Sources of inspiration for my songwriting

September 3, 2014

More personal notes on music inspiration

Just for fun, I thought I would look back at the inspiration behind some of the songs on our two albums, Beartracks: Journeys and Beartracks: Friends.

Corsican coastOne major influence for many of the songs I’ve written has been travelling both in the U.S. and abroad. The song “Journey to Ireland” was written during preparations for a trip to Ireland. I watched many Irish movies and listened to a lot of Irish music before the trans-Atlantic adventure — and then, a couple of weeks before leaving, the tune “Journey to Ireland” just seemed to spring forth from my mandolin.

The other Irish tunes on Beartracks: Journeys were written after returning from Ireland. To date, I’ve made two trips to Corsica to visit the village where my cousin’s wife’s family comes from. On each of these trips, I attended a music Fête where I heard quite a bit of music originating there in Corsica. While I do not necessarily hear those Corsican songs in the gypsy tunes that I wrote, the Corsican influence is clearly there. One can hear the minor keys and Corsican rhythms coursing through the songs. Although I do listen on occasion to traditional Irish music when I’m not travelling, I had never listened to Corsican music specifically; so, the influence upon my songwriting had to have been my trips there. I’m certain those tunes would not have been written without the experience of travelling to and experiencing Corsica in the way that I did.

What is a fête? The fêtes in Corsica are small music festivals that move from one village to another throughout Corsica. Each one is sponsored by the village or city where the fête is taking place. Many of the same musicians play at the fêtes, moving from one fete to the next, much like carnies.

Corsican flagThe song “Moorish Prince” was named for the story behind the Corsican flag, which is white with a black face in the middle wearing a bandanna. The story is that the Moorish Prince, Moors, had control of Corsica at the time and had his way with a Corsican woman. The Corsicans cut his head off. The sideways picture on the flag is that of the Moorish Prince. The title just seemed fit the Corsican character.

The name Charlotte is in the titles of two of the tunes in Beartracks: Journeys. Both tunes were written in my living room when I lived in Charlotte. This Charlotte is not the big city in North Caroline, but a small town west of Nashville in Middle Tennessee. I’ve lived in Charlotte for most of the time that I lived in Tennessee. I felt a real kinship and love for this little town or city (local folks refer to Charlotte as a city, so who am I to argue). When I wrote these two tunes, “Charlotte Waltz” and “Ride to Charlotte” I could really feel the town in my consciousness. When I wrote “Ride to Charlotte,” I pictured in my mind a local resident riding down Water Street where I lived. The picture in my mind was probably more Revolutionary War-like in feeling, which is truly fiction as Charlotte did not exist at that time.

I’ve noticed the influence of bluegrass in general, and fiddle playing in particular, in my writing. As my friend friend Bob Nobles tells me, I’ve always gravitated to fiddle tunes, even when my primary instrument was the banjo. I really enjoy the rolling with the melody and hearing the bluegrass instruments’ interplay with the lead instrument. Many bluegrass bands will play old fiddle tunes with just the banjo and the fiddle. The interplay between these two instruments is sublime. While I have never sat down to write a bluegrass fiddle tune, the influence of them is can be clearly seen in the fiddle tunes that I have written.

One evening I was watching an Irish independent movie called “The Secret of Roan Inish.” The opening tune of the movie with some beautiful shots of the Irish coast had two notes that struck me. I found that I kept playing them on the mandolin. By half way through the movie, “Sailing the Irish Sea.” The first two notes of the tune seem to have the same effect that it did in the movie score. When I hear “Sailing the Irish Sea,” I picture in my mind those beautiful coastal shots from the movie.

Two of the tunes in the new CD are written for my cousin’s children. I had each of them in my mind when I wrote them. “Random Thoughts” comes from Nicolas, who has some of the most random thoughts I have ever heard! While intelligent, he can pull a comment from way out in left field and still make it work. “Nathalie’s Stuff” is the collection of things that are important to her. These can change daily, but that does not make them any less important to her.

One tune in particular, “Mary’s Last Waltz”, resulted from a traumatic experience. I visited my mom, Mary, while she was in hospice, just before she died. I knew leaving that this would be the last time that I would spend time with her. When I returned from the trip, I picked up a mandolin, and that tune was just in it. Every time I play it, I feel like I am sitting next to my mother’s hospital bed, being amazed at the dignity she showed in such a dire time. Tears well in my eyes.

So in conclusion, you can see that the inspiration for my music and songwriting comes from a range of events, people, and places. When I shut down my mind after a memorable experience, music seems to come from whatever instrument I am playing. The more influential the event, the more likely a song will spring forth. When I actually sit down with the intent to write a song from my head, the result is usually stilted’; however, if I just play after an event with no specific intent or outcome in mind, the tune will be there.

Resources: Sources of inspiration for my songwriting

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