Tim McMullen's Missives and Tomes

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Inspiration, Cockburn, and Muehleisen—A Blog Comment to Craig Bickhardt's Ninety-Mile Wind

Craig Bickhardt is a great writer. He spent many years in Nashville as a highly successful songwriter, having placed songs with scores of top performers including Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, B. B. King, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, David Wilcox, Poco, Baillie and the Boys, The Judds, Nicolette Larson, ad infinitum. A few years ago he gave up the Nashville gig, went back to Pennsylvania, and began performing full time. He writes a great blog for songwriters (and anyone else interested in the art of creation or the creation of art). It is called Ninety-Mile Wind (http://ninetymilewind.blogspot.com/) You can use the link on "My Blog List" on the lower right hand corner of this site.

I often feel compelled to comment on his insightful and inspiring pieces. This is a response that I wrote to his blog post entitled, "All the Spells." If you want to see the full context for the following remarks, check out Craig's blog first. Otherwise, check it out later, but by all means, check it out!

Emerson and Thoreau linked inspiration, instinct, conscience—all things transcendental. In a sense, that is part of your point. If we make our constructs too rational, too conscious, they tend to become mechanical. On the other hand, it is exceedingly difficult to maintain that spark of inspiration throughout the creation of a completed song.

When working with young writers, I often encounter two warring impulses. On the one hand, it is hard for many beginners to get started. On the first day of class, I write only one short imperative sentence on the board: Stifle the critic! We discuss the possible meanings and implications of that statement for about twenty minutes, then we begin to write.

On the other hand, once they do get going, it is sometimes difficult to get them to revise or hone their work because they have a reverence for their "inspiration." "That's the way it came out of me!" I do understand the impulse; however, not meaning to be crude but needing to be clear, I point out that many things "come out of us," but we don't immortalize them simply because "that's the way it came out."

Holding onto the inspiration or maintaining "the heart" while crafting the exterior shell that effectively conveys it is an unfathomable mystery. The occasional song that simply writes itself, yet is as good as our best work, is an inexplicable miracle. Unfortunately, many a piece that spills out of us is a second or third-rate effort; the spilling itself is no guarantee of authenticity or worth (I mean this in the aesthetic sense, not the monetary one).

Though deeply and inherently cynical and skeptical, I have always been easily moved, and as I grow older, I find that I am more and more susceptible. Watching a movie, listening to a human interest story on the radio, the dĂ©nouement of a TV show, and most often, through song, that lump in the throat or the tear in the eye is an alarmingly common and daily occurrence for me. Thirty years ago, I wrote this fragment, “Loosing (or losing) a tear at some other fool’s pain,” that attempts, lightheartedly, to convey that feeling, but I have never taken it upon myself to incorporate it into a song.

When I get a new Nanci Griffith album, for example, I can be fairly sure that by the second song she'll have me in tears, and that it will continue repeatedly throughout the album. The same is true for a handful of writers including Cheryl Wheeler and Jesse Winchester. It's not maudlin; it's not merely melancholy; it's simply that beautiful mix of emotion, melody, poetry, and voice that speaks to the head and the heart simultaneously. Ironically, several of my very favorite songwriters, Danny O'Keefe, Townes Van Zandt, Jackson Browne, Loudon Wainwright, Joni Mitchell, Guy Clark, only occasionally hit that button, but I still connect deeply with their work—not to diminish their melodic creations, but I think, perhaps, I enjoy them more for the sheer force of their amazing wordsmithing.

Funny that you should mention Bruce Cockburn in this regard. I first saw him do a solo acoustic version of a song called, "He Came From the Mountains," on Ian Tyson's show, Nashville North, around 1970 while I was attending Chico State in California. I vowed on the spot that if I could write and perform a song like that I might consider becoming a believer. Some of Jesse Winchester's songs have that same pure, spiritual but non-"religious" quality. Though I wrote several of my very best songs at about the same time, I am afraid that the conversion did not take place.

Look as I might, and I am an avid collector, I could find nothing from Cockburn. Then, in late 1970 on the same day, I found Bruce Cockburn's first album as well as the only solo album by Maury Muehleisen, later to become Jim Croce's musical partner. Maury's songwriting on Gingerbreadd had a profound effect on Croce's own writing. I was blown away by both Cockburn and Muehleisen that day: That combination of musicality and poetry was at the heart of their work.

A few years later, after my own brief foray into full-time performing, I was using Cockburn's album, Sunwheel Dance, with my students: having them listen to his album while I projected the lyrics onto a screen. Since then, the wide-range of his musical forays, whether unmelodic chanting, angry political diatribes, religious affirmations, devout love songs, or whimsical ditties, have always maintained that poetic sensibility.

"If I had a rocket launcher,
Some son-of-a-bitch would die"

may be hard to reconcile with

"In His world we wait
In His hands our fate
Keep on climbing
We shall see His gate
In good time...."

but in the marvelous, creative universe of Bruce Cockburn, they share a very clear aesthetic based on deep and abiding inspiration.

Clearly, Craig, you have been surprisingly successful at finding that mix of heart and head, even in your more "commercial" outings, but I think that your new CD, Brother to the Wind, may have come closest so far to that perfect mix on nearly every tune. Thanks, not only for the thoughtful treatises on the art and the craft of songwriting, but for being such a consistent example of "practicing what you preach."
Tim McMullen


  1. I always enjoy reading what Tim writes. He is a wealth of information as well as being a sensitive and creative human being. I learn more things about people who write and play music from reading Tim than I ever imagined possible. I wish I had of had someone like him helping me when I was a young artist and wanna be writer. He is as steady as it gets.
    Thanks Tim, thanks a lot. Bobby

  2. Bobby—Thank you very much.

    For those unfamiliar with Bobby Jameson, he has perhaps the most interesting and eclectic blog I have discovered. His is a truly remarkable story. He is a songwriter, recording artist, poet, video artist, autobiographer, and blogger extraordinaire. From huge success as a teenager to relative anonymity to internet resurrection, his is the story of one of the casualties of the music business.

    His autobiographical blog is a painfully honest reflection upon the great possibilities and the potential dangers of a creative life. Bobby has the ability to tell a truly compelling personal story articulately and analytically, with vivid recollections and contemporary reflection. In his journey, he crossed paths with the following (and played or recorded with many of them): Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Andrew Loog Oldham, John Lennon, The Monkees, Frank Zappa, Jesse Ed Davis, Randy Newman, Red Rhodes, The Rockets/Crazy Horse, and Curt Boetcher, just to name a few.

    I could go on, but I have a much better idea. Click on the link in "My Blog List" to the right, and see for yourself.

    Make no mistake: His story is neither pretty nor pleasant, but it is quite intriguing and compelling; it is often tragic; it is often frustrating; and it is just as often uplifting and encouraging.

    And be forewarned; addiction is one of Bobby's themes, and once you start exploring his blog, you just might get hooked. The night that I discovered it, I spent six or seven hours straight reading his fascinating story.

    Check it out!


  3. Thanks for your ongoing and insightful comments on my blog, Tim, they are always appreciated. I'm glad to see you've decided to put some of this stuff up on your own blog-- it's worthy of a wide audience. Keep us thinking!

  4. Craig—Thanks very much for your encouraging words. As you can tell from my blog, you are a true source of inspiration.