It does a disservice to songwriters everywhere, each time we hear a well-known songwriter speak to the media about how they wrote a favourite song of ours in a mere twenty minutes. It does a disservice because it is always either a deception or simply an untruth.
Sure, it is not uncommon for a songwriter to conjure a song with a beginning, middle and end in a very short time. And such claims put that songwriter into the realm of superheroes, in our eyes.
The truth is far more boring, yet far more worthy of respect. In truth, the majority of the time spent “writing” a song is spent in the act of “rewriting” the song. For, as special as the original inspiration and original idea may be, it takes a mountain of craft to carve the song into the beauty that it will eventually be. The song will be pain-stakingly altered, removing awkward lines, improving lines for both better meaning and singability, reaching more deeply into emotional territory, sculpting melody and harmony into original shapes that make the whole process appear effortless.
(Some songwriters have enough experience writing songs that the act of rewriting can often take place simultaneously with the original writing, refining some elements of the song before the first time they are actually written down. This is still best considered “rewriting”, in terms most helpful to songwriters who want to improve their own craft.)
“Yesterday”, perhaps the most famous song in modern popular music, began its life with a very different set of lyrics. We’ve all heard that, instead of “Yesterday”, Paul McCartney filled the space with the words “Scrambled Eggs”. A quick Google search will uncover a complete set of original lyrics, which – as uncertified as they may be – still serve to illustrate the point that a classic song requires much rewriting to turn it into the song we know and love today.
Paul McCartney’s working lyrics for “Yesterday” (source: Futility Closet)
Have an omelette with some Muenster cheese
Put your dishes in the wash bin please
So I can clean the scrambled eggs
Join me do
There’s a lot of eggs for me and you
I’ve got ham and cheese and bacon too
So go get two and join me do
Fried or sunny side
Just aren’t right
The mix-bowl begs
Quick, go get a pan, and we’ll scramble up some eggs, eggs, eggs, eggs
Good for breakfast, dinner time or brunch
Don’t buy six or twelve, buy a bunch
And we’ll have a lunch on scrambled eggs
“The song was around for months and months before we finally completed it,” John Lennon remembered. “We made up our minds that only a one-word title would suit; we just couldn’t find the right one. Then one morning Paul woke up and the song and the title were both there, completed. I was sorry in a way, we’d had so many laughs about it.”
So much for “twenty minutes”. How about, “We will serve no wine, before its time”?
(Photo – Kenny Milton, professional wood carving artist, revealing a new creation, chip by chip.)
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