This is a piece I wrote for Autoharp Notes, the ejournal of the UK Autoharp Association...
Love Death and Whiskey – the
In 2010, I managed to publish a book of my lyrics
– a selection, as they say, from the long back catalogue. It wasn’t easy. The rest of this article is based on How to
write a Hollywood Screenplay…
When I told my cousin the policeman that the police had
tried to kill me he was only mildly interested.
How? he asked. Guns?
Cars? Well, in my case,
cars. Driving back from the supermarket
I came to the traffic lights at Duckworth
lights were green. As is, I believe,
customary, I proceeded to proceed. A
police car shot out from the right, on the wrong side of the road, ignoring a
red light, past waiting traffic. The
wonderful thing about modern cars is that you can step unhurt out of a
demolished car – the car crumpled around me.
At home, and after the immediate consequences of the police having
tried to kill me, I looked round the house.
At all the problems I might bequeath to my grieving family. The piles of books, files and papers. And I said to myself, You must finish some
projects. At least, make a book of your
song lyrics. And then I went for a lie-down
in a darkened room.
Now, you would have thought that the next steps would be
fairly simple. Switch on the computer,
look in the Song Lyric Folder, and make a selection. But that forgets years of computer crashes,
computer changes, changes in software.
Lotus Wordpro, anyone? Recent
songs, yes. But the old favourites?
Move on to the paper file.
But, see above, piles of papers.
Where is the paper file? We
finally worked out that a dear, dear friend – a dear, dear friend – had taken
the paper file to London
to show to some musicians she was working with.
And it had never come back. So,
somewhere in London
I discussed this with another dear friend, the Bristol
based musician, Gene Dunford
It turned out that Gene had been keeping, all along, without my knowing
it, a paper file of all my song lyrics that he was aware of. Thanks to Gene we have been able to start
reconstructing my song lyric archives – that job is not yet finished.
I explored publication and printing routes. But, really, it was not until that year,
2010, that the routes became obvious and easy.
Things like making your work visible on Amazon and Google Books suddenly
became easier in 2010.
So, time for rough and ready decisions. Readers of Autoharp Notes will know how thin
a song lyric can look on the page. I
think that maybe a song lyric is not meant to be a thing in itself – as I
suggest in my Introduction to the book the lyric is waiting for its musician
and its performer. So, was there a
tendency to go towards the lyrics that are a bit stronger on the page? But I love the thin ribbon of text running down
the white page. So, a selection: different flavours, routes, old favourites,
In what order should we print the lyrics? Chronological order would unduly privilege
the times when I had a band, or was involved with musicians in some project. Alphabetical order would unduly privilege the
letter I. In the end, in order to make a
decision – and guided by certain anthologies of Moorish Spain – I choose
LENGTH. And, daft as it is, I think it
works. The wonder of Word Count means
that lyrics become longer, and perhaps more literary, as the book progresses.
But we must think of the early pages, visible on Amazon and
Google Books. We could not begin with
something too fragile and tender. At the
beginning of the book we put the song Assignations,
a sturdy text from my jazz days.
Followed by a sweet one, Clover
. This is a genuine memory
of a lovely cat – but it is also a version of the most famous poem in the Irish
language, Pangur Ban
, about the
Scholar and his Cat. Every Irish writer
has to do a version of Pangur Ban – it is now a rule. And the difficulty of trying to work with a playful
cat around has stayed the same over the centuries. We saved till last the very shortest lyric –
but perhaps my most profound. Pierre
my summary of Chapter 1 of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness
I wanted to give some idea of the work that went into making
the lyrics, and the approach. I had some
scribbles on paper, more notes in my computer, and thoughts in my head. We have a little narrowboat, which we keep on
the Leeds & Liverpool Canal
, in the Pennines
. One weekend I was working there by myself,
physically very tired, and miserable under the miserable weather. I woke on the Sunday morning, groggy from
deep sleep, and still with a lot to do.
But it was the Sunday morning when the clocks change. I had an extra hour. In that extra hour I hammered out the Introduction. I think that you can still see that it has a
rough hewn quality – recalcitrant ideas beaten into almost coherent sentences.
The full text of the Introduction is available in many places
on the web, on Amazon Look Inside, Google Books, and on the publisher’s web
page. The free samples on the ebook
pages will also pick it up.
Now, the look and feel of the actual paper book… It had to have a quality, but also fit neatly
into a guitar case. We gave the design
work to a book designer in Ireland
that I had worked with before. As to the
cover - the first line of thought picked up the three legged stool image from
my Introduction. Which led to the immediate
danger that we would get bogged in the search for a suitable piece of line art. Do not get bogged down.
In another part of my head, I am involved in the rescue of
yet another project. In the 1980s we
created IRISH NIGHT, an oral history play about the experiences of Irish people
in England. We still have the taped interviews from that
project, and I am moving the interviews from tape to digital. I had located the production photographs of
stage photographer Zuleika Henry, and I had moved her photographs from 35mm
negative to digital. So, I had in my
computer actual photographs of actors on a stage performing some of my songs.
The book designer chose the photograph of actor, Joan Harpur,
throwing back her pretty head to sing the title song I wrote for that play. I will pause to savour the irony that what
looks like a photograph of a session in a pub is in fact a photograph of actors
on a stage set. And all musicians notice
that the book designer has flipped the image for design effect. Flipped images often have that spooky
I was able to write the song Irish Night when I knew that Joan could sing it, and sell it. Beautifully set by musician Peadar Long, it
has become one of Peadar’s favourite pieces.
A few years ago I went to one of Peadar concerts, in Bradford
Cathedral. He often now works with
choirs, and he presented this song, with another lovely female voice taking my
words and his tune.
And after the singer had finished I heard people in the row
behind me discussing the song. What was
that song – I’d never heard it before – is it traditional? O yes, said someone, with absolute
confidence, traditional, Irish, a very old song.
A compliment. Of sorts.