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Song Idea: Making The Same Different (I)

Song Idea: Making The Same Different (I)

Song Idea – Is It An Idea?


One of your biggest challenges as a songwriter is finding an original angle on a song idea.

In his book Tunesmith, Jimmy Webb makes a great observation about what a song “idea” is not.

“The following is not an idea:
I want to write a song about someone who goes through acute mood swings – from euphoria to emotional exhaustion. I love this person and want to address the song to him.

If, however, you add the following sentence: ‘I want to call the song “Problem Child,”‘ then you have an ‘idea,’ even though the song may not end up being called ‘Problem Child.’ “
So, what is a unique song idea on an old – or similar theme?

In 2004 a song called “Dance With My Father,” written by Richard Marx and Luther Vandross won a Grammy for Song of the Year (it hit #34 on the pop charts).

One of the things that struck me about the song as I was reading the lyric recently was how much the song concept, or idea, mirrored a poem by Theodore Roethke called “My Papa’s Waltz.”

I thought it might be a good comparison to take a look at.

While the Marx/Vandross song “Dance With My Father,” may revolve around a similar concept as the poem “My Papa’s Waltz,” the unique angle, or idea, changes slightly with the titles.

I would argue “Dance With My Father” is inclusive of the speaker/singer. They sound as if they are part of the dance, while “My Papa’s Waltz” sounds as if the speaker is watching their father and perhaps commenting on how the waltz is symbolic in some way of their relationship.

The language of each also takes the song and poem in very different directions.

Jimmy Webb also says in his book that “. . . all great lyrics use the devices of poetry.” I tend to agree, and believe poetry can teach songwriters a lot about rhyme, metaphor, personification, imagery, meter/rhythm and above all else, the power of words used well.

I’ve included a video of “Dance With My Father” and a link to the full lyrics. I’ve included the first verse and chorus, as well as the complete poem “My Papa’s Waltz” below.

Go ahead and listen to the song and read through the poem, and I’ll meet you on the other side for more discussion!



“Dance With My Father” Lyrics

[full lyrics]

Back when I was a child,
Before life removed all the innocence
My father would lift me high
And dance with my mother and me
And then spin me around ’til I fell asleep
Then up the stairs he would carry me
And I knew for sure I was loved

If I could get another chance,
Another walk, another dance with him
I’d play a song that would never, ever end
How I’d love, love, love to dance with my father again.


Now, Theodore Roethke’s poem. If you visualize the scene that’s taking place, I think you’ll immediately hone in on how this song and poem, while being similar in terms of a concept, are very different ideas.


My Papa’s Waltz

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

The imagery in both are stunning, and because the speaker is so much “in the moment,” the emotional connection for the listener of either is there.

I’ve used the Songwriting Analysis exercise to take a look at “Dance With My Father” and compared it to “My Papa’s Waltz” – you can find the analysis in parts 2 and 3.


Parts 2 and 3

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