Resa Randolph: On song writing

Posted:  Friday, June 13, 2014 - 8:30am

In December of 2011, my daughter, Emily, came home from her first semester of college, bringing with her a collection of poems she had written for a class. As she read them to me, I could hear the songs that lay behind the words. So we sat down together and began what has now become one of my greatest joys: mother-daughter songwriting.

My relationship with Emily has not always been musical. As a child, she loved to sing, but was completely tone deaf. I would try to hammer out the notes of a song on the piano and she would sing along in her loud, delighted, monotonal voice. By the time she got to middle school, while no longer singing off key, her loud joyous voice all but disappeared behind a blanket of timidity. She still loved to sing, and she did so with joy but only while riding her bike, in the shower (of course) or from within the protective cocoon of her school choir. That deep rooted musical ability, the ability to pick out a harmony line from the air, to close one's eyes and just let the music flow - something that had come to me so early and so easily - failed to emerge in my daughter. I despaired that she would grow up without . . . without harmony!

So when we began to collaborate, transforming her poems into songs, I rejoiced. Finally we were creating music together. She would present me with a poem, frequently in free verse. I would modify it into a singable rhythm, sometimes changing a word here or there, sometimes adding a new verse. Together we would brainstorm the song's chorus. I would figure out a chord progression, and hum around for a tune. Sometimes the process was spontaneous and free flowing. Sometimes the song wanted nothing to do with us and we would have to cajole it out. Sometimes the song would have to go sit in a desk drawer for a few months before it was ready to come out. We have our great songs and, yes, we have our failures.

Emily's songs began as elaborate pieces, deep in metaphor and rich in substance. As her song writing evolved, they became simpler, clearer and sometimes heart wrenching - following the Appalachian style of repeating the same line over and over, changing one or two words to move the story forward. Such is the case with For Ginger, a song she wrote shortly after our beloved terrier died. "Oh my sister, my dear sister, why'd you go, why did you go?" the song asks over and over and over again. "Why'd you leave me in the winter, as it snowed, oh as it snowed?" As soon as Emily shared these lyrics with me, I knew exactly what that song would sound like. I took out my claw hammer banjo, tuned it down to G minor, and wrote a haunting melody that evokes the back woods, hills, poverty and loss.

Not all of our songs are so sad. In fact, most are quite joyful. Take, for instance, Take Off Your Old Shoes, a song about spring, that urges the listener to "Sit in the grass by the river and take off your old shoes. Wiggle your toes in the grass by the river." The chords and melody of this song have a strong Latin influence, springing directly from my childhood in South America, where I first learned to play the guitar.

Quite recently, a miracle happened! My beautiful daughter began to sing, loudly and richly and in harmonies. I don't know why this happened when it did. But now, when I get up on stage beside my daughter, she with her upright bass and I with my guitar and we begin to sing in a single voice that splits into twin voices, singing the songs we have written together, as collaborators — my joy cannot be measured.

Resa Randolph is a singer/songwriter and founder of Miners Creek Bluegrass Band. Emily Randolph is a writer, poet, singer/songwriter and bass player in Miners Creek Bluegrass Band. You can reach them at

We tell stories.
We tell stories to make sense of our lives.
We tell stories to communicate our experience of being alive.
We tell stories in our own distinct voice. Our own unique rhythm and tonality.

Transformations is a weekly story-telling column. The stories are written by community members who are my students. Our stories are about family, love, loss and good times. We hope to make you laugh and cry. Maybe we will convince you to tell your stories.
— Kathrin Seitz, editor, and Cheryl Durbas, co-editor

"Everyone, when they get quiet, when they become desperately honest with themselves, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there." — Henry Miller

Kathrin Seitz teaches Method Writing in Rockport, New York City and Florida. She can be reached at Cheryl Durbas is a freelance personal assistant in the Midcoast area. She can be reached at