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, 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…”
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…”
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