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Stuck For Lyrics? Use A Poem!

6:00 am Songwriting

If you’d really like to record a shiny new song but you just don’t have any decent lyrics on hand, I say don’t let that stop you. Try borrowing ready-made lyrics from a poem, the more obscure the better. You don’t want people recognizing your source - unless of course you do!

I have recorded a setting of Kyrie Eleison, which a few people have heard of, and I have set some of Robert Louis Stevenson’s words to music, and I suppose someone might recognize them. But my favorite experience with setting an obscure poem to music came a few years ago (ahem), when I came across a poem by Ada Smith in a little book of poetry I found on my grandmother’s bookshelf. The poem goes like this.

In City Streets

Yonder in the heather there’s a bed for sleeping,
Drink for one athirst, ripe blackberries to eat;
Yonder in the sun the merry hares go leaping,
And the pool is clear for travel-wearied feet.

Sorely throb my feet, a-tramping London highways,
(Ah! the springy moss upon a northern moor!)
Through the endless streets, the gloomy squares and byways,
Homeless in the City, poor among the poor!

London streets are gold - ah, give me leaves a-glinting
‘Midst gray dykes and hedges in the autumn sun!
London water’s wine, poured out for all unstinting -
God!  For the little brooks that tumble as they run!

Oh, my heart is fain to hear the soft wind blowing,
Soughing through the fir-tops up on northern fells!
Oh, my eye’s an ache to see the brown burns flowing
Through the peaty soil and tinkling heather-bells.

I know, I know, what’s with the old-fashioned language? But for some reason, when I read the poem it sounded like a set of lyrics to me, with the second verse an obvious choice for a repeating chorus. I used a bouncy, up-tempo melody and somehow got away with loopy lyrics about “merry hares” and “peaty soil”, along with a few strategic word changes. The result, recorded with my brother Gary in 1971, was my own musical version of the poem, which I titled “Homeless In the City” (mp3).  I’ll bet you can do better!

Now, there is a lot of poetry to look through at your library, and a lot more online. The trouble is that the great poets everyone’s heard of, like Robert Frost for example, or Allen Ginsberg, didn’t generally write song-like poetry with a regular rhythm and nice rhyming lines. You will probably get better lyrics for singing from more conventional, not to say second-rate, purveyors of the poetic art (like Ada Smith!). If you do want to use something less sing-songy, consider reading parts of the poem over an instrumental backing, William Shatner style. (Or perhaps the verses could be spoken and the choruses sung.)

Homeless In the City (A. Smith - M. Bendig) (mp3)
Mark Bendig: vocals, guitars
Gary Bendig: drums

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