I’ll grant the irony: one of the biggest tragedies of my life, the death of my friend Annie Moore at Jonestown, has had a positive impact in my life. But it would be a lie to deny it. The writing of “Jonestown”, my remembrance of Annie, launched me into songwriting as a serious endeavor.
That was not my intent for the song when I wrote it. I had no illusion it would bring fame or fortune. On the contrary, it owes its life to my single-minded need to express my turbulent, confused anguish, no matter the response it evokes. The surprising fact is that “Jonestown” is one of my most popular songs.
I had only finished two other songs before and barely dared to expose any of them to critical ears. But after a few reactions from varied audiences, I began to get the idea that I may have some talent. I learned to let song ideas grow and complete themselves, and to trust my intuition more. I joined a songwriting organization that allowed me to submit songs for commercial consideration. I developed a thick skin, but was not diverted from my efforts.
Still, the one song I never pitched was “Jonestown”. I knew it was too personal, too controversial, and not commercial. That all changed one fall when I decided to give it a chance before a real audience. We (family and friends) rehearsed it and took it to one of the live competitions put on by West Coast Songwriters. It won. Of course, since only two songs competed that evening, I chalked up the victory to unfair odds.
When we took the song to the finals, I expected a fun exhibition, a chance to tell Annie’s story one more time and to rub shoulders with some fantastic songwriters. I was shocked when they announced the Song of the Year was “Jonestown”, particularly when its radio-appeal was cited as part of its strength. Still, the response it got at the annual songwriters conference confirmed that this was more than just a fluke.
I take songwriting much more seriously now. I’m not afraid to go back to the drawing board, listen to professionals and audiences, study other writers and their songs. But I keep reminding myself that I barely knew anything about the craft when I wrote “Jonestown”. It was partly my love for my friend and my passion for the truth that propelled the song into people’s attention. Sometimes you cannot fool the ears.
Since “Jonestown” I have written quite a number of songs. Several of them have been considered for recording by other artists (two were picked up last month). I have won awards, gotten some radio play, and have a growing fan base. I’ve learned to listen to the songs that seem to play in my head when I’m not paying attention. And as I prepare to go to the studio to cut my first CD, I am eager to experience the outcome. Will I find “success”?
Yeah, well, success comes in many forms. My dream for “Jonestown” has always been to draw attention back to the stories, the real stories, of the other people (besides Jim Jones) who lived and died there. Again and again, this goal has been fulfilled. For instance, I recently pitched my songs to a publisher from Nashville. He explained clearly why the audience he represented would not be interested in “Jonestown”. Then he wanted to talk at length about Peoples Temple…
Even those who are most distant from the events of that November day have been touched somewhere they cannot seem to escape. People want to know, and I am compelled to tell.
(Ken Risling is a songwriter whose tribute to Annie Moore – the song “Jonestown” – appears here and here. His collected writings for the jonestown report are here. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)