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Song After Song: Coy Campbell 

Nightingale News songwriter/musician elaborates on two powerful songs

NIGHTINGALE NEWS' Coy Campbell is a prolific songwriter and musician who has built a reputation for his inventive and genre-bending approach to the craft. He was kind enough to break down an original song of his in great detail, and also examine one of his favorite songs—which also happens to be one of the most politically misunderstood songs in history.

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Here’s a very special edition of Song After Song, featuring Coy Campbell.

Original song: “Nuevo Serape” / 2016

The tune I’ve been asked to speak on is a one-off titled Nuevo Serape that came out of a dream in the period after the completion, but before the release of, my LP Bell Rope in 2016. It was a time of possibility, knowing that my new collection of songs would be released that fall. I do remember waking with a visually indistinct but very emotionally clear sense of well being and belonging from a dream I’d been having.

I couldn’t put a finger on it, but despite the fears of a looming election that nearly everyone I knew had strong feelings on, I had a sense in my gut that everything would be alright. America would come through with the votes necessary to avert the catastrophe of a Trump presidency. Rising and drawing the curtains, I was met by gray skies misting over shoots of new green long familiar to Savannah in early Spring.

Below my window was a defunct cab yard and dispatch kiosk. I saw oak and moss, thought of a man on his way to fetch water from a well, of journey and purpose, turned back, sat on the bed, and wrote the following lyric in less time than it will take to read this article.

So I set out

In the darkness

With a bucket

In the quiet facing rain

Past the cab stand

And the castle

And the tree limbs

Brushing silent

Polished frame

So it’s goodnight

To your mornings

Go on safely

Go on quiet

Back to bed

You belong here

In this garden

Where we all live

Where we all live

Where we all live

Where we all live

That was it. Not particularly any kind of poetry, but notes enough to compel a visualization to revisit and flesh out as something more along the lines of a painting. I pulled myself back beneath the bed sheets anticipating another verse after re-awakening later. Had I not written it down, there is a scarce chance I would have ever remembered having thought it. That’s the whole song, as it would turn out.

Seven months later, the lyric was still shelved on a music stand when a melody peeped out in the singing of those words. A simple, two chord figure emerged from daily practice and situated itself perfectly in support of the line. It just felt right, it fit, and despite my desire to sound intentional in the making, it wasn’t. It was just heart, and making up chords I could only afterward analyze and name. Simple chords to be sure, previously known but in a newly discovered position on the instrument. Familiar but different. Same chords for both verse and chorus, and no bridge. I could cite early influencers Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Gillian Welch for the former, even fewer for the latter, fewer yet with both atop a two chord figure. It definitely felt like I was breaking some rule that all the major dudes were aware of, but hadn’t informed me. It couldn’t be that easy. Turns out, it is and it isn’t.

In the months between joining these fragments together in a song, the 2016 presidential election and inauguration had taken place. The Women’s March had spoken in response that January, and the news was flooded with images of Savannah artist Panhandle Slim’s placards of informed dissent in the arms of fellow Georgian’s marching on Washington. Collating these images and sentiment, I called a session to record this song and produce a video reflecting the spirit and letter of dissent. Valentine’s Day was approaching and spirits were sore for lifting. I cut the single and compiled the video in one week, releasing it February 14th, 2017.

“There’s nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer.” -Jimmy Doolittle

Favorite Song: “Born In the USA” - Bruce Springsteen

In 1984, I was in middle school when Bruce Springsteen released Born in the USA. The album and the song of the same name were stratospheric hits of course, and are justly noted as one the greatest singles from one of the greatest batch of songs on one record in all of modern music. This couldn’t have mattered less to me as a kid, though, my interests were more Prince-adjacent that year and Bruce sounded like somebody’s uncle that gets lousy at the Fourth of July picnic. In short, corny old people music. Nonetheless, the song Born in the USA was inescapable then and a touchstone of those times now, forever playing in the background of that era, and few blue collar Americans avoided absorbing it in some way. Sadly, years would pass before I found his name attached to a gloomy album cover with the word Nebraska written in red across the front. When I finally discovered Bruce Springsteen, he was long out of sight of who I thought he was.

Today, I am a songwriter. Sometimes a serious and purposeful one, sometimes blindfolded and reaching, mostly a messy both. I try to stay in practice when not writing anything of my own that seems like it might last longer than a pair of shoes by studying songs that were written before or around me, and the cultural context of the people who wrote them. I attempt to figure out and play their stuff so that their rainfall may make its way to my aquifer. Recently, I was thumbing through old song books and came across Born in the USA. I’d never really looked at the bones of it beneath Roy Bittan’s opening synth melody (composed on the spot for the take you hear on the album) and Max Wienberg’s thunderous opening snare hits. I looked to the chart for the chords to lyrics long memorized:

Born down in a dead man’s town

First kick I took was when

I hit the ground

End up like a dog

That’s been beat too much

Till you spend half your life

Just covering up

Born in the USA

I was born in the USA

I was born in the USA

Born in the USA

It too, was a two chord song. The entire story plays out- melody, verses and choruses- over one chord change with no bridge. An anthem. About people. American ones. Maybe my song, Nuevo Serape, sounded so familiar upon writing because Bruce Springsteen had okayed the form three decades prior with a song even your mamma knows. Can’t say? In an epic generational reckoning that summarized the trauma of an era through the eyes of its most hapless agent, Springsteen slung a Super 8 camera out of his driver’s side window and caught a sunsetting America as proud to carry the flag as it was traumatized for having done so.

Far more than the chords, it’s about the inhabitants of the story. Their street names and first loves. The small parts becoming the big picture, the spike in your gut, the way it makes you feel when you see yourself in a song.

That’s rock and roll.

cs

For more on Nightingale News, visit nightingalenews.bandcamp.com

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Sean Kelly

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