Program aids food stamp users

Caught Red-HandedCaught Red-Handed!
Warning! The Offhand Band usually strives to write satisfying songs that are cool for kids, fun for families and great for the grown on their own. In part or whole, we believe this song doesn’t fit that description. Proceed at your own risk! Learn more.
Play the song here!

Northeast resident Mary Johnson uses food stamps,
putting groceries on the family table.
She said, “I’d felt ashamed, but when you need, the shame goes away.”

Though she’s grateful for all the help she’s been receiving,
still, whenever she reads a food product label,
she’d like more healthy options for her children each day.

“When there’s so much we once had that’s all gone from our world,
it’s hard just keeping my family well fed.
I know there’s lots of big things going on in the world,
but all the little things are big for us,” Johnson said.

Now, North East Community Center has a program,
and all users of food stamps qualify for it,
with discounts on the freshest local produce in town.

Health Bucks coupons are good at area farmers markets.
Whether Johnson would like to serve fresh or store it,
her family now eats healthy local food all year round.

“When there’s so much we once had that’s all gone from our world,
it’s hard just keeping my family well fed.
I know there’s lots of big things going on in the world,
but all the little things are big for us,” Johnson said.

“The same world that makes breaking news of moms who kill their babies
makes cans from distant factories and beans and broccoli grown
in other countries so much cheaper than the farm stand down the road.
We’ve no place for a garden, but best as we can, I believe we should tend our own.”

“When there’s so much we once had that’s all gone from our world,
it’s hard just keeping my family well fed.
I know there’s lots of big things going on in the world,
but all the little things are big for us,” Johnson said.


The Challenge

There were 60 sign-ups for the SpinTunes #3 online songwriting competition. Only 37 completed Round 1 entries on time. On June 26, SpinTunes announced that 11 contestants were eliminated, leaving only 26 to move onto Round 2. My entry, All Over, placed 22nd, so I more or less squeaked by.

Judges generally liked my song, with standout qualities being a strong keyboard performance, the story, and some judges enjoying the Beatles referencing. On the other side, the drums were thought too quiet, the vocals too loud and not very high quality, and there was some feeling against the Beatles referencing as derivative. I can’t say I’m too surprised at any of this, including the relatively low ranking.

It occurred to me after I’d submitted the song that I’d started SpinTunes 1 with derivation as well, with my Round 1 entry Step Back Swooperman being heavily influenced by John Williams’ Superman film score and also having a first line that directly quoted a well known song. Since it hasn’t stood me well yet, I suspect I’ll avoid that level of referencing in songwriting contests from now on, unless it’s explicitly asked for. Just as in that previous contest, I knew I’d need to make SpinTunes 3’s Round 2 a real departure from Round 1.

The challenge for Round 2: “BREAKING NEWS! – You‘re writing a topical song. The challenge is pretty wide open, but there are some restrictions. Topical is going to be defined as something from a headline in a newspaper no older than 2 weeks from today. You can use your local newspaper or a major publication. You‘re even allowed to use the online versions of major publications. You will be required to include a link to the story that inspired your song, or attach a scan from the newspaper.”

My immediate thought was that there was too much possibility, and no particular news stories coming to mind that I’d want to play with. I started what could have been an extremely long slog researching, only to have the researching, and my initial thought, soon enough lead me to an unexpected idea.

The Concept

I don’t subscribe to any newspapers. I hardly ever read any newspapers. I don’t watch much news on television or read much on the internet. My first step was simply to visit the New York Times website to browse the headlines. The challenge came out on a Sunday, so there was plenty to look at. Nothing, though, leapt out at me. A few possibilities, but nothing really grabbed me.

I thought about why I don’t keep up much with the news. It’s because I find that most of it is just not relevant for my life or the lives of anyone I know. What is relevant I usually find out about somehow. So what was I going to do, find some big news story that I didn’t really care about and that other contestants might use anyway? Look for some quirky story out there to purposely try to do something novel, keeping my fingers crossed I might find something I actually cared about? I could be looking for a needle in a very big haystack.

Instead, it occurred to me that I should look for an ultra-small, ultra-local story in an ultra-small, ultra-local newspaper. Not simply to find a unique story that other entrants wouldn’t cover, but to find one that exemplified the notion of little things meaning a lot, a story that might be as especially impacting for someone’s life as the vast majority of news stories, especially larger ones, are fundamentally meaningless to most of us. It wouldn’t necessarily even matter how I personally felt about the story — if it could be highly meaningful to someone, that in itself would make for a meaningful song for me for this particular challenge.

The only newspaper I had around was the Northern Dutchess Focus, put out by the Poughkeepsie Journal and delivered for free, weekly on Saturdays, containing a few articles but mostly ads. In the Focus from June 25, the day before the Round 2 challenge was announced, I found a small article I thought might work really well. On this scan of the original page, there’s a tiny article in the lower-right corner about Health Bucks, a program that helps food stamps users save extra money at a couple of farmers markets. There’s a very similar article on the Poughkeepsie Journal website. If you’re curious, there’s a more extensive article about the topic at the TriCorner News website.

So here was this edition of the Focus, distributed just to a few towns in Northern Dutchess County. Here was an article inside that could hardly have taken up less space. Yet it was about something that could potentially make a significant, positive difference to some people, as well as to the area in terms of fostering local farming and business.

Since my whole notion was to show a big benefit to someone’s life, I decided the song would involve a fictional beneficiary of the program. Someone who had fallen on hard times and was now a food stamp user, but someone who was aware of the difference between globalized, factory-farmed foods and local fare which was healthier both physiologically and economically. Someone who lamented that the same system that made ridiculous stories into big news also led to his or her own hard times — and also made local food cost, ironically, more than food grown using all sorts of chemicals and machinery, processed in factories, shipped across highways or even from other countries, sold in giant buildings air conditioned year-round, etc.

I pondered having the character find out about Health Bucks in a free weekly paper just as I did. The character might naturally be thankful because if it had only been publicized in a paid daily publication he or she might never have found out about it. There could have been a nice opportunity to comment about how free papers are all they could afford, and yet that means there’d be little chance they’d pay for anything in the advertisements that make up the bulk of the publication.

If there was going to be a story, though, I thought that it might as well be a newspaper story. Song-as-journalism: with a headline as its title, and the lyrics taking on the familiar combination of newsy prose and attributed quotes. Visually, except for line breaks, it could look just like an article in terms of upper/lowercasing and punctuation, right down to the “down-style” headline.

Were I to use the inverted pyramid and write a proper article, though, song structure would be a bit of a nightmare. It would almost have to be simply an article set to music, more of a recitative than a proper song. Instead, I decided it should be a proper song that was fairly newspaper-article-like.

The Song

The “article” — which, to be clear, is my own creation and not an actual published article that I set to music — is written as more of a human interest piece than a news brief, more like what in much magazine or television news, not what we’d typically see in a newspaper article of this size. Rather than opening with the core facts, the stage is set with a fictional subject, Mary Johnson, and her general situation.

A local article would normally say where Johnson was from, and that would need to have an obvious connection to the story. With the North East Community Center running the Health Bucks program based on a donation from Sharon Hospital, and the coupons being accepted at both the Millerton Farmers Market and the Amenia Farmers Market, I felt I needed to economize, even though it meant leaving some relevant parties out of the song. Since the community center runs the program, and since Northeast is the town in which the Village of Millerton is located, I made Johsnon a resident of Northeast and ended up referring by name only to the community center and its Health Bucks program. Apologies to the hospital and the farmers markets!

It might be unusual for someone to talk publicly about using food stamps, so I gave Johnson a quote specifically about how she’s over any shame about it. She’s grateful to have the help but wishes she could afford healthier food for her family.

The chorus is written as a quote, where Johnson makes the core point of the song: the importance of little things even in the face of bigger stories in the world. The quote, and the chorus, ends conspicuously with the attribution, “Johnson said,” making for some newspaper ambience while also stressing that the song is giving voice to someone who generally would be ignored by both the media and society in general.

The song kicks in with a new groove, and the second verse reveals the happy development to Johnson’s story: the introduction of the Health Bucks program. Her hope for healthier options “each day” is now fulfilled “all year round,” amplifying the happy direction the story is taking. A second chorus, though identical in lyric, now takes on a little more optimistic tone, with the Health Bucks program being a little thing that’s actually making a big difference for the Johnson family.

In the bridge (which incidentally sneaks in the challenge title, “breaking news”), Mary talks about some of the larger issues and connections I’d pondered. I realized that an “article” of this length just wasn’t the place to go into a detailed anti-globalization screed, but here she at least hints at those notions. There’s reference to not only large-scale agriculture and food disrtibution but also, obliquely, to the Casey Anthony trial, an actual current “big” story. All of it is posed as wrapped up together in dysfunction.

Mary concludes the bridge by pointing out that, although their home doesn’t have enough room for them to grow their own fresh produce in a garden, she still believes in the more general point about “tending one’s own garden.” This seemed a nice connection between the farm/produce topic of the song and the more metaphoric sense of tending one’s garden relating to a focus on the local in terms of farming, business and news.

As the song develops, Mary gets much more voice. Looking at the first three sections, she has the small quote in the first verse and the long quote of the first chorus. The last three sections are essentially entirely Mary’s, with two repeats of the chorus with the brief attribution, and the bridge being entirely in her voice. The repetition of chorus throughout, and the bridge with no quote attribution, are not at all what we’d find in a newspaper article, but they suggests a sense of escaping the bounds of the article on the written page for Mary to be increasingly heard.

Musically, the song has a feel that I quite like but seems to me not typical of most things I’ve written. Maybe the title led me to think about Sufjan Stevens and his odd, longish titles. Maybe the newspaper conceit led me to think musical theater. Maybe last week I was listening to too much of my Badly Drawn Boy station at Pandora and heard too much of him and the Flaming Lips, whose influences may not be so obvious here, but I feel them. Or maybe I’ve just heard too much 1970’s mellow gold and educational documentary background music in my lifetime.

The verses involve a fairly simple underlying chord progression, though the chords are decorated for a more colorful, uncertain sound. The melody note that ends each verse stanza is one of these more decorative “off-chord” notes, drawing out that sense. The melody shifts a bit in the second verse, with “food all” rising to a higher note than the parallel “children,” echoing the new optimism. The same happens with the word “well” in the final chorus.

The chorus change keys a few times, with a lot of similarly colorful chords and inversions. Where the verses were in E major, the chorus starts in G major, then moves to D major, then at the last minute comes back to E major again. Throughout, the melody is more fluid than the verses, appropriate for Johnson’s extended quote compared to more formal journalistic prose. It’s worth noting that “little things” are the only words in the chorus sung quite so quickly, on “littler” notes, highlighting that crux of the whole song. The second and third choruses have a small change in the D major section of the chord progression, adding some clarity.

The bridge also has a rambling melody, even more appropriate for this mini-rant on globalization. The first three lines are all sung on one breath. It’s as if Johnson can’t get her thoughts out fast enough. The section is in E minor, with much more conventional chords, progressions and harmonies, almost giving the aura of a traditional protest song, though there is some more colorful harmonic tension toward the end. All of this is meant to underscore (literally) the comments about globalization as being systemically fundamental to all in the world that gives rise to the situation in which Mary finds herself.


You can check out the Round 2 songs at SpinTunes, or more permanently at BandCamp, and you can get directly to Program aids food stamp users at Bandcamp — but you can listen and download for free from BandCamp right from the player at the top of this post.

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