All-Time Greatest Songwriters, Part 1: Ladies’ Night

Linda here.

I’ve been doing an awful lot of songwriting lately. It’s an art-form uniquely tailored to my interests and aptitudes: you can write sappy, self-interested mush all day long, and as long as the tune is catchy, it’s completely vindicated from being passed over like so much high school poetry. You can channel bitterness into lyrics dripping with acid, and then laugh it off with a flippant wave of the hand. You can admit to deep, burning passions into a song, play it for the object of your affection, and, in the unlikely event that it doesn’t inspire them to take you right there on the rumpus room pool table, just insist “Jeez, it’s just a song.”

Not that I do any of that.

My desire to continue to improve upon my craft has lead me to doing some research: who are considered the greatest songwriters of all time? I wish to find them, listen to their music extensively, and absorb their greatness into my own being, like an aborigine warrior eating his slain foe after a battle. But with fewer calories.

I stumbled upon this video from moderately popular Musician/Music Blogger Ben Aaron. As far as I can tell from his YouTube Channel, Ben isn’t any kind of credentialed expert. Nor is he not claiming to be. So take his video– and my assessment of it– with a grain of salt. But my immediate aspirations involve becoming a moderately popular Musician/Music Blogger, so perhaps I should take a cue from him.

Mr. Aaron’s list has some strengths: his tastes are fairly eclectic and he goes out of his way to acknowledge a little-known singer-songwriter that he loves, which is a refreshing change from the types of lists that are put out by those “credentials” types.

I’ll also take a minute here to give a shout out to Ben’s music, where you can listen to here. Ben’s eclectic tastes come through strongly in this unexpected, upbeat music. In 2013, he took on the extremely ambitious task of recording four albums, one for each season. I salute his clearly abundant passion and work ethic, and look forward to listening to more of his music in the future.

There are, of course, some places where ,y opinion divergesa bit from Mr. Aaron’s. For instance, while I love Bob Dylan, I think of him as too unbalanced a songwriter to take the top spot on a list such of this: the man is a genius of a lyricist, but I would argue he’s average at best in terms of melody. And while I applaud Ben’s journey across genres (country, rock, reggae and beyond), I am disappointed to see that nearly all of his choices are rooted in the sixties through eighties. Nothing from the Tin Pan alley days at all. A greatest songwriters list without Cole Porter or Irving Berlin? For shame!

But my biggest beef with Ben (alliteration!) has to be the total and utter lack of women on his list.

This, of course, is at least partly not Ben’s fault: Dan and I got into an argument about sexism in the music industry earlier this week, and my resulting scorn-filled research illuminated with new clarity the extent that women are left out of the business of making music. It may come as little surprise to you that there are almost no female music engineers, very few female music producers, and little in the way of female executives in the larger labels. But while there are certainly some very real hurdles for female musicians, there is, at the very least, a long and celebrated history of female performers and singer-songwriters that you don’t have to go too far to find.

So, since Ben didn’t, I will.

I will endeavor to make this the first installment of a series of posts about songwriters who are, in my humble opinion, the greatest of all time. I will not present them in ranked form at this time– perhaps in a future post. In the spirit of helping poor Ben in his musical education, here are three of the greatest female songwriters.

Joni Mitchell

Whether she’s singing her own words, or being covered by the likes of Judy Collins, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, or Ben’s own Bob Dylan, (for whom Joni apparently has some considerably animosity), Joni has created some of the most iconic music of all time. Here is a woman who is equally capable, on the one hand, of jolting you through the roller coaster of love with its thrilling ups (Help Me, My Old Man) and it’s devastating downs (River, Both Sides Now), and, on the other hand, of weaving together the ironic lambasting of establishment that became possibly the best-loved environmental protest song of all time (Big Yellow Taxi). Adaptable and prolific, her discography rivals just about any male writer. Looking at the list of songs she’s written or co-written, I barely feel qualified to write this paragraph, as I’ve heard such a small portion of her overall body of work. Which will be remedied in the near future.

What Joni and I have in common is a willingness to write about the complicated nature of love, so here is one of here songs that, I think, does a pretty good job dancing that line: All I Want.

Ani DiFranco

The first song I heard by Ani DiFranco was Untouchable Face. I believe I downloaded it off of Napster on a whim, or possibly by mistake. If I recall correctly, I listened to it once or twice, then called my sister into the room to listen to it. Then we immediately drove to Bull Moose where I bought the album, Dilate.

I think of it as good fortune that it happened this exact way. An emotional, passionate teenager at the time, I was totally drawn into Untouchable Face’s vulnerable, angry heartache. The contrast between the shyly-spoken words of the verses and the hissing profanity of the chorus was almost an autobiography of my high school heart. At that moment I fell in love with Ani, and I was open to anything else she had to say.

But anyone who listens to her knows that most of what she has to say is nothing like that initial message. The feminist founder of Righteous girl records, Ani is much more well-known for writing songs about upsetting the unjust establishment (Coming Up), being a strong, self-possessed woman even if you’re Not a Pretty Girl, defending non-conforming sexuality (In or Out), or talking openly and unabashedly about the types of abuses that  so many women in this world endure. (Letter to John)

Ani flawlessly, fearlessly and Shameless-ly embodies all that womanhood can be. She is at once a snarling lion and the most genuine of lambs. She can be a Joyful Girl, and she can be profoundly sad. Here’s one of those, Grey:

Taylor Swift

You don’t respect pop music? Tough. Taylor Swift is amaze-balls.

Taylor’s songs are some of the catchiest, hookiest, have-to-belt-along-with-the-chorus tunes of all time, and she’s only twenty-six: think of what the future may hold! And, yes, with the women I’ve mentioned today, I’ve been extolling the virtues of their versatility. This probably leads some to want to point out that the vast majority of Taylor’s songs are about love and heartbreak. To which I say: Yeah, so?

If there’s one kind of song that can really reach us in a way no other can, that’s the love song. Whether it’s the energizing victory of Love Story (I dare you not to sing along to that last chorus), the simple longing of Teardrops on My Guitar, or the righteous exasperation of We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together, Taylor writes songs that take people by the hand and assures them, I feel what you feel.

And, okay, if you’re sick of Love Songs and want something more of a statement, here’s Shake It Off, which packages the enduring message of self-confidence and individuality with a very danceable beat:

So, three female songwriters that I think belong in the pantheon. Of course, there are many more that belong in the list, but I’m hoping that, in the future, installments of this variety can include songwriters of both genders without having to make a big thing of it. Because music knows no gender, we’re all just people, insert corny call for unity here.

Feel free to comment below to list your favorite songwriters. Maybe I’ll try to absorb their souls, too.

“The Muddy Rudder” and “Sea Fever”

Linda here.

For a while now, I’ve been wanting to take some time to write a series of posts talking a little bit about the songs that we put on our “first unofficial EP”, Scrumgirl is Getting Married. This was a short CD that we sent out as an invitation to our wedding reception back in July. If you haven’t heard it, you can find it over on SoundCloud or BandCamp.

I don’t know if I’ll actually get around to writing posts about all of the tracks, but let’s go ahead and start, where else? At the very end.

The Muddy Rudder was a “hidden” track on the EP, meaning you had to let the CD run through a track with twenty seconds of silence before you found it. We put it there because the track was much less finished than others on the disc. While the first several songs were recorded on multiple tracks and rigorously (if amateur-ly) mixed, The Muddy Rudder was recorded on a single track, in a single take, on a microphone attached to a laptop sitting on our  coffee table. The reason for this artistic decision: we were totally out of time.

Picture, if you will, two frazzled people trying to make their ambition of recording a CD for their wedding (reception) invitation come true, whilst juggling the following: full-time jobs, toddler-rearing, geriatric-dog wrangling, the planning of a major, international trip (with wedding), and a reception to follow shortly thereafter. Nothing was done. While the other two originals on the EP– For You and Stubborn Love were both kinda-sorta written, both they and the covers had to be recorded from scratch. To make matters worse, Stubborn Love‘s entire “orchestral” arrangement had to be worked out. (Spoiler alert: we did not have access to a big band-style horn section.) (Second Spoiler Alert: Stubborn Love maybe didn’t come out as well as it should have, and will eventually be re-recorded when we’ve kidnapped a busload of All-State Jazz Band students.) Also, we didn’t know how to play “Paper Moon” at all. (Spoiler alert: we didn’t end up playing it, per se.)

The whole thing was done, start to finish, in probably a month and a half, maybe two. Between working all day and mixing all night, I was starting to LEGIT lose my mind. All I wanted, in the world, was for the damn CD to be done.

But there was this niggling little problem, and the closer I got to being finished, the more it…niggled: without meaning to, and almost totally by accident, I had written another song.

It wasn’t my fault, really. Our reception was to be held at The Muddy Rudder Restaurant in Yarmouth. The Muddy Rudder. Do you hear that? The meter of that name, that almost Seuss-ian lure.

Well, the song just started to write itself. Throw in some seafaring symbolism and borrow some inspiration from a dead poet, and all of a sudden, I was done. Against my better judgment, and without really knowing I was doing it, I had written another song. And not just any song: a song that would almost totally fail to make sense outside of the context of this CD. Why, if it didn’t get recorded now, it never would.

Dan’s point of view on the matter was a little different. While I merely had to deal with the loss of my mind and most of my faculties, he had to deal with the very real possibility of me screaming in tongues whilst bludgeoning him repeatedly in the head with a  microphone stand. He was willing to part with The Muddy Rudder song for good, for the sake of my sanity and his cranium.

But not me. I didn’t mean for this to happen, but it did. And these songs, they’re like my children. *Crazy Eyes.*

Eventually, we compromised. The song would be recorded in the aforementioned single track on the aforementioned coffee table, and stuck in as a bonus track. We tried a few takes and ended up with one that we really liked, weird banter about disappearing goats and all. (No, that’s not me going crazy. That’s really in there. You’ll see.) In the end, The Muddy Rudder became Dan’s favorite track on the whole EP.

…..But all of that’s not really what I wanted to talk about.

(Emily would be telling me to concise at this point. But I can’t do it. These words are like my children.)

The reason I’ve been wanting to write about this track for so long is this: I want to apologize to John Masefield.

Some of the lyrics in The Muddy Rudder are borrowed and/or adapted from his poem, Sea Fever. If you haven’t read it, do: it’s easily one of the most beautiful poems ever written. In fact, here it is:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
Clearly, a masterfully-crafted ode to the life of a fisherman: a man who is alone, but not lonely. A man who finds his passion in life in the freedom and beauty of the open sea, and is so fulfilled by that that he needs nothing else: not fame, not fortune, not love. All I ask is  a tall ship and a star to steer her by.

Then I, of course, go and totally bastardize the sentiment. I used words from possibly the world’s most famous ode to salty solitude to write a song about marriage.  Ew.

JohnMasefield

I made this my Facebook Profile picture during the process. Because, insult, injury. Whatever.

I turned “a tall ship and a star to steer her by” into “a tall ship and you there by my side.

I turned “I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life/To the gull’s way and the whale’s way and the wind’s like a whetted knife” into “I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life/To the gull’s way I will go with you if you’ll be my gypsy wife.

I turned “And all I ask is a merry yard from a laughing fellow-rover/And a quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.” into “And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover/And a girl like you to be my sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

*Shudder.*

I did all that, and then I left Dan and I making goat noises on the track. Really.

What’s my defense? Well, none, really, except…it’s a good song. It’s not as good a song as Sea Fever is a poem, and, trust me, my inner teenaged girl, who spent much of high school camped out in libraries reading poetry, is not happy with this sell-out.

But it kind of makes me think of this thing I learned when I was in a painting course in college. In the beginning, you’re painting this still life, and you’re trying so hard to make it accurate as possible, every detail on the canvas just as it is on the table. One day, I was struggling to get some little thing just right, because it didn’t sit well in the composition. I remember my instructor coming over me and advising me to stop struggling. At some point, he told me, the painting has to take over. The object I was painting became less important than the painting itself.

At some point, the new art has to break free of the realities of the inspiration, and just be what it is.

The difference here, of course, is that no one will ever see that exact arrangement of fruits and flowers again, but I would feel terrible if people heard The Muddy Rudder but never read Sea Fever. And I’d also feel pretty bad if they were aware of both, but just thought I was totally clueless about the original intention of the poem.

So here this is. A long-winded open letter, of sorts, to John Masefield. (Okay, not really, but he’s SUPER dead.) Your poem, Mr. Masefield, is a masterpiece, and my song has twisted it’s meaning quite a bit. But this song you helped to inspire, though not a masterpiece, is, well…it’s good. I think it’s good. Dan thinks it’s good. We performed it at the reception– to this day, the only song that Scrumgirl has ever performed in front of a crowd of more than three people– and that was good.

So, Mr. Masefield, here it is. With Love.

Welcome to Scrumgirl.net

Thanks for coming to Scrumgirl.net, homepage of Scrumgirl, the Maine-Based Indie Music Duo made up of Linda Hildonen and Daniel Bridgman.

Soon in life, this page will be a hotbed of activity for all things Scrumgirl, as we will be pushing to put out more originals, more covers, and more charming banter between band members that is a totally accurate representation of their relationship, unless Dan finishes off the ice cream. What happens then, we can’t put on the website.

For now, please feel free to visit the “About” section to read a little more about the band, peruse the links to our other online destinations, or click the player below to listen to our newest original, “Amen.”