On Songwriting: Deal with the Devil

To me, the inspiration photo for Deal with the Devil perfectly suits the song.

But it didn’t initiate the songwriting process.

Rather, it was a bang-on prefect fit for the song I’d written (almost completely) at the time I went searching through photos from the Farm Security Information and Department of War Information archives.

There are some very “pure” ways I proceed from “forming the intention of writing a song” to “having written a song.”

For this Hard Times Hundred & One project, one is seeing a photo and wanting to write a song inspired by it. The iconic “Jobless Men Keep Going” sign that gave rise to A Little Love, a Little Mercy was one such case.

Another is having a line or some lyrics I came up with while noodling on a concept: “They started rolling Sunday / And they ain’t slowed down / A spiritual revival wagon / Roamin’ town to town” was the genesis of The Lesson of Gethsemane. These lines were the first articulation of ideas that followed from thinking about the idea of an itinerant preacher during hard times.

Sometimes, it’s a desire to use a musical element or theme. The opening and closing chord progression of A Whole Lot of Trouble was what I found to be something in a Neil-Youngy style that I wanted to use in a song. With that in mind, I started hunting for lyrics and an inspiration photo.

Deal with the Devil started with un-directed noodling with a key (G) on guitar and seeing where it led toward tone and lyrics. “I’d make a deal with the Devil / If I could” found a nice fit with G-D-C. Ending on “C” created some tension–this wasn’t someone happy about making a deal with the Devil, this was someone in dire straits, who landed on that as his last option.

The key of “G” admitted the use of Em–I’m a fan of E minor–and after a bit of noodling around, here’s where I wound up prior to being committed to writing a song:

   If you're sensing desperation, sir let's be sure we're understood
  I'd make a deal with the Devil, if I could
I'll take your money Mr. Banker, though the terms they ain't no good
'Cause I'd make a deal with the Devil if I could

The former was the first refrain – the latter was the last. The storyline was about someone backed into a corner. The question at hand, if I wanted to commit to a song: what was the rest of the story?

Turns out the last part – the last stanza, where we wound up – came first:

When you’ve gone begging to your neighbors, and you’ve buttonholed your kin But there ain’t no help forthcoming, ‘cause everybody’s feeling thin You swallow your pride, hold your nose, and you pray you don’t regret Crawling hat in hand to the bankerman, and doubling down on debt I loved this final conclusion to the song. The question was: how to get there? Once I was committed to a song I faced two obstacles.

The big one was: what’s the story?

I needed a first verse to set things up, and a second to get from there to the finale.

The little one was “if I get those, I need one more refrain–a rhyming couplet. And I hate forcing rhymes. But I didn’t have anything coming to me naturally to rhyme with “could.”

Thinking about spatial metaphors was the breakthrough: the protagonist is on a journey–psychological and spiritual in nature. But what about describing it in terms physical place:

If I ain’t past the point of no return, I’m in the neighborhood/So I’d make a deal with the Devil if I could

And with that, the rest flowed.

I’ve weathered hard times more than once – but never near this bad
Owing twice more than I did before, while holding half the cards I’d had
There ain’t no sign of better days, fact is, things are looking worse
I don’t see a chance in hell my fortunes will reverse
If you’re sensing desperation, sir
Let’s be sure we’re understood—
I’d make a deal with Devil if I could
If I could call in fifty favors or sell a golden goose
I’d stop the landlord and ten creditors from tightening their noose
A hundred hours of overtime would earn me hard-earned cash in hand
But aint’ no men wanted here nor there, up and down this whole hard land
If I ain’t past the point of no return,
 I’m in the neighborhood--
So I’d make a deal with the Devil if I could
It’s so damn long since the good times went
If I had ever dollar I that ever spent
I could still use a hand from the government—
And a few months of forbearance
When you’ve gone begging to your neighbors, and you’ve buttonholed your kin
But there ain’t no help forthcoming, ‘cause everybody’s feeling thin
You swallow your pride,  hold your nose, and you pray you don’t regret
Crawling hat in hand to the bankerman, and doubling down on debt
Yeah, I’ll take your money, Mr. Banker
Though the terms they ain’t no good—
‘Cause I’d make a deal with the Devil if I could

On songwriting: The Lesson of Gethsemane (with video)

When I started writing songs in earnest, I had a singular ambition. I aspired to write an album that would be as moving on first listen and as multifaceted on the hundredth as Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska had been for me.

I never actually seriously expect that I might–until The Lesson of Gethsemane.

The inspiration photo:
Reverend Bullard, preacher, and family with trailer home. Alexandria, Louisiana, Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress), LC-USF34- 056656-D

There’s no one reason why. To the contrary, it’s the serendipitous fact that “so many things” converged (or, one might say, “came to cohabitate together”) across its themes, music, and lyrics that changed my mind. I’ll tackle a few of them after the break.

I hope you enjoy the live video recording below or the slightly more produced audio-only version here.

In no particular order:

  • I feel like there’s a little “Carter Family” vibe to the the rounded, fully-articulated pronunciation of the lyrics and the straightforwardness of the strumming.
  • I hate to force songs to be done on a schedule rather than when they emerge as what they want to be. (I’ve taken more than ten years to complete a song.) This one flowed easily through the first three stanzas once I wrote the first two lines in response to the inspiration photo (“They started rolling Sunday and they ain’t slowed down / A spiritual revival wagon roaming town to town”). I performed the song-as-it-stood for some colleagues during a virtual hang-out, ending with “and now I need to bring it home somehow.” It was another week before the final stanza came together…and that’s great. I never had to force it.
  • The D chord coming after the lyrics has a kind of repeated jangly-ness to it. I specifically imagine tin cups hanging on a rack in the trailer, jangling as it bumps over rough roads. The Em chord in the bridge lines isn’t a “sad” minor – it’s an “ominous” minor, like seeing thunderclouds on the horizon when you’re still a ways out from your next stop, or “folks are waitin’ on me, and I’m running late.”
  • There are two narrative strands interwoven in the lyrics. The invocation of the Agony in the Garden is not made lightly: travellin’ place to place is indeed our preacher’s calling …but an easier calling would be more than welcome. At the same time, for at least as many people in each town he stops by show up for sincere devotion, his presence is mostly an excuse for a social event and breaking the daily routine. For many, he might as well be a travelling magician. But at the end of the day, whether the sincere faith of those on their knees echoing the hymns is lightening their load, or his faith carrying out his calling is lightening the load of everyone who showed up to picnic or lounge in the sun or flirt with their sweetheart, it’s all good. Because there’s a fearsome need in this hard time for it.

These are the lyrics, annotated. You can see the rhyming scheme, but what delights me is so much effortless alliteration (blue) . And something else I don’t even know has a name–echoing certain syllables within adjacent lines, like “rolling” and “roaming” and “congregation” and “benediction” (red).

Origin of a song: By fours and fives and sixes (with video)

Yes, the inspiration photo of folks arriving at Ellis Island in 1907 is perfectly evocative of my own family history.

But this was a song I felt I needed to write because of current events.

And I wanted to do a live recording as a shout-out to my colleagues who may be worried about immigration status, work authorization, and travel right now.

You’re welcome here. Your presence is a gift. We’ll get through this.


With what little he had my great granddad bet big on a new country
When he stepped on a ship from a stone staircase in Southern Italy
To first set foot on what he hoped would be his family’s new homeland
Fresh off the boat at Ellis with nothing but his hat in hand
              Like the hopeful and the hard done by
              Of a hundred nationalities
              He came from overseas
She couldn’t tell all would be well when grandma got the hell out of Eastern Germany
Running ahead of a tide turning read toward the Land of Liberty
She never made much working factory and field, but she didn’t cross the pond for greed
She wanted American dreams for my generation, her labor nurtured the seed
              If you’re like me there’s foreign soil
              On the roots of our family trees
              Transplanted from overseas
We’re the nation we are ‘cause we opened the door to the tired the hungry the wretched and poor
The world’s huddled masses taking their chances to do right by their families
              By fours and fives and sixes
              And in ones and twos and threes
              They came from overseas
Some would say things are different today, so when the ragged come knocking we should turn them away—
As much now as then you couldn’t be wronger to betray what’s always made America stronger
So many hands and hearts and minds
That built our prosperity
              Came from overseas

I originally called this song "Overseas." But I came to feel "By Fours and Fives and Sixes (and Ones and Twos and Threes) was the right way to represent how there were so many different stories and experiences.

(There's a little bit of  async between the audio and video - apologies for that--still working out the optimal recording set up.)

Origin of a Song: Work Without War

Where to begin? I would have said Work Without War had a rich origin story prior to the current crisis. Present circumstances moved me to revisit and re-record it.

First off I ought to credit singer-songwriter Billy Bragg. His style and lyrics–sometimes anthemic, at others empathetic–influenced me. (“The World Turned Upside Down” was a favorite of the former, while on the latter front I probably listened to “A New England” multiple replays in a row, many times, when I was younger.)

Then I ought to celebrate public investment in the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information program that caused photos like this song’s visual inspiration to exist. (And, as well, the stance of openness that allows for free, unconstrained use of all of them.)

I don’t see any path from “I have in mind a Billy-Braggish sort of new song” to the lines “From Montecassino to Guadalcanal, godspeed to our boys / And here’s to their sisters putting tanks together with tools that once made toys” without this specific image and caption.

Conversion. Toy factory. Stephanie Cewe and Ann Manemeit, have turned their skill from peacetime production of toy trains to the assembly of parachute flare casings for the armies of democracy. Along with other workers in this Eastern plant, they have turned their skill to the vital needs of the day, and in many cases have seen to it that the machinery they used to use does Uncle Sam’s most important work today. Here, they are assembling parachute flare casings, using the same electric screwdrivers they formerly used to assemble the locomotives of toy trains. 

Having touched on the visual and musical inspirations for the song, here comes its “something else” that’s a fair bit more involved and wonky than most other tracks.

The United States entered World War II in a depression and exited to prosperity. In 2008 article (paywalled) economist Paul Krugman sums up why he sees this as a causal connection:

What saved the economy, and the New Deal, was the enormous public works project known as World War II, which finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy’s needs.”

Paul Krugman, “Franklin Delano Obama”, New York Times, 2008

Frustration with what I saw as needless and preventable suffering during the 2008 financial crisis and the recession it triggered got me started on this project. It seemed obvious to me then (as it does now) that the Federal government’s response in 2008 was too small, especially in view of the natural experiment WWII created.

We’ve always ponied up big for wars, a public investment that might seem bad for the economy: after all, we’re paying lots of people to build things that are mostly only useful for destroying otherwise productive infrastructure and people, while employing lots of others (soldiers) to do a job that gets many of them injured or killed.

Imagine if we paid lots of people to build things that are bang-on useful for constructive purposes, and employed lots of others doing jobs that don’t. (Another economist, Christina Romer, is worth reading about lessons from the Great Depression, including an analysis of how elements of the New Deal worked just like this, and helped, but were much too small.)

Today I feel as if we’ve jumped the shark on tolerating needless and preventable suffering in multiple ways–at least at the Federal level.

We actually have an enemy we want to kill: the coronavirus. We could be mobilizing people otherwise out of work to do things that help that cause.

We could literally treat our response like waging war.

But even beyond that, if we entertain wartime-scale investment, we could simply pay people their salaries as long as it takes to get control over its spread. Germany and Denmark, for example, have already done this. Our congresswoman, Pramilla Jayapal, has proposed a bill to do this.

Aside from keeping people doing something at least somewhat to their jobs, it would also provide an opportunity to those who can’t do their normal work 40 hours per week to “skill up” on something new–and 100% useful in peacetime.

In any event, then and now the question of “why can’t we put people to worl”–at massive scale, whatever it takes to win–“without war” was and is on my mind.

These lines came first, because I felt it was necessary to start in 1929 (and, of course, taking inspiration from the photo, to mention the toy factory):

Unemployment lines in ’29 stretched from sea to shining sea 
‘Round here they shuttered the five and dime downtown 
And mothballed the toy factory

The narrative flow should seem fairly “inevitable” given the inspirational elements I’ve described knocking around in my head while I was writing it. There was an inherent timeline to follow. It was a little more like “paint by numbers” than free form, if I had to use a visual arts metaphor.

Except for one bit of joyful surprise. The couplet “Now there’s rumors of a draft afoot for our fathers and our sons / And you know if they’re gonna see trouble they’re gonna need guns” is the linchpin of the song for me, both as part of the story and a novel element.

It’s the “well of course we need to re-purpose shuttered factories–and, also, bring women in to work at them, as many as it takes” moment.

You simply can’t fight a war without guns–as many as your army needs!

And that ties back to the refrain: it seems to me you equally obvious that you can’t beat a depression without jobs–as many as your people need.

Let’s hope that lesson of history sinks in sometime soon.

On songwriting: “Resolute, always a little sad”

So it’s Sunday morning. I’m walking around the kitchen / dining area in a Bruce Springsteen concert t-shirt, nursing my coffee while I listen to some of my own songs, trying to decide which are individually ready and collectively right to include in an EP.

And at close to exactly the same time, I happen to think “resolute, and always a little sad” and also catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror.

All at once, I’m wondering whether I’m thinking about the specific song playing, my songwriting in general, the emotional cadence some of the Boss’s best work–or some combination of all three.

The previous night a friend asked me if I could offer any insight on how to write songs.

And it seemed like a perfect moment to capture and then unpack.

How do I know when a song is done? A phenomenological answer is “I pace around listening until the answer is ‘obviously yes,’ ‘obviously no’–or ‘something in between.'”

And then I wonder what isn’t quite right. Sometimes that takes a single day. Sometimes it takes 10 years (no joke).

Where do songs even come from? For this project I can sometimes point to a photograph without which I am sure a particular song would never have come about. But the larger point is about some sort of underlying tension.

Woody Guthrie said “a folk song is what’s wrong, and what to do about it.” You don’t need redemption if you ain’t done bad (The River). You don’t need resolve if you aren’t fighting something hard (like the Great Depression, the 2008 recession, or the current crisis). But the struggle could be with homesickness (Sloop John B) or heartbreak (Blue Moon)–or Jolene.

But where to even start? Part of the beauty of folk and rock is that it’s OK to find a straightforward place to stand.

Just sit in the skin and time you’re in yourself–or imagine being someone else, some other time–and let some combination of chords, words, and melody find a way to be together.

For me, it’s usually words that want a melody. But sometimes chords want words. “Wanna use ‘some Neil-Young-y chords'” is how this song started. It is in “C-F-G” –or “I-IV-V” form.

This all may not be super helpful yet to someone wanting to get into flow writing songs. But I would love to pay forward the gift of enjoying creating songs. My songwriting instructor at something like $75 a class for small group, community college-sponsored adult ed program change my life permanently, for the better.

So this post kicks off a series about songwriting based on some that I think she’d be especially proud of. I’ll be posting an EP this week for which the title track is I Ain’t Got Money, but I Got Wise. Each song has lines that give me joy when I reflect on “how they came to be.”

I hope describing that process will help others find a path to a similar spot.

Origin of a Song: Bonded and Bought

Bonded and Bought is one of my favorite songs in multiple respects. To me it sounds like a classic New England-slash-maritime folk song. It’s perfectly suited for strumming the rhythm while belting it out in my range. And every word of the lyrics feels perfect.

It wasn’t always so.

In fact, I scrapped some initial lyrics and the first concept for the song as a whole. Then when I felt like I’d gotten it almost finished, I was absolutely stumped as to what the title ought to be. Finally, it all came together. Here’s how.

The inspiration photo was something of an “and now for something completely different” moment for me.

The fishing boat was a big departure from images of the Dust Bowl or breadlines.

But having grown up in New England, I was certainly familiar with Gloucester and the cod fishing trade. I landed quickly on more or less the chords and rhythm you hear today, but original refrain was about fishing as an alternative when jobs onshore were lacking:

Go to sea young man, go to sea, young man--
You can always go to sea
When there's no work at hand here on dry land
You can always go to sea 

That was fine as it went, but was unresolved alongside the original source of tension in the song. I knew many fishing families were Portuguese immigrants and by extension deeply Catholic. So there was a religious tone to the evocation of the risks those who went to sea would face:

When you’re pushing late into the season
And hard weather rolls around
You’re praying for the mercy of Mary and Jesus
But you’d settle for some solid ground

And it was…OK. The breakthrough came when I realized the song wanted to be about treating resources as something to be plundered and workers as expendable. The fishermen were facing danger not because there weren’t jobs on dry land, but rather because the cod had been over-fished.

The song got to 90 percent of where it is today, and I was nonplussed about a title. “Gloucester” and “The Flemish Cap” weren’t terrible but didn’t inspire me. It was as if I couldn’t firmly grasp the essence of the song.

Something of an esoteric phrase unlocked it: “bonded and bought.” The ideas was that treating natural resources as imports and commodities without care for their sustainability led to workers being treated, in practice, as expendable. We had both the bridge, and the title, and the perfect set up for the denouement:

Seems even the bounty of nature
Can’t last when it’s bonded and bought
Whether forests plowed under for profit
Or seas where the cod’s all been caught

Now the industry's greed won't be sated
Till all the fish are dead
But ain’t it worse if what comes first
Is using up the fishermen instead?

Give it a listen: for me, it’s what it wants to be. (Oh and, by the way: my view of the unspoken end of the song is that the crew does make it back safely after a harrowing trip. The underlying tension is whether the protagonist goes back out the next time…)

Origin of a Song: Summer ’29

True fact: I’ve written (and recorded) a song in a single day. Summer ’29, however took me ten years.

By 2009 I’d written the first stanza, filling almost exactly the first minute with chunky chords in the key of C and some of my favorite lyrics (then and still):

I pulled my ring from a calloused hand sir 
Went and pawned it for our daily bread 
We took our vows with dreams of for richer 
But we must make do with for poorer instead 
That July sun on my naked finger 
Burnt near bad enough to kill a man 
Walking dusty roads home 
To where my wife was waiting 
When I’d paid the rent 
With our wedding band 

And then I was stuck.

I’d been leaning on images of abandoned farms for inspiration (like this one). I worked on and off on finishing the song from that angle, but never felt satisfied the song was what it wanted to be.

A first stanza, rhythm, and melody I loved were left stranded at the altar, so to speak.

For years.

It was only when I started to follow a thread looking at photos of couples (Diamonds was inspired by one) that a different way forward started to dawn on me.

This image opened the door.

Title: White sharecropper couple near Hartwell, Georgia

Creator(s): Lange, Dorothea, photographer

Date Created/Published: 1937 July.

The agony of parting with the wedding ring to pay the bills wasn’t because love had been diminished, or hard times put it at risk. Entirely the opposite: because it endured. Because there was no question, for better or worse, it would last through hard times. I still didn’t know how to finish the song, but I could pivot with lines that snapped to the rhythm and melody:

Courtin' at the county fairs
And revival hall dances...

Things began to come together from there. The addition of an Am chord in the final stanza is a tried-and-true tool in the songwriting toolbox. In this case, it brings forward the ominous, but stands in contrast to shifting back to a major chord at the very end: we’re sad.

But we’ll endure.


Have a listen…

Origin of a song: Trouble 'Round the Corner

No lie: Trouble’ Round the Corner was inspired by close to an even balance of a photograph, a rhythm I had on my mind, and learning something new. Here’s how this song came to be.

For whatever reason, I wanted to use a Bo Didley-esque, punchy strum on a new song. (It didn’t turn out to be exactly the Bo Didley rhythm – nice tutorial on YouTube – but that’s OK, it was an inspiration rather than the destination.)

Messing around with chords and lyrics that seemed to fit got me as far as what you’ll hear in the first twelve or so seconds:

There’s trouble ‘round the corner,
There’s trouble down the street—
And you probably ain’t still breathing
If you ain’t feeling the heat

And that was that. I had no idea what ought to come next.

Then I came across this photo.

Title: Strike pickets, New York, New York

Creator(s): Rothstein, Arthur, 1915-1985, photographer

Date Created/Published: 1937 Dec.
Part of: Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

Now I started to know. I was struck by two things. “Help us” hit me as a human-to-human request. This was hammered home by her direct gaze into the camera.

And the “please.” Please–like it’s for real, it’s serious.

And then I learned something. I suppose I “kinda sorta” knew that what I would describe as a “striker” or “someone with a picket sign” could be described as a “picket.” But “strike pickets” struck as learning something knew. The people could be “pickets.”

“Make yourself a picket” — to “help us win” had to be in the song.

And the song had to be all about a personal appeal to respond to the threats the pickets faced. This led to the motif of using specific names; verse one came first:

There’s trouble ‘round the corner,
There’s trouble down the street—
And you probably ain’t still breathing
If you ain’t feeling the heat
So notify your neighbors
Be they Molly, Moe, or Mike—
They’re busing in the Pinkertons
To break our Local’s strike

Things came together really fast from there. The narrative flow was : there’s trouble coming; it’s based on willful deception; by banding together we can fight back against a stacked deck.

I had the idea of a musical “clarion call” in mind alongside the verbal ask for help. The harmonica starting at 0:37 was exactly the second take of trying to capture “standing at the ramparts, bugling–only with a mouth harp.”

Give it a listen and let me know what you think.

There’s trouble ‘round the corner,
There’s trouble down the street—
And you probably ain’t still breathing
If you ain’t feeling the heat
So notify your neighbors
Be they Molly, Moe, or Mike—
They’re busing in the Pinkertons
To break our Local’s strike
They say the Reds are getting violent
And it’s time for it to stop—
But the “Commie with a gun”
Was an undercover cop
So help us get the word
To every Sally, Sam, and Sue—
They say the workers started trouble
But we know it isn’t true
We know there’s trouble round the corner
‘Cause the governor’s in the tank
For the foremen at the factory
And the fat cats at the bank
So make yourself a picket
Every Johnny, Jane, and Jack
‘Cause we ain’t got guns or money--
But we’ll have each others’ back