Writings, Essays, Lyrics, Musings, Commentary . . .
Article #3: I've Got Big Ovaries, Baby!Spring, 2000 - by Gaye Adegbalola
This assignment is a hard one. I'm not really sure that I write the songs. I think a higher power uses me to channel the message. I just create an environment, a state of mind/body/spirit that allows the muse to enter. Just as the guitarist may be ridden by the orisha during an intense solo or Big Mama Thornton presents herself during "Life Goes On," creative visits do occur. But the guitarist or the vocalist had to prepare her/himself for the arrival. So, too, do I prepare.
I know when "the writing day" is coming. Miraculously, my desk clears and my daily tasks disappear. I feel electric and clear. The ritual begins (usually in the morning, sometimes late at night): I have specific clothes I usually wear to write in (I know this sounds crazy, but it's true)--writing shirts and loose pants (so I can breathe deep). I go to my music room which has a lot of morning light. I only write or practice in this room. It is sacred. I sharpen maybe a dozen pencils. I only write with pencils--I like the sound of the rhythm they make on paper. Often I meditate to clear my channels. I get a libation and go to the writing table.
On this table are my magic pencils, legal pads, a thesaurus, a dictionary, a rhyming dictionary, a tuner, picks, and a $29 casio keyboard. My guitar is nearby in a stand. On the wall, over the table are photos of Saffire, B.B. King, Billie, Bessie, Ma, Muddy, Howling Wolf, Robert Johnson, and me dancing with Rufus Thomas. There is also an old album jacket on the mantel to my right which has 9 different shots of Big Mama Thornton. These give me inspiration. I look to them often.
Perhaps the most important items on the table are my "hook books" and hook folders and envelopes. Literally hundreds of ideas--musical and lyrical--rhyming words, images, chord progressions, song plots, etc.--on napkins, receipts, hotel memo pads, newspaper corners. Now the writing starts.
The guiding philosophy with my songwriting is to share a universal experience in a way that is uniquely personal and, ideally, in a way that lends a new perspective to the experience. The process varies, but generally, it goes like this. There's a song topic in my head--it may come from the higher power, in a dream, in an actual experience, from the news, wherever. I go through my hook books often looking for a specific quote or sometimes an unsuspecting hook comes to me. I may put a few hooks together and I have the song's foundation--the message, the theme. This, in turn, establishes the groove--the rhythm, the tempo. With a groove in mind, I speak the words, extending or shortening phrases, putting meat on the bones, finding the rhymes, clarifying images. Then the melody is one of the last steps for me. Here's where the $29 casio comes into play. I "one finger" the rhythm groove, then I "one finger" a melody to fit. More often than not, the melody just automatically emerges from my finger or sometimes through my voice. Then, with the guitar, I find the chords that will fit the melody. No one part feels any harder than the other, but I am much more creative lyrically than musically. I constantly check to make sure no song is like another in either sense. I must stay fresh.
As I said, the process always varies, but that's fairly typical of my writing. Upon occasion, I just hold the pencil. When I wrote "The Middle Aged Blues Boogie," I was looking to write a song similar to Ida Cox's "Wild Women Don't Worry." The music and the spirit of the content were similar. The song wrote itself. The same was true when I wrote "Blues is in the House" hoping to feel T-Bone's "Call It Stormy Monday" spirit. Other times the muses come alive and wrestle with me, speak to me, push me to dig deeper. Sometimes it's outright spooky. Sometimes they are hard to satisfy. I may spend hours with one word, days with one image, even years with incompletion. "Bitch with A Bad Attitude" took five total re-writes before it was presentable. So, let's hone in on one of those songs that didn't write itself.
"Big Ovaries, Baby" is a cut on "Bitter Sweet Blues" (Alligator 4870).
It is becoming a concert favorite. Several years ago, on stage one night, someone yelled out asking how I could do a song like "Bitch." "Easy," I replied, "I've go big ovaries." The audience howled! The moment I came off stage, I jotted "big ovaries" on a napkin and eventually placed it in a hook book. There it sat for years. Sometime later, Andra Faye (Saffire member) got bumper sticker for her bass case which said "we don't need balls to play." One of those energized writing days, I sat at my table prepared to write a different song and I went through my hook books. Ah-ha!! The "big ovaries" hook popped up and the bumper sticker came to mind.
Once the ah-ha happens, the stuff begins to flow. I started to think on images around the word "play"--games, rules, offense, defense, competition, penalties, etc. Then more meat on the bones: that strength to compete comes from those big ovaries. Let's define that strength: assertive, aggressive, nerve, fight for rights, etc. Then to personalize it, bring it home--"some folks call me crazy, wild, womanish," etc. . . merely those hormones at work.
With the song fleshed out, the groove starts. I see women of the WNBA running on court, "raising the roof" with their hands while "Big Ovaries, Baby" is blarring from the speakers. So, not too fast, but definitely not slow. Strong bass line. Funky. In my mind's ear, I also heard it as an anthem--singable and memorable. Therefore, I wanted it to have a refrain so the audience could join in. (Think "Wang Dang Doodle" or "Sweet Home Chicago" or "Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On.") At the time, I was experimenting with staying on one chord for a song. For example, "Wang Dang" has only one chord, but the rhythm is unforgettable. (I didn't end up using this, but the verses hang on one chord until the refrain goes to the four chord.)
My handy Casio then conjures the groove. I speak the words, rearrange the words and, then BAM, the melody magically comes from my lips. The personalized part of the story comes first--on the one chord:
Some folks call me crazy
Some folks call me wild
I used to be call womanish even//
When I was a child
now comes the refrain (to the IV, I, V, IV, l):
Cuz I've got big ovaries, baby (audience responds-- big ovaries baby)
I've got big ovaries, baby ( " " " " " )
I've got big ovaries, baby
Big enough to speak my mind
2nd verse--what exactly do those ovaries do?
I got a whole lot of nerve
You know I ain't got no shame
I'll fight for my rights cuz//
Bitch is my middle name
(Note: the // means the music breaks off. This allows a particular phase--a good image or funny line--to stand out. See how it works in the next part.)
The song now goes to the bridge. The bridge connects the front verses to the last one(s), but has different music. Here I switch to a pulsing bass line instead of a walking bass line. The content now describes the "game."
I'm in this game of life
I compete every day
I set my own rules and I//
Don't need balls to play
Offense is my defense
I won't be caught offsides
I'm in the estrous zone//
And I won't be penalized
Now the 3rd and final verse, tie it all up and "raise the roof"
Assertive or aggressive
Name it it you will
Brazen or bodacious I got//
Ovaries of steel
Refrain--but instead of big enough to speak my mind, the ending is "milked" and the final line is
"Big enough to be en-shrined!!!"
Now I record the song on a walkman, type and print out 5 copies and hold this song until I written 5 or 6 more. I copyright them in clumps, by season. That's yet another story. When the song is brought to the studio or to the stage, then it is arranged to fit the instrumentation. With an electric band, as it's recorded on Bitter Sweet Blues, the drums and electric bass lay down that funky groove. In performance with Saffire, we have no drums and the bass is a Clevinger. A
Initally, I wanted to share a serious song--a song closer to my heart, a song that required more emotional involvement, a song that would present a deeped side of my writing. Instead, I opted to present a dose of adegbalola brand humor--what my songs are often known for. Now the verdict. It's entirely up to the audience. If a song falls flat, it may be shelved or re-written. If some lines aren't provoking the anticipated response, I may need to restate them. For me, the audience response is what tells me if the song is done.
I pray that I've told a universal story from a unique perspective. I pray that I've written a memorable, singable song that empowers women without victimizing men. I hope the critics like it, but that is highly secondary to audience response. I also pray that the musical muses visit again. . . soon and that I am ridden by the orisha. Hallelujah!! I better go wash my writing clothes.