"A Few Notes From My Notes"

Memories Of "The Great Smokies Songchase

By Jerry Burns

I recently had the extreme pleasure of attending The Great Smokies Songchase along with Karen Le Van (see her article elsewhere) and I just wanted to share a little bit of what I learned.

Looking back over my notes (and wishing I'd taken better ones) I realize it would probably take a small book to cover everything, so I'll try to briefly touch on some of the things that were stressed and some that hit home hard.

First of all, a song is a story. It has a beginning and an end whether it is describing something that has happened, is going to happen, or is just describing a situation. Know what the story is and write the story before you write the song. Get a little movie or video going in your mind's eye. Then all you have to do is find the right way to describe it.

We also learned not to write to a line. I know a lot of people are saying to themselves right about now, "What about those great hook lines; how can you not write to them?" Basically you do; you're actually writing about that line and the idea behind it. If you hold yourself to the particular phrasing of that idea you may find yourself halfway through a song or sooner stuck trying to say what needs to be said and not being able to say it. Don't be afraid or too stubborn to change a great line or even drop it if it doesn't work. Don't make the rest of the song suffer by trying to make it work.

Back to "a song is a story." It is actually a short story that usually rhymes. Know what part of the story the verse has to convey. Then look at how few lines you have to convey it in. Whether in four, six or whatever, divide that part of the story that many times. Then take each little piece of the story and come up with several lines or ways to describe it. I think you'll be surprised how easy it is to put a puzzle together when most of the pieces are already connected.

We learned not to crowd a song. That is, don't try to say too much and don't have too many people involved. You don't have to describe everything that's going on just the things that are pertinent to the story. Don't bring people into the story who don't have to be there. If it's not Aunt Flo and Uncle Jake's story then don't mention them. Too many people and too many names confuse the listener and lead them away from the story line.

Which brings us to the tree (one of my favorite analogies, since I am an arborist). Think of the main idea of the song as the trunk of a tree and stay as close to it as you can. If you go out on a limb you get away from the main idea; when you try to jump back to the trunk you'll lose the listener. He's going to fall.

There's one more thing I'd like to share write a song someone will sing. If the singer comes off looking like a jerk they're not going to sing it. So if the song's about a jerk write it in the third person. A person is more likely to say "he's a jerk" than "I'm a jerk."

I know I said I was going to try to be brief and I've only scratched the surface, so I'll just summarize by saying that the Great Smokies Songchase was an intense learning and growing experience that I wouldn't have missed for the world.