Almost Lost Songs
For every song that got recorded there were an equal number that didn't. Still and all, some 200 original songs and adaptations formed the backbone of my work as an artist. Many of these songs were played in concert and on the road. A few others were just song ideas that never actually got off the ground but whose creation paved the way for other tune melodies and subjects. It is my intention to fill in these “lost” songs, bit by bit, over the next several years-- a portrait on becoming a musician.
Sometimes a song was outdated by the time I got around to recording. Certainly many of the tunes I wrote between 1967 and 1977 fall in that category. Songs about the Vietnam War and Civil Rights were topical in my college-age youth and I was no exception to writing my own as well as singing those written by others. Others, like Tomorrow's Child, proved too painful to sing except privately.
A number of these “almost lost” songs I still sing today when the topic comes up in a song circle. Some others are more or less “standards” that live not far away from my heart and are given voice a capella in unlikely places and times-- snippets of past events and experiences overlaid on current life.
Other songs were failures with clumsy lyrics and forced rhymes. Funnily enough, however, I never felt there was a failed melody. And frankly, I never actually felt that my “clumsy” songs were total failures either-- they just weren't good songs in terms of the craft of songwriting. They ALL addressed how I felt or thought about something. In that sense, that helped me move on in my life and in my craft.
Despite my itinerate life as a young man-- thousands of miles and years on the road with a backpack-- I always somehow managed to hang on to the lyric sheets I scribbled down on napkins and other odd bits of paper. The same is true for a number of cassettes that friends taped of me or ones like for Barbara Heller where I sat in her living room and she had me play every song I had written up to 1972.
No songs were more “lost” than the ones recorded for Radio Free Europe in 1972/73-- freedom broadcasts over the Iron Curtain done from Munich, Germany. RFE let me borrow a tape recorder and I (shudder!) played the quarter-inch master through it while I recorded the ambient audio on a cassette player to send back to Barbara in Colorado so her collection, “Songs from a Living Room”, would be completed with the new material from “Freaked Radio Europe”.
Years later, as I found my way into some measure of commercial success in the recording business, I wrote to RFE to see if I could get copies of the masters. I was informed that this wasn't possible since the Czech Department for whom I had recorded had been firebombed and nothing was left. Even so, years later those tunes all came back to me, albeit certainly not in their original broadcast quality.
In this category of things being returned are the letters I wrote letters to David and Cheryl Reitz during my first five years on the road-- 40 and 50 page raves of my circumstances and experiences. Both were dear, best friends of mine in high school and college who married each other. I was the odd man out-- one of the reasons I took to the road in the first place. But I loved them both and was glad they loved each other, so I wrote to them those kind of letters that have the immediacy of long-shared intimacy.
A few years ago I was visiting Cheryl in Victoria, BC and talked about writing a book about those years. “Oh,” she said, “I have something for you” and gave me them all back to me. There is always a temptation to rewrite the past. Here was mine again-- the idealistic, romantic, firebrand songwriter who was taking on the world! No revisions needed. Turns out in these letters I also cartooned, hence the self-portrait of winning the 1971 Cosby, Tennessee dulcimer championship