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What would  a web site be without some "frequently asked questions?"  That's a question, by the way. These are my personal prejudices about music.

If you're interested enough to have gotten to this page you must be interested in my opinions, heaven help you. But perhaps there will be something here that actually is entertaining or maybe even helpful in some way.

Who (what) are your influences?

Pop songs of the 50's and 60's, Christian hymns, 19th and 20th century Classical music, and Delta and Piedmont blues. A shorter list of artists might comprise those who haven't influenced me. Frank Sinatra, for example, no matter how much respect I have for his voice and musicianship and his way with a song, has not had a big impact on what I do.   I am not attracted to the songs he chose, nor am I especially taken with crooners in general.  A personal matter, as I suggested above. Song stylists are not my focus. But who would deny the power of a Bessie Smith? Judy Garland....

Jazz musicians in general are beyond my domain, both technically and ethnically.  Jazz is simply not my heritage. I don't improvise, except in life. I see myself in the tradition of the New England Transcendentalists. I got a special gratitude for great blues artists like Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell, Big Bill Broonzy, Reverend Gary Davis, Howlin' Wolf, Pink Anderson, Robert Johnson, etc. -  and borrowed heavily from time to time from these geniuses. From some friends, too.

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My earliest memory of being moved by a song on the radio was the Mills Brothers' "You, You, You," when I was about three and was absolutely in love with the song. And there was something unstoppable in me about wanting to make music from early on, though the belief that I could do it was hard and long in coming.

When a teenager, Christian hymns informed my education, though early on my "religious" education was practically secular.  I learned a lot at Grace Baptist Church, Camp Northfield in Massachusetts, and ultimately at Baptist Bible Seminary in Johnson City, New York (and then in Clarks Summit, PA).

I love a lot of "Classical" music, and probably as a direct result of my being installed in the Springfield Symphony Chorus by Robert Nye, my French teacher (bless his heart) at Wilbraham Academy, I  came to love Leonard Bernstein's music.  Though Bernstein has not always been the darling of "serious" music critics, I did and still do admire much of his compositions, especially the early work. You can hear his influence in Bard. At the same time I was listening to grocery store promotional LP's of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, I would be blown away by The Mamas and Papas' "Monday, Monday."

I attempted a piano piece while at Holyoke Community College that echoed Bernstein and Rachmaninoff, but I lacked facility at the keyboard and the work was too naively derivative to be of much interest. I scored a setting for Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night," for a small orchestra and chorus. I'm sorry I lost that one; I'd like to hear it now some 50 years later.

At this point I was entirely self-taught as a composer and had miles of roads to travel. I had no set curriculum and I was glad to get pointed in any direction. I bought score reductions of
orchestral work, and miniature booklets of string quartets, especially the Bartok. I studied them hard, but would have profited from studying the late quartets of Beethoven, which I was simply ignorant of at the time.

Meanwhile I was learning guitar by playing LP's at slow speed so I could learn Paul Simon's "Scarborough Fair," for instance, note for note.  I wasn't allowing for the possibility of actually performing for the public. And I hadn't made up any songs I liked.

In the late 60's, early 70's, the academic norm at Amherst College was atonal music, a misnomer for sure, or free atonality as we called it then. Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Igor Stravinsky at one point, and later, people like Andrew Imbrie, and my professor, Lew Spratlin, all were paragons of this tradition. I wrote a string quartet with a vocal soloist based on a war poem by Wilfred Owen, and a song cycle for piano and soprano as my thesis; I spent hours alone in a piano room at Amherst writing this sort of music, and it made me nearly physically sick, though I was proud to be able to do it.

There was so much despair in the existentialism of the time. "Atonal" music is not something that the human body can take in well. Only people who devote themselves to music that has no tonal center, no physical resting place, no resolution of the tensions implicit in harmony can like this music. Perhaps Peirre Boulez, or some other composer/conducter who has immersed him/her self in twelve tone music or who has perfect pitch can remember a melody based on an arbitrary musical system, but most of us require diatonic harmony in order to decipher what the hell is going on. As Leonard Bernstein laid out in his Norton Lectures, twelve tone music can only communicate an extreme angst, anxiety, and unrootedness, perfect for a world gone awry, a world without a moral compass, a world without ultimate meaning.

And then, of course, there's Redhead Lefty....

How many songs have you written?

I've been telling people "seventy-five" for the past thirty years.That's a joke.  But it is about the number of tunes I keep in my head at any one time for performance' sake. That's maybe five hours worth.

Which comes first, the melody or the lyrics?

This is probably the most asked and obvious question, understandably, to any songwriter, especially from other songwriters and aspiring songwriters. There is no one answer. Maybe for Bob Dylan the "music always comes first," but not for Bernie Taupin and Elton John. Or Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Or Rogers and Hammerstein, either.

Much has been written about the right hemisphere of the brain being the locus of creative inspiration (for right-handed people). This is not so clear when it comes to musicians and some other artists.  A fascinating discussion about this occurs in Julian Jaynes' relatively obscure work, The Origin of

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Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, and if you can get past the title and are interested in such things,you may find this book fascinating, as I do. If I've got it right, the essential thesis is that human consciousness as we know it is a relatively recent culturally learned phenomenon, and that only a few thousand years ago didn't exist -  human beings hallucinated the voices of the "gods" that directed behavior, particularly in stressful or novel situations. Within its limitations, I think this book has it about right.

I can sit down and write a song anytime I feel like it, but the results could easily be pretty pedestrian.  I know the terrain and have had a lot of practice. But as any proficient athlete knows, the more you have to consciously think about what you're doing, the more you are likely to stumble. There's no getting around the necessity of inspiration (the original Greek for "inspiration" is theopneustia, meaning "god-breathed"). Here's a story: I was falling asleep in a little loft bed at a friend's house when I heard a song-- hallucinated it, if you wish. I had been imagining writing something like this in a general sort of way, a slow finger-picked thing.  Now I was actually hearing a song, and had to stop and question in my semi-sleep consciousness if this was something I already knew.  It wasn't.  So I got up, grabbed a cardboard box and a pen, and went out into the front room - a workshop actually - and wrote down the words as I played guitar.   How effortless was that? The song is on Jeremiah - "Prophet in His Prime." You'll judge for yourself the relative merits of the song.

And this sort of thing is not uncommon.  "Jimmy Jones" is a long half-spoken, half sung piece, unpublished yet,  that describes a similar event. I have come up with quite a few songs, or pieces of songs in this way. There is always some labor involved in fleshing out the parts that dropped from my memory, the way dream events will do, and the work is not unlike filling in a crossword puzzle.   But the sense that the song was simply given is undeniable. Barry Cowsill called it (yelled, actually) "Incoming!"

Some people believe that songs (or any creative ideas) are simply in the air, waiting to be retrieved. Listen to this: I dreamt once that I was in a house somewhere in the Islands where Sting was staying.  I was writing a song and happily offered it to him. I read or heard some time later that he was in a house in the Islands somewhere when he awoke with a song in his head, went to the piano and wrote it in ten minutes and then went back to bed.   "Every Breath You Take."  I don't know how many of my friends called me to ask if that was my song when they first heard it. This sort of thing goes on all the time.

So.... the short answer is that songs come in anyway you can imagine, but for me, I almost always have to hear both the words and the music at the same time.

 We offer free MP3's on the Home page, an album a month.   You can preview clips from any published work at the store and there are 35 free MP3's still available there.

There's a passage in assage in Luke from the Bible where a great feast has been prepared but everybody is too rich or too busy to come by, so the commandment is given to go out and compel them to come.  I'm laying out the table.  We'll see.

photo: April Ford

Where are you playing? Where can I see you perform?

Please visit the performance page.

"It's a physical." -- Jimi Hendrix

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photo: Paul Silver

"You're really good, (or, "I hear you're really good") -- why aren't you famous?"

My reply to this sort of question is coy, automatic, and a nearly verbatim quote from Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart): "Why I am famous! - for not being more famous."

And I get this question, with its not-so-subtle implications, more than you might think. The dirty rotten plain truth is that while you're caught up in the desperate quality that is behind this question, asking it of yourself, there are only a couple of possibilities - either there's something lacking in yourself- talent, drive, luck or whatever- or the world simply couldn't care less about the worth of your life's work.  At this point I'm comfortable with either and both explanations. 

dot I do care about is my immediate environment, about the people I love, about my community.  What I do care about where my work is concerned is simply

photo: Thom McCarthy
that it is made available to anyone who might find value in it, in whatever way is meaningful to them.  I don't believe that the world necessarily rewards people commensurate with the value of their work, that "the cream rises to the top."   Sometimes it does. And I cannot be objective about my own work-- or about anyone else's either in the ultimate sense. I do love to write and perform and suspect that I always will. More about fame. Something about critics.
What's your biggest ambition in all this?

“...[S]peaking with the authority of the private psyche alone.”                                                                           --Jane Roberts

Well, now, there's no talking about this sort of thing without getting personal. I actually have a belief system, hard won, that simply put says that consciousness creates the real world and not the other way around. It remains a challenge to live by, and is something that presumes an opened-ended acceptance of things as they are as well as things as they could be.

I should have mentioned above that any number of writers/poets have had a profound influence on me both personally and artistically. Dante Alligheri's Comedy was one of the first to hit me hard where I live.  There are many others, but the most important influence on me personally by a writer is

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"Self Portrait," acrylic on canvas, 1984

Jane Roberts (Seth Speaks, etc.). Her work, despite what anyone may believe about its source, is the most seamless philosophy I am aware of in contemporary times.  I have little patience for existentialism as I have come to understand it-- but here is not the place to go any further with my own arguments... except... to say that her principle idea was that we create our experience out of the beliefs that we hold, whether or not we're aware of them. As far as I know, she originated, or at least popularized,  the phrase, "You create your own reality." It makes for a fascinating comparison to read her alongside the Julian Jaynes book mentioned above. If you can read between these lines a little, you will get an inkling of what my personal ambition is like.

With songwriting my ambition is to work with any feeling, any subject, particularly when it feels that I am breaking new "moral ground" for myself.  For me there is nothing too sacred or too mundane to rule out. Bitterness, tenderness, silliness, anger, fear, joy, ideas-- any and all of the human palette is available. I don't like it when it feels like I am writing a song I have already come up with. Other songwriters may well have covered the territory before, but I am speaking of my own psychic terrain and how far I can push those boundaries.  There's little that excites me more (yeah, sex, sometimes,  but be cool).

And recording, when it's going well, is just about the best way you can have fun standing up (sitting, occasionally). Other times, it's just the work one has to do. My ambition is to keep it up.

In performing my ambition is to get the song across, to entertain, to get a laugh, to move folks, and most of all to inspire. And you thought I was modest....

What is the best/your favorite of your songs" Your CDs?

Whatever I'm working on at the moment. A lot of people respond to Salvation Street.  I'd be putting myself in a pretty uncomfortable position to choose one of my children above the others.

Can I have your autograph?

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Try cutting and pasting in your favorite legal document.  Let me know how it goes.

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photo: Kerstin Zettmar

I've written a song. Could you listen to it for me?

Yes, but you'll have to sing it a whole lot louder for me to hear it from here.

What Advice do you have for aspiring songwriters?

Generally my advice is the same advice that anyone would give or should give whatever the vocation, whatever the calling, whatever the degree of relative success. The work has to be it's own reward. If there is love in your work, if there is heart, if there is dedication, it will only help fulfill your own humanity and ripple out to affect the humanity of others. Where there is fear, where there is greed, where there is desperation, there will be suffering and wounding beyond recognizing.

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video still: Donn Lincoln
But musically speaking, and I think this applies to any creative pursuit, start with a form.  This is the advice I received once when whining to a buddy at college that I was stymied.  It has stood me in good stead over the years.

It could be simply two lines that rhyme, forming a stanza. It could be a favorite guitar lick that organizes and self-generates the structure of the piece. It could be a fundamental song form of intro, verse, chorus, bridge, and whatever of these parts you choose to end the piece.  Fortunately the pendulum has swung back to where we recognize the value of form.  Formlessness is next to laziness, sloppiness, and a lack of discipline, all of which are anathema to the creation of work with integrity. We are creatures born to love form. Isaac Bashevis Singer once told me that one James Joyce was enough..."we don't need a whole army of them." (I'm sure he wasn't putting down Joyce, only some of his less talented imitators.)

But don't forget the value of imitating. As we all know by now, "stealing" another's work can lead to something original, get us unstuck from our dearth of ideas.  Apparently Bob Dylan borrowed from many a soul including Redhead Lefty.

Curiously enough, my attempts to imitate other songs led to the writing of several original songs that don't directly have anything to do with any previous model, including one in which I wrote from a woman's point of view (something I was right proud of at the time) -- "Bold Troubadour."

It's all part of some tradition or other, as Woody Guthrie knew well. Acknowledging the source material doesn't do any harm, unless you're determined to take all the credit-- and the cash.   Remember Lennon's "And So this Is Christmas?" Who complained that the melody was virtually identical to "Stewball," a song about a horse and a horse race?

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photo: Thom McCarthy










Music and performances 2016 JP Jones. Publishing   2016 Vision Company Records. All Rights reserved.