Its a leap of faith….writing a song
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1)
Building faith, my grandmother
Although I couldn’t have known it at the time, she was in the final year of her life. Her husband of more than fifty years had died three years ago and, since then, she had visited us more frequently. For the ninety-mile trip from South Wales, she preferred the rickety three-carriage train, which stopped at every little station, over the faster Intercity which required a change at Bristol. Her way took twice as long, but it saved switching to another train and allowed more time for conversations with other passengers.
At 19, 20 years old, I couldn’t comprehend what it might be like to have lived with the same person for half a century and then, suddenly, to be left alone. I struggled to imagine how it would be, firstly, knowing another so thoroughly and, secondly, trying to carry on in the same house after he was no longer around. Over those few years, we became closer, my grandmother and I, talking together during her visits and coming to know each other better than we had before. These were the circumstances that surrounded Lil and my sharing of song.
It had been a couple of years since I’d started learning to play the guitar. And nearly a couple of years since I’d started writing songs. From the start, my songs were never secrets. I’d formed a rough and ready band with two friends and once a week we’d get together to play my songs, their songs and other people’s songs. Right before my eyes and ears the songs would grow – in volume, density, depth and scale – with the addition of percussion, bass, harmonica, keyboard, extra vocals or electric guitar. They grew too – and I could feel this – through the sheer addition of other people’s energy, commitment, passion and enthusiasm.
As marvellous and exciting as this was, I’m not sure anyone ever listened to my songs. Did we, as band-mates, ever really hearwhat the singer was singing? Or what the writer had written? If we did, we never talked about it. If there was analysis or interrogation, it was over the form, not the content. And perhaps this was part of the attraction of a band: the scale and scope of the sound – the formof the music – could be a distraction from lyrical contentthat sometimes explored territories I might have preferred to keep to myself. But song writing, in my experience, doesn’t allow the luxury of privacy. So when you share your songs, you share your self. And when others hear a song, they hear a self.
At home, my playing, writing and primitive recording took place behind a closed door
My great-grandmother had been a piano a teacher, but since then no-one in my extended family had played a musical instrument. Aside from my friends in the band, I didn’t personally know anyone who wrote songs.
In my family, music was something other people did – and songwriting was something that songwriters did. It wasn’t something we did
So when I played, I would never have thought to play to or with my family. And I don’t think they would have thought to listen or join in. Someone might walk into the room when I was singing a song, but they would behave as if I was watching a television programme – perhaps asking a question and waiting for a mid-song response. It was almost as if singing and playing music was something separate, that took place in a parallel world.
So although my writing may have been an attempt to communicate something to someone, the playing was never a sharing and nobody was expected to listen. And I can’t say I blame anyone for not listening – listening again to those early recordings now, I gain little in the way of aural pleasure. So when Lil asked if I’d sing her some of my songs, one mid-week afternoon when no-one else was around,
it came as a bit of a shock.
“I’m not sure they’d be your taste Gran,” I replied, stalling, looking for a way out, and thinking of songwriter Billy Bragg’s testament that the whole point is to make music your parents don’t like!
How could my grandmother possibly like my songs? And what if she did? Would that mean my music was hopelessly middle-of-the-road?
“Perhaps you’d give me the chance to decide?” Lil replied. “I’d like that.”
So I did. And she listened. She sat in the armchair, head rested back, watching me intently. And she really did listen. I don’t know what she was listening to or for – but she found something worth hearing in the embryos I had cobbled together. It was the first time, I think, that these songs were really heard.
I don’t remember us saying much between songs. She’d ask me to play another, which I’d do. We shared seven or eight songs, maybe more. She didn’t say, “That’s good” or “That’s bad.” She didn’t judge or critique. She didn’t analyse, interrogate, question or deconstruct. She didn’t make suggestions for improvements or point out what was missing. She didn’t, as far as I can recall, applaud. She just listened … and she heard.
The next time I sang with my grandmother was at her funeral, in a crematorium in South Wales.
This time, in the small chapel, I was not singing my own songs and I was not singing solo. This time, the songs were hymns selected for the occasion, sung by many people many times before. And this time a roomful of family, friends and acquaintances were trying to sing them too. But these were not songs that I could really sing to Lil. They just didn’t seem to fit somehow. They didn’t fit in a way that brought us together.
Several years later my Dad told me of the conversation he’d shared with Lil, his mother, between our song-sharing and her dying.
“Gran told me she listened to you play one afternoon,” he said, “that you’d sung her some of your songs.
‘He’s got something there, that son of yours,’ she told me. It was important to her, that afternoon, son.”
It was important to me too. I wonder what she’d make of the songs I’ve been writing now, and I wonder what she’d make of the songs I’ve written after doing research with women in thier 60s 70s and 80s, and I wonder if those moments with my grandmother are some how etched in the song I wrote about Marion,
“One step at a time”
The full version of the previous story, about song writing and sharing songs, can be found in Departures in Critical Qualitative Research, Vol. 6 No. 2, Summer 2017; (pp. 104-111) DOI: 10.1525/dcqr.2017.6.2.104