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
[ REPEAT CHORUS ]
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...
[ REPEAT CHORUS ] ©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 (www.pacerkidsagainstbullying.org) 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 http://www.billpere.com, http://www.ctsongwriting.com, and http://www.lunchensemble.com ". © Copyright 2012 Bill Pere. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any way with out permission of the author.