How Songs Get Written

I just published my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity a few months ago. And when you’re writing a book, whenever you see a story that aligns with your message, that story jumps out at you. I’ve seen lots of zig-zag examples of the creative process throughout my career, and that’s why I chose this name for the book–to emphasize that the creative process is never linear, but always follows unpredictable twists and turns. But until Friday’s Wall Street Journal, I didn’t know the story of the song “Midnight Train to Georgia” that was a big hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1973. The lyrics would make anyone tear up, as the singer decides to leave her life in Los Angeles to join her boyfriend, an aspiring singer who has failed and given up and is moving back to his small home town:

“And I’ll be with him

On that midnight train to Georgia

I’d rather live in his world

Than live without him in mine.”

A lot of us think of songwriting as a solo, solitary pursuit–some tortured soul, poring out their inner spirit. Or, perhaps writing something autobiographical about an event they experienced. The story of this song’s creation couldn’t be more different. Jim Weatherly, the song’s composer, was friends with Lee Majors, an actor who was dating the model Farrah Fawcett. One night in 1970, he called Lee; Farrah answered the phone. She said she was packing to take a midnight plane to Houston. Weatherly liked the sound of the line; after hanging up, he grabbed his guitar and wrote “Midnight Plane to Houston” in about 45 minutes.

Weatherly shopped the song around to various singers and producers, and singer Cissy Houston wanted to record it, but wanted to make the title sound more R&B–she and her producer suggested “Midnight Train to Georgia.” As she put it, “my people are originally from Georgia and they didn’t take planes to Houston or anywhere else. They took trains.” Weatherly was fine with that.

Gladys Knight also liked the song, and asked producer Tony Camillo to produce it for them. Gladys Knight liked Cissy Houston’s version, but wanted more of an Al Green type of feel–moody with lots of horns. She also wanted to change the lyrics. She checked in with Jim about each change; “Jim was cool with everything. He allowed us that freedom.”

All together now: Zig Zag, Zig Zag…the creative process is never linear, never a straightforward and obvious path to the final work.

*Marc Myers, “How the midnight train got to Georgia,” Wall Street Journal, Friday August 9, 2013, page D5.

4 thoughts on “How Songs Get Written

  1. Yes, I agree with you Keith. The creative process is never linear. My own research into songwriting supports these ideas. See: McIntyre, P. (2008) ‘Creativity and Cultural Production: A Study of Contemporary Western Popular Music Songwriting’, Creativity Research Journal, 20:1, pp40-52.

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