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Using Tunes from Public Domain Traditional and Classical Music as Writing Prompts
Copyright and Intellectual Property
You may not and ought not make a few small changes to the lyrics of a song and call it your own. Write your new lyrics from scratch with all or close to all original words. "I'm dreaming of a green Christmas just like the ones I used to know" is not sufficiently original to honestly call it my own work, but I can call, "I love you like a big burger with lots of ketchup, don't you know," to be sung to the same tune, my own.
Give the composer of the tune due credit. Do not publish or distribute the music along with your completely original lyrics and don't perform the song without permission if the song is under copyright. No worries if you choose music that is in the public domain, either because it is folk music with no known songwriter or because the copyright has expired.
Those are my non-expert, commonsense understandings.
Stars and Stripes Forever
Includes "Be Kind To Your Web-footed Friends"
The Stars and Stripes Forever by Sousa
When I was in the Boy Scouts in the 1950s, the words to a song we sang a lot, to a theme in the march "The Stars and Stripes Forever" by John Philip Sousa, were, as I recall:
"Be kind to your web-footed friends,
For a duck may be somebody's mother.
She lives in a place called a swamp,
Where the winters are cold and damp.
Now you may think this is the end;
Well it is."
(We pronounced damp to rhyme with swamp. There are lots of versions of that anonymous silly song. Search the Web, or ask a local Boy Scout, to hear more.)
Just as someone once did with a theme from "The Stars and Stripes Forever," the writing prompt that I am suggesting is to choose a theme you like from classical or traditional music and write words to it. Write doggerel verse, romantic verse, patriotic verse, soulful verse, lyrics for children, advertising jingles, or whatever else you like. Write for your own enjoyment and to exercise your imagination. So much the better if the result is something you'd like to share and that others like.
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra
Silly Doggerel Verse to William Tell Overture by Rossini
I made this up more or less to a tune in "William Tell Overture" by Gioachino Rossini -- the opening and closing music of "The Lone Ranger" radio and TV shows.
"I went to see my gal last night,
And sad to say we had a fight.
'You never take me anywhere!'
Oh you know, that made me sore.
"I took her to a Monster Rally;
I took her to see Stripper Sally.
Who wants to watch men dance in tights?
No ballet! We saw the fights!
"I sweet talked her into serving drinks,
And we made up – at least I think.
Did we get it on then in her bunk?
I don't know – I was quite drunk."
Patriotic Verse to Brahms's Lullaby
I made up these lyrics more or less to the tune of "Brahms's Lullaby" [Wiegenlied: Guten Abend, gute Nacht ("Good evening, good night"), Op. 49, No. 4 by Johannes Brahms]:
What shall be our way
To preserve unity
And the freedom to be?
Freedom from, freedom to,
'Neath the red, white, and blue.
Our ideals steadfast,
May the Union long last."
Clair de Lune by Debussy
A Romantic Verse to Clair de Lune by Debussy
And I wrote this one while listening to the opening of "Clair de Lune", the third movement of "Suite Bergamasque" by Claude Debussy. "Clair de lune" is French for "moonlight"
I love you.
I love your kisses;
Yes, I do.
I want you with me always, dear,
In my arms, 'cause
No one else is quite like you,
My heart throb, Love."
Ready to Try Impromptu Lyrics Freewriting Practice?
Now it is your turn to give it a try. Amaze yourself. Let a tune be the opening between your mind and your muse. Search the Internet on:
great OR greatest OR famous OR popular classical music
and other relevant search terms. When you find a work you like, see if it is on YouTube.
Or use a melody you know by heart -- perhaps an old-time hymn or a traditional folk song from your childhood.
As you listen to a melody you particularly like and you start writing words to it, what begins to emerge? A parody? A protest song? A song for children? A religious devotion song? A got the blues song? A love song? A jingle?
And just because music is your prompt doesn't mean you have to end up with a song. As you revise drafts, you might shape it as a poem, or even as some other form, such as a movie scene.
My Writing Group Writes a Song
When I showed an early draft of this article to a critique writing group that meets in Kalamazoo, I got some good suggestions. Then we tried the technique. I suggested "On the Beautiful Blue Danube" by Johann Strauss II. Kath, a member who likes writing parody songs, suggested the theme and had most of the ideas, and this was our result:
Beautiful Blue Danube by Strauss
Water Pipe Waltz
I must confess
(I must confess)
The basement’s a mess
(It is a mess)
The water pipe broke
(Oh yes it broke)
And everything’s soaked
(yes, thoroughly soaked)
We must move stuff out
(Must move stuff out)
My wife’s in a pout
(She's in a pout)
But when we are done
We'll have fun
And waltz till the night is done.
The Red Flag
This Little Light of Mine (freedom song)
Protest Songs of the Labor and Civil Rights Movements
Historically, writing new words to familiar songs happens frequently within social movements. When people are passionate about their opposition to oppression and are striving to better their conditions, often they want to sing about their struggle. Here are a few out of many examples:
After the American Abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859) was hung, Thomas Brigham Bishop (1835-1905) and/or person or persons unknown wrote the song "John Brown's Body" [the one that, in the version I learned in school, begins, "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave"] to the tune of "Glory, Hallelujah", which may have been by William Steffe (1830-1890) or may have been a traditional Methodist camp-meeting hymn that he collected and edited. Union soldiers made up different verses to "John Brown's Body" as they marched and camped. Then in November 1861 Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to the tune of "John Brown's Body". It expressed the fervor of the movement to save the Union, which represented the ideal, as President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) would express it two years later in his "Gettysburg Address", of a nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men [doubtless today he would say persons] are created equal." In 1915 Ralph Chaplin (1887-1961) wrote the words to "Solidarity Forever" for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to the tune of "Glory, Hallelujah" / "John Brown's Body" / "Battle Hymn of the Republic." The inspirational, rousing song became, and remains, an anthem of the labor movement.
The lyrics of another labor movement song, "The Red Flag", the anthem of the British Labour Party, were written in 1889 by Irishman Jim Connell (1852-1929). It is usually sung to the tune of "O Tannenbaum" ("Oh Christmas Tree").
The song "This Little Light of Mine" was written by Harry Dixon Loes (1892-1965) about 1920 as a gospel children's song. It got so popular in churches that in 1939 John Lomax (1867-1948) collected it as a folk song. (In 1961 John's son Alan Lomax (1915-2002) made new field recordings, issued in a four record set titled "Sounds of the South," and including "This Little Light of Mine.") Its catchy, upbeat tune and easily adaptable verses have made it popular in religious and secular versions. In the 1950s Zilphia Horton (1910-1956) of Highlander Folk School wrote an adaptation of the lyrics for the civil rights movement and taught them to folk singers like Pete Seeger (1919- ). Soon Horton's version was being sung at mass meetings and in protest marches wherever the "Freedom Movement" was active, with additional topical verses improvised by a song leader (or whoever felt inspired) on the spot.
The freedom song "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round" was written to the tune of the African American spiritutual of the same name. I have not found any source crediting an individual with writing the civil rights movement freedom song lyrics. The verses were improvised to fit current local situations.
About what good cause(s) are you passionate? Consider helping it by expressing its aspirations in song lyrics written to a familiar and emotionally apt tune.