Songwriting is just pretending, with words, and rhyme and meter, and music and hopefully some well placed counterpoint.
Some of my songs, in fact most of them I suppose, are autobiographical. At least the premise for the song is. I claim poetic license and reserve the right to alter some of the specifics. Its part of the beauty of creative writing.
The Builder is not autobiographical.
My daddy was a builder, that’s how he kept us fed….
My dad was a mathematician. Sadly, he eventually kept his beer glass full and we resorted to things like raking leaves and cleaning peoples’ garages to get a few dollars to buy a gallon of milk. Before he left he did occasionally leave quarters under the cushion of the easy chair. There was a time when he did somewhat responsibly keep us dressed and fed, when I was very young. By the time I was a teenager he was gone and nary was a cent given to put a meal on the table. Therefore there are a number of truly autobiographical songs about our mom.
Back to the song.
The Builder was one of the few songs for which I wrote the lyric first. Usually the music will haunt me before the lyric appears. I made a conscious decision to write a song that emphasized the values of devotion and family and hard work. Maybe I wish my dad had heard such a song when he was young, and the theme behind the lyric had haunted his brain and infused such values into his heart. Maybe.
The principles behind the lyric are absolutely true to my personal beliefs. I think they are universal truths. But what I try to emphasize to my songwriting students is that the more specific you are in your writing, the more universal the feeling is. I would not want to say “We are responsible for our own happiness and we should take care of the people we love…yeah, yeah, yeah”
First of all, only the Beatles can get away with putting yeah, yeah, yeah in a song. Secondly, that’s not storytelling, that’s preaching. No one wants to be preached to. So the idea is “show - don’t tell!”
So the picture I tried to paint was of a father and his daughter, who could sit comfortably in silence as they rode out to the work site. There is a place deep in the darkest middle of me where I believe my dad and I could have had that. It’s that place where the joy and the hurt dance daily. I usually forget its there, but I instinctively keep it alive with chocolate chip cookies.
Merlyn Schofield was my best friend and singing partner. She taught me many things about music, and about life, and she was such a good person to sing a song to. She always asked to hear it again. She’d sit and listen through the second time, then ask for a third and she would hum a harmony against my melody and we soon owned the song completely. We made a demo of the Builder. It won some songwriting awards. I pitched it to a publisher at a songwriting seminar and he picked it up. This was sort of a big deal for me. So big, in fact, that my mom and Libby and Dave bought a bouquet of helium filled balloons and tied it to the lamp post in our front yard when I signed the publishing contract on it. It said something like “Way to go, Cori!” This was early in my songwriting career, before I knew that just getting a song published was not balloon bouquet worthy…unless the publisher was a good one. Lucky for me he was a good one.
His name was Dude McLean and his name fit him perfectly. I liked him. And he liked my song. He worked the song like a publisher should. A publisher in popular music (as opposed to sheet music) is basically an agent for the song. His job is to exploit the song, to get it heard by the “powers that be” and hopefully get a “cut” or recording by some fabulous artist who sells millions of records.
Dude worked the song so well that we had a hold on it from Bette Midler. She eventually released the hold and Tanya Tucker asked for a hold. I think he continued to pitch it even with the hold, because I recall distinctly the day he called and told me Linda Ronstadt also asked for a hold. He made me promise not to tell a soul because it might jinx it. Songwriting and sports have similar superstitions.
Anyway, turns out that Linda did record THE BUILDER. We waited a long, long time to hear it.
You’ll have to wait for me to explain the writing of GET BACK ON THAT PONY to hear the end of the story.
My daddy was a builder, that’s how he kept us fed
And my hometown knew what the man could do
With a hammer and a dream in his head
I sat right beside him in our old flatbed Ford
And we hauled a load down to Old Town Road
Daddy never said a word
It was his quiet meditation before the work began
Then when we reached our destination there was a level plot of land
When I broke the silence I’d ask him if he knew
Who we’re going to build this home for anyway
Then he’d look across the land
This is what he’d say…
CHORUS: We can build a man a house, but we cannot make his home
It’ll stand against the wind, but we can’t make it warm
It’s the spirit of a family that makes a shelter whole
And its love that gives it a soul
We can build a man a house but we cannot make his home
That’s something they’ll have to do alone
Daddy taught his children to work an honest day
If we tried real hard and we kept our word
We’d get an honest pay
Now there’s a good foundation under my entire daddy made
We could change the wood if we thought we should
But the stones stayed where they were laid
Build: Now I’ll take my little children and set them on my knee
And tell them all the stories he used to tell to me
Sometimes we’ll sit in silence and speak without a word
And my mind can drift through thoughts of yesterday
Then I repeat the words I heard my daddy say… REPEAT CHOURS
There you have it. More than you ever wanted to know.
THE BUILDER is not autobiographical. Just wishful thinking.
You can hear THe Builder by scrolling through the list of Cori's Songs in the red music box below. Click on THE BUILDER, then click the play arrow.