My Secret Songbook

by Mark Dvorak

I remember coming of age and the coming of music into my life. The songs I really liked while growing up, I mostly liked in private. They were corny. And I remember singing them out loud while walking or riding my bike. I could name you a whole bunch of them right now, and sing them to you all the way through, but it doesn’t really matter. You have your own.

I liked a lot of the same bands my friends liked too, but somehow that was different. Looking back it seems I thought about those bands the same way I thought about school clothes. Someone else had picked them out ahead of time, and there wasn’t a real choice in the matter.

My secret songs spoke. They offered instruction and gave me words to sing. They were the soundtack to my early adventures and daydreaming. From them came the first flashes of the grown-up I would become, and my secret songs made a safe place somewhere inside, where youthful feelings could take hold and deepen.

And I remember how life changed utterly when I began to play guitar. I remember the infinite chasm between the inner beauty of my secret songbook, and a beginner’s struggle to make his first chords and sounds.

Soon, what was popular no longer mattered; being popular no longer mattered. For a time my ears were attracted only to guitar sounds, my attention drawn toward guitar people. It was hard to explain at first, and then I stopped trying altogether. My friends and family could understand, or they didn’t have to. While others were going on dates and to the movies, I found myself in different places listening to Art Thieme, Townes Van Zandt, Gamble Rogers, Dave Van Ronk, Fred Holstein, Pete Seeger, when he was in town, and countless others on the local scene. 

Once, while walking down the street with my guitar, a friend saw me and pulled his car over to offer a lift. 

“Where you going?” he asked.

“Mississippi John Hurt,” I said.

And the songs kept coming. From everywhere. With time, came some understanding of how my secret songs were built. I began to learn about keys and why the chords with complicated names sounded so interesting and delicious. I began to appreciate the subtleties of rhythm, and the quiet power that comes with keeping a rock-steady tempo. I learned something about how melodies work, and I learned just how much work goes into making music.

And one day, my secret songs began to emerge in new ways. An image of Emmy Lou Harris singing an unnamed Johnny Cash song would become “Every Step of the Way.”

For some reason, Judy Collins’ version of “Sons Of” by Jacques Brel, struck a spark that smoldered and one day caught fire after hearing Erik Darling’s beautiful treatment of “True Religion.” And when the fire died down, I was singing “Not War” to Michael Smith at a WeaverMania! rehearsal.

“One Couldn’t Run” came directly from a memorable visit with the great Brownie McGhee. The music is based upon Brownie’s classic, “Walk On,” a twelve-bar blues. Every word in the lyric is from our conversation.

So, I think much goes into the performance of a song that is beyond the chords, lyrics and licks. There is more required than innate talent or cleverness. There is something else that no amount of practice or perseverance can ever attain. There is something else. But please don’t tell anybody. It’s a secret.


from “The Quarter Notes,” the newsletter of the Plank Road Folk Music Society, Downers Grove IL.

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