December 29, 2012

The Geometry of Songwriting : The 4 Dimensions of a Song and the Importance of Time.

The Geometry of Songwriting : The 4 Dimensions of a Song and the Importance of Time.   by Bill Pere
"Time management" is a phrase you hear used all the time as a core principle for good business practice.    It is also as core principle for maximizing the impact of your songs, but with an entirely different meaning.

Music, by its very nature, moves in 4 dimensions:  Melodies move up and down in pitch.  The phrases move forward, building tension toward release and resolution.  They move closer to and farther away from the ear as the dynamics grow loud and soft.  They move through time with rhythm.  It is usually easy to incorporate all four dimensions into the music of a song, because they are inherent components of music itself.

But when it comes to the lyrics, you're starting out with a dimensionless idea, an abstract concept that you have to fill with image, meaning, motion, and emotion.  It's a much more difficult task to think in 4-dimensional words, and thus, songs are often stuck in a one or two dimensions, when there are really four that you can use to create a memorable experience for your listeners.

Steven Pinker, one of my favorite authors on the relationship between words and meaning, in his book "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature,
discusses the importance of our perception of 3-dimensional space (height, width, depth) and its influence on how we use and perceive verbs.

A brief review from one of everyone's favorite topics in school, Geometry:
Space is typically represented in 3 dimensions:  horizontal/width  (x-axis);  vertical/height (Y-axis); and  proximity/depth (z-axis).  We can see think, and move along each of these, with lots of words and metaphors to help us along the way.   These find their way into songs, but are often focused on just a single dimension, because the more dimensions that are encompassed by the lyrics, the harder it is to write clearly and effectively and to fit the necessary words into the song.   It is also more difficult to actually write about moving along a dimension than it is to just refer to it while standing still,  Consider:
 "I'm standing here alone, I see the mountain there in the distance
   I want to get back home, want to be there in an instant
   It's so far, so far, so far away
  But I know I'll get back someday

This refers to distance (z-axis) and height (y-axis), but there is no motion.     The singer (and the listener!) are rooted in one place.   This is not particularly exciting (or moving) for the listener.  Consider this re-write:

Moving closer to the mountain, I begin to make the climb
Getting closer to my home now,  been gone too long a time
Though far and high, from dusk till dawn, 
I'm getting closer, pressing on.

Now we're getting someplace.  The listener is being brought along by the singer on a journey.   It's better, but still missing something.   Let's look at some examples of  x-y-z- hit songs:

The 1973 classic  "Stuck in the Middle With You"  is an example of an X-axis song (horizontal, left/right space), written by Gerry Rafferty & Joe Egan of the band Stealers Wheel):

"Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you."

The many songs written about driving along a road, walking a path, or riding on a train are x-axis songs.

The y-axis is the vertical one that orients us to us up and down.    Everyone was lifted up in 1967 by the 5th Dimensions' top ten hit "Up Up and Away" by songwriting great Jimmy Webb.  The title/hook is in and of itself, a trip along the Y-axis.     The Wicked Witch of the West takes us all into the air with "Defying Gravity" from the musical "Wicked" by Stephen Schwartz.  Johnny Cash took us "down,down, down" as he  "fell" into a Ring of Fire".  The Byrds took us (metaphorically) "Eight Miles High" while the Drifters took us (literally) "Under the Boardwalk".

For a ride along both  the X-axis and the Y-axis , look at Diana Ross' biggest hit as a solo artist "Upside Down", written by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers:

"Upside down Boy, you turn me
Inside out and round and round"

Looking at the entire lyric, it's actually a very mediocre song from the craft perspective, but was made into a #1 hit  in 1980 by the star power of the artist and the intricate production.  Not great songwriting, but it does make use of our 3-dimensional thinking:

Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride"  is a Z-axis hit song (near/far perspective) written by band members Rushton Moreve & John Kay

"Any place it goes is right
Goes far, flies near ,To the stars, away from here"

Another z-axis example is the folk standard "Five Hundred Miles".   Songs about moving nearer to or farther from something are usually z-axis songs.

Writer Dorothea Joyce metaphorically takes us in several directions with her 1971 hit (recorded ironically by the 5th Dimension) "Love Lines, Angles, and Rhymes":

Love leads the lines of love in circles and angles
Love runs deep like a tunnel with a pendulum beat
That touches the heart  in many directions
Moving the mind  in silent reflections
Of the lines that touch the corners and fibers
Of the feeling that keeps running inside you

The technique of providing x-y-z- motion for the listener is clearly important, but when it comes to writing a truly great song, it is quite secondary to what comes next:  the fourth dimension, time.

When it comes to time, we don't often think about it with the same sense of motion and perspective, because we don't see it directly like height, width and depth, and we don’t feel the motion kinesthetically.  Movement through time is implied and inferred by changes in distance, age, appearance, circumstance, etc.   Thus, it is more difficult to get all the necessary information into the compact form of a lyric line.  Yet it means so much to the listener to have that fourth dimension in a song, that we need to try.

Writing about time is not the same as writing about motion through time.  There are clearly many songs about time:  "Time Is on My Side", "Time in a Bottle", "Six O' Clock",  "No Time Left For You", "Nine to Five", "Beat the Clock", "Can't Find the Time to Tell You",  and so many more;  But these songs do not use time as a dimension in which the listener moves.  They are about time, not moving through time. It's the equivalent of writing a song about up and down, without actually moving the listener up and down.

A key point here is that an x,y, or z-axis song when conveying motion, may imply time as well.   If the axis has a specific and fixed reference point (a home, a person, an event, a location)  that you are getting closer to or farther from, there is distance involved and it takes time to traverse distance (remember your basic concepts of that Physics class you daydreamed your way through).

Edwin Starr's 1969 hit "Twenty-Five Miles" has the singer moving closer and closer to his destination (z-axis) but we clearly experience time passing as well.   The 1994 Rascal Flatts hit "The Broken Road" (Hummon/Boyd/Hanna) has the singer moving along the road of life toward a person, and thus we experience time.

It is possible to have no x-y-z- motion but still move through time.  Movement through time can be in the form of changes in age and circumstance, neither of which need to involve x-y-z- motion.  A tree growing,  ivy covering a wall,  a graduation, or a gravestone all convey lots of time-related information.

So what it all comes down to is this:  As discussed in Chapter  9 of  Songcrafters' Coloring Book, there are two basic song formats: list songs and story songs.
If you recall the  Listener Response Matrix   from Chapter 5  Songcrafters' Coloring Book,  the most difficult song presentation to write effectively is the story-song.  However, it is the format that has the widest appeal, the greatest impact, and the best chance of having a long life.  The reason that a story-song is more difficult to write is that it must  have a clear flow of time.  It can be forward, flashback, fast, slow, etc, but time must move.   Given from the above discussion that time is the most difficult dimension to effectively include in a song, it becomes clear why most songs are not story-songs and thus do not have the full impact of really great songwriting.

Consider which experience you would prefer to have:  Someone talking to you for four minutes, telling you of months or years worth of experiences, or someone talking to you for four minutes telling you about how they feel in one single moment that you know nothing about.  Which is the greater bang for the buck (the "buck' being the four minutes of your life that you have invested in listening).  In the first case you get more than four minutes worth of someone's life experience to add to your own. Whether or not it is interesting or relevant is a different matter altogether – that is up to the storyteller (songwriter) to make it interesting and relevant to you.   In the second case, you spent four minutes hearing someone talk about one second that never moved.   While it is possible for that moment to merit being expanded 240 times beyond reality (four minutes is 240 seconds),  most songwriters have neither the moment nor the craftsmanship to make it worth your while as a listener (and as a paying customer).

The lower left section of the Listener-Response Matrix (attitudinal songs that only seek to evoke a transient feeling) may go something like:

I saw you there, my heart stopped.
My world  is frozen and I'm thinking of you.
I'm hot, you would love me and I would make it worth your time
I'm better than she is, you know it's true, 
Give me a look give me a sign
And I'll be there and you'll be mine
Oh I'm burnin' Oh I'm yearnin'
I'm turnin' into being into you…

This type of lyric is very common, but it leaves the listener with so many unanswered questions – who are these people, where are they, what's the attraction, what's the backstory, what is going to happen,  where are they in a year from now,  why is this relevant to me?  This may be fun for a singer to sing, perhaps fun to see in live performance with lots of emoting in tight stage outfits, but it is unlikely for this to have a long life as a classic song that hundreds of other artists would want to record.  It is not worth a listener giving up 240 times as much of themself as it gives back.   With a some additional effort on the part of the songwriter to answer all of the above questions, this could instead be told as an actual story where the listener is led through the experience over a period of time, and thus is more likely to find points of relevance to relate to.     (See Songcrafters Coloring Book Chapter 16)

A story-song is essentially a short movie.  It uses all the cinematic and storytelling techniques of great directors and authors – characters, backstory, scene changes, camera angles, close-ups, establishing shots, tension, climax, and a treatment of time. 
One of the great songwriting examples of taking a short amount of time, perhaps a minute or two, and turning it into a five-minute song that is worth the expansion, is Harry Chapin's "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" . Based on news accounts of the actual event, it takes the last minute of life of a truck driver as he hurtles out of control down a hill with no brakes and a load of bananas.   The song lives on more than four decades later.

In your own writing, when you think you are "done", ask yourself how (or "if") you have treated the flow of time in your song.  Most importantly, make sure you clearly see the difference between actually moving through time as opposed to just talking about time.

Consider this exceptional lyric from master songwriter Randy Edelman (I recommend that you add it to your collection of downloads).

Thirty Years Old  (Mom)

My head leaves the pillow,  I know I must move on
I've lived all my life here, but the time's almost gone
I don’t want to leave her,  she's begged me to stay
But I'm thirty years old Mom today

I put on my jacket,  she hears that I'm awake
She calls from the kitchen, as I smell the cake
She lights all the candles and makes sure I pray
But I'm thirty years old Mom today

   I've been reading books,  but now I want to see the world at first hand
   I've been taking looks around,  now I'm gonna show where I stand
   I've been too locked up to give my heart half a chance
   See, your baby has grown, it's time he left home…

She wanted to have me close by her side
But the years have stacked up now, God knows, I've tried
She wanted to know I was down the hallway,
But your baby's grown up Mom today

I didn’t look back as I closed the old porch door
I wanted no tears from that face I adore
But there's dreams I've been dreaming, and songs I must play
And I'm thirty years old Mom today.

This song clearly has motion through time BUT, when I ask folks at my workshops "What is the span of time that this song encompasses?", most people quickly answer
'thirty years'  or  'a lifetime'.  The song refers to thirty years, but the actual amount of time that the listener moves through is really just an hour, plus or minus.  It runs from the time the singer wakes up, gets dressed, has some cake, and then finally leaves the house.  That is the time span of the song.  It moves in a forward direction at an even pace,  marked by event mileposts (waking, dressing, eating, leaving).   The mastery of the craft here is that in the 3 minutes of the song, we have spent an hour with the singer, and in that hour, we have shared his whole life – his past, his present, and his hopes for the future.  This is what makes great storytelling and thus great songwriting.

Songs do not have to be complex to handle time effectively.  Here is a simple lyric from the Hollies  1966 #5 hit "Bus Stop" (G. Gouldman):

Bus stop, wet day, she's there, I say  "Please share my umbrella"
Bus stop, bus go, she stays, love grows  Under my umbrella
All that summer we enjoyed it,  wind and rain and shine
That umbrella, we employed it, by August she was mine.

Here in four lines, we travel through about three months of time, at two different rates. Lines 1 and 2 recount a brief initial interaction that leads to a budding romance.
Lines 3 and 4 take us through months to the end of summer where the romance has blossomed into love.   An amazing amount of information conveyed in four simple lines.  That is the craft of storytelling and the challenge of great songwriting.
Here is another great example:

Longer  (Dan Fogelberg)

Longer than there've been fishes in the ocean
Higher than any bird ever flew
Longer than there've been stars up in the heavens
I've been in love with you.

Stronger than any mountain cathedral
Truer than any tree ever grew
Deeper than any forest primeval
I am in love with you.

I'll bring fire in the winters
You'll send showers in the springs
We'll fly through the falls and summers
With love on our wings.

Through the years as the fire starts to mellow
Burning lines in the book of our lives
Though the binding cracks and the pages start to yellow
I'll be in love with you.

At first glance it seems like a simple love song in list format.  But lets look closer at how a master storyteller subtly takes your through the better part of a lifetime:

Longer than there've been fishes in the ocean Higher than any bird ever flew
Longer than there've been stars up in the heavens I've been in love with you 

The use of the Present Perfect verb tense here says that "For an ongoing time in the past I have been in love with you".

Stronger than any mountain cathedral Truer than any tree ever grew
Deeper than any forest primeval I am in love with you.

The verb tense changes to  present-tense "am", meaning right now, i.e.  as we arrive from the past  into this moment, I still love you.

I'll bring fire in the winters You'll send showers in the springs
We'll fly through the falls and summers With love on our wings.

Now we move forward beyond this moment with verbs in future tense.  As we travel through the years ahead (presented by the four seasons) we will continue to be in love with each other.

Through the years as the fire starts to mellow  burning lines in the book of our lives
Though the binding cracks and the pages start to yellow  I'll be in love with you.

This now bring us to the twilight of life after having spent years together that have written a life story.  There is pluperfect verb use, and we still look forward with future tense saying "I'll be in love with you".

Overall, this takes us through a lifetime of love, with subtle change of tense and metaphorical signposts, always making clear where we are. The first verse reaches backwards, the second verse is present, and the bridge and third verse move along a future path.  A great handling of time that makes an ordinary love song become something extraordinary.  

In such a competitive music world, it is a losing proposition to just write a love song. It has to be an exceptional love song to get any traction.

Finally, let's look at a great example of moving through time with no other x-y-z motion at all.

Old Stone  (by Kay Pere)

Old gray stone
How long have you been balanced
While the lichens grow
In symbiotic decadence
In your mossy robe,
Do you still recall the span
Of callused hands
That pulled you from the ground

Old Stone,  silence unbroken
Speak to me with wisdom unspoken

Old stone wall
How long have you been standing
While the wild ferns grow
And violets nod their deference
To the things you know
Lessons learned
While seasons turned
Three-hundred times around.

Old Stone, Silence unbroken
Speak to me

Old stone house
How long have you been watching
While the crops won't grow
And autumn snow descends
A shallow well soon frozen
Hard as quartz
Heavy hearts
Pray comfort can be found

Old Stone, Silence unbroken

Here, we have a story-song about a lifeless inanimate object.   Yet, the storytelling from this New England writer is masterful, with a sweeping journey through more than 300 years, conveying the arrival of settlers to a virgin land who started tilling soil and farming, then building stone walls  to define farm boundaries, and houses that withstand bitter New England winters.  The only motion is through time, using age, and the change of an object's environment and location as signposts.  This could easily be rendered as video watching a patch of land evolve over the centuries (if there were cameras that long ago…) condensed into a four-minute presentation.   All the visual elements are there.    

When the handling of time is done with great attention to detail, a song needs little else to connect with listeners and have impact.

To summarize:
To maximize the impact of your songs, and thus their artistic and commercial potential,
a most effective technique is to provide motion for the listener through time, in a clear way that conveys lots of information about who, what,where, when, what, how.   It's a challenge that can seem daunting, which is why many writers turn away from the task.  If you are one of the few who work to see it through, you will have a great advantage by having a better end-product in a very competitive market.

©Copyright 2012 Bill Pere.  All Rights Reserved.

February 21, 2012

Creation to Congratulation - The Road to the Grammy

Creation to Realization to Proliferation to Nomination to Congratulation – The Road from an Idea to a Track on a Grammy-Winning Album

News travels fast in this age of social media. Within a short time after they announced the winner for the Best Childrens' Album of the Year at the 54th Grammy awards, my phone rang, and I learned that I and my co-writer Les Julian now had a song on a Grammy-winning CD. I was doubly happy about this because the CD was an anti-bullying compilation with all proceeds going to benefit a great charity, PACER Kids Against Bullying, and the Grammy was obviously going to kick the sales into high gear.

Upon heading out with my wife to celebrate at a local restaurant, the owner unexpectedly came up our table, offering congratulations and an upgrade to our meal. By midnight, I had hundreds of congratulatory messages from around the world – Greece, Israel, UK, Canada, Australia, and from many folks in varied tiers of the U.S. music industry. By morning, there were multiple invitations from radio stations and press.

So how do we get from an idea that was born 17 years earlier to being part of Grammy winning album with more than 40 writers, artists and producers? To really understand it, we have to go back farther, to l979. No computers, no internet, no Facebook, no iPhone, no YouTube no CDBaby, no iTunes. No one used the word "Indie" except in a non-flattering way. And people still came out to hear live music, and vinyl was still the preferred recording medium.

The Connecticut Songwriters Association (CSA) was just getting started, and having recently arrived in the area from New York City, I recognized an opportunity and became a founding member. It seemed that many of the members being attracted to this organization were in every sense of the word, Indie Artists, just like today – except without all the advantages of the electronic distribution and communication channels mentioned above. But they were talented, hard-working artists who wanted to learn what it took to make a living in music without the benefit of a big label behind them.

So CSA began providing speakers and programs and workshops with top industry pros and hit songwriters, to provide the knowledge and guidance that would be needed to make a living in a tough business. As a result, many of those early members have spent the last three decades making a very successful living and developing national reputations for themselves doing what they love.

In early 1980, another new singer-songwriter at the dawn of his journey joined CSA and began performing at the showcases. His name was Les Julian. He was inexperienced, but clearly had immense talent, a clear vision, and a strong work ethic. Over the next several years, Les and I shared many stages, heard each other critique songs, and worked as CSA Directors as we built our separate careers, both developing an interest in quality music for kids. Les served as President of CSA for three years during that time, and I served in several other capacities. We were living the Indie mantra of "Success comes from opportunity, and opportunity comes from involvement".

CSA always encouraged collaboration, and it was in the late 1980's that the organization began holding panel discussions on collaboration. This evolved in 1990 into workshops where we would meet and discuss the business and creative aspects of collaboration, and then work on group writing sessions. (These workshops, now well-honed, are presented nationally at retreats and conferences)

In 1990, I decided that my fifth recording would be a children's album. I had an idea for a song and I thought it would be a good opportunity to collaborate with Les, as we had never actually worked creatively together before. The result was a song called "Give the Children a Tomorrow", which became the very first song I recorded on that first children's CD with a backup group of kids, (Songs For Kids Who Like to Think) and which I still perform today at almost every show.

It was a good collaboration and we knew we would do it again when the right idea came along. In 1995, Les was working on his first children's CD ( Color Outside the Lines ) and he asked me if I would like to do another collaboration with him. We set a time to meet in my studio and we'd see what we could come up with.

There is no right or wrong approach to a collaborative creative process as long as the partners listen to each other and allow the needs of the song to be paramount. There are four roles that must be filled in order to write a song – Lyricist, Composer, Idea Generator, and Sounding Board. With "Give the Children a Tomorrow", I presented the idea to Les. This time, Les presented the idea to me, telling me that he had heard a tale about a donkey stuck in a ditch, and he thought it would make a good story-song. I thought so too, and so we proceeded.

Other than the story, neither of us had any pre-conceived ideas for the song. First, we discussed what we thought would be an appropriate feel for a song that tells this tale. We decided on something that conveyed a sense of ethno-world music while still being accessible to the primary audience of young kids in the U.S. The key phrase, "Donkey in a Ditch" provided a strong framework because it was phonetically alliterative and concretely visual, thus serving as a solid hook/title and also defining itself as the starting and/or ending point of a repeated chorus. From my analysis work in prosody and the microstructure of language, I could hear that the phrase was inherently in 4/4 time, and thus the song should not swing or be in any triple meter and that would force that focal phrase to sound unnatural.

With that as a framework, the next phase was to ask how we wanted to tell the tale (Guiding Principle for any song: What do you want to say, How do you want to say it, and Who do you want to say it to?) So we asked ourselves, "What information needs to be conveyed in each section of the song?" Les described his vision for the tale, saying that he saw it as groups of other animals passing by the trapped donkey, ignoring his pleas for help and making fun of his plight. I asked what animals Les had in mind, for the "bad guys", and among his first choices was "crows".

Now songcrafting begins. Everything in a song has to be there for a reason. If a writer cannot articulate the reason why a particular word or phrase or chord is chosen, then he/she probably doesn't have the best choice for that spot in the song.

In any songwriting, there is always a balance between literal correctness and artistic license. A successful song must find the right proportion. The correct collective noun for crows is "murder" i.e. a "murder of crows". This was clearly not a good way to start of a children's song, as most kids (and probably adults) would not be aware of that usage. So, we said "A crowd of crows…" Easy to understand, communicates the right image and has the sonic activity of alliter

ation. I've always been a strong proponent of picking up every bit of sonic activity whenever possible in a song, as that is what adds the sparkle to the song, the bubbles to the champagne.

First line: "A crowd of crows walked along the road when a donkey in a ditch caught their eye"

This addresses the need for immediately setting a scene and situation, and introducing the main character(s). A common element of great songs is that they address the six W's (who/what/when/where/why/how) as quickly as possible.

Les added line 2:

"The crows started callin' "Hey donkey, did you fall in?" He said "Yes!" He started to cry.

This expands the situation, establishes character interaction, and picks up a nice split-word internal rhyme -- more sonic activity.

I then looked at what additional information we needed to get into the remaining two lines of the verse – (a) that the crows were xenophobic and antagonistic toward the donkey, and (b)

they threw stones at the donkey – a key plot element of the song. I suggested we work that information around a natural rhyming pair of edge/ledge, and I suggested phrases for end the lines: "His nose poked over the edge"/ "threw stones at him over the ledge". Les then filled in the front halves of the lines, adding the xenophobia, and we had:

“Can you help me climb up it’s dark down here?” and his nose poked over the edge
“Caw, caw”, they laughed
“you’re not like us!” they threw stones at him over the ledge

And now we knew from here we would go right into a chorus.

So we skipped that for the moment and went right on to verse 2, which had to move the story along while reinforcing the previous events.

Les mentioned "lions", and here we had the perfect collective noun, as a group of lions is a "pride". So I came up with:

" Some lions came next all pompous and puffed, the sun never set on their pride"

This used the semantic pivot (both meanings) of "pride" , and picked up a triple alliteration from the "p" and a 2-fold alliteration on sun/set – more bubbles in the champagne. Les filled in the next line, and for the final 2 lines of that verse, we kept the edge/ledge pair and slightly altered the front ends of the lines as needed.

Now the rest of the framework was fully defined – a bridge would have to have show that enough stones were thrown to allow the donkey to climb out, and the final verse would have to provide the kick, the essence of the moral dilemma that provides the powerful message we wanted to convey. We skipped the bridge for the moment and discussed the final verse.

The donkey would now be out of the ditch and would have to come upon a stranger in a similar situation and thus decide if he should help when in fact no one helped him. We settled on a sheep caught in a fence. This worked because a sheep is generally a mild-mannered creature, and wool can easily get tangled in fence wire. So the donkey comes upon the sheep who asks for help, and now the donkey has to decide what to do. Should he help him or not?

Les and I discussed this at length, as it was the crux of the song. There was an interesting twist here – I usually favor leaving no unanswered questions in a song, however in this case, this is a song ABOUT a question – a very individual question that each person has to answer for him/herself. So it is best that we not impose our own answer on the listener, as moral choices are an individual matter. Thus, the final version does not answer the question but does show that the decision is a very difficult and emotional (tearful) one for the donkey.

When we ended the working session, we had most of the song written. Les went home and came up with the bridge and chorus based on our discussions. As for the music, since I knew Les was working on his first children's CD and I was working on an adult spiritual CD at the time, I knew Les would want to record this first, so I deferred the music to him, knowing that I fully trusted his musicianship and I was satisfied that we agreed on the general feel of the song (i.e. it would be in a minor key and have some non-scalar root movements).

So here it is:

Donkey in a Ditch by Bill Pere and Les Julian

A crowd of crows walked along the road when a donkey in a ditch caught their eye
The crows started callin’ “Hey donkey did you fall in?” he said “Yes!”, He started to cry
“Can you help me climb up it’s dark down here?” and his nose poked over the edge
“Caw, caw”, they laughed “you’re not like us!” they threw stones at him over the ledge

Donkey in a ditch, he asked for help but they refused
Donkey in a ditch angry, afraid and so confused
How would you feel if this happened to you?

Donkey in a ditch, what will he do?

Some lions came next all pompous and puffed, the sun never set on their pride
The donkey looked up, “Can you help me my friends?” “Ahhr”, they yawned, “but why?”
“I can’t climb out it’s muddy and wet”, he slid back down from the edge
“Har,har”, they roared “You’re not one of us!” and threw stones at him over the ledge


Snakes and monkeys, hyenas and wolves, coyotes and mockingbirds too
Hissed and chortled, laughed and howled-what was the donkey to do?
With each stone that was thrown the pile grew higher, higher and higher like stairs
“I’ll climb out myself, I don’t need their help! Why ask when nobody cares?”

Back on the road feeling all alone the Donkey stared at the stars
When a sheep in a fence cried out in despair, “I’mcaught! Is anyone there?”
“He’s just like me,” the donkey thought, “but why should I help him at all?”
He kicked at a stone, “Should I help him or not?” and tears started to fall...

©1996 Pere/Julian All Rights Reserved

So the song was written but we're still a long way from being on a Grammy-winning album. Les recorded the song and it came out on his CD "Color Outside the Lines". It was reviewed in the December 1996 issue of Parents Magazine, which said "Donkey in a Ditch, is perhaps the best children's song about a moral dilemma ever written…" The CD received a Parents Choice Gold award.

As Indie artists, without major industry connections or the resources of a big label behind you, you have only one way to compete – by having top-quality material. It is not enough to be a
good performer or to have great production; you have to have top quality songs. Not just good songs – they have be better than "good". It's the only currency that Indie artists truly have. That review indicated that we had something special, but an even better indicator was the universally strong reaction from audiences – kids, teachers, parents.

I've always said that a well-crafted song is timeless, i.e. years and years later it will still be a good song. I also teach in my workshops that one of the best things you can do to advance your career is to make your music be about something greater than yourself. Use it to help some important cause that you believe in, and you will benefit from that.

Fast-forward to 2011. There is a significant increase in the media of stories about suicides resulting from xenophobia and bullying. Lady Gaga, the top money-making act of the year gets firmly and publicly behind efforts to address this issue. Although always relevant, the issue is now being brought more centrally into public awareness through social media channels.

Philadelphia producer Steve Pullara of Cool Beans Music undertook a project to create a compilation CD with songs that specifically address issues of bullying. He partnered with the organization PACER Kids Against Bullying ( and put out the call for quality songs. Many artists responded, and the songs were carefully reviewed to find the best collection possible. Folks who submitted songs included members of Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band, the Hooters, and many well established artists. As I stated above, competing successfully requires high quality material. "Donkey in a Ditch" was chosen for inclusion on the album.

Les called me in the Fall of 2011 to ask if I would give my permission to allow the song to be used in the project with all royalties going to the non-profit PACER organization. With any collaboration, all parties have to agree, and following the principle of making your music be about things bigger than yourself, I was glad to say yes.

Given the high quality of the songs, the non-profit nature of the project, and the current high awareness of the issues being addressed, everything was in alignment for this to be a very successful album. The CD was submitted for Grammy consideration along with more than 100 other competing submissions. It was chosen as one of the final five, to be voted on for the final award.

On February 12 2012, the Grammy was announced for "Best Children's Album", and the journey was complete. Seventeen years from Creation to Congratulation, but such is the journey of songs. All we can do is continually strive to write the very best songs that we can, make them relevant to as many people as possible, lend voice to the things we consider important, and let our songs take on whatever life they might find for themselves. Choose the right people to work with, and don’t be over-protective about letting a song get "out there" to find a life of its own.

NOTE: (Sadly, the next day, our local newspaper carried an obituary of a 15 year old boy who was bullied into suicide).

Bill Pere, is, named one of the "Top 50 Innovators, Groundbreakers and Guiding Lights of the Music Industry" by Music Connection Magazine. With more than 30 years in the music business, as a recording artist, award winning songwriter, performer, and educator Bill is well known for his superbly crafted lyrics, with lasting impact. Bill has songs on more than 26 CD's and has received many awards for his philanthropy through music. He is President of the Connecticut Songwriters Association, an Official Connecticut State Troubadour, and is the Founder and Executive Director of the LUNCH Ensemble. Twice named Connecticut Songwriter of the Year, Bill is a qualified MBTI practitioner, trained by the Association for Psychological Type. As Director of the Connecticut Songwriting Academy, he helps develop young talent in songwriting, performing, and learning about the music business. Bill's song analyses and critiques are among the best in the industry. Bill has a graduate degree in Molecular Biology, an ARC Science teaching certification, and he has received two awards for Outstanding contribution to Music Education. The New York Times calls Bill "the link between science and music For workshops, consultation, performances, or other songwriter services, contact Bill via his web sites, at,, and ". © Copyright 2012 Bill Pere. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any way with out permission of the author.