Singing to Survive: From “Skin and Bones” to “A Fully Educated Man”

by Paul Kameen

Singing to Survive: From 'Skin and Bones' to 'A Fully Educated Man' by Paul Kameen width=
“I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free.” I like those lines from the famous gospel song “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” especially as sung by The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who convey in both their instruments and voices all the hardship and pain that often precede or surround the moments of happiness and freedom that singing can create, the way one really depends on the other to achieve its full impact.

I create a lot of different kinds of things. Singing is the one among them that always gives me more back than I put into it, leaves me feeling happy and free. Whether it’s dark or light in my life at that moment those sounds are being made, I always feel that a good eye is still on the sparrow.

Listen to the album while reading the text.

Skin and Bones

I am quite likely the oldest person telling a story on this site, and my singing “career,” such as it is (I post my albums to Bandcamp and to my personal website, attracting minimal traffic), started in earnest just three years ago, when I wrote my first song, out of the blue, a dark, simple, catchy tune called “Skin and Bones,” the idea for it coming to me while I was driving to the woods for my daily walk.

I’ve written and “produced” five albums since then (I mean just me, my acoustic guitar, and Garageband, in my un-soundproof sunroom, usually very early mornings or very late nights when it’s quieter and my voice is better), with songs that range all over the place in their sound, some countryish, some Big-Bandish (my favorite genre), or bluesy or rock-and-rolly, etc. Basically there is no type of song I won’t at least try to sing. I love and listen to all kinds of music, want to feel everything singing a good song makes me feel, as emotional enrichment and emotional release all at once, adding and subtracting just the right things to help me find a momentary balance.

A Companionship both Comforting and Entrancing

All of this started in the aftermath of my wife’s sudden and unexpected passing five years ago, my feeling utterly bereft and, well, kind of off the rails. I think now the trauma of that experience had something to do with it, somehow shaking all this hidden stuff loose in my brain. I had been trying to sing (all cover songs, nothing original) and learn how to finger-pick on my guitar for a couple of years before that, but quite haphazardly; and it never even crossed my mind to record anything.

One night maybe a year or so after my wife passed, alone at home, I thought I’d record a song and listen to it, in part to honor my memory of her and in part I now think just to hear another human “voice” in the room. One’s own voice, heard that way for the first time, echoing back through speakers, actually sounds like someone else’s, and I found that “companionship” both comforting and entrancing.

The first song I recorded was Buddy Holly’s “Raining in my Heart,” such a softly poignant song. It made me sad and feel better all at the same time. So I did more and more of it. After a while I started to share “cover” albums with family and few friends, putting them up for free on my website, that sort of thing. All made possible by the DIY miracles of the digital age, for which I am most grateful!

Of Taking and Giving

A year or so later, I wrote and recorded my first original composition, the one I mention above, and was hooked. I love the whole process of song-making, the initial line or phrase that happens along in my head, the process of composition, like pulling a long thread through a maze, the back and forth from guitar to text, finding the rhythm, the right voice tone and range, the singing and re-singing, and then the listening to this brand-new thing after it’s done.

I am primarily a writer, have been my whole life, poetry, personal essays, scholarly work. I’ve had success in that arena and made a living teaching writing, all good. Writing, especially poetry, my favorite genre, takes a lot out of me. Songwriting, though similar, seems to do the opposite; it gives me something back. I haven’t been doing it long enough to figure out exactly why, but I think part of it is that, for me at least, once I get a song going in my head, it takes over the process, tells me what it wants to say and how it wants to sound. I become a sort of medium or vehicle to give it access to the world. I’m not creating it; it’s using me to create itself. So it’s less like work and more like doing a favor. Easier and less stressful.

An Enjoyable Rhythm

I write my albums in waves, just as I do my books, a month or so to compose and record the songs, fully absorbed by the process. Then there is a long, quiet hiatus until the next wave starts, unpredictably, out of nowhere again, a line in my head that leads to a song, then others. I produce about two albums and two books of essays or poems a year this way. A very enjoyable rhythm.

In musical terms, I’m a lyrics person first, most likely because I’ve spent my life working with verbal media. My guitar playing is simple, basic. I can’t read music, so everything is by ear. And the sounds I make that way are more like a way to keep time while I sing the words than the focal point of the experience.

Bleak and Sweet

I am by temperament quite shy, reclusive really, so I have never performed “live” for anyone but my wife, before she passed, and most likely never will. Were I younger, I would try to overcome that, accustom myself to performing for an audience, as I did with my writing and teaching. But I’m not younger. And music is a young person’s game for the most part.

I’m fine with that. I use Bandcamp as a sort of semi-permanent repository for my work, in the hope that one day someone with a better voice and a good band will hear one of my songs, think it’s great, and want to record it, maybe even make it famous. That would be fantastic! For now, I am thrilled when even one person listens to a song I made and says something back to me about it.

Most of my songs are “love” songs of one type or another. I have two basic speeds: bleak and sweet, kind of like what experiencing love in this world is like. My first two albums were on the sweeter side, my next two on the bleaker side.

A Fully Educated Man

My most recent, “A Fully Educated Man” is a combination, with a little bouncy tune in the middle to keep it from imploding. There are two kinds of love involved in the seemingly contradictory mix of my songs: the one for my wife, which persists in ways I still try to understand and come to terms with, and the one I experience now as I haplessly pursue some always-out-of-reach happiness with someone else. Some of these songs are authentically autobiographical in their details, some more imagined, but they are all rooted in my personal experiences in one way or another.

Part of me wishes I had discovered this hidden dimension in me when I was much younger, that I had made music a part of my life all along the way. I could have had a lot of fun with it and would certainly be much better at it by now! But the wiser part in me knows that to do that I would have had to make room for it by giving up something else. And there’s nothing I’ve done with my life that I’d happily sacrifice that way. I so enjoyed my time with my wife, my family, my teaching, my writing, my walks in the woods, all of it.

The Other Side of Goodbye

As I say in a song on my “The Other Side of Goodbye” album: “I had it all.” Now, I don’t. But I do have this. And I enjoy it immensely, too, try to savor what satisfaction it brings me and do my best with it, wanting to share this deep, intimate part of myself with others. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that all this singing has helped me to stay alive inside, to survive, these last five, and for that I am deeply grateful.

I hope you will visit my Bandcamp site (paulkameen.bandcamp.com), where I house all my original music, or my personal website (paulkameen.com), where I offer everything I make now—books, poems, songs (original and covers), everything—for free, for reasons I explain there. And if you like anything at all you find, I hope you will tell me. That would make my day.

paul kameen

paul kameen. Olympia, Washington. Paul is a poet, essayist, and scholar who started writing songs, kind of out of the blue, about three years ago. You can find all of his work for free on his website (paulkameen.com) or at cost on Amazon.

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