.
With out Her the children never will survive –
the winter of the earth. It’s well on its way.

Sylvia Watts 1982

Again, I was irritated enough to write the following. It has more than one viewpoint, my own being in the last verse. Whilst regretting the loss of a way of life for travellers all over Britain, I am not sympathetic to the wannabees who are not of any traveller or Romany stock. I don’t sing this too often either as it can be misinterpreted and the last thing I would wish to do is cause offence. But it is a song I wrote and I will not ignore it.

Life of a Traveller

Under the hedge lies a tangle of scrap
And the blackbird is guarding his nest
The breeze blows the plastic festooning the branch
And we’re eager to move further west

O this is the life
Give me the life of a traveller

Leave now the field where we’ve passed a few weeks
While we hoped for a change in our luck
Leave now the geese and the stream full of trout
And what’s left of an old flatbed truck

Into the town, to earn a few bob
Keep a look out and you’ll get your pay
Where we used to sell flowers and heather and pegs
We have found a much easier way

Gadgo and diddikai don’t get the respect
That was due to the Romany Rai
They say what’s mine’s mine, and what’s yours is mine
It’s easy and free, and we say..

Me grandad’s Daa was the last go about
A man of no fixed abode
How I’d loved to have been there to follow the gry
My heart still leaps when I take the road

I have been asked in the past, and indeed have talked about it in a workshop scenario, about my process of writing. After the idea is born, there is a prolonged thinking time. I am in that stage now with a new song. A few phrases will jotted down maybe. Before setting pencil stub to paper I will make a decision on the form and meter, as this will govern the tune, which will come much later. There may be a structure to work to also, as in Seasons Turn there is one verse for each of the seasons rather like the plates that hung in grandma’s dining room. I do think of those when I sing it. So will work on what is, I hope, a poem. I change and edit until I think it’s done. It’d difficult to start, and to know when to stop.
So the words will hang around the house for a while until I decide to sit at my piano and create the melody. And this I do love. That’s why I have set some poets’ work to tunes, for example Kipling’s ‘Patteran’. I do write down the tune on MS paper. I could never write using memory only, although I know this is a technique used by writers who maybe have no instrument, or no desire to write the dots down. I have to, as when I am learning a song I visualize the tune. That goes back to childhood again – years of piano lessons!
So there is the progression – inspiration and idea, form/ meter /structure, words, tune, learn and finally, sing.
I intend to continue to write, mainly in the footsteps of the ancients’ bucolic and pastoral work, but occasionally making a detour into the bawdy. If you want to hear the Ballad of Upper Dicker you will have to come and hear me sing it.