How I Wrote “Echo” by Bill Harley

Bill Harley has won two Grammy nominations and numerous awards for his storytelling and music. He’ll be releasing his next CD, High Dive and Other Things That Could Have Happened in February 2012. Today he’s here to tell us the story behind his song “Echo” from Down in the Backpack. Echo is a song that makes me smile every time I listen to it…

Echo by Bill Harley from Down in the Backpack

Desperation is sometimes a necessary ingredient in the creative process. I wrote the song “Echo” years ago backstage before a show. Because I was desperate, I didn’t have much time to edit or criticize myself. As many people know, there is nothing like a deadline.

I had been hired to do some shows for a large performance venue. They were busing in several thousand elementary school kids for each show. It was a big formal theater. While I had enough material that I thought would work, I was worried about several things. I often teach school groups a song so we can all sing together. But this setting presented a couple of difficulties. First, the kids being bused in wouldn’t really know the rest of the audience they were sitting with – there were only one or two hundred kids from each school. I knew that when someone is in an unfamiliar setting, surrounded by people they don’t know, they are less likely to participate when asked.

Second, I knew that an audience that large isn’t very nimble. You can’t give them a lot of words to sing, or sing too quickly, because it will all get jumbled up and the audience will just hear a bunch of mush. And so will I. It’s part of my job to build a community there, and that involves people hearing each other sing together.

So, it had to be simple and fun and invite participation. And I decided to do something about it half an hour before the show. No problem!  (I’m kidding – it was a problem) I said to myself, “Write something they can echo back. Just a few words.”

And in that thought was the answer to what the song was about. An echo.

Click play to listen to “Echo”…

[audio:|titles=Echo by Bill Harley]

Of course, I didn’t “write” it. We call it song writing, and eventually you do write things down, but first you just play an instrument and make stuff up. To a very simple chord progression I sang;

Yoo hoo
Is that you?
Can you hear me
Call you
You who”

…leaving a space after each line for them to respond.

Quickly, with fifteen minutes to show time, I came up with three simple verses, about morning, afternoon and evening.

I had the song. I came out and taped the words to the mike stand so I wouldn’t forget them. I told the audience  I wasn’t going to tell them their part, they would figure it out.

They did. Halfway through the first chorus, they were all singing.

But by the end of the second chorus, I could sense some antsiness on the part of the more rambunctious ones. It was a sweet song – a nine year old boy can only be sweet so long. So, on the spot, I improvised a new echo part (once again, nothing like desperation)…

Hello! (Hello)
Hey you! (Hey you!)
Stop yelling! (Stop yelling!)
Right Now! (Right Now!)
I mean it! (I mean it!)
Very funny! (Very funny!)
Ha ha ha! (Ha ha ha!)
Owooooooo! (Owooo!)

You’ve got to love two thousand elementary school kids howling. I did the last verse and they all sang out. It was a big success, and I’ve been singing it ever since.

Although, maybe because of the howling, I was never invited back to that theater.

But that’s a small price to pay for a good song.

A big warm thank you to Bill from the {KID} independent crew for sharing some insight into “echo”… you’re clearly a man that works well under pressure! You can find all of Bill’s albums online at his website, or join him on facebook for all the latest happenings.

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