On May 24, 1990, the first show in a series entitles In Their Own Words: A Bunch of Songwriters Sittin’ Around Singing (ITOW) took to the stage at the Bottom Line in New York City. Allan Pepper (co-owner with Stanley Snadowsky of the legendary Greenwich Village music club) and I had a simple notion: bring together four or five songwriters (seasoned performers, behind-the=scenes types, old pros and neophytes), do a quick sound check in the afternoon, and then invade the stage that night like a troop of gonzo song warriors. ITOW was inspired by the Southern tradition of “guitar pulls” — several writers and pickers passing around a single guitar, literally pulling it from one another in a kind of “top that!” competition like the ”In The Round” sessions at Nashville’s famed Bluebird Café. We added a non-musician host/moderator to join the writers on stage to encourage discussion and lend a sense of cohesion to the proceedings.
The fun and excitement of these shows was in mixing personalities and watching the musical sparks ignite. In many cases, the writers are meeting each other for the first time; nobody knows what to expect. I lead the conversation and each writer performs four or five songs during the course of the show. My job was to get the guests to open up about their art; dig into what makes them write and how they go about doing it; find out what they have in common and how each is unique.
The only planned question precedes the last round, when I asked the writers to cover someone else’s song; often this can be the most revealing part of the show. Check out how Irishman Luka Bloom gets under the skin of rapper L.L. Cool J’s “I Need Love” (women in the audience that night have yet to recover!); Shawn Colvin pulls a wonderful Lefty Frizzell tune (“That’s the Way Love Goes”) from her eclectic hat; Graham Parker reveals the debt he owes to reggae immortal Bob Marley (“No Women, No Cry”); in Lucinda Williams’ hands Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” seems vulnerable rather than vitriolic; and Memphis-born Bobby Whilock turns the club into a gospel church with his powerful rendition of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.”
Songs provide the background music for our lives. We fall in and out of love, sing our babies to sleep, protest injustice, pray for peace, mourn our dead and celebrate life with songs. Where do they come from? What makes someone sit down and create music that has the power to touch the hearts and minds of millions? These are the questions we set out to explore when we created ITOW.
VIN SCELSA New York City, 1994