How to be a pirate

Scarlett & Natalie, sistren

While I’m in the very early stages of writing a song called Jewish Girls, I can describe, in some detail, the way I chose a hook.

A hook is a short and hopefully catchy musical phrase that will recur several times during a song, hooking the listener into remembering and liking it. The hook is often the setting of the title (it is in this case) but it doesn’t have to be, and a song can contain more than one. My work on Jewish Girls has gone slowly. I had a bunch of lyrical ideas but hadn’t yet found a form for the song. So, I thought coming up with a hook might jump-start the process.

Context is of paramount importance here. So, there’s much to describe: The setting is a log cabin meeting room in a religious retreat deep in the woods. The character – I’ve actually forgotten his name, so I’m going to call him Merv – is a gregarious thirtysomething who’s apt to share too much, making others uncomfortable. And sharing is the activity of the scene: various “campers” have been asked to tell what brought them to the retreat.

Orchestration has an impact here: The band will consist of intruments that one might carry into the woods, so no piano or cello. This limitation has been imposed much earlier in the process than is normal, but I’m hoping, in this score, to get away from the piano-based composing I so frequently do. So, many of the tunes will have a folk-rock feel, but there’s still got to be a lot of variety, stylistically. Elsewhere, there will be rap, unaccompanied chorus, and a love ballad that’s really a subtle march.

The lyric has a long way to go. One year ago, I decided to do the lazy thing: pose this question to Facebook friends. For a song, need to compile a huge list of positive answers to: What’s so wonderful about Jewish girls? The responses all came from Jewish women; seemingly, my male friends were stymied. Or prejudiced. I found that a bit shocking.

Creating a comedy song that may divide the audience is daunting. Humor is often based on a certain amount of agreement between audience and jokester. Writing this musical, I find myself fretting a lot about shared views: my characters, with their takes on mildly controversial subjects, must be embraced by an audience that disagrees with them.

Flipping back pages through my notebook, I find that I had the idea of dealing with Merv’s embarrassment in the verse, so that he baldly blurts things out in the chorus. It reads:

Jewish girls.

I love Jewish girls

Can’t get enough of Jewish girls

And I’m looking to hook up.

Looking at that, it seems in peril of using title and hook too frequently, too little space between.  So, I rewrote this to place the title in different positions in sentences:

Jewish girls.

I’m just wild about Jewish girls

Is there any doubt

Jewish girls make the rockin’ world go round.

“Make the rockin’ world go round” is, of course, the last line in the chorus of Queen’s Fat Bottomed Girls (by Brian May).  So it’s a quote from another humorous song, but, in its new context, it hopefully does a couple of things.  There’s something ridiculous about schlubby Merv quoting a rock song.  There’s also an implication, perhaps too subtle, that Merv may appreciate big butts; this could be one of the things he likes about Jewish women.  Or not.

My first idea for the hook was to set “Jewish girls” on A-G-B (in the key of C).  I may have come up with this phrase because it’s also in a song I wrote for one of those Facebook responders, years ago.  The three notes are heard on “close your eyes” and then “say a prayer” towards the end of my jazz lullaby.

As I started to compose using the A-G-B hook, I found myself slowly increasing tempo, like the start of a carousel ride.  The chords that came to mind descended: C, B7, B-Flat Major 7, A7.  But now the song reminded me of a carnival, as rendered by Nino Rota or another 1960’s European film composer.  Worse, it struck me as being something of a cliché and I’ve this sign on my desk that reads Eschew cliché.

How had I gotten so far afield?  My second attempt at a hook was a bit more overtly Jewish-sounding.  In C-minor, it drops an octave from G to G, and then surprises the ear with an A-natural on “girls.”   I dearly love a minor sixth chord, but this tune also reminded me of one I’d written before, a female duet called Alphabet Soup.

Much as I love the minor sixth, it began to seem utterly wrong for this context.  It’s a contemporary scene, not a 1930’s rally like Alphabet Soup‘s setting.  In pondering the environment Jewish Girls exists in, I was reminded that the sound of guitars, perhaps a solo guitar, would be part of the scene.  How did I lose sight of that?

That chord sequence I had under the first hook seemed worth revisiting.  If played slow and steady, it could sound sexy, like the wonderful Quincy Jones number in the film, The Color Purple.

That sheet music contains the tempo marking “Gutbucket blues” and I admire this song so much, I’ve long wanted to write something in that style.  Of course, it’s rather incongruous: Why is a contemporary horny man making reference to an early twentieth century black sub-genre?  Well, it’s possible this incongruity will bother me so much that I’ll throw this idea out too, but, currently, it’s striking me as a funny way to go.  Merv sees himself differently than the rest of the world, so it might be humorous to suggest he thinks that, deep inside, he’s a southern black blues singer from a century ago.

The feel virtually prescribes a hook: “Girls” has got to go on the seventh – it’s a common thing old blueses do: E-C-B-flat.  My trick here is to invert: the first title will have the shape of an upside-down check mark, going up than slightly down; the second title will go straight down, to a hopefully sexier growly part of the singer’s range.  During the time I was searching for a hook, I happened to have caught  William Finn’s 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, where used the first phrase in setting his title Woe Is Me.

The good news is: now that I’ve got the hook and some of the form, more and more lyrical ideas are occurring to me.  And, ladies, if you’re one of the Chosen People and catch me ogling you, remember it’s all for art’s sake.

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