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Folk Songwriting

Story Songs

You could say there are two kinds of song lyrics.  I think of them as the Neil Finn vs the Paul Kelly approaches to songwriting.  Neil Finn’s songs are all about the poetry – the songs don’t always tell a coherent story and instead they are filled with imagery, metaphors and dream like scenes.  Paul Kelly’s songs are all about the story – the language is more the way you would tell story, only in a condensed form, and with rhythm.

Neil – ‘There is freedom within, there is freedom without, try to catch the deluge in a paper cup’

Paul – ‘They got married early, never had no money, then when he got laid off, it really hit the skids’

Story songs are an important part of what we loosely call ‘the folk tradition’, in western music and many other cultures.  They are also a staple for many songwriters in folk and country music and many other music styles too (e.g. Ewan Maccoll, Bob Dylan, Paul Kelly, Mick Thomas).  Of course a lot of people mix poetic and storytelling songwriting styles.

Many story songs are written about imagined events or characters (Paul Kelly’s ‘To Her Door’ is an example) which capture an idea using a story.   As a songwriter, having a real story to write about can be really inspiring.  The aim of this workshop is to look at one good way of finding real stories for songwriting – by using real documents from the time of the event.  For example:

  • First hand materials in a library or museum
  • Family documents (personal letters or diaries)
  • Potted histories with edited exceprts of journals or letters in them
  • Old newspapers
  • Modern day writing (e.g. blogs, websites, articles)


I became interested in writing songs this way when I read a book called ‘The Birth of Sydney’ by Tim Flannery, a collection of excerpts from journals and letters from Sydney in the late 18th and 19th century.  In that book was the only known letter written by Bennelong.

Bennelong was just a young man when the first fleet sailed into Sydney harbour.  He was an important figure in early interaction between the first fleeters and the indigenous people of Sydney.  His letter was written to a family he had stayed with in England when he had been taken for a few years, and expressed his thanks to them, his relief at being home and also hints at the bigger story of the difficulty that must have felt at being caught between a traditional and a European existence.

“29 August 1796 – I am very well.  I hope you are well.  I live at the governor’s, I have every day dinner there.  I have not my wife; another black man took her away.  We have had murry doings; he spear’d me in the back, but I better now; his name is now Caruey.  All my friends alive and well.  Not me go to England no more.  I am at home now…..” (Flannery 2000)

The letter (the quote above is only a part of it) looked a little to me like song lyrics and I ended up writing the song Bennelong from it.  This led me to look for more songs ideas in that book and in others and resulted in the album The Sydney Cove Project.  Since then, I have continued to use documents for song ideas – about half the songs I am recording on my new album were written this way.

(courtesy of Ken Grose, 2013)

Four steps

So if you have a document in mind and would like to have a go at writing a song from it, how do you go about converting text into verse? I have put my ideas into four steps.

1.   Look for more than one story or angle, and write down your ideas.

Most good story songs have more than one story being told at once – this means that different people can relate to the song in different  ways.  As an example, I have recently written a song called ‘A Skerrick of Green’ – which was based on a collection of letters from my great grandfather Murray Thomas Scott to my Great Grandmother Mary Jane Alice Scott.  At the time, their son (my Grandfather) was a young man and the family were looking to buy a farm for him after several years break from farming.  Murray Thomas was looing into the Cootamundra District and went on to buy the farm that my father grew up on years later. At the time of the letter (late 20’s) there was a drought in NSW and Queensland and the depression was about to strike and then also Murray Thomas and Mary Jane Alice were having their own troubles – she was staying in Adelaide and threatening not join him at this new property he was planning to buy.   So there were three stories really.

When you are trying to identify the stories in your text it is good to look for a personal story as well as more broad, universal ones – the personal story helps people get into the song, helps them relate to it – care about it.

2.  Identify the pieces of choice language and the important parts of the stories and copy them out somewhere.

There is usually much more text than you want for a song – and lots of stuff that is not central to the story you want to tell.  For example in the letters I used for A Skerrick of Green, there is endless detail about the various illnesses – toothaches etc that the two of them had, and lists of things they bought and general gossip about relatives etc – too much information for a song. One of the best things about writing songs from historical documents is that you get to use someone else’s voice – phrases you wouldn’t use, perspectives you might not have yourself.  Identify those great pieces of text, and the important parts of the stories you want to tell, and separate them out.

3.  Shape and reorder the text into a rough song structure

Once you have a bunch of phrases and bits of text (often a few pages worth), you are ready to start forming them into rough verses.  At this stage you need to think about how the songs will start.  How you will introduce the various stories?  How it will end?  Will there be a chorus? Don’t worry at this point about perfect rhythm, rhyme and structure.  You may need to reorder the events and the text from the way they were originally written.  You will need to discard alot of material too at this point – there are always difficult decisions to make about what to keep and what to throw out.  Sometimes you need to be quite brutal and get rid of stuff that you like, but which just doesn’t fit with the song.

4.  Refine your verse

Once you have a rough song structure, you need to do do some word substitution – you are sure to have bits where you know what you want to say, but the text you have is too long, or too short, or doesn’t rhyme.  To fix this, think up words and phrases which say the same thing, but which fit better in your verse.  This is the point where you have to remind yourself that you are a songwriter not a historian.  You will probably need to take some liberties, make bits up, and add pieces of the story where there are gaps.  They key is to use language that fits with the langauge of your text.  You may need to do this a few times over.  Leave it for a while and come back to it, perhaps do some more research if you need to fill gaps.  Gradually you will iron out your song until it is singable.

The Music Part

Once you have your lyrics pretty much finished you are ready to find a tune and some chords to go with it.  Many songs are written from the chords first – i.e. the songwriter plays around with riffs or chords on a guitar or piano and then fits a melody around the chords.  This is a good and valid way to write a song, but I want to suggest trying a different way of going about it.  When you have your finished lyrics, leave the guitar in its case for the time being.  Instead use some kind of recorder – a phone or other device, and start humming and mumbling through your words.  the rhythm of the lyrics will guide the rhythm of the song.  Try going up and down, fast and slow, until something starts sticking.  Record it and listen to it later and see if it still works.  This is writing from the melody first.  It tends to give you a more old school folk sound.  A more interesting melody that works well with acapella songs.

When you are think of melodies trying using different modes and keys to ensure your songs have musical variety.  There is plenty on the web about modes – apart from the Major (Ionian) and Minor (Aeolian) modes, try the Mixolydian mode, which sounds a little bluesy and scottish, and the Dorian mode, which sounds folksy and medieval.

To sum up…

There is no right way to write a song, only different things to try.  You will end up going down paths that don’t lead anywhere, or write songs you are very excited by, but a year later you will be on to something new.  Best of luck in your songwriting journey – drop me a message if you would like me to add or clarify anything or you want someone to bounce an idea off.




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