The songwriters’ circle at Edmonton’s Northern Lights Folk Club highlighted and clarified a few things in my understanding of song and music. Throughout the evening—featuring Jay Gilday, Jasmine Whenham, and Jason MacDonald (joined by Colin Grant on fiddle)—questions bubbled to the surface of my brain: How did the people on stage crystallize ideas into song? What makes a songwriter different than a singer or for that matter any musician? What is a song?
First what is a song? Music and song have been described many ways—for Victor Hugo music expressed “that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.” Perhaps more completely E. Y. Harburg described the difference between written text and music, as “words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought.” The songs sung at Northern Lights certainly made us feel thoughts—particularly the second set where in one pass across the stage we were taken from considering life for young single parents (in light of now being a parent himself Gilday sang “Open up the Door” for some of the people he knew growing up who became parents very early), to attempting to understand the switch being flicked in a brain where that person is no longer themselves (Whenham sang a powerful—unreleased—song about when that switch flipped for her and she went from running for her life, to running from her life), to the impatience of waiting for a child’s birth (MacDonald sang “Overdue” about his eldest daughter’s birth). What these highly emotional songs demonstrated was a fragment of the person who wrote them. That was the moment when I realised the difference between a singer and a songwriter was that a songwriter breaks off part of their story to give to the audience, while a singer collects the fragments of others and presents them to an audience.
I still don’t quite know how songwriters distill moments and experiences into brief meldings of music and words—but that mystery is one that will continually draw me back. Causing me to listen to more songwriters, seek out how they experience the world, and judging by the standing-ovation that ended the songwriter’s circle at Northern Lights, I’m guessing I won’t be alone in that search.
The Northern Lights season continues in January 2018 with what promises to be an excellent evening with Coìg. Next week is the Canadian Folk Music Awards in Ottawa, the fiddle-player from the Northern Lights Songwriters’ circle Colin Grant is both nominated and performing, if you can’t make it out to Ontario you can live stream it at www.folkawards.ca.