How songs arrive
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)
Sand the bulb lit up: that was the way to write the song; as a Chinese man behind his counter promoting his sexaid 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). ome 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.