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Blue Tuesday

I've been a fan of the blues for years (since I'm a native of the Chicago region), and I've been taking lessons to learn how to play Depression-era Country Blues for a little over two years now.

Recently, I've started working on song writing-not on creating songs that feel new, but just the opposite-on creating blues songs that feel "old world" and authentic. So far, my success has been middle of the road, because I tend to allow references or verbal constructs of the "modern world" to creep into the lyrics.

That being said, the process of writing blues lyrics-just good, simple 12-bar blues lyrics, is a great creative exercise. Old-school 12-bar blues are built on the "call and response" approach.

A verse is a "call"-around seven-fourteen syllables (about two measures) long, which is then followed by two measures of musical "response", and then we repeat it again-finally, we have a verbal "response" to the line, and then the turnaround.

It's wonderfully simple-only two unique lines make a verse (the first repeated twice), and often a song will only be five verses long (often with 12 bars of instrumental after the third verse).

Here are a couple of examples:

Went down to the station, I leaned against the door.
Went down to the station, I leaned against the door.
I know that Empire State, can tell by the way she blows.

I'm gonna write a letter, telephone every town I know
I'm gonna write a letter, telephone every town I know
If I don't find her in Mississippi, she'll be in East Monroe I know

Some of the trickier song stylists of the day would vary the second repeat line, but they'd use tricks like alliteration to keep it "feeling" like it was a repeat line, while it was actually giving more information. For example:

In his mailbox sits a letter, but it's not the only one
In his mailbox a long gray letter, but not the only one
You may already be a winner...you may already have won

The challenge is to craft something with actual meaning in just about ten unique lines. Some of the great old blues songs tell epic tales in even fewer lines. Give a listen to some classic blues (pre WWII) and then see if you can craft something authentic feeling yourself-it's a great context exercise and can be a much more accessible way to connect yourself to language creativity (as opposed to more formalized approaches like poetry or fiction writing).


The Crumby Details

Last night I was thinking back to the excellent and disturbing documentary, Crumb. The movie came out in 1994 and created a disturbing, yet strangely uplifting portrait of comic artist R. Crumb.

What came back to me last night was a moment in the movie where we watch the artist draw a scene while he's sitting at an outdoor table. He's just sketching the street scene, but the focus of his drawing are all the objects that have really become invisible to us: the wires, the utility poles, the curbs, the trash cans, the street lights and such. His composition soon becomes crowded and almost alive with the flotsam and jetsam of our modern world.

It reminded me of his "Short History of America" comic strip, in which we see a rural life overtaken by the concrete and wires of a modern world:


What intrigues me the most is the way in which Crumb uses the technique of caricature (the exaggeration of features) on an urban landscape, and he pulls to the forefront of our attention those items of our own creation that are so prevalent that they have become invisible. He sees what we no longer see, and in his drawing, calls our attention to those objects, allowing us to view the familiar as something new, and often quite alien.


Color Your World

When I wander the paint isles at a place like Lowes or Home Depot, I'm simply amazed at the myriad of colors-all grouped so pleasingly (one of my great failings is the ability to recognize what color goes with any other color… I consider myself color dyslexic).

Now, they even franchise paint, from the old-school Laura Ashley to the new-school Nickelodeon (now you can paint your room to match Sponge Bob's pineapple!).

If you pull out those paint chip cards and look at the colors, you'll discover more than just colors, but glorious color names as well…names like "summer suede", "wheat sheaf", "autumn dusk" and more… what a great job that would be…naming the paint colors.

It's also a great creative exercise. Walk into a room in your house and think of a theme… southwestern, industrial grunge rock, historical county… anything you'd like… and then work up a list of paint names worth of a home Depot display… will your muted rust-red be called "red hills dust" or "rusty anger" or even "weathered barn-board." Have some fun associating the theme, the color and a short, descriptive poetic phrase.


Riding With Benjamin Franklin

We often find ourselves trapped in our own "autopilot" ways of looking at the world…so much so that we can miss all the richness that surrounds us each day. We all want to bulk up on experiential fuel, but if we can't see the forest for the trees, how do we do that?

An interesting thought experiment came to me the other day as I was driving back from feeding our chickens: I allowed myself to imagine that I was driving along with Benjamin Franklin sitting in the passenger seat. He's a great figure from our history-a true creative visionary, but his world was so much different than ours.

If he was transported into our time and your job was to drive him from here to there, before he has had any chance to experience our world-what would you talk about? What things would he notice out the car window that would be fascinating to him (what things would he notice IN the car?). Imagine you are his first significant contact with our time: how would you explain the world around him? What things would excite him? Terrify him? Imagine yourself in this dialogue-explaining a world familiar yet utterly alien to an intelligent, curious man-out-of-time.

Try this someday… it doesn't have to be Mr. Franklin, but allow yourself to be their guide during your drive and you might find that you are seeing the same old things in very new ways.