Issue #261 / November 2023
My grandfather, my hero, passed away several weeks ago. He was an incredible man: a chemist; a cowboy; a man of God.
After flying back from the funeral in Kansas, it seems that every song / piece of music I write naturally and quite invariably floats back to him. It is a beautiful but hard thing.
I feel lost and confused regarding the songs that are pouring out. Writing these songs/poems makes me feel so much closer to him, and I want to share them, but I have this rising fear that sharing them would cheapen or commodify his memory, our relationship. I don’t want to diminish him.
I’ve always admired artists who have dealt with grief through their music, but now that I’m living it, I’m realizing how brave one must be to do so.
One of the last things he said to me was “Apply the music!” but I am finding it hard to do so.
What do I do with these songs?
TOMMY, LONDON, UK
Your question so eloquently sums up the nature of songwriting. Part of being a songwriter is to forever live in a state of trepidation as to what the next song may bring. Newness, authenticity, truth – each comes with its own inherent danger. What will the new song reveal about ourselves? What will it expose? This may seem odd to some, because one would assume that the songwriter has control over how the song ends up – don’t we just write what we want to write? But I have come to understand that the feeling of creative control is an illusion, that the songs are predetermined and have their own destiny, that they are not our own.
When I started to write Ghosteen, my intention wasn’t to write a record about the death of my son, but as I scribbled away, Arthur inserted himself into the process. He became the ruling force, perched there at the end of every song to exert his sovereignty. He showed me how to write the record and I simply had no choice in the matter.
Nowadays, when I sit down and begin to write, I feel the dead, all the dead, ferrying the words forward. They are not necessarily the subject of the songs, rather they are the spiritual energy that runs through them. The dead are always with us, holding us in their sway. We, the living, are the exuberant and temporary anima of their departure. As songwriters we scratch away, writing ourselves into existence in order to enliven the spirits of those who have passed on.
What to do with the songs you’re writing? I wouldn’t worry too much about it, Tommy, after all you’re not even writing them! I would say, though, that if you are anything like me, you are delivering some good songs and some not so good songs. Where we do have control is in identifying which is which. Pursue the good ones, the true ones, the authentic ones – work on them and make them shine, so they become bright metaphors of the love you feel for your grandfather. In time, his loss will cease to be a characteristic theme and instead become a provision of being, in songs and in life, acting as a deepening agent on all that you will bring forth. Good luck with it all.