Peter Case

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Songs to write

Assignment Zero:  25 titles, names of songs you might write someday,  appealing word combinations, subjects etc but compressed into one short phrase.

Song Assignment 1

1.  Write a song based on a desire,  about a person, place or time that you long for: someplace you would like to be, someone you would like to see, a time, or something you long to do. Compose the words as vividly as possible, so as to make a very clear picture of your subject, that appeals to the senses. Examples of this type of song  are the Byrd’s Chestnut Mare,  the Beatles’s Strawberry Fields Forever, etc…

[Remember, while writing:

      a) Use colorful, interesting, descriptive words.

      b) Sensory level : evoking taste touch sight smell hearing, plus the ” inner sense” of feelings:

          figures of speech


          metaphor & simile


      c) Try to avoid cliche. Keep writing sense bound  and original.

      d)  verse development.

      e)  also, be aware of sound: alliteration, assonance, long and short vowels, long and short tones. Use contrast.]

Assignment 2: Create a memory song of a particular moment,with particular people, in a particular place, real or imagined. Use simple chords. Paint the picture, as vividly as possible, using imagery, the language of the senses. Use a real melody, or talk, just make  sure it’s convincing.

Assignment 3:

1)  Write a song speaking “to someone that isn’t there.

Assignment 4:

1) Do several ‘sketches’ in song of another person, or persons, or

2) Do a full portrait.

The point here is to show how putting the focus on others can lead to some great songs.  Sometimes the song can be an ode, other times you may want to create a satire. Often it’s just a simple sketch of our experience with someone. On the other hand, if so moved by another’s story we can compose a  full biography or ballad. Anyway you go, observing other people and writing about them can open up a dynamic field of subject matter for songs.

Assignment 5: Write Like Mad (invention) 

1) Write several more verses for ‘this land is your land.’

2) Write 10 more blues choruses for one of the Joe Turner Songs

3)  Come up with a new verse for Bob Dylan’s ‘Sad Eyes Lady Of The Lowlands.’  Now also do this with any favorite song.

4)  Come up with a simple idea that lends itself to long invention, and write the song.

5)  Find the John Keats poem ‘Endymion’ (try  and read the first 40 or so line. Look through it and read a few parts. Check out the task of invention that he set himself here. As I said, this poem, though not recognized as great in its own right, JK on the path for much of his greatest work (The Odes.)

Assignment 6: atmosphere 

1)  Find three or four songs that you love the atmosphere or feeling of and see if you can notice specifically how the feeling is evoked.

2) Write a song establishing an atmosphere as best you can. This can be regarding a specific memory of an event or a dream, or  an atmosphere in your imagination.   Use concrete language, very little abstract language, that is convey the feeling without telling about it.

3) Songwriting has quite a bit in common with painting, a subject that we can discuss in the class. It’s much to the best to see Turner’s paintings, but a visit to this site in the meantime is could be a good idea, if approached with imagination.

[Examples for Assignment 2: people, place, and time]

1) create one-line sentences that frame the sense of PP and T for

the first stanza of poem/song etc.

Not unlike M. Gilmore who once wrote, tell stories like you are describing the

rooms you used to live in, like a walking tour. Immerse. Root.

2) create a song using some of the lines from part one. try to summon a picture and a feeling, then move it forward, developing over 3 verses.

Use a chorus, or refrain. Only use a few chords.

Borrow if you have to, but complete a piece.

Here is an example of step 1:

Rockford: IL, a rust belt city where the guys walked around with stumpy fingers

flicking ash into the beer cans from endless cigarettes, or gave themselves tattoos

in garages with pulled-down pretty painted doors, or road motorcycles into Yield signs,

pummeling their faces.

The Ensmingers: The kind of family that bought old 1960’s Mustang with rust-eaten holes in the floorboards,

planted peanuts and pear trees in the backyard with bird baths and and dead buried

guinea pigs, and played basketball on the warm drive-way until dusk

awakened swarms of eager mosquitoes.

1989: The sound of metal “hair band” ballads swooning across the FM airwaves in hair-spray

glitter and excess spun from Hollywood boulevard nights until Nirvana let loose flannel shirts, duct-taped drum sets,

and teenage spirit, sweeping the spandex under the rug.

Imperfect, no doubt, but at least you’re seeing a literal and figurative rootedness, a sense

of immersion, so when the writer crafts the song or story, these elements may persist and leak over

into the narrative, providing context and a field of association…

here is another example, the same type of work in rough meter and rhyme:

christian came over to try my door

someone I’d never even seen before

and marc was a good guy into sports

he had a big heart     it was made of quarts

his girlfriend amy always looked so sad

when she finally broke away guess that made her glad

the gang came by sunday afternoons

playing bongos and pots beat with serving spoons

we always sang a brand new made up song

with our shirts on backwards and our hats on wrong

Victoria was a grown up mystery child

she could put the why back into wild

the cottage was a big piece of varnished wood

if it ever caught fire it’d go for good

the place had highstools and a built in bar

like livin’ inside of a big  guitar

Sherman Hensley lived next door

he kept drivin’in and out but I don’t know what for

there were snakes and coyotes owls and coons

by midnight you’d see ’em by the light of the moon

i’d sit on the rug sometimes +

wish that they’d all go home

sometimes a songwriter needs

some time alone

another example, different rhyme scheme:

marianne came in from the Jesuits school

horned rim glasses and skinny as a pole

14 years old with long straight hair

that hung down to her waist she had teenage soul

marianne had a mad way of laughing

she’d surprise you with her force and size of glee

she’d confront me with the facts I wouldnt let no other

she was the perfect match for me

we lived in a small town around a small village

one edge was farmland and the other was steel

everybody knew everyone else’s business

and to the cops it was personal out on the street

Part 2: Now find a chorus for your verse.

assignment 7 

Write a song about a fight, a love affair, or both.

” A poem or a song about any kind of a fight will catch most every eye that can read.


A song or poem that tells about a love affair, legal or illegal, will catch most every eye & ear that can hear.


The fight can be one that leads up to a love affair, or your song can tell about  how a love affair led up to a fight. Love affairs & fights are all tangled up like dry leaves in a spider web.”- Woody Guthrie


“Write like mad.”

1)notice what you notice

2)catch yourself thinking

3)observe whats vivid

4)vividness is self selecting

-Allen Ginsburg

Leonard Cohen talks of spending two years on his average song: “not that they’re so great-thats                       just   how long it takes” -to really mine the core of what it was that got you excited in the first place     -’cause the job could be to create a song you can care enough about to really sing a number of  times.


COHEN:”I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs  quickly,but I’m not. So it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is.

I find that easy versions of the song arrive first. Although they might be able to stand as songs, they can’t stand as songs that I can sing. So to find a song that I can sing, to engage my interest, to penetrate my boredom with myself & my disinterest in my own opinions, to penetrate those barriers, the song has to speak to me with a certain urgency.

To be able to find that song that I can be interested in takes many versions & it takes a lot of uncovering.

…to penetrate the  chattering & meaningless debate…(that is my ordinary state of mind)…I have to come up with something that speaks to my deepest interest. Otherwise I nod off in one way or another. So to find that song,that urgent song, takes a lot of versions & a lot of work & a lot of sweat.”

Don’t think of words when you stop but to see the picture better.”


-Jack Kerouac

“Take a friendly attitude toward your thoughts.”

“The world is a hellish place, & bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering.”- Tom Waits

“Make it new.” -Ezra Pound

“If we don’t show anyone, we’re free to write anything.” -Allen Ginsberg

“You have to be aware of your dream before anyone else is.”-Dylan

” There is absolutely no inevitability, as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.”


-Marshall McCluhan

1 comment

  1. Wish I was there! One of the best, most personally valuable, challenging, fun and exhilarating experiences of my life thus far.

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