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Ann Arbor folk musician Dick Siegel shares his songwriting skills in new Honors minicourse

Torehan Sharman/Daily
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BY DAVID RIVA
Daily Arts Writer
Published February 7, 2010

Think of your favorite song. It probably has a chorus, a few verses, maybe a bridge, a melody and perhaps some harmony. But that’s not why you listen to it.

According to Dick Siegel, “A song has a very simple purpose. It’s taking a feeling that you have — joy, remorse, love, anger — and capturing it somehow in this melody-rhythm-lyric tangle, and exposing someone else to it.”

The University graduate and Ann Arbor folk community mainstay has been refining the craft of songwriting for more than 30 years. He’s a member of the Detroit Music Hall of Fame, a recipient of the Best New Folk Artist award at the Kerrville Folk Festival and, perhaps most notably, has a ham and turkey sandwich named after him at Zingerman’s Deli.

And now he has the title of University professor to add to his résumé.

Constructing a career

Considering Siegel’s biography, college-aged students are the perfect fit for the course he's teaching, “Singing Out of Our Minds: A Songwriting Workshop." He started writing songs while attending the University as an English major, with the aid of some inspiration from Bob Dylan.

“At some point in college, I rediscovered Dylan,” Siegel said. “When I first heard (him) when I was a kid, I just couldn’t stand (him). But when I started listening to (him) in college, all of the sudden it was like ‘This music is just so visceral and so bare-bones — with just a voice and a guitar.’ And I played guitar and I had a voice.”

Soon Siegel was playing at a weekly open-mic night called the Hootenanny at the Ark in its old Hill Street location. He used this as a jumping-off point to concentrate more time and energy on songwriting.

“One day I took a trip out to California after I graduated in my VW mini-van, and on my way back I thought of some experience I had with somebody — some weird experience,” he said. “And I started making up this song … and it was fun. (I thought) ‘Wow, I just made this up,’ and I liked it. It sort of made sense of something that I was feeling, and when I came back to Ann Arbor, I performed it at the Ark.

"The reception was very good. It was probably better than any other song I was singing.”

This newfound love for songwriting snowballed, and Siegel started to consider his music as the main focus of his life. He was able to maintain this lifestyle with a job in construction on the side.

“I struck some kind of a balance that worked for me,” he explained. “I was doing enough music, performing enough, moving around enough, getting music out to the world enough, and at the same time I wasn’t starving. And I was actually enjoying building things, building houses, being a carpenter.”

Another key factor in the success of Siegel’s music career is the support of the Ann Arbor community and its respect for the “endeavor of being creative.” This rich cultural atmosphere was especially noticeable to Siegel, who grew up in New Jersey.

“Ann Arbor was one of these places that was very friendly to a Bohemian existence, and so it was comfortable to stay here,” he said. “And I’ve lived here ever since.”

“It’s a community that, at least to a greater degree than a lot of places, respects art and music,” he added.

Not only did this culture provide an enthusiastic audience, it also produced a number of talented musicians. Siegel recruited some jazz musicians to form a band called Dick Siegel and the Ministers of Melody. He recorded Snap!, his debut and best-selling album to date, in 1980 with the five-piece.

The album produced instant classics including “When the Sumac Is On Fire,” “What Would Brando Do?” and “Angelo’s” (an ode to Ann Arbor's favorite little breakfast place), which can still be heard every Saturday and Sunday morning on 94.7 WCSX, Detroit's classic rock radio station.

Since then, Siegel has recorded two more full lengths and an EP varying in style and subject matter that showcase his versatility as a musician.

In honorable company

In his latest project, he now serves as this semester's Helen L. DeRoy Visiting Professor in the Honors Program, a position that has been held by some impressive figures, including a Nobel laureate, a former Secretary of the Treasury and a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

So how did Siegel end up in the presence of such formidable company?

Siegel's relationship with the Honors Program started in November 2008, when he was a guest speaker in the “Lunch with Honors” series.

This experience, along with an itch to teach songwriting, led him to his current position.

“I’ve done some songwriting and I’ve been a part of these songwriting retreats where you go and people who are amateur songwriters come and they spend a weekend and then I’d be hired as one of the faculty songwriters and I’d teach them and perform … and I enjoyed it,” Siegel said.

Although the outlet for this teaching endeavor wasn’t initially evident, it became obvious after some contemplation.

“I just began thinking about what that might be like to actually teach songwriting here in Ann Arbor,” he said. “I went through a bunch of ideas, and finally I thought, 'Of course, the University.' ”

But does a songwriting class have any place in a liberal arts college?

Timothy McKay, director of the Honors Program, thinks so.

“Songs are a particularly wonderful form of expression,” McKay said. “Almost everyone, in every culture, listens to songs. Many people sing them. But relatively few have the chance to seriously explore expressing themselves through song.”

Siegel also makes a convincing argument to justify the class.

“(Poetry is) something that has been taught at a university level, where it’s sort of the legitimate form of self expression for many, many years now,” Siegel explained. “Singer-songwriters (are) not uncommon anymore. In fact, a lot of people (are) using songs as a form of self-expression.

“And so a course in songwriting made sense, even (if it’s) not in the music school, but in the liberal arts school,” he added.

Songwriting from scratch

With logistics and precedent aside, a massive elephant in the room remained.

Siegel had to confront the questions of “Can you teach somebody how to write a song?” and “How do you teach songwriting?”

He solved this puzzle by outlining three main components for the course.

The first is what Siegel calls the “songwriting workshop,” in which people carry out the act of writing and performing songs.

“Every two weeks they’re coming up with a new song,” he said.

This part of the course forces students out of their comfort zone and jump-starts the creative process.

It’s not a free-for-all, however, as Siegel sets up some guidelines. For example, the first assignment was centered around the theme of rivers.

“Sometimes limitations are very good,” Siegel explained. “(They prevent) you from thinking all things are possible. Maybe (if) you just look at certain parameters you can come up with something and surprise yourself.”

The method of constraining the students to one narrowly focused idea has proven to be quite effective.

LSA sophomore Emily Byl, a member of Siegel's class, said "(Siegel) is very much a natural at teaching. The first day we went in he got us all really involved and we wrote a song together right off the bat."

In that first class, Siegel laid out a melody and chorus, but no words for the verses. The task was to come up with some lyrics for the holes in the song.

“Fifteen minutes later, everybody had come up with something to sing,” Siegel said. “And this is after the introductions when everyone was saying how words are hard to come by. And everybody’s words were so cool in all different ways.

“It’s just a trick of the mind,” he added. “I sort of gave them a different environment to be creative, without any of the usual of ‘Oh, I can’t do this’ or ‘What do I feel today?’ or any of that stuff. It was just — boom — and they had all these dense little images they came up with, with meaning and themes in four lines.”

LSA sophomore and class member Kimberly Grambo wrote in an e-mail interview, "We have a great mix of people with different musical backgrounds, and I can tell people are improving already. Everyone has something awesome and unique to bring to class every week."

The second component in Siegel’s teaching process is a study of the craft of songwriting, focusing specifically on the creative aspect.

“There’s a sense that I had that people, by the time they’re in college, have been listening to music for 20 years,” he said. “They already have favorite songs, they’ve been listening to songs. They love songs, songs are meaningful. They carry them around in their head, they sing them. Intuitively, (they) have a sense of what a good song is.”

Questions like “What things are happening while you write a song?” and “What are the things you have to attend to in order to do it well?” come up frequently. Siegel is able to provide constructive criticism to students eagerly expressing themselves.

The final component in this songwriting education is to become familiar with American roots music.

“The songs that people hear these days that are inspiring people to write songs ... were inspired by previous traditions. The more you understand those traditions — the basic, fundamental streams of songwriting in the American tradition — the more you can understand songwriting,” Siegel explained.

Musicians like the “incredible creative force” Willie Dixon (known for his Chicago blues arrangements sung by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf) and the “watershed performer” Robert Johnson (the most recognizable face of Delta blues) are seen as the forefathers of the American songwriting tradition and are used to illustrate the “basic form” of songs.

Grooving forward

Even though he has quite a bit of experience under his belt, Siegel isn’t done learning yet. He looks at the songwriting course as a continuation of his own education.

“Every week I have to come up with something that’s going to move (the class) along and be interesting to people (and also) interesting to me,” he explained. “(It has) allowed me to explore all sorts of things about my process, how songs work, how creativity works (and) about where American music came from.”

In fact, Siegel hopes to extend the reciprocal effect of the class by searching for other teaching outlets in the future, citing the Residential College as something he will look into.

And students would certainly benefit from having the chance to learn under such a passionate artist.

"He has a lot of energy, and he is very passionate about what he does," Byl said. "He really knows how to get us energized about singing and songwriting."

And Siegel is just as energized as his students.

“I’m having a very positive experience,” he said. “It’s fascinating to me. I really enjoy working with the people I’m working with. I’m learning so much, and it seems like a valuable thing to do. And it’s really a pleasure to be teaching at the University.”

The intensely personal and exceedingly subjective process of writing a song will never be broken down into an exact science. But by emphasizing the value of routinely writing and performing, the importance of squeezing a single emotion into a set of words and the significance of studying the greats, Dick Siegel, armed with the many years he has spent perfecting his craft, is making the complex art of songwriting a little more digestible.


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