BY CARLY BUTER
My dad and I co-wrote a song together for the first time in March of 2015. Seeing the song come to life from the penciled pages of his handwritten notebook made me curious about the process, specifically in the earlier days of his songwriting. When I brought up the idea of being featured on Handwritten, he knew exactly what he wanted to share. Below is the conversation with my dad, Dale Butler, folk singer-songwriter and local celebrity of Leamington, Ontario.
CARLY: Where did you find these pieces of handwritten work?
DALE: I was cleaning up the basement and found them in a folder. One of them is a finished song that is handwritten, but most of them are a bunch of started and unfinished songs, a dog’s breakfast really. These were written on shopping bags that date back to 1977.
I was working up north at a camp at the time, so I probably got it from the liquor store. I thought it was nice paper that I could cut up into pages. I didn’t have paper with me so I used what I could find. You have to get creative sometimes. I’ve written on envelopes, napkins, things I find in the glove box, business cards, gum wrappers or packages, and I’ve even written songs on cigarette boxes (even though I don’t smoke).
This piece of paper here is from when I was in Florida in 1980. It’s a paper shopping bag that I found at my parents place there. It’s dated Friday April 11th, 1980. I was down at the water and I got writing about a fisherman. It’s a poem, not a song. I never ended up putting it to music but I kept it all these years. I wrote a thing here, “spoken words should be written words.”
This is a neat line, “no matter where you put them, in view or out of sight, they’ll turn to each other and start another fight.” I have no idea what that was about. It must have been about my parents arguing, or my brothers, or my brother and dad because they used to argue about everything. Some of this stuff is pretty amazing. “Till love saves the day, love is stronger than any man, love can take you by the hand, love can conquer any land.”
When you get looking at these scraps of paper, it’s funny what you write, because a lot of times things that are said are never documented. If you don’t write it down there’s a good chance it will be lost.
CARLY: I notice that you always use pencil. Why is that?
DALE: I write with pencil because I have trouble spelling and because you’re always rewriting. With a pencil it’s easy to erase and fix it. When you write with ink, you have to scratch it out and put the other word beside it.
CARLY: Don’t you ever worry that you’ll erase something good?
DALE: No. If it were good it wouldn’t have gotten erased. I have lots of things that are partly written. I found a few lines in this pile that I think are going to become a song that I want to finish. They’re kind of like lost songs that are going to come back to life some day. Some of it might just be one good line I wrote a long time ago that I think I could work with.
CARLY: When did you first start writing & what inspired you to write?
DALE: My next-door neighbor Dan and I started writing songs in 1972. We would always listen to music by Gordon Lightfoot, Seals and Crofts and James Taylor and we decided to try and write our own. I remember one particular song that Dan had started on a piece of paper that he left sitting on a stereo. I saw it, read it and told him how good it was. After finding out he was about to throw it away, I offered to take it home to work on it and it later became the song Sea Captain. Once I started songwriting, I couldn’t stop. The quest then became the next song and wondering if my songwriting was going to get better.
CARLY: Back then, if someone found these papers, how would you have felt? Do you have any songwriting advice?
DALE: Sometimes you’re embarrassed by what you write because it’s so personal and the fear is that others will maybe have the wrong interpretation of what you have written. It could be totally different than what you think you wrote.
I think when you first start you have lots to say, but you worry. As you get older, you are a little bit smarter with the use of words because you’ve done it quite a bit, and you can say just as much with less. It’s about picking the right words and the ability to convey what you wanted, with less.
Basically you need to start writing something. It can be anything. When you read it over again sometimes the words move you and other times they don’t. If it doesn’t you just set it aside and move on to something else. You can always come back to it 20 or 30 years later. I’m looking at this stuff that’s quite old and I’m realizing in this moment that it might have another life. I’ve written 99 songs in my lifetime, maybe these handwritten lyrics on scraps of paper from the 70’s and 80’s that I’ve saved after all these years, will help me reach my 100th song this year.