Co-Writing With The Dead

Famous people say a lot of famous things. And those famously pithy phrases are gathered for your reading pleasure and reference, in published collections of quotations. This is the story of how I harvested a song from one of those collections.

“Thar’s songs in them thar indices!”

I have written some songs. One song that I “wrote” is titled Bartlett’s Tale.

When I composed Bartlett’s Tale, I wasn’t feeling particularly inspired. I didn’t have a clever story or situation in mind, but I wanted to write a song.

At other times I have not had any problem with inspiration or subject matter.

I wrote a song about wanting to star in the next Tarzan movie, called Tarzan #19 (A position that has since been taken. Darn). I wrote a song about eating a peach that tasted like a baseball. Well, that’s what peaches taste like in March, in the northern hemisphere, right?

So anyway I grabbed my copy of Bartlett’s Quotations (the actual title is Familiar Quotations — A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Proverbs Traced to Their Sources in Ancient and Modern Literature) and started thumbing through it, looking for an idea. At the time I only had one copy, the 1937 edition. Familiar Quotations was first published by John Bartlett in 1882, and has been revised, updated, and republished many times since. I now have a 1990s edition on CD, and a digital version may well be freely available online by now. (I think much of BQ shows up at bartleby.com, though why a fictional character gets credit for hard work done by a real person is beyond me. He (Bartleby) happens to be one of the great, great characters in literature though…)

image of a big red book
Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett

I leafed through the main text, with all the full quotations, for half an hour. And, after stumbling through numerous turgid verses (Friends of my youth, a last adieu! Haply some day we meet again; Yet ne’er the selfsame men shall meet; the years shall make us other men. Joseph Warren Fabens) and more suchlike, I thought…Forsooth, this is begetting me nowhither.

So I turned to the index, and found my song.

The short phrases in the index seemed perfect for song lyrics, so I thought about it for a few minutes, and decided to just let Mr. Bartlett write the song for me.

I just had to choose where to look.

I thumbed my way to the S-section of the index, and started with She. I figured that the first verses of many songs starts this way, it’s tried and true…and, it will set the subject of the song in place; She, whoever She is.

Here’s a pic of what I found in the index, under She,  highlighted to show what I selected…

Image of Index of Bartlett's Quotations
“She played on the banks of the Yuba…”
Examples of songs or choruses that start with She:
She Drives Me Crazy,
She’s About a Mover,
She Loves Me Yeah Yeah Yeah,
Dancing Backward, etc.

 

 

Let’s keep going…

Next place I looked, for the second verse of Bartlett’s Tale, was in the index under He. I figured, logically, that this could end up being a She / He song. But alas, it was not to be. There were actually many more quotations indexed in the He section than under She, but too many of them had a proverbial or Confucian feel that didn’t quite mesh stylewise with verse one….he doth, he hath, he that giveth… he who sees, he who strives, he who takes off his shoes…(??)

So, the He verse did not materialize within the index, and by this time I had decided, after the success of the first verse, that all the verses would have to come straight out of the index, in whole chunks.

And so, under I, I found verse two here…

image of index of Bartlett's Quotations
“I can cheerfully take it now…”
Authors of these indexed quotations:
Walt Whitman,
Franklin Delano Roosevelt,
John Masefield,
George Washington,
Walt Whitman

 

 

 

 

 

Now I needed a bridge/chorus. If I were writing this out of my own imagination, I would be groping for a an aside, a junction, something to tie the first two verses to some greater wisdom or truth. To bring She and I together….

So for the chorus I perused Bartlett’s index under We, and found this:

3rd Image of index of Bartlett's Quotations
“We are not amused…”
Authors:
William Bolitho
William Shakespeare
Thomas Dekker
Queen Victoria
Arthur William Edgar O’Shaunessy
Sam Walter Foss

 

 

 

 

 

 

So…finally, I needed one more verse, that finish it verse, the last verse, the verse that moves on, that leaves the yearning behind and looks forward, where our narrating character, having changed and somehow grown wiser, with enlightened eyes, muses on what was, what could have been, and what is and what will never be…

I looked and looked, thumbing and peering through the index, and finally found the section of quotations beginning with, of course, Soa word that conjuncts, that adds, that sums up, that  says therefore…

Which gave me this verse…

4th image from index of Bartlett's Quotations
“So dies a wave along the shore…”
Authors:
Diogenes Laertius
Charles Mackay
Anna Leticia (Aiken)  Barbauld
Charles Mackay
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
John Godfrey Saxe

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then, of course, we sing the chorus again,

We are born to wander,
We are men my liege,
We are ne’er like angels,
We are not amused!
We are the music makers, we’re waiting for you there….

…and finish up.

So that’s how it all went down.

If you’d like to hear the song, it is streamed here, as performed by The Bala Hounds…

I purposely haven’t expounded here in any depth about what I think the song says, what each verse seems to mean, to imply. But when I was “writing” the song, I was looking for the bare framework of intention, of a shape, just enough of a nugget of narrative that it would work as a song.

Usually when I write a song, I write the music first. Sometimes the words and music come about together. Rarely, I write the lyrics first. Bartlett’s Tale had been sitting there in the index of Bartlett’s Quotations since 1937, waiting for me, so I guess this was the rare case, for me, when the lyrics came first.

Some songs don’t need much cohering substance, it seems. The music itself carries flavor, nuance, emotion. Simple songs don’t always need to be crystalized distillations with clear and obvious motives or stories or symbols.

Think…She Came In Through The Bathroom Window….

See what I mean?

(By the way, just the index of the 1937 edition of Bartlett’s Quotations is itself 479 pages long, representing about one-third of the book. Each of those 479 pages has about 250 entries. So there’s more, lots lots more, in there. For inspiration. For ideation. For tips of icebergs to lead to larger, ‘underwater’ discoveries.)

Did you “find” a song?  Let the world know where!  Comments below…

All the co-authors of Bartlet’s Tale:

“She played on the banks of the Yuba” Thomas Holley Chivers
“She sways level in her husbands heart” William Shakespeare
“She that had no need of me ” Edna St. Vincent Millay
“She that not impossible she” Richard Crashaw
“She that was ever fair” Shakespeare Othello
“…that was the worlds delight” Algernon C. Swinburne

“I can cheerfully take it now” Walt Whitman
“I can take it if they can” Franklin Delano Roosevelt
“I can not see nor breathe nor stir” John Masefield
“I can’t stand alone where I cannot tell a lie” G. Washington
“I can’t see why I celebrate myself” Walt Whitman

“We are born to wander” William Bolitho
“We are men my liege” Will Shakespeare
“We are ne’er like angels” Thomas Dekker
“We are not amused” Queen Victoria
“We are the music makers” Arthur W. E. O’Shaunessy
“We’re waiting for you there” Sam Walter Foss

When I Invented The Snowboard

Rider standing on sled, from 1954 Wheaties Commercial, Winter Edition

In 1966 when I was ten years old I really loved snow, because A) sledding; and B) snow days.  Just like everybody else.  And, that Christmas, I really wanted a Snurfer.

Snurfer

The Snurfer was advertised heavily that Christmas season, and I asked Santa for one, but I didn’t get it. I don’t think Santa could afford it that year, we were a big family and that’s the way it goes sometimes.

So, sometimes I would stand on my sled going down the local hills. Back then just about all the sleds were Flexible Flyers, with  steel runners, birch-slat platforms, and a very clever steering system that flexed the runners. Standing on the sled holding the rope, you could steer a little, but it wasn’t snurfing.

Rider standing on sled, from 1954 Wheaties Commercial, Winter Edition
Snurfer Girl

The Snurfer was a single ski, with a slightly convex bottom surface, and a looped nose rope to hold onto, and it was the first commercialized prototype of what has become the snowboard. To ride it, you stood on it sideways, without bindings, and held on to the nose rope. After a balanced slide between about 5 feet, at 4mph, and 25 feet, at about 15mph, you fell down. These boards were very difficult to ride. Snurfers were red or yellow. I wanted a red one. That winter, when it snowed, my sisters and neighbors and I went to sled with the crowds on the big hill in Valley Forge State Park. It was a great, popular sled hill, broad and long and just the right steepness, bald and grassy and bare of trees and bushes. At any given time there could be over a hundred sledders there, and Snurfers were rare.  Maybe one Snurfer among the hundred, and owned by a big kid who wouldn’t let a little kid try it.

But the Snurfer was in my craw.  And on my mind.

I had pretty much figured out, when spring and summer rolled around, that I wasn’t getting a Snurfer.  Nope, not nohow. I didn’t have enough saved allowance, and a Snurfer cost $40 or so, and it was just too much. That was during the year or two when our family ate a lot of broiled kidneys, chicken hips, and lentils and bacon once a week. Finances were tight.

But ideas were forming in my little 11-year-old brain.

While visiting family friends for two weeks on a lake in the Poconos that following summer, in their boat barn I spotted, up in the rafters, something that caught my eye. It was the leftover single of a pair of waterskis, its partner having been busted and tossed years before.

It was not sleek like the skis Johnny and Bobby and Heather were riding on, and that they taught me to get up on behind Uncle Bob’s Mercury outboard. It was thick plywood, painted red, and nearly 10″ wide, and blunt nosed and very flat and clunky.  When I asked for it, for keeps, they said sure, we should have thrown that away years ago.

So I took that old waterski, probably manufactured back in the 40’s, or maybe early 50s, and I strapped it to the roof-rack and hauled it home.

My dad asked me what I was going to do with it.

“I’m going to make a Snurfer.”

And I did.

Now, I’m going to back up about two years, to the year 1964 or 65, when I was 8 or 9, and another big family, originally from Mexico, moved into the area, taking up residence in a big old stone farmhouse not far from ours. The father was a renowned and innovative heart surgeon pursuing the next phase in his great career in one of Philadelphia’s teaching hospitals, having come from some great coronary program in Southern California. The boys, my friend Jimbo and his brother Robby, brought skateboards with them from California.

At the time, there were no skateboards in Pennsylvania.  They had to be brought in–like these–from the west coast.  And these were nice little quality skateboards, great maneuvering, and we rode them around and around their big cement-floored garage.

Yeah, I wanted a skateboard, but we couldn’t find them anywhere, not at the Paoli Hardware store that had a super toy department upstairs, not in Wayne, not in Bryn Mawr.  This awesome toy hadn’t yet arrived for sale in the east USA in 1964.

I wanted one terribly, so since we couldn’t find any locally available, my Dad and I made one.

Terribly.  We used a street skate.  I’m not sure they’re even made anymore, but back in the ’60s there were these cheapo roller skates, with metal wheels, on a steel frame with a skate key that was used to screw-clamp the carriage to your shoes. This version of the roller skate was bolt-on, it didn’t have its own boot.  So we used the key to separate the front wheels from the back wheels of the skate, and we found an old hunk of laminated paneling, about a foot and a half long and 8 inches wide, and we screwed a pair of wheels on the front, and the rear wheels on the back, and we painted the whole thing silver.  Unlike real skateboard carriages, which back then used professional roller-skate trucks and wheels, the steel-wheel pairs of these street skates were about 2″ apart.

We didn’t even shape the board, it was just an oblong rectangle of wood with some metal wheels bolted under it. It had a tongue on one flank, and a groove on the other.  If poised it at the top of a paved hill, and you stood on it, and pointed it down hill, and tried not to shift your weight much at all, your eyeballs shook and your teeth rattled and if the surface was at all rough, your joints and bones shook so much you thought they were going to disconnect, and you got to skate a few feet and then you weren’t on the ‘skate-board’ anymore.  Probably not even on the driveway anymore.  If you were, you were sliding on your ass, or your elbows and knees.  This was before they thought of those knee pads and elbow pads.

Back to 1967.

Having helped improvise a skateboard when they weren’t available, I was now, a couple years later, ready to improvise a Snurfer when they weren’t affordable.

I regarded my raw material. The decades-old waterski. A red-painted slab of plywood, basically a big thunk of lumber, untapered, unbeveled, with a rotted rubber footcuff planted around it’s midpoint. It had one great thing going for it, a single advantage over a pine plank found washed up along the stream after a flood, or a 1 x 6 hunk of barn siding from a construction site; its big, blunt nose was curved upward, and quite nicely…

So I drilled a hole in the nose, added the 4-foot hold-on rope that Snurfer’s all had back then, and when winter came, and it snowed, I was ready.

And a lot like the improvised skate-board, my home-made snurfer sucked.

It was impossible to control.  I tried tweaking it. I shortened it some, which also removed the two lumpy protrusions at the very stern of the thing (keels?), and that helped a little. But after maybe half a dozen outings, my single-ski, gravity-driven standing snow rider resumed it’s residence in a barn, this time, ours.

But I did have a name for my creation that winter of 1967.  I called it my Snowboard.

Years later, in the early 1980s, I lived and worked in Aspen for about three years.  The closest we ever saw to a Snurfer or a Snowboard, in that era, was a mono-ski.  Are they still around? We used to laugh when we saw them. A local would never have something like that.  Tourists. Trying too hard.  The coolest slope riders back then, and they were just starting to ride the lifts, were the downhill cross-country skiers, who were then perfecting a maneuver that involved single-knee bending and body contortions to navigate the steeps and the moguls and the powder without the parallel bouncing we know as downhill. This radical new technique was called Telemark. That was cool.

I didn’t invent the snowboard, to be clear.  It was invented or at least commercialized, somewhat hastily, by a fellow in Wisconsin named Sherman Poppen.

And the person who appears to have done the most for advancing the the design and engineering, and political legwork to get Snowboarding established and respected and allowed on the commercial slopes, was Jake Burton.

But I have no doubt that there were dozens, maybe even hundreds of lads and lassies who craved a skateboard-like experience on something slippery, and who improvised like I did. Nailed a platform on two snowskis together side by side and took the bindings off; or bent a one-by with some kettle steam; or carved an old door panel–or used a watersport item like I did.

Because good ideas really are commonplace. Ho-hum.

But the guys who stuck with it, who really put their hearts and souls into it, Burton and Poppen and a few others, they’re the guys that really did something.

It’s not enough sometimes to be creative, or innovative.  Poppen had oomph with his inspiration, and sold half a million Snurfers in a year.  Burton had persistence and more, a vision.

And thanks to them and the others who didn’t give up, nobody’s laughing now when Jamie Anderson pulls off a back side double cork 1080 with a melon grab.

Did you try to make yourself a Snurfer?  Or pursue some other improvised innovation to try to join some popular, emerging zeitgeist, on a budget?

If so,  comment below!