Tucked high up in Appalachia, a stone’s throw from the Blue Ridge Parkway, sits Sparta, North Carolina. Sparta was our home for two weeks of the Art We There Yet journey, and our music workshop at Alleghany JAM was a special experience.
Fifteen students from Alleghany JAM came together and wrote this piece in a few short hours. Each music workshop is different, each final song has a different flavor and feel.
The song from this workshop really captured our hearts. So we decided to edit in footage the we captured for our final documentary film. It just flows so perfectly and well with the song.
When you read the song lyrics, it immediately strikes you as sad and a bit dark. The students’ aim was rather for the song to be about rebirth. To leave behind the old, embrace the uncertainty of the moment, and to allow emotions free reign to help carry us through. This seems a timely message for the moment we find ourselves in.
“The Wind From the South” Lyrics
I drive, the wind from the south
Lightening strikes the ground
Oh why must this make sense when everything’s in doubt?
And I’m crying
The road welcomes me home
Is this a test of life?
My load is the moon shining
And a wreck off the road is beside me
And I’m dying
How the Music Workshop Works
Songwriting can be an intimidating thing. If I had a nickel for every time someone has told me, “I wouldn’t even know where to begin!” Or “I definitely don’t have the talent.”
The heart of the music workshop is to introduce students to songwriting in a fun and welcoming way. We want students to walk away from the workshop feeling that it was surprisingly easy to write a song, and that they definitely have the talent to do it.
We start by looking at a song as a three-layer cake: chords, lyrics, and melody
We write the chord progression by giving a set of 4 chords to choose from. C / Em / F / G. Each student writes one chord on a slip of paper. Then we crumple the slips into balls, toss the balls into the air, and scramble to pick them up.
Then we go around the circle and read out the chords one by one. This forms one long chord progression, that we split into three separate progressions. I play the three different progressions on the guitar, and the group votes on their favorite progression. We use this as the progression for our first verse.
I play the chord progression at three different speeds and strumming/picking patterns. Slow/pick, medium/strum, or fast/strum? The students vote on their favorite. Or suggest some combination of the options!
Chord Progression – check!
Next we focus on writing the lyrics of that first verse. We close their eyes and listen as I play the chord progression over and over. Then we open our eyes and students, and I ask:
Did the music bring any images to the minds eye? Did it evoke any emotions? What did it make you think about? Family, going on an adventure, feeling blue?
We share our thoughts, and from these bits of input a few lines of lyrics naturally evolve. When students start to see the poetry falling into place, more suggestions come forward for the next line of words.
This is a stage where my role is really that of the ‘weaver’, pulling together everyone’s input in a cohesive way. It’s also very important that at this stage, no one’s ideas are put down or dismissed. That is the quickest way to make a child – especially a young teen – never want to attempt songwriting again.
Creating a whole verse goes surprisingly quickly when students start getting the hang of how we weave together different ideas into lines of poetry.
Lyrics – check!
Writing melody is the fun part! I do a demonstration by showing how we can come up with melody ideas, simply by playing chord progression and singing the lyrics off-the-cuff. I sing the same line of lyrics with different melody patterns.
Then I invite any students to try it. This takes tremendous bravery. Speaking in front of a group is hard. Singing in front of a group is harder. Being a young teen and singing in front of a group is…phew! It’s tough!
Students share their melody ideas, and those are woven together to form the melody of the verse!
Melody – check!
At this stage, the students get the process, and we repeat to create the chorus. Then we repeat the lyric writing process to write the rest of our verses.
Our immense thanks to Alleghany JAM for hosting the workshop, and to the Alleghany Arts Council for helping arrange the workshop with JAM. A special thank you to JAM for allowing us to park the bus for nearly two weeks next to the JAM house. Thank you to all the JAM board members, Arts Council members, teachers, and community members who made our visit to Sparta so special.