I’ve often wondered how people find the inspiration to write new original music when there’s already so much great stuff out there. You get the impression that, with all the great songs and tunes we know, sooner or later all the note combinations and story telling ideas might get used up and there’s no place to go. But I’ve jammed with a few people, seemingly regular people like you and me, who have composed their own original compositions and some of those efforts are really good.
Go to any bluegrass festival and check out the workshops. One of the most popular topics is songwriting because every musician is somewhat fascinated by the process. I’ve attended some of these workshops myself but unfortunately there’s no real formula to make a songwriter out of someone just because they love the music and have an interest in songwriting.
I’m here to tell you that if you have ever had the urge to write an original song but you think you couldn’t, it is within your grasp. The only thing you need is something called inspiration. The experienced songwriters get it more than the rest of us but it happens for all of us and sometimes that could result in some new music. Only once in my life did I ever have the inspiration to write a new song. I may never write another song as long as I live but that’s OK. Here’s how it happened.
You’ve heard of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, George and Ira Gershwin? Musical collaborations between lyricists and composers can be extremely productive. My own collaborator was a nefarious historical character by the name of Charles Bowles, AKA Black Bart.
Black Bart was a bandit who preyed on stage coaches in northern California. He lived in a nice flat in San Francisco, not far from the Wells Fargo offices. When he needed money he would get a ride and then hike out to some place where he could ambush a stage coach and make off with the strong box. He was afraid of horses so he accomplished his banditry simply by cunning ambushes and the ability to walk long distances on foot, avoiding the authorities. He would perhaps have never been apprehended had it not been for an article of clothing he left at one crime scene, which had a tell tale laundry mark.
Black Bart left that laundered item in haste, but another thing he left regularly at his crime scenes was poetry. And that’s how I found my lyricist. My friend Ernie Hunt had been recruited to entertain the residents of Cloverdale for a lecture about Black Bart and I was one of the people Ernie asked to back him for the gig. All we had to do was sing a couple of western themed songs and then everybody could listen to the lectures about Black Bart.
Our band worked up a couple of Roy Rogers tunes and Ernie commented that it was too bad we didn’t have a song about Black Bart. I was sure there must be a song about this guy. Outlaw songs are everywhere. Jesse James, Cole Younger, Otto Wood, Bonnie and Clyde. How hard can it be to find a song about a famous outlaw? All I have to do is a simple internet search, right? Then we’ll have an appropriate song for our gig.
I found nothing. But I did find all the poems that Black Bart had left at the scenes of his crimes. The interesting thing for me was that every poem was in the same meter. Now I had my inspiration! As I read the stanzas, a tune popped into my head and all I had to do now was write some verses to fill in the gaps. It literally took me less than an hour to write everything and make tablature for the tune using a tef file which the computer could play back to me.
Since then, I’ve sat for hours trying to write another song. Maybe some day I’ll get some more of that inspiration but if I don’t that’s OK. I learned something in the process and it was fun to make my opus one when I figured it would always be opus zero.
BLACK BART (by Daniel and Bowles)
Black Bart was a noted highwayman
His name was Charley Bowles
He always played the gentleman
Wells Fargo paid his toll.
He set his trap near Cloverdale
For the stagecoach out of Lakeport
Left all alive to tell his tale
With poetry left for sport
I’ve labored long and hard for bread
For honor boys, for riches
But on my corns too long you’ve tread
You fine-haired sons of bitches
With a flour sack upon his head
Holes cut out for the eyes
He said old boys, I’ll shoot you dead
If you don’t give me your prize
Here I lay me down to sleep
To ‘wait the coming morrow
Perhaps success, perhaps defeat
And everlasting sorrow
A shotgun brandished in his hand
He never rode a horse
With pointed sticks that looked like guns
He took the goods, of course
Let come what will, I’ll try it on
My condition can’t be worse
And if there’s money in that box
‘Tis money in my purse
Oh, what became of old Black Bart?
He spent his time in jail
Got out on good behavior then
Wells Fargo had him tailed
He drifted on from town to town
Had he left his life of sin?
Wells Fargo lost all track of him
Some say he struck again
So here I’ve stood while wind and rain
Have set the trees a sobbing’
And risked my life for that damned box
That wasn’t worth the robin’
(Note Bene: Some historians think that last chorus was written by a copycat criminal, not Black Bart. I hope not. Royalties might be pretty thin on this one as it is)