Jaz Dorsey: Why Write a Song? — Jaz Dorsey — AAPEX

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Jaz Dorsey: Why Write a Song?

It all began with a song.

Being a child of the 60s, my political mentors were all songwriters- Bob Dylan, Bufffy St. Marie, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Country Joe and the Fish, Janis Joplin, and Grace Slick were the folks and forces who guided, shaped and molded my political and social consciousness. Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill saw me through college.

And it's one, two, three, what are we fighting for?

I got to go a little deeper because of an amazing teacher named
Flika Tate who taught English in the school of the the Adolescent Unit of John Umstead Hospital, the North Carolina state mental institution where I spent the last three years of high school. Miss Tate and her students spent the entire 11th grade year studying the lyrics of contemporary songs.

One pill makes you larger and another makes you small.

So I guess it makes sense that when something came along that pissed me off, the only reaction I could have had was to write a song. A protest song.

What I was protesting against was the malignant and ruthless disenfranchisement of the American actor - which in my case boiled down to being told that "if you were any good, you'd be in New York"- especially by certain members of my own family, and in a very indirect and patronizing way by folks who did their casting in New York and spoke for amusement disparagingly of local talent. I decided that if I stayed in Atlanta I was going to end up with a serious case of the "Manhattan Blues" - so it called for a blues song, and that was the one I wrote:

I pay my union dues, I read that Broadway news, I'm a natural ham,
still here I am, singing those Manhattan blues.

The song had an interesting effect, and the next thing I knew it was the opening number in a musical called ATLANTA PROUD. The majority of the songs in the show were mine, but it was a collaboration with other Atlanta songwriters in a story about some Atlanta actors who have to go to the Big Apple and get NYC credits before they can get in to Atlanta auditions. Later, with another great collaborator, George Lawes, we took it in a whole 'nother direction and came up with the Tallulah Buckhead Story or DESTINY CALLS COLLECT which had several incarnations, two of them starring former Miss Georgias, but the ultimate production starred the astounding Janet Metzger - who is still one reason to go to Atlanta today.

Working with George Lawes got me in on anther great collaboration in 1988 when another group of Atlanta songwriters got together to freak out about election year with a show called FAUST FOR PRESIDENT. I got to write the devil's song 'Fun in the White House' (which was performed by another legendary diva, LinDel Sandlin - who took her legendary tuchas to New York City, where she seems very happy and looks as good now as she did then - if not better.)

Growing up to be the president, isn't that what American meant?
It doesn't matter, poor or rich, good guy or a son of a bitch.
O we'll have fun in the White House, wait and see,
it's just the right house for you and for me;
we'll party away international gloom,
smoking a joint in the Oval Room.

I had a nice job for a while at a chi chi restaurant called The Peasant Uptown, but I got fired and that pissed me off, so I wrote a whole bunch of songs about the injustice of the workplace, and that turned into a musical called CAFE ESCARGOT, about a waiter who gets fired and returns in drag disguised as a food critic to get revenge, bringing with him the ladies of the Buckhead Dunwoody Diet Brigade, which was my take on the Atlanta Junior League. Except in my version of things, one lady was white, one was Jewish and one was African American.

O we're the Buckhead Dunwoody Diet Brigade
and we are here to check you out.
We've left the housework and children at home
with the maid to see what you're all about.

Then I went looking for another job and couldn't find one and that pissed me off, so out came another protest musical called ALICE IN AMERICA.

I need a job, I need a job, I need a j-o-b,
so I can earn my pay,
and if you've got a little work that you can give to me,
then I could start today.

Adding to my growing bewilderment with life, I was finding much about the economic and political realities of "show business" that pissed me off, so out come more songs and another musical, BABBLEHAGGLE AND VAN DER BICH - so titled because I found that mostly what one did in an effort to create theatre was to babble, to haggle and to bitch.

In particular, it seemed that other folks had sponsors for their shows and I wanted a sponsor of my own. So I created one:

Okey Dokey Cola is the only kind of cola in the whole damn world.
It's a fizzy cola, yes it's Okey Dokey Cola - in the whole damn world.
It's not the kind of cola that you serve to your guests.
You keep it for yourself because you know it's the best.

Ultimately these were the songs that earned me passage to Oz. In 1988, The Lewis Carroll Society of North America invited me to present ALICE IN AMERICA at their annual convention in New York City and I hit the ground running

Over the next ten years, I made a nice chunk of change writing songs for other people's shows, but it was never quite the same as the songs I wrote back in the day when I got pissed off about something.

I am in envy of those folks who can write a song that goes "Oh, baby, oh baby, oh baby" and make a million dollars. I would have no problem with that at all. But songs have greater import than that in the bigger picture, and I think the real reason why write a song is because you have something to say.

Jaz Dorsey
AAPEX Dramaturg
The Nashville Dramaturgy Project

Come to Nashville and Go to the Theatre

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