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How To Write A Song Poem (In Three Complete Lessons)

An on-line visit to the Library of Congress Experimental Search Service turned up a fascinating hit. Querying the text string "song-poem," among the few returns of merit that I got was one entitled "How To Write A Song Poem (In Three Complete Lessons)," registered for copyright in 1937 by Luther A. Clark of Thomaston, Maine. The possibility that I had discovered an actual song-poem textbook made my head spin.

Although I didn't expect the book itself to even still be in the LoC archives, let alone that it'd be readily available to me, I filed an Interlibrary Loan request for it anyway. Thus I was delighted when a few weeks later it turned up in my mailbox. But elation quickly gave way to disappointment for, in typical song-poem fashion, the "book" turned out to be nothing more than a cheesy four-page booklet, typed and mimeographed (or whatever the 1937 equivalent of photocopying was) and written in Clark's wacky, confusing style, bragging all the while about "how to make a more catchy HIT" while providing little or no usable advice.

Clark's one grasp at fame had been arranging a version of "When It's Springtime In The Rockies," and he wastes no opportunity to remind the reader of his credential. His text often gets bogged down in questionably authoritative technicalities of rhythm and meter. I've kept these sections intact out of respect for historical accuracy, but out of respect for my brain I did not try to figure out what he was driving at in these passages. Other of his comments raise more questions than they answer about the distinctions between legitimate song publishers, song sharks, or whatever kind of service Mr. Clark himself was trying to operate up there in Thomaston, Maine. Still, "How To Write A Song Poem (In Three Complete Lessons)" provides an excellent (if not always clear) glimpse into the practices of the song-poem industry at the beginning of the end of the Depression, when not many lyricists were yet flush enough to put their money where their poetry was.

Several memorable phrases leap off Luther A. Clark's page:

"Song poems should be written only on the subjects of love, sweetheart, mother, home or humor."

"They have never called my attention to any mistakes in 'When It's Springtime In The Rockies,' but I could call their attention to over 10 mistakes in one of their late HITS."

"It is not the question of the amount of money, it is the question of brains and opportunity."

"We could name all the different meters, but that would confuse you."

One technical note: I retyped the booklet myself, but scanned in a few areas that would have been hard to code in html. The lower case "e" character on Clark's typewriter became noticably more clogged over the course of this one project, and by the last few scans it's become very tough to read. If you see a character that looks like an "o" but seems like an "e" should go there, it probably was an "e."

by Luther A. Clark, arranger of the piano part, "WHEN IT'S SPRINGTIME IN THE ROCKIES"
©1937 by Luther A. Clark

Valuable and timely suggestions to the song writer who contemplates sending a poem to the publisher for a musical setting, for a cash offer or for publication.

These suggestions have been carefully studied out by the author, who has made song writing and music composing a profession and study for years, and while brief, these suggestions are worth many times the small price asked.

The main points of song writing may be briefly stated as follows:

Have your subject and main points thought out before writing.

Observe how other popular songs have been written.

Song poems should be written only on the subjects of love, sweetheart, mother, home or humor. The thought of love should always be present, even though the word love might not appear, as love of sweetheart, mother or home.

Do not write of murders or mention any particular names from any news item.

There are three distinct types of popular songs, the Fox-Trot, Waltz and 4/4 Andante style.

The Fox-Trot makes a HIT most quickly and lasts the shortest time. While the Waltz Hit is less frequent, once put over, it remains in the hearts of the people much longer than the average Fox-Trot.

The Andante 4/4 song, while seemingly out of style, remains a favorite longer than either of the foregoing, once it becomes a HIT, as in the cases of "SILVER THREADS AMONG THE GOLD," "OLD FOLKS AT HOME" and any of Stephen Foster's old songs. No doubt some of these old songs have sold more copies than any of the late HITS.

Make a copy of your favorite song.

Notice that the majority of popular fox-trots and waltzes contain 16 measures of music in the verse portion and 32 measures in the chorus, although some of them have 24 or 32 measures in the verses and 64 in the chorus. Personally we do not advise songs of any longer length than a 16 measure verse and a 32 measure chorus, because when the song is printed for publication it is more expensive to have the copies made. In order for the verse to have 16 measures of music it is necessary to have 4 lines in the verses and 6 lines in the chorus.

Notice that the most important words, which you naturally accent when reading, fall on the accented parts of the music, or where the "beat" or time is marked.

The Waltz lines generally are short and contain 4 beats (or feet) in each line, each line making 4 measures of Waltz music.

Read the poem over and place numbers under the words, or those syllables in the words, where the accents fall, as you beat time when reading it, thus:

This line would make a slow Fox-trot. If you wished a line for a lively Fox-trot, more words or syllables would need to be used, and consequently more notes, thus:

You will notice that, while the Waltz line has 4 beats, the Fox-Trot line has 8 beats, having 2 beats to the measure instead of 1, as in waltz time.

You will notice 8 beats in these lines, so make 8 beats in EVERY line of the verse and chorus. In the chorus sometimes lines 1, 3 and 7 are written long, while 2, 4 and 8 are written short. However, there must be 8 beats in each line of the chorus regardless of length and there must be 8 lines.

In Andante and sentimental ballad songs which are of the slow 4/4 time character there should be 8 lines in both the verses and chorus, though successful songs of this type have been written with more or less lines, but never an odd number.

The Fox-Trot chorus may also be written in 16 short lines and combined into 8 long lines. The composer of the music generally does this if the poem writer fails to do so and make all necessary revisions. However, it is better for the writer to put the poem into the best shape possible and number the lines.

Write out several poems in this way and learn to number or beat out the time or, in other words, scan it.

Remember every line must have the same number of beats or feet.

Having learned to scan, you may begin and write out your first stanza, 4 lines, for instance, thus:

The form of the chorus has changed many times. A few year s back the chorus had lines 1 and 5 exactly the same meter and the same flow of melody, but of late the lines 1, 3 and 7 are the same meter and melody and lines 2, 4 and 8 have a slightly different meter, also a different melody from 1, 3 and 7, while the lines 5 and 6 may be slightly different from either of the foregoing, in meter, if the poem writer or composer wishes.

Make a thorough study of all the late popular songs and write out the complete poems, each line being 4 measures, starting where the capital letter begins the sentence or line.

Rhyme, although pleasing to the ear is not compulsory, and many fine songs have been written without it. However, we advise it, in order to make a song HIT more likely.

Many poets rhyme consecutive lines but alternate rhyme is by far more satisfactory, always rhyming lines 2 and 4 of the verses, and 2 with 4 and 6 with 8 in the chorus. It is not really necessary to rhyme the odd numbers, although some poets do.

A good rhyming-dictionary is very helpful.

Don't have anything to do with song-sharks who charge you to print your piano part and promise to sell it; then, after they get your fee, print an edition and never try to sell the copies.

Remember that a music bureau that charges you a fee for printing an edition of the finished piano part and sends you the copies, for you to sell, cannot be counted as "song-sharks," as you are then your own publisher and buy your printing, the same as the large publisher.

Much has been written by large publishers and the Association about commercial arrangements made by song bureaus, but we fail to see how it would be possible for the songwriter to get a good melody and piano part to his poem, unless he sent it to some place other than his own locality.

At other times the large publishers have advised not sending to song bureaus and at the same time recommended some of their own arrangers or composers. Therefore, the songwriter would still be getting commercial arrangements, no matter whether they hired song bureaus or those whom the publishers recommended. But for correct work, we always recommend first class song bureaus and not "sharks" from any locality.

It has been said that the large publishers are trying to put the song bureaus out of business in order that they might procure this same class of business for their own arrangers and composers, and this looks to be a reasonable supposition, but we cannot honestly recommend their composers or arrangers as they do not put out first class work, and they have more mistakes in harmony in their popular songs than the first class song bureaus have,

Luther A. Clark stands ready at any time to pick out mistakes in harmony in a large percentage of their songs.

You also have an advantage that the large publisher is without, namely, a song bureau to correct their composer's mistakes in harmony, and it is safe to say that a very large percentage of their songs contain errors which any first class song bureau could correct.

We truly believe that to be the great reason their HITS last only a few months. They have never called my attention to any mistakes in "WHEN IT'S SPRINGTIME IN THE ROCKIES," but I could call their attention to over 10 mistakes in one of their late HITS.

WE GUARANTEE OUR PIANO PARTS CORRECT in melody, harmony and construction or money in full refunded.

One large publisher admitted to me there might be mistakes of harmony in his songs, but he did not wish to have them corrected. He evidently did not care to spend money to give the public first-class music. That seems to be the general attitude of big publishers. They give the public imperfect songs and the public must take them or nothing.

In the POPULAR SONG WRITER Magazine, April 1936 issue, first column, page 33, the ASCAP reports that, "it has yet to be demonstrated that any writer had made any money through such firms."

Proving that this is mis-statement I wish to say that Robert Sauer had his song "WHEN IT'S SPRINGTIME IN THE ROCKIES," made in this studio by me and he made money on that song, and also Earle Wheeler, Marshfield, Vt., for whom we made "THE U. S. FLAG," as well as Frances Hehr, 12410 Lancelot St., Cleveland, Ohio, for whom we made "MY SUNNY SOUTHERN HOME."

This shows that the large publishers are putting out worthless propaganda.

They also say, "If a publisher is interested in your work he will employ a writer to change or improve any part not satisfactory to him." In contradiction of this statement we can say that they did not change a word of the poem, "WHEN IT'S SPRINGTIME IN THE ROCKIES," nor a single note of the melody or piano part from the original arrangement that we sent to Robert Sauer and which he first published, as we have examined both songs and find them identical in both words and music, and we have a copy of both editions on file as proof.

The above mentioned magazine also states, "Reputable publishers do not sell or give the names of amateur writers to song sharks." However, it is a fact that reputable publishers do give the names of sharks to writers, which we consider just as unfair.

Another statement they made, "No professional arranger could turn out a creditable piece of work at this price." Any arranger who professes and knows his work thoroughly, regardless of the amount of money he receives, is a professional.

We would say that there are hundreds of people tramping the streets of New York City who could do as well as any now in the business if they could got the chance, even at the lowest price. It is not the question of the amount of money, it is the question of brains and opportunity.

The large publishers intimate that song bureaus have a small stock of melodies which they use for every customer's songs, but we will pay good money to any business or individual who can prove we ever made two melodies or piano arrangements exactly the same, and hope every song bureau or the arrangers for large publishers can truthfully say the same.

If the unfair business methods of competition used by the large publishers were made public it would show them up in a new light, and their statements would be discredited by the public.

You have as much right to have copies printed of your song and make your own sales and profits as the large publishers, as this is exactly the same method they use. They do not print their own copies; they have them done by a music printer and then sell the copies themselves.

Due to the fact of more piano sales and its recent increased popularity, it seems that from now on it will be much easier for small publishers to sell their songs.

Let us go on with the lesson and the second verse, which we advise, though it is not compulsory, as many songs have one verse and one chorus.

The second and all other stanzas must have the same number of lines and the same number of beats to each line, always remembering to make the principal words or syllables fall on the beats.

Count every syllable or word in each line and compare it with the corresponding line in all other stanzas.

By referring to the first lesson, let us try to write a line that will fit the waltz line,

Notice the numbers 1 to 4 which are over the important words or accents and that in each instance there is an unaccented word before each number or accent. Then construct the first line of your second verse to fit it, thus:

Now notice the long Fox-Trot line:

The second verse line could be like this:

Needless to say, each verse should lead up to the chorus, so as to make the story continuous and smooth.

I advise you not to write over two stanzas and one chorus to your song poem if you can possible condense your story to this number, though three stanzas are allowable and some times four, but remember, "Brevity is the soul of wit."

The chorus should have the title of the song mentioned at least once, twice or three times, in order to make a more catchy HIT.

We could name all the different meters, but that would confuse you. All that is necessary is for you to notice in each line and before every number how many unaccented words or syllables there are and make the corresponding line the same number of words or syllables, and your accents in exactly the same places.

If you can't do this or don't care to do so, just write out your story and we will fix up both poem and melody for only $3.00, and if satisfactory, the piano arrangement will cost only $7.00, GUARANTEED CORRECT in melody, harmony and construction or $7.00 in full refunded, which places our song-bureau in a class by itself.

Many song-writers have the words and melody of a song, but no piano arrangement. In such cases, we are always willing to make the piano arrangement for $7.00, if the words and melody are correct. If revision is necessary, it will cost $1.00 extra.

If our work is not the neatest and most correct you have over received from any bureau and our service the most prompt, we wish to know about it.


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