First, It Was the Music

Behind me is my old guitar. I’ve written about it before. But today, as I sit at the desk in the shed, I am reading an online article about another guitar, Bob Dylan’s famous, or infamous, electric now on display at the American Writers Museum in Chicago. It is the one he played at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, his first live performance with an electric, a significant and dramatic shift in his art. It may be the most iconic instrument in music history.


Dylan’s Fender

At the AWM along with the guitar, are artifacts of Dylan’s songwriting, poems, and prose. This is the bigger part of the story. I’m not remotely linking myself to Dylan, certainly not, but his guitar and his words remind me of my own creative maturation. My first creative work was music with the guitar that now leans against the shed wall. Before anything, it was the music.

I’ve written before about what I might label myself—an author, a journalist, a writer. Through it all, what I am is a storyteller. And it was the old Yamaha that kicked it off.

I learned to play basic chords by watching my sister who had taken a few lessons. She only pursued it briefly. I kept at it. I had taken piano lessons, so I knew notes. I was never very good at the keyboard, but I could fake it enough to join a garage band with my high school buddies. The lead guitar player was a far better six-stringer than me, so I paid attention and learned more and more. I trained my fingers to produce more complicated chords and how to three-finger pick. Soon, the lead player and I were performing at coffeehouses and bars as a duo, and I started writing my own songs. They were awful. But they got better over the years. I still write today, but it’s mostly for my own creative outlet. Still, the guitar, and the writing of the music and lyrics are what originally sparked my creative life all those years ago. Today, the sparks still flicker from time to time, and now and then the flame jumps from the fire.


Yahama FG-160 Circa: 1972

I wrote a book about this part of my life a few years ago. October Song is about chasing a dream no matter one’s age, and the long journey to the east coast to offer up an original song in a regional songwriting contest. That book and the song—A Better Day—came together at the right time, a time of introspection and rediscovery. Songwriting and prose in a personal creative marriage.

I’m spent a few hours in the shed today working on a new manuscript, one that has little do with music. Now, I am topped out. I’ve become edgy from the process. So, I turn to the guitar. There’s been this tune in my head, a chord progression, and a picking sequence. I place the guitar across my knee and tune the low E string to a D. I play one chord, then another. Then another. I hum a melody, bouncing around the key to find something delicate, something new. The tune rises and falls. I record it on my phone. Try it all again and record it again. Over and over, I play. A half-an-hour passes. My fingers sting but I am satisfied that I have begun to release something into the world.

What I’ve played today may never be a full song, never develop into something bigger. But the music was there when I wanted it, when I needed it. The guitar had been waiting for me

OctoberSongCover1A few months ago, in a flurry of creation, I recorded a number of original songs.  They had been inside me for a long time, waiting to come out. Are they any good? I don’t know. That’s ultimately not the point; I captured them anyway. Simple voice and that old guitar. They can be found at SoundCloud under the title of Waterfall.


Here’s the title track. Just me and that old guitar.



5 thoughts on “First, It Was the Music

  1. To me, that connection, is absolutely critical. I was not a good writer as a kid. But I loved stories. And my storytellers were Lennon and McCartney, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Dylan, and Joni Mitchell, and later people like Steve Earle and Amos Lee and Jason Isbell. Music led me to story. I still believe in the power of lyrics and I guess, when I write, that comes out in my words. It is simply ingrained.


  2. Well done, brother Berner. And your experience, your creative journey convinces me anew that people with the inner impulse to fashion some truth in this world often find many ways to express it.


    • That is so true. And I know others who do the same. But I wonder if each way of expressing brings with it some individual level of truth, meaning each one offers something the other never could. Hmm?


  3. I believe so. When I’m deep into playing a blues, I’m touching a place that’s ineffable. I’ve often been told that some of my drawings and paintings, especially the portraits, get beneath the surface to reveal something much deeper. Again, I don’t think it would be possible for me to capture that subtlety with words.


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