Over my 50-plus years in the business of popular music, I cannot count the times I have heard the question, “How do you come up with these songs?” Or, “What’s the secret?” I heard it again, this week and, as before, the answer is that there is no formula involved, at least in my case, that I can pass on. I have mentioned some of the triggers in previous columns, but the short answer, overall, is that the source of songs is literally everything and anything. Experiences you have, a lovely phrase you read or hear some place, an incident in the news, a love affair, a goodbye, the passing of someone, a joke (yes a joke; Ken Corsbie told me a joke after a show in Barbados in a gaff and that led to me writing “Cricket in the Jungle”); or some perception that gradually comes to you out of the blue, or bang, like a gunshot. Of course, your antennae have to be up for these things. (As I’ve said before, you have to be an observer, a noticer; you have to be, as in Ken’s joke, after you laugh, “Hey, you know that bit is basically saying, this game of cricket is so wonderful, even the animals play it.” Once that notion settles in the brain, the song is born.) So the short answer is awareness. I recall the Trinidad calypsonian Crazy, telling me years ago in a car in Port-of-Spain how people are always bringing him song ideas (I have heard Sparrow did the same thing with writers like Piggy Joseph and others, tailoring a song idea with the Sparrow mastery). I remember Crazy saying that, most of the time, the material was useless. He used the phrase, “the song didn’t resemble me,” indicating how astute the observer process must be: here was Crazy, no matter how good the song was, immediately recognizing that it was not the kind of material that he was known for, so that is part of the process as well; in his case, knowing, for instance, that risqué material would be out of place in his repertoire, for his persona.
With those general guidelines in place, songs come, literally, from everywhere. The first Tradewinds hit, “Honeymooning Couple”, for instance came from my late brother-in-law, Joe Gonsalves (married to my sister Theresa) who, unknowingly, gave me the idea when he told me a joke with that premise. I remember like yesterday, him slapping the arms of his armchair with the punch line, “By God, I got to see this.” Even the words in the chorus, “Both O’ We On Top,” are straight out of Joe’s joke. It was pure comedy, and when I started Tradewinds in Toronto in 1966, I remembered the joke, told to me some 15 years earlier in the Gonsalves residence in Atkinson Field. Indeed, many song-writers will tell you they keep a little notebook with random song ideas or suggestions scribbled in that will often result in a song later on. These days, I do my scribbling on the computer, but I still do it. Currently, for instance, I have these nudgings with regard to “oil coming,” or “fit and proper,” “protest signs in town,” and some others I am too embarrassed to mention, but the reminders are there.
However, and this is a big “however,” the other piece of the song-writing puzzle is the matter of “how” to present the idea. “Honeymooning Couple” was a joke, basically put into rhyme, and adjusted to fit with a melody. For some ideas, you have to figure out how to form your idea. “Wong Ping,” for example: travelling the Caribbean, I knew there was a song in Chinee Brush; everybody was familiar with it, and I tried several times to write it, but I could never find the formula and there were literally years of failure. And then I heard a Trini drummer, Louis Flores, imitating a Chinese shop-keeper in Trinidad (hilarious, by the way) and the bulb lit up: that was the way to write the song; as a Chinese man behind his counter promoting his sex-aid product in fractured English. That idea had been with me for several years, before Louis’ comment showed me the “how.” Notice, however, that the observer thing has to be in play. I am sure that many other musicians heard the Chinese pronunciations – none of them wrote a song about it. You have to be noticing.
In the same vein, when I went to Toronto, seeing all the statues in the city, it struck me for the first time how different that was from Guyana – there we had only one statue, and that one of an English queen. From that observation came “Where Are Your Heroes, Caribbea,” one of my personal favourites, which would obviously not have occurred to me if I had known only the Guyana experience. (In that song, by the way, I used “Caribbea” not “Caribbean” to suggest a combination of nations rather just a region).
Some other propellants would include hearing a bunch of Guyanese after a New York show, bunched on the sidewalk, at 5 in the morning, gaffing about all the things, places, people, etc. they remembered from Guyana. It hit me so powerfully that, travelling home, I scribbled out the song “Is We Own,” which was almost completely finished by the time we landed in Grand Cayman. Another one came from a legendary Trinidad information guy, Bunny Dunn, living in Toronto, who told me the little known story of a Trini schooner captain who went down with his ship when he was sunk near Grenada by a German submarine during the Second World War. That led to “Sink The Schooner,” which is well known in Barbados. There was also my exposure, in my aunts’ yard at Hague, to roosters treading hens with some regularity; how could they possibly keep up this pace, day after day? The inevitable song from that was “Mister Rooster.” There was “Women in Love,” describing women of various nationalities during sex: that came from an incident a St. Lucian friend told me involving him and a lady in the backseat of his car.
To repeat from earlier – the answer is anything and everything but you have to be an observer and you have to figure out the “how” and not be impatient… that can take years.