We're all Born Songwriters

by Sarah Pirtle

When we write songs, an important and vulnerable interior voice is revealed. Yet because this innate ability isn’t culturally encouraged, many of us let this ability go. It’s significant for the development of our society that this resource has been cut off. The voice that comes out in songs taps an inner wellspring that our traumatized society needs. This voice connects to feelings and self awareness. In writing songs, we come in contact with a part of us that connects cooperatively with our surroundings.

We carry songs inside us. Even if we can’t remember it, when we were two or three, we made up songs that took us through our day. We're born with the ability to respond to life with sung words.

When we're young, we make sense of what we see by repeating words in a rhythm, threading our way through the world, chanting about what we find around us. “Daisy, stomp, stomp,” sang a young girl I met. Amy, age five, had been building her song as she played. She sang:

Daisy, stomp stomp
Daisy, stomp stomp
Twirl around, twirl around
Run in place.

Hop on one foot.
Click your fingers.
Daisy, stomp stomp
Daisy, stomp stomp
This is the end of the song.

Encouraging songwriting is encouraging thinking. Children pay attention to the forms and patterns of the songs they’ve encountered and begin to make songs by imitation and transformation. My young neighbor sang at two and a half:

I go outside and then I play in the sand
strumming on the old banjo.
I come in and I have a cookie,
strumming on the old banjo. 

One teacher told me that as a girl she would sit in a rocking chair in her kitchen, rocking back and forth and singing out her feelings. For instance, she might sing to her mother, “I want to go outside and you won’t let me go outside, and I don’t think it’s fair.”

Researchers on musical intelligence say that at around the age of two, all of us combine tunes and words in our language play.  When my son Ryan was three, on his way to nursery school the smells of April came through the car window, and he sang "I am the glory of the spring, spring, spring." 

Ben Tousley, a Boston area folksinger, remembers sitting in the backseat of his family’s car as his brother invented this song that he’s never forgotten:

Traveling along, traveling along.
Oh, how I’d love to have a soda.

What would happen if our first songs were treated with delight? What if parents paused and responded to the songs they heard their children create, or sang with them and made up family songs? What if first songs were welcomed like a child’s first words and encouraged to develop?

I met a songwriter at a farm when by chance we were both berry picking. Katie Ellison, six years old, was picking a tray of blue berries with her mother named Tracy, and Katie’s tongue was blue from sampling. We talked and discovered that we both shared a love of music.

She told me that she was going to create a song on the spot. As she sat down quietly on the grass, I just watched. When she was ready, this song tumbled out, one line, and then a half, then more, then silence, then the rest of the song. I wish I could convey the lovely melody that went with it. Rhyme wasn’t important. The tune rose and fell as she concentrated on capturing the feelings and pictures that were coming to her.

In the hills at night
the deer is chewing up the grass
and the owls are making their home.

The sun settles down in her new foundation
getting all her things done,
getting ready for the things to come up.

by Katie Ellison

Later as her family and I walked out of the fields in the dusk, I asked if she could repeat her song. “I don’t want to write about that any more,” she said, and I learned from her words. “I want to write about all I can see right now.” Birds were flying over the hills, and she sang with a new tune:

The hawks everywhere
are going hawk, hawk, hawk.

The next moment a preying mantis landed on her mother’s arm, and we stared at the unusual golden brown insect. I told Tracy, “Today I’m writing a song called ‘Magical Earth.’”

“That’s funny because Katie calls the earth magical. She entertains herself for hours writing songs about the earth.”

“I’ll tell you the trick of writing songs,” Katie added. “The trick is you have to be happy to do it.”

I asked Katie’s mother how she supported her daughter’s song creations. Tracy said she liked to provide space for her to reflect. During car rides, she respected that Katie wanted to concentrate. She didn’t turn on the radio. She didn’t evaluate, judge or gush over her songs. All of this helped Katie’s songs to flow.

I met a third grader during a Songwriting Residency who had a contrasting family reaction to her love of songwriting. She looked for me before school to share her songs, and then turned away before I could react. With a pained expression she said, “My Dad says I don’t sound like the people on the radio.”

As I responded to her and urged her to keep on singing, I had the sense that no matter what anyone said to her, she wouldn’t stop. She couldn’t. She had to sing, and she was as unstoppable as a flower growing up through the cracks in a sidewalk.

Many people, maybe her Dad included, have had very painful experiences being judged for the way they sing and enjoy music. When I led a workshop on songwriting at the Children’s Music Network, every single participant—each of them a songwriter for children—could remember hearing a critical comment about their singing from someone who mattered. Many also recalled being pressured to perform in ways that felt hurtful or disrespectful.

Singing is vulnerable. One sentence—like “Just mouth the words”—can be enough to clamp down on the natural desire to make music. I’ve met people who for the rest of their lives have stopped believing they can sing. I like to envision and create social situations where we firmly say to each other that Music Belongs to Everyone. Since music taps into deep inner spaces, when its shut down, the ramifications within us go to the core of who we are.

I went to a college that had a renowned conservatory. I was an English major. I came in an avid folksinger, having taught myself guitar when I was twelve. I subscribed to “Sing Out!” magazine in my teens and spent every afternoon learning new songs. I entered college as a singer. I exited thinking I could no longer legitimately think of myself as a musician. It wasn’t what someone said; it was the implication of the high pressure environment. As a young teacher in my twenties, I started to invent songs for the children in my classroom but even after I’d recorded my first two children’s CD’s I didn’t call myself a musician. I had to work to reclaim that sense that however I came to music was the right way for me. I had to reclaim that this ocean of sound that I loved was a place where everyone may swim.

I remember making up songs when I was three years old.  I'd go outside in the early morning, and while I was swinging, I'd create new songs for the giant oak tree or the dew on the grass.  Forty years later, the song "The Singing Tree" emerged from that vivid memory.  To write it as an adult, I actually sat in a tree-house during spring thaw, watching the rushing waterfall below me.

For me, being out in nature or being in motion helps bring songs forward.  Often I write while driving down the highway, or taking a walk outside.  The song "My Roots Go Down"  was created in the winter, walking at night underneath a spiderweb of maple tree branches, under the full moon.  "The Journey Dance" developed during brisk walks in the mountains.

Other times it's the subject matter that pulls the songs out.  "My Grandma's Cat" emerged  from observing and delighting in family cats who perch in the kitchen with their back legs up or loll on shoulders like noodles.  "Wall and Bridges" comes from a lifetime passion for social justice. I wanted to write a song about overturning racism that showed persistence and caring. When I led unlearning racism workshops in high schools, I took the stories of two students combined to create the narrator of the song. "Mahogany Tree"  began when I learned about the Lacandon Mayan people's astute observations of nature, how they know that the very day the mahogany flowers fall to the ground is the perfect time to plant corn.

Whenever I get a chance to talk to people of any age about songwriting, I say this:
I hope you will listen for your songs that arrive in the shower, that arrive in dreams, that come indirectly. They ask you to remember them. I hope that you trust these songs
and love them as they are. And that you catch them—write them down, put them on a personal informal tape, and keep singing them over and over. I hope you reclaim your birthright to be a songwriter.

– Sarah Pirtle