Sunday, December 20, 2009

Plain City - An Exercise in Important Ordinary Moments

Plain City - An Exercise in Important Ordinary Moments

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog space, my undergrad degree is in Theater, and I believe that a wide variety of life experiences is good for songwriters. As it turns out, I tend to use a lot of my theatrical knowledge in songwriting, in many ways. Here’s one way:

Playwriting. I’ve never written a play, but I’ve learned a few things about the structure of plays. Plays are not meant to be real life. Many plays are meant to reflect real life. But most plays are not meant to look exactly like real life. (You can extend this to TV and movies, too.) Even “real life dramas,” like, for instance, the play “A Raisin In the Sun” by Lorraine Hansburry, or “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller, or the movie “The Blind Side,” based on the real life story of football player Michael Oher, cannot be an exact replica of real life. Why?

Because real life is boring. It takes a long time. There are too many uninteresting moments.

Most traditional scriptwriting follows this rule: only use the most interesting moments, the most important moments, and string them together. There are no unimportant moments in a work of theater. As an actor, one cannot afford to waste any moment on stage. Playwrights do not include those moments in a script (I’m not talking about some modern absurdist drama, for which there is a place). Even if a script seems like it has those moments, it is up to the actors and director to find the importance.

This is not to say that there can’t be levels of emotion and nuance. There has to be. But every moment has its own importance. That’s why it’s there. Nobody wants to watch the moments where I sit at my computer and think of what to write, or lie in bed at night and do the crossword puzzle. Those moments exist. But they’re not interesting.

As a songwriter, I keep that in mind. I want to make every moment in my song important. It goes back to my guiding philosophy about wasted words: you can’t have any. You don’t have enough time or space in your song.

A song can’t be about nothing. Even if you want to capture ordinary moments in the lives of ordinary people, you still need to capture the important ordinary moments.

Many years ago I wrote a song called “Plain City.” It’s real city in central Ohio. I was driving home from Dayton and passed the sign on the freeway. I though it would make a good title (see my blog about titles). By the time I got home, I had the first verse in my head. I knew nothing about the town. But I invented a town called Plain City in my head. I could see what it looked like, I imagined all of the people, I gave them names, I put myself in the town and into the situations as a bystander, an observer, and I took some very ordinary events and circumstances and wrote them into a song. I described everything in detail, but I left out the dull ordinary moments and only wrote about the important ordinary moments.

It turned out to be a sweet and simple, moving song about the cycle of life, set to a simple “country” melody in ¾ time. I don’t sing it much. I probably haven’t sung it in 10 years. I’d love for somebody else to record it. Or, maybe I’ll get around to it one day. But, until then, you probably don’t want to watch me thinking about it.

Here are the lyrics:

Plain City
Words and music by Noah Budin

On the banks of the Olentangy
Where the water flows muddy and brown
Just to the south of the middle of nowhere
Is Lida Jean’s home town
Lida Jean lives with her mama
Knows all the shopkeepers by name
They’ve been there for four generations or more
With no one but themselves there to blame
And on the edge of the town by the highway
There hangs a rusty old sign
It says “Welcome to Plain City
Population three thousand and nine”

Now she stands in the door of the schoolhouse
She’s worked there for 39 years
She’s figured she’s bandaged up 500 elbows
And wiped away ten thousand tears
But Septembers they don’t come easy
Those hallways seem distant and cold
And the children who pass through each year never age
While Lida Jean grows old
And 39 times she’s wondered
If this year might not be her last
And for 39 summers she’s dreamed of what if
As the present slips into the past

As she finished her coffee one morning
She said “mama I’ll be home by four”
And mama half smiled as if lost in a memory
And Lida Jean slipped out the door
When she returned her neighbor was standing
In the doorway, her eyes were all red
Though Lida Jean knew, she said “where’s mama?”
And the neighbor just shook her head
When it seemed like forever since the prayers had been spoken
And her loneliness felt like a jail
She swept up the petals of the dried broken flowers
And went out to gather the mail

Then Lida Jean noticed a card
From a student twenty years past
This wasn’t the first one she’d ever seen like it
And it certainly won’t be the last
And along with the card was a picture
Of a baby all wrinkled and new
It read “Meet Becky Lynn, five pounds, seven ounces
She arrived at 11:02”
And on the edge of the town by the highway
There hangs a rusty old sign
It says “Welcome to Plain City
Population three thousand and nine”

© 1998 by the composer

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