Sometimes it's hard to pinpoint the inspiration for a song—it seems to materialize out of the ether. But in the case of my song "Write Again," released on the album Live and Listening, I can point precisely to the image above: a photo and poem by my friend Jack O. Bocchino.

Here's the album track.



Making a song from a poem

Jack Bocchino is not a musician himself, but he's an integral part of the music scene in Central New York, as a photographer, fan, and friend to countless artists. For as long as I've lived in the Syracuse area, he's been a ubiquitous presence at shows, often stopping into multiple venues in a night, shooting photos and video and afterwards generously sharing his work with the artists to use as they please. For the last six years he's been the photographer for the Acoustic Guitar Project in Syracuse (which I curate), traveling all over the region to shoot portraits of 35 artists to date.

He is such a legendary supporter of local music that there's now a Syracuse Area Music award in his honor: the Jack O. Bocchino Spirit of Syracuse Sammy Award.

Live and Listening, the album on which I released "Write Again," was nominated for a Sammy for Best Singer/Songwriter, so that makes Jack a Sammy-nominated songwriter as well—even if he didn't actually set out to write a song.

Chatting with Jack Bocchino at Syracuse's 443 Social Club and Lounge, where the Live and Listening album was recorded. Photo by Tom Honan.

In the fall of 2018, a group of musicians put together an event to show appreciation for Jack, who'd recently gotten a tough cancer diagnosis that he was facing with remarkable grace and positivity. For the event, artists were invited to write and perform a song based on the poems that Jack posted occasionally on Facebook along with his photography.

At the time, I thought I'd try to put write something, but I didn't get a chance to focus on it until a day or two before the event. The organizers had highlighted one particular poem by Jack—and many of the 15 or so musicians who participated did set those words to music. But browsing Jack's Facebook album, I was drawn instead to his poem/photo about writing letters:

I miss the days of writing letters
On paper with a pen
Seal it in an envelope
Lick a stamp and then
Put it in the mailbox
Raise the flag and when
The mailman brings and answer
Maybe I'll sit and write agai
n

That sentiment really resonated with me. Writing letters was a central part of my life for decades. As a teenager, I wrote goofy letters to friends using made-up business names in the return address. I wrote flirty letters, love letters, letters to share news, letters to explain things I was unable to articulate in person. As my friends scattered, we stayed in touch this way...until, of course, electronic communications more or less wiped out what became known, condescendingly, as snail mail.

Yeah, emails and texts and social media are crazy fast and efficient, but Jack's poem got me really thinking about all that they they lack. The physicality of paper and pen, envelope and stamp. The singular curves and scratches of handwriting. Doodles in the margins. The leaves and flower petals pressed in the folded paper. The contemplative pace. Even the anticipation of delivery.

I write all the time, but I'm usually at a keyboard, which encourages me to edit over and over before sharing (as I'm doing today with this post). With a letter, the composition process is totally different: I cross out words sometimes, but really I'm committing to my message line by line. The letter captures the actual train of thought, and somehow that feels way more intimate.

The musical setting

When I first sat down with my guitar and Jack's poem, I felt the pull toward old-fashioned music—like an undiscovered Stephen Foster song. I fell right into a simple major-key chord pattern, in unhurried waltz time, using dropped-D tuning (which, as described in this tuning guide, I use all the time).

I soon found a melody for Jack's words, which became my first verse with just one little edit—I changed "Put it in the mailbox" to "Walk it to the mailbox" because I liked including the movement. For the chorus, the idea came to me of echoing the last lines of the verse, which also felt like an old-timey way to construct a song.

From there, I just wrote more words to extend the story, trying to maintain the lovely simplicity and directness of Jack's poem so the transition from his words to mine would be seamless.

While I wanted to keep the music simple too, I started hearing an additional instrumental melody to serve as an intro and interlude. I wrote that melody on the guitar—using hybrid picking (flatpick and fingers) in order to cover bass/chord notes and the melody simultaneously.

The song barely arrived in time for the event for Jack. Just a few hours beforehand, I was still ironing out the details, but I got there and debuted the nascent song for a room full of musician friends along with Jack and his kids.

"Write Again" was nearly there, but it was begging for vocal harmonies, plus I knew I wanted clarinet, which was so perfect for the mood. So I sketched out a clarinet part in my music notation software (Finale), with some simple guitar/clarinet harmony lines, and Wendy Ramsay and I worked out the whole thing as a duet. And that is how the song appears on Live and Listening: recorded at a show in Rutland, Vermont, by songwriter/producer Phil Henry.

Writing again

"Write Again" has become a favorite song to play, and a favorite of audiences as well, but it's had an impact on my life beyond the album and the stage.

This year, I decided to do more than sing about missing the days of writing letters; I resolved to actually write letters on a regular basis again.

So one of my resolutions for 2020 is to write a letter every Sunday. I'm just six weeks in, but so far I've kept it up (and announcing it publicly here commits me further!). I've written to family, old friends, even the college English professor who got me started on the path of becoming a professional writer. It feels so good to do this. During the week, I think about who I might write to next, which is a sweet thing to ponder in itself.

Sitting down in my big blue armchair in the living room with a card or stationery, pen in hand, and composing a letter brings me a feeling that is in very short supply these days. It takes me away from the flashes and distractions of the screen. It focuses my mind and seems to slow down time.

And, wow, are people surprised when they find a real letter—not a thank-you or holiday or sympathy card, but just a letter saying hello—in the pile of marketing solicitations and bills in the mailbox. (Sometimes they text or message me right away to say thanks...)

Even if people don't write back (and I promise myself not to expect that they do, or to be let down if they don't), the act of writing makes me feel closer to them, more connected.

I recommend it: the Sunday letter. A little rebellion against the digital age, and a break from broadcasting yourself on social media. Person to person. Made by hand.

The lyrics

Write Again
Words by Jack O. Bocchino and Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, music by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

I miss the days of writing letters
On paper with a pen
Seal it in an envelope
Lick a stamp and then
Walk it to the mailbox
Raise the flag and when
The mailman brings an answer
Maybe I’ll sit and write again

Write again, my friend
Maybe I’ll sit and write again
When the mailman brings an answer
Maybe I’ll sit and write again

I miss the quiet contemplation
Imagining you there
The wishing and the waiting
The questions in the air
And then the sweet delivery
When I recognize your hand
I read your letter slowly
And it brings you near again

Near again, my friend
It brings you near again
I read your letter slowly
And it brings you near

I miss the time to think it over
And find the words to say
Share with you the yearning
That’s in my heart today
With every line across the paper
I better understand
I feel that you are with me
As I sit and write again

Write again, my friend
As I sit and write again
I feel that you are listening
As I sit and write

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