Songwriting Buy the Book

By Stephen W. Brown

Writers write and dreamers read. The only way to become a songwriter is to plop your butt down and start crankin' 'em out. Even if a book on the craft were written by someone who really could do it, the process itself is so ethereal that it cannot be described in words.

You've heard all this before, haven't you (actually, the tag to the opening line is mine, so far as I know…)? And if you find that dogma so compelling that you could not possibly be persuaded otherwise, then read no further. For what I purpose in this series is to review books on songwriting, as well as other textual tools advantageous to practitioners of the art.

Rather than inaugurating this column with a discussion of my favorite book on the subject (my copy of which Mark Maxwell is either reading with interminable diligence, or ignoring at the peril of his very soul), let's begin with something, appropriately, newborn from the press.

Who is the only person to win a Grammy for music, lyrics, and orchestration? Stephen Sondheim? Nope, he doesn't do his own orchestrations. Johnny Mandel? Excellent guess, but no cigar. Billy Strayhorn? Oooo, sophisticated lady, but sorry…you're getting colder. How about Norman Whitfield then? Inspired! I'm proud of you, but although you're now very hot, you still ain't got it. Here's your hint: our man did get his start with Jobete (Motown's publishing arm I know you knew that). That's right, it's Jimmy Webb.

"Whaaaat," you squawk. "Jimmy Webb is white really white. Isn't he the guy who wrote all those Glen Campbell songs ("By the Time I Get To Phoenix," "Wichita Lineman," and "Galveston") for gosh sakes, and that weird one by Richard Harris ("MacArthur Park"), and even that TV commercial for TWA ("Up, Up, and Away," though actually…)?"

Right you are (about his authorship of those tunes, at least). The story of how Jimmy Webb got signed to Jobete is as amusing as the story of his dis/association with Johnny Rivers is telling. And yes, you can find these, along with myriad other choice tales in Webb's new tome (it's 432 pages, index included) entitled Tunesmith Inside the Art of Songwriting. It's published by Hyperion, with a $24.95 list price (available in hardcover at my favorite local bookseller). And it covers, well, almost everything.

Webb discusses in considerable detail the tools and techniques which should be at your, dear reader/writer, disposal. This includes not merely a critique of some eight different rhyming dictionaries, but also a practical method for their proper use in constructing a lyric. Many other tools, from thesauri to books like his own are either recommended or taken to task. Mundane yet critical concerns such as how to arrange one's workspace (and headspace) are thoroughly considered. Should you co-write? Should you co-publish? Is it ok to write jingle music? While you may not find the answers here, Tunesmith will give you plenty of food to choke on.

But where the book excels, in my opinion, is in the chapters covering the actual crafting of a song. How to begin a song? How to develop your story dynamically? What musical and poetic devices can you employ, and what pitfalls can you avoid? Webb uses several examples from songs famous or infamous to illustrate virtually every step in the process. And if he often uses excerpts from his own work as models to follow, he also frequently uses them as examples of "mistakes." To voyeur the man who calls songwriters "the Swiss watchmakers of music and literature" wheezing away in his workshop is indeed a thrill.

Tunesmith has its flaws, particularly in its treatment of theoretical issues. But there's little to be gained in pursuing my points of disagreement with Jimmy Webb. The crucial question is whether you will become a better songwriter by working through this book. I believe I did, and unless your name is Tim Krekel, I suspect you will too. Now, is that worth your time and 25 bucks?

Coda: Jimmy Webb is still writing hits and getting covers. Those of you web spinners who are also web surfers may want to hit: www.jimmywebb.com. There you'll find links to additional resources, as well as lots of info on the great craftsman. There's even a songwriting contest.

Stephen W.Brown, former major-label artist manager and instructor of Philosophy and Logic, is a songwriter and the music-software-specialist at Mom's Music.