#3 - Songwriting Background

How to commence a series of articles on songwriting and performing? I think I’ll start it out with a little background. 

     I grew up in the mountains of eastern Shasta County CA — a remote community where neighbors were spread many miles apart, yet managed to hold a sense of togetherness. 

     My mother played flute, piano and more, and was active in the music offerings of our church. I spent many evenings sleeping on pews during music rehearsals, or running my hands over the woodwork in the choir loft, where she practiced organ.  The family’s old upright piano was housed in my bedroom, and sometimes she played soothing songs for us as we went to sleep. I wish I could say I learned piano but I never got that far.  I did, however, do great numbers of comical, musical skits with my sister around that piano. 

     My mom will tell you I wrote songs from an early age. Once, she produced a scrap of paper she’d saved where I’d written lyrics to a song I’d created about a jailbreak — we figure I was about 9.  “Mr. Jailman, Mr. Jailman, look at me, I’m a runnin, I’m a runnin free!” 

     Every Christmas my father and grandfather would have my sister and I sit quietly (i.e. “sit down and shut up”) and listen to an old vinyl 78. It was a 1940’s recording of our Cornish great-grandfather and his co-workers singing deep in the gold mines of Grass Valley, CA.  As our dad and grandpa stood at attention next to me and listened to the rich male voices, they added their own, and gazed at the snow out the window with tears in their eyes.  They were recalling our family’s emotional inheritance through music, and teaching it to us. 

     Much to my chagrin, we weren’t allowed to join in because we were girls. It was then, and as my own life’s story began to unfold, that I knew deep inside I needed to sing my own songs. 

     Our school cook, Pauline, belonged to an old-time, mountain jug band, made up of local elders of the trapping and logging ilk. They were called The Mountaineers. Besides church, they were our community’s sole source of live music. (I had no idea that they were playing “old time” music till I heard Kenny Hall playing off at a distance at the Nevada County fairgrounds.  I said “Hey! That’s what I grew up with!”  My husband promptly informed me, “that’s called old-time.”)

     Pauline decided it would be good to teach the kids music, and she organized a youth band that my sister and I joined — I was about 13 or 14.  We were called The Farmerettes, and I played washboard. We played everything from “Ya’ll Come” to “This Old House” to songs off the amazing country records we knew from home and the radio.  My first solo song was “Blue Eyes Cryin in the Rain,” accompanied by Pauline on piano.  I certainly hadn’t meant to perform it, but she knew I knew the song, so she just started playing it at one of our shows. I cowered in the back, but she shot me a cold, hard glance of  “you get out there and sing this missy, or I’ll have your hide.”  So, I slowly crept out front and managed to get through, well, most of it. 

PHOTO CAPTION: It's the Farmerettes, on our little inter-mountain community's float, in the Burney Basin Days 4th of July parade. That's Pauline sitting at the piano, and I'm right next to her, in yellow, with a washboard. Another Mountaineer, Bea, sat in on washtub bass, toward the back.

     In college, I serendipitously happened upon some wonderful artistic and musical friends who overheard me making up and singing songs about my housemate’s dog, way too often.  They pooled together and bought me my first, unsolicited guitar for my 20th birthday.  I was stunned, and continue today to be immensely grateful.  I started dating the love of my life, who also happened to be a fantastic musician. 

 PHOTO CAPTION: This is a photo moments after receiving my first guitar -- my dear friends presented it to me at the Blue Mango, a restaurant I worked at in Davis, CA.  

     Not long after that guitar, my dad called me from highway 299E in front of our home, and told me he was surrounded on all four sides by walls of fire. I was in Davis, and raced up I5 to do what I could.  Before finding him, I met up with my mother, who had thankfully chosen to evacuate. In the back of her pick-up was our old, beat-up kitchen table and chairs. It was soon after this that gathering these events into song became even more pressing to me. I wanted to sing our story, not just for my own shaken family, but for our entire hard-hit community. 

     Fast forward to today, I’m an ex history teacher, professional songwriter, and touring performer known for original country-folk music. Gratefully, I have seen firsthand how people identify with and attach to songs, and how music helps give shape and support to individuals, families, and communities. 

     Studies show that learning how to tell our stories makes us happier people. And, we know the more art we use to express where we live and how we live, the more enduring community we can build.   But why use songs? I think songs are my chosen art form because they live inside of people. And because songs live inside of all of us, there is a deep, heart to heart connection when they come out to breathe and move, to pass from one person to another. 

     Furthermore, songs (and poems) can be carried anywhere, can be sung differently by anyone, and can have infinite lifespans.  As the pre-Islamic, Saudi Arabian singer-poets, poor Appalachian folks, 1960’s civil rights activists, and free-styling, Basque bertsolaris all knew, no one can take away, leave behind, burn, or otherwise destroy a song or a poem. Sometimes, as in the cases of many Alzheimer patients or wildfire victims, it may be all that you are left with. 

     In the face of fires, viruses, financial hardship, the housing crisis, gun violence, power outages, climate change and more, the need for all of us to pull together as a community is great.  It’s my hope that through singing and writing, we can share our voices to create resilient, accessible and everlasting art, get through hard times, and celebrate one another.  I want to make us all feel connected, like we’re all living in one little mountain community of 7 billion.  We need to do it. 

     For the next post, let’s get writing!

 

 

9 comments

  • Hugh Barroll
    Hugh Barroll
    Several of your songs live in me. California sticks with me so closely these days that I count choruses to time my 20-second handwashing ritual. Crash and Burn, Indian Giver and Sing are other examples of songs that stick with me. I learned quite young the power of the stories in song. In particular, songs were a primary mechanism for me to learn about the youth awakening and the political movements of the 60’s. This was a huge influence of my life.

    Several of your songs live in me. California sticks with me so closely these days that I count choruses to time my 20-second handwashing ritual. Crash and Burn, Indian Giver and Sing are other examples of songs that stick with me. I learned quite young the power of the stories in song. In particular, songs were a primary mechanism for me to learn about the youth awakening and the political movements of the 60’s. This was a huge influence of my life.

  • Rita Hosking
    Rita Hosking
    Hey Hugh, thanks for writing! I love to hear that, about the songs. I chuckle at the California hand-washing, and started counting seconds through choruses myself. I hadn't thought about Indian Giver for a while, that song hasn't gotten a lot of performance time. A couple years ago I was a bit surprised at some royalty money from an airline--turns out they had featured that song in a playlist! Go figure! And yes, songs and music in general have such a wide-ranging role in our lives, sometimes I think we aren't fully aware of it. It sounds like you are.

    Hey Hugh, thanks for writing! I love to hear that, about the songs. I chuckle at the California hand-washing, and started counting seconds through choruses myself. I hadn't thought about Indian Giver for a while, that song hasn't gotten a lot of performance time. A couple years ago I was a bit surprised at some royalty money from an airline--turns out they had featured that song in a playlist! Go figure!
    And yes, songs and music in general have such a wide-ranging role in our lives, sometimes I think we aren't fully aware of it. It sounds like you are.

  • Hugh Barroll
    Hugh Barroll
    You played Indian Giver as a request for me at a house concert in Marin several years ago. Three things about that song stick with me. Most obviously is the passion in the song’s delivery. In addition, the imagery in two lines is quite striking. “The things I want back were not given away” captures the theft Indian land with a memorable grace. “But, if I had a way, then I’d lead orphans home” uses an image a mercy to capture the family separations that were for so long the policy of our government. It is a rare to find a song about atrocities that makes its points with clarity but also with elegance nd mercy.

    You played Indian Giver as a request for me at a house concert in Marin several years ago. Three things about that song stick with me. Most obviously is the passion in the song’s delivery. In addition, the imagery in two lines is quite striking. “The things I want back were not given away” captures the theft Indian land with a memorable grace. “But, if I had a way, then I’d lead orphans home” uses an image a mercy to capture the family separations that were for so long the policy of our government. It is a rare to find a song about atrocities that makes its points with clarity but also with elegance nd mercy.

  • Rita Hosking
    Rita Hosking
    It's such a pleasure for me to read your comments, Hugh, and to know that someone is paying such generous attention. Thank you so much.

    It's such a pleasure for me to read your comments, Hugh, and to know that someone is paying such generous attention. Thank you so much.

  •  Carol
    Carol
    Rita--although I've known you for so long it is still really cool to read through your history particularly as it relates to song-writing, community, and family. Reading about your song about the jailbreak made me think of these lyrics that Elliot made up when he was 9 or 10 on one of his many visits with me to the farm......"oh dang nabbit, oh dang nabbit! what we gonna do about the big jack rabbit? he ate my corn, dug my potatoes, nibbled on the peas and ate the tomatoes. oh dang nabbit, oh dang nabbit, what we gonna do about the big jack rabbit?" We often break into that when we see jack rabbits around here.

    Rita--although I've known you for so long it is still really cool to read through your history particularly as it relates to song-writing, community, and family. Reading about your song about the jailbreak made me think of these lyrics that Elliot made up when he was 9 or 10 on one of his many visits with me to the farm......"oh dang nabbit, oh dang nabbit! what we gonna do about the big jack rabbit? he ate my corn, dug my potatoes, nibbled on the peas and ate the tomatoes. oh dang nabbit, oh dang nabbit, what we gonna do about the big jack rabbit?" We often break into that when we see jack rabbits around here.

  • Rita Hosking
    Rita Hosking
    Carol: Oh man, that's a great family song by Elliot! Dang nabbit is perfect. Maybe age 9 or 10 is a sweet spot for songwriting. It reminds me of Hava's Bunny rhyme, or her country tune, "Duty." Our family knows those and love to break those out. And I have tons of little ditties I made up for everyday activities for the kids, like showering, playing with a certain stuffed animal, or getting sand (from the sandbox) out of the bed, ha! I bet you have some of those, too.

    Carol: Oh man, that's a great family song by Elliot! Dang nabbit is perfect. Maybe age 9 or 10 is a sweet spot for songwriting.
    It reminds me of Hava's Bunny rhyme, or her country tune, "Duty." Our family knows those and love to break those out. And I have tons of little ditties I made up for everyday activities for the kids, like showering, playing with a certain stuffed animal, or getting sand (from the sandbox) out of the bed, ha! I bet you have some of those, too.

  • Bill Apgood
    Bill Apgood
    So many musicians have that commonality of singing in church, of being around music while young, those imprinting impressions, and the vividness of the experience of hearing those 78 records, and seeing the effect on your grandfather, and it having inculcated the same effect in you. Tangentially, what you wrote here brought back a memory of an experience that I had. The Siskiyou County Fair in Yreka, must have been about 1962 or 1963. There was a small stage, end of the midway by the buildings with the pies and home crafts. There was a family of three all dressed in clothes like from the museum. The old guy had a funny "steeled guitar" he called it, with a big rounded part on the front if it. "Yep", he said, a cornball cracker voice, half exaggerated, but mostly, I sensed, really him, "I steeled it myself." Which drew a chuckle from the crowd. He held his guitar flat in front of him. I thought it was hokey, (I liked the Beatles and the Beach Boys), but then we they started playing, I was taken away, taken somewhere where that music came from. Kinda like you and Sean do. :0)

    So many musicians have that commonality of singing in church, of being around music while young, those imprinting impressions, and the vividness of the experience of hearing those 78 records, and seeing the effect on your grandfather, and it having inculcated the same effect in you. Tangentially, what you wrote here brought back a memory of an experience that I had. The Siskiyou County Fair in Yreka, must have been about 1962 or 1963. There was a small stage, end of the midway by the buildings with the pies and home crafts. There was a family of three all dressed in clothes like from the museum. The old guy had a funny "steeled guitar" he called it, with a big rounded part on the front if it. "Yep", he said, a cornball cracker voice, half exaggerated, but mostly, I sensed, really him, "I steeled it myself." Which drew a chuckle from the crowd. He held his guitar flat in front of him. I thought it was hokey, (I liked the Beatles and the Beach Boys), but then we they started playing, I was taken away, taken somewhere where that music came from. Kinda like you and Sean do. :0)

  • Rita Hosking
    Rita Hosking
    Oh how I would love to travel back to 1963 to the Siskiyou County Fair and be a fly on horse's ear. Great story and memory, Bill.

    Oh how I would love to travel back to 1963 to the Siskiyou County Fair and be a fly on horse's ear. Great story and memory, Bill.

  • Bill Apgood
    Bill Apgood
    Rita, I would love to go back there, and then, too. Before I5, just highway 99, a different world as much as a different time. EVERYTHING was slower then, it was like you even felt the air differently. We had moved up there from Redding. I think you said one time that "Hiding Place" was set there. I was so glad that you played that during that first online webcast.

    Rita, I would love to go back there, and then, too. Before I5, just highway 99, a different world as much as a different time. EVERYTHING was slower then, it was like you even felt the air differently. We had moved up there from Redding. I think you said one time that "Hiding Place" was set there. I was so glad that you played that during that first online webcast.

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