It is so hard to write songs about your family. There are some really incredible songwriters in the world who have expressed their feelings for various family members in beautiful and powerful ways. I am not one of them. I guess I want to think about why I find it so difficult and I’m gonna do this generation by generation.
The closest I have come to writing a song about any member of my family is half a song I wrote about my Grandparents marriage. They were married in June 1952, the year of the Queen’s coronation, in a small church not far from the town where they have both have lived all their lives. My Granny wore a lilac dress which she later made into a dressing gown. There were roses growing outside the front door of the church and a few years later my Grandad took a clipping from them. He planted the clipping in the garden of the house they bought and every June the garden is full of bright pink roses.
I hate it when people say ‘there’s a song in that somewhere’ but this does seem like prime songwriting material. But my Grandparents lives together seems like such a vast thing to put into a 3 minute pop song. Not that vast things can’t be expressed in tiny spaces, but that you have to do it well, you have to do it justice and I haven’t been able to yet.
The Middle Ones have a beautiful song which Anna Knowles wrote about her Grandmother. ‘I will remember you’ is such an incredibly precise and honest expression of what it is to be a Granddaughter, of how it feels to know someone who is very close to you because they are part of you but who is at the same time so far away from you because of age and time and illness.
I find this song sometimes too sad to listen to, but when I listened to it today before writing this I realised that it is not sad exactly. The agency that Anna as a songwriter introduces into the song stops it from being a passive lament. The repeated refrain ‘I will remember you’ could be such a throw away thing but coming as it does after such a sensitive and clear expression of who her grandmother was, a “strange and stubborn and courageous” woman and after the vivid image of waving as she drove away, it is such a meaningful and truthful statement. The song is a eulogy and a declaration.
I think to write a song about someone so close as a family member you have to have some kind of hold on what they mean to you. Some way of being able to see and separate and express just some of what that person, who has been always a part of you and your life means to you. With Grandparents this can be especially difficult because getting to know your grandparents is a strange process. I feel like I knew my Grandparents in one way as a child, but now as an adult I’m getting to know my Granny in quite a different way.
I personally think songs are the perfect medium for writing about anything and everything but you have to be skilled to write about your grandparents without becoming overly sacharin whilst still giving them the emotion they deserve. Here is another song about a Grandmother by the singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell. Like in The Middle Ones’ song, Mitchell takes strength from her relationship with her Grandmother, strength from the differences in their times and situations. I love the lyric
“with the liberty you’ve given like the clothing you’ve outgrown
to your granddaughter”
I love any song with clothing as its main image (see my last post on Joanna Newsom and also Famous Blue Raincoat by Leonard Cohen). But I also think its extremely important that Mitchell introduces the contrast between her and her grandmother. Wearing the same dress her Grandmother did Mitchell can do so many things her Grandmother couldn’t do “talking and joking, swearing and smoking.” I feel like that is a really important difference between me and my grandmother – the oppurtunities I’ve been given that she wasn’t. There is a real sense of the changing of times in this song expressed in an extremely simple way.