Besides being the title of my CD, BLOOD RED MOON is also the title song, and it represents a style of writing I decided to use on a couple of songs, and will most certainly use again. I’ve noticed how so many songs are simply comprised of unrelated sentences, which somehow come together to yield some sense of the feeling the artist perhaps wanted to convey. Does that sound as confusing to you as it does to me? Here’s an example from a song I really like to listen to: Clocks by Coldplay
Shoot an apple off my head and a
Trouble that can’t be named
A tiger’s waiting to be tamed, singing
The closing walls and the ticking clocks gonna
Come back and take you home
I could not stop, that you now know, singing
I get the gist of the song when you put it all together: the body of lyrics and the music. But try to analyze each sentence as a segment of the whole. To me, they’re mostly random thoughts or pictures, connected by a concept of time…moving.
So, I just started making a compilation of strange sentences, which weren’t necessarily happy ones. That was my decision…to not make it a happy song. And I think I succeeded. Now, the precise message or story to this song is almost as unknown to me as it might be to you. So you just have to decide what it means to you. And don’t think happy thoughts. I can at least take you that far. There is one other song, Warm Place, on which I started out using that technique, but as the song developed, a story took shape, as it does in most of my songs.
I am, after all a story teller. So I had to fight with myself a little to keep Blood Red Moon (the song) from becoming a story. Because I really wanted to spoon feed it to my listeners. Most of my other tunes tell straight-up stories, from the past and present.
I love to write about the past. I’ve published one novel, ENDINGS (Sunstone Press, 2007), which took place in the present. It’s easiest to write about the present, as I did in My Life’s Good (Cuz I Don’t Live in the City) and Low Water Bridge. But when you listen to the rest of my songs, you won’t be able to tell if the story teller is living now or one hundred years ago. I love to study history, and one of my goals will eventually be to write an historical fiction novel. It’s harder to write fiction about the past, because the history has already been told. But for now, I’ll stick with writing about the past through three-minute songs, like She Danced with the Young Prince of Wales, which would have taken place during the Civil War. Or Daughter’s Lament, which could have taken place any time before 1930. You’d have to look up the relative pricing of a horses in the past to know exactly when it took place. That’s the thing about writing historical fiction songs. You have to try to be a little accurate.
Now don’t go trying to prove me inaccurate. But with most of these songs, I did things like confirm the dates, the clothing of the times, and even words. On Whistlin’ Train, after it was all recorded and mastered, I suddenly had a sphincter tightening moment, when I wondered when the word “hobo” came in to existence. Turns out, we started using that word in plenty of time for my character to come in contact with them, and tell the story. There’s always someone who is going to check those kinds of things out, and let…hopefully…the world know I got it wrong. But, negative press is press, after all.
In BLOOD RED MOON, I included folk and bluegrass songs, ballads, and even an old-timey gospel tune. For some strange reason, about a half dozen country and folk songs wormed their way into my head sometime after I finished writing, ENDINGS in 2005. I guess that right side of my brain was on over-drive. I still love every one of those songs, and three of them, (My Life’s Good, Low Water Bridge and Warm Place) made it into BLOOD RED MOON.
For several years, I didn’t write another word, either book or song. Maybe I was wondering where I would go with my songs, and that little bit of self-doubt just put a kibosh on my writing. I think they call that writer’s block. I had no intention of being a singer, so why be a songwriter? Then I got involved with a music school in Austin called Girl Guitar. I want to devote a segment of this treatise to Girl Guitar and Mandy Rowden, who is the founder of that forward-thinking company and concept: lessons (traditional and performance) for women only, and taught by women only. It’s a unique concept. But let me diverge here, and come back, full circle to Girl Guitar shortly.
As in many things, orthopedic surgery included, the world is dominated by men. And I have NO problem with men. I have a dad, a hubby and a son, all of whom I love dearly. There are now 37 partners in the orthopedic group I co-founded in 1986, 35 of whom are men, who I like and respect immensely. Have I thrown around the feminist agenda with them, ever? Hell yes, but frankly, I don’t need to. They get it. They have daughters. So one would think I came up against misogyny abound in medical school, residency and private practice. And certainly I did. But I was already familiar with it, because I had some of those exact same experiences in my musical calling.
I bought my first guitar in 1968, a little Gibson B-25 student guitar, which I bought with babysitting money, at 50 cents an hour, and matched dime for dime by my parents. It was a good investment for all of us. I took a few folk guitar lessons, and mastered G, C and D. I learned songs by ear, lifting the stylus up and putting it down on vinyl, over and over again, until I had written all the words and chords down…in G, C and D. Then came high school and I instantly gravitated to the group of kids who hung out with the local rock stars, a group called Felix Fly. My little Gibson was but an entry ticket to be able to hang out, and try to learn from these talented musicians. But while these 16-year-old boys were busy learning riffs, competing with each other to see who could come up with the most kick ass riff, or copying something they had heard on a Rolling Stones album, we gals with guitars were busy trying to figure out how to be with the boys. We weren’t learning the riffs. Sure, we were playing G, C and D…a lot, because back then almost everything was played in or could be transposed into that sequence of chords. But our goal was not necessarily to learn the riffs, and frankly, no one really cared if we did.
And it wasn’t until Girl Guitar, that I realized that it’s still that way. Girls remain…for the most part…the listeners and the groupies, while the guys are busy learning and playing the riffs, and becoming guitar heroes. It’s just like orthopedic surgery. Only 5 percent of orthopedic surgeons are women. If I go to a professional meeting, the majority of the attendees are guys. They’re doing their “guy thing”: talking shop, making shop jokes, talking sports and about who broke whose World Series record in 1987, and just being super funny, like guys are! But the gals aren’t necessarily part of it. Now, don’t get me wrong. Nothing is 100%. But a lot of things are 85%! Or 95%. And when I go to a pickers circle, the majority of serious guitar players…are guys. Not criticizing them. And not bashing the talented female musicians out there. Just making an observation. I don’t know that everyone makes this observation. You certainly don’t read about it in the news. Or do you? Here’s an interesting article from 2004. So, I’m not alone in these observations. And for some reason, no one much cares, like say for example, they way they care about women in medicine, or STEM in general. There are no organizations fighting for the right for young girls to be able to shred an electric guitar. But minus the blue blazers and khaki pants, pickers’ circles look like orthopedic sports medicine conferences to me.
And then there is Girl Guitar. Mandy recognized there was a need. A need for women to be supported in the music industry. A need for women to be encouraged in their pursuit of serious music-making. A need for female musical role models, and a need for women to be taught by women. Women having the opportunity to learn from women just makes sense in this day and age. Frankly, all-girls schools make sense for girls too. When the guys aren’t around, women are free to learn in their own way. I can’t define that “way,” but it’s a way. And it works.
Just an aside on this. I’m not saying that I haven’t learned a whole helluva lot of guitar playing from guys. I certainly have. In fact, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I learned most of my guitar-playing skills from guys.
The other cool thing about Girl Guitar, which isn’t necessarily a new concept, are classes directed at performance. The classes are arranged in six-week segments, and at the end there is a live performance in a club or music venue. This is what really helped me take the step to performing my songs, and once I started this, I began writing again. I took a bluegrass band class at Girl Guitar, and loved the genre. I started writing some old-time bluegrass tunes and folk ballads.
Proof of the influence of Girl Guitar and Mandy Rowden on the female musicians of this community is the sheer volume of work which has come out of that organization. Mandy is a very productive, and rising star in her own right. In the time I have been taking lessons at Girl Guitar, she has released three CDs, and signed with Howling Dog Records. Many of our instructors have released CDs, play in bands, perform around the country and world both as solo artists and in bands, and have earned lots of music awards. Many of her students have gone from enjoying a fulfilling hobby, to developing musical careers as well.
One of my instructors at Girl Guitar is Jane Gillman, a very talented musician, song-writer, teacher and producer. She supported me in every way a tutor and mentor can support a fledgling artist: critiquing as well as admiring my work, encouraging me to perfect my art (both songwriting and guitar playing), and then producing my CD.
I can say without reservation, that I would not be writing this today, if it hadn’t been for Girl Guitar…and learning G, C and D way back in 1968. I still use those 3 chords…a lot!