June 29, 2011

In Brightest Day, In Blackest Night

A stroke of the brush does not guarantee art from the bristles.

It was a summer day in 1960, as I walked past a gardenia-scented hedge in the Bronx, and entered the local mom-and-pop newsstand, which always smelled of jasmine. I walked out with the first issue of Green Lantern, and have been a fan ever since. I just saw the new GL movie in 3D and despite the amazing visuals, I was more struck by something else – 50 years and hundreds of issues of Green Lantern mythos was successfully captured in a 2-hour movie, and told in a coherent story that a non-fan (like my wife) could understand and enjoy.

When aspiring songwriters ask me where I learned to write in the cinematic, story-telling style that I gravitate towards, the answer is simple. I learned from reading comic books as a child.

Stories were told from beginning to end in 5-8 pages, with 2-3 complete stories between the covers. There was a beginning, middle and end, usually with a surprise, and it was clear who the characters were and why they did what they did. This was storytelling 101, whether it is a comic book, TV show, movie, novel or play.

Comic books are very much like songs in that they blend two different sensory inputs – artwork and dialog. Songs blend music and lyrics. There was always discussion about whether the art or the story was more important in comics, and the answer came in the late 1980's-90's when new types of paper color, printing and digital output became available. Artists began to take over the pages with big splashy spreads, and became quite well known to fans as superstars of the genre. Then they decided they wanted to write their own stories to showcase their art. That's when it became clear -- the stories no longer made sense -- being a great artist did not make someone a great writer. Prices went up as readership declined. Without great stories, a comic book was just a portfolio.

In the music world, Midi, sequencing, sampled sound, and digital editing made new production techniques available. Producers and performers, not songwriters, starting writing their own material. Being a great performer or producer does not make one a great songwriter. Prices went up, quality declined. And it also became clear --- without great lyrics and a singable melody, a recording was just a production, not a song.

Songwritng is not production or performance – it is the fine crafting of words and melody to weave a compelling, complete, and memorable story – a three minute cinematic movie. I guess it was no wonder that I was always drawn to the work of Harry Chapin, one of the greatest of the story-song writers. Singers and producers often view a song as a vehicle for showcasing their talents. But great recordings of great songs happen when the talents of a good vocalist and producer are used in service to the song.

I do my best work when in the presence of gardenias and jasmine.


Bill Pere was 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 working with top industry pros as a songwriter, performer, recording artist and educator, Bill is well known for his superbly crafted lyrics, with lasting impact. Bill has released 16 CDs, and is President of the Connecticut Songwriters Association. He is 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. He is a member of CMEA and MENC, and 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.

© Copyright 2011 Bill Pere. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reposted without permission of the author. Reproduction for educational purposes is permitted with proper attribution. For workshops, consultation, critiques, or other songwriter services, contact Bill via his web sites, at www.billpere.com, www.ctsongwriting.com, and www.lunchensemble.com

March 21, 2011

From Triangle to Wisconsin

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York and resulted in the fourth highest loss of life from an industrial accident in U.S. history. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who either died from the fire or jumped to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent immigrant Jewish women aged sixteen to twenty-three.

The disaster gave rise to the cry "who will look out for the working girls"? One positive result of the fire -- the American Society of Safety Engineers was founded in New York City on October 14, 1911.

Now, in March 2011, 100 years after the fire, we hear a new cry emerging – "Who will look after the workers?" This is in response to the effort in many states to strip workers of the collective bargaining rights they have worked for so many decades to secure. In Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, and several other states, legislatures under the thinly veiled guise of reducing spending, are trying to enact laws which prevent workers from having any voice in negotiating the conditions under which they work, undoing more than a century of gains in the areas of worker safety, fairness and dignity.

Massive protests of middle class workers – teachers, nurses, firefighters, police, road crew workers, and others who are losing their voices in the workplace - are converging on state capitols to have their voices heard. These people are the last vestige of the American middle class.

My mother worked for decades in a textile factory, hunched over a machine, for low wages, in a job that wracked her body and often had her wearing a sling on her arm. When the workers finally were able to join the ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Workers' Union), things improved dramatically. I worked there myself for a summer and saw firsthand what was meant by the often-used term "sweatshop".

Inspired by the protesting workers in Wisconsin, which was ground zero for this renewed labor movement, I posted the music video of my song "I Am Erica".

Bill Pere

March 19, 2011

The Music Community Loses Another Influential Voice, and CSA Loses a Friend

by Bill Pere

I was saddened to hear of the passing of Jack Hardy this month, silencing yet another significant voice in the world of songwriting. The notice which appeared in the New York Times on March 12, written by Bruce Weber was as follows:

Jack Hardy, Folk Singer and Keeper of the Tradition, Dies at 63

Jack Hardy, a folk singer and folk music promoter whose Greenwich Village recordings and songwriting workshops kept alive the neighborhood tradition of counterculture troubadours, died on March 11 in Manhattan. He was 63. Jack grew up in New York City, Aspen, and Durham, Conn.. He graduated from the University of Hartford, moving to the Village in 1973. Mr. Hardy wrote hundreds of songs — protest songs, political talking songs and romantic ballads — his lyrics often consciously literary, his music tinged with a Celtic sound. With a singing voice raspy and yearning, he performed in clubs and coffeehouses in New York and elsewhere and recorded more than a dozen albums, many of them self-produced, though two boxed sets of his work were released by a small, independent label in 2000.

“I’m undoubtedly the least famous person with a boxed set,” he boasted in an interview that year. Perhaps he wasn’t famous, but he was, in his way, influential.

In the early 1980s, after Bob Dylan had gone electric and folk music had been shunted aside by disco and punk, Mr. Hardy helped found a musical cooperative for like-minded folkies. It established a performance space and made more than 1,000 low-budget recordings of local performers and distributed them to subscribers and radio stations, along with a newsletter, under the rubric the Fast Folk Musical Magazine.

Lyle Lovett, Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman and Shawn Colvin all recorded first for Fast Folk, according to the Smithsonian Institution, which holds tapes of the original recordings and the magazine archives. (A two-CD set is available from the institution’s nonprofit record label, Smithsonian Folkways.) Mr. Hardy’s song “St. Clare” was covered by Ms. Vega and appears on her 2001 album “Songs in Red and Gray.”

Since the late 1970s and up until recently, when he entered the hospital, Mr. Hardy was the host of Monday night workshops at his railroad flat on West Houston Street. Songwriters from as far away as Boston and Philadelphia would come to share a pasta dinner and their brand-new songs. Critiques were expected; the rule was that no song was supposed to be more than a week old, a dictum, Mr. Hardy said, that forced writers to write. Ms. Colvin, Ms. Vega and Mr. Lovett are all alumni.

Mr. Hardy said the “fast folk” idea was born out of a need to keep the music alive. “The whole idea was to do it fast,” he said of the music that he and others recorded and distributed in the 1980s and 1990s. “You could hear a song at an open mike or songwriters’ meeting and two weeks later it was being played on the radio in Philadelphia or Chicago. It was urgent, exciting. It was in your face.” --------------------------------------------------------------

So that was how the many obituaries and public notices went. On a personal note, I first met Jack in 2004, which was my first year as President of the Connecticut Songwriters Association, and thus I was in charge of arranging workshops and guest presenters. Knowing of Jack's reputation and influence, my wife and I contacted him and he graciously came to do a workshop for the Connecticut Songwriters Association. It was one of the most insightful, coherent, thought-provoking and informative presentations I have ever heard on songwriting in my 30 years in the music community. I learned a great deal in a short time -- the mark of being in the presence of a great teacher and mentor.

Jack also did a concert for the Mystic River Folk Concert series which Kay and I were producing, and in hearing Jack's songs up close and live, it was clear that he was truly a song crafter who thoroughly understood the art form and all of its complex nuances. As I was writing my "Songcrafters' Coloring Book" in 2008-09, Jack was kind enough to answer my questions when I contacted him to see what he thought of the ideas I was putting forth.

His legacy lives on in those whom he has taught and encouraged, as shown in the list of luminaries mentioned above. In my current teaching, I follow his underlying tenet that a song is essentially words and melody -- all the other stuff i.e. production, performance, arrangement, marketing, are expendable extras. If the song is great, it will transcend any of those things, crossing styles, artists, trends and time. Although he was not widely famous, there is no greater success a songwriter can have than to leave a legacy that lives on in others.

His voice may have been raspy, but it will be missed.

...Bill Pere