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Quotes by Dorothy Fields

Sources: How to Write a Song, They're Playing Our Song (see Sources), An Evening with Dorothy Fields

Writing the song

As a lyricist - do you advise a thesaurus, a rhyming dictionary?

Yes, I suppose, they may help now and then. But a rhyme doesn't make a song.

What does make a song?

The idea. Now I'm not talking about the melody. I'm talking as a lyricist. The idea makes the song. The idea, the thought - and the enterprise and courage to present that idea in fresh, beautiful, eloquent words. No thesaurus can give you those words, no rhyming dictionary. They must happen out of you, out of the thought, the idea the concept. And once the words are down, the idea expressed, then of course must come the fixing, the revising, the polishing, the never-being-satisfied until you feel it's as perfect as you can make it.

Are lyrics poetry?

People ask "Are lyrics poetry?" - some of us say yes, some say no. Elizabeth Barrett Browning could write a poem 2 pages long. Could she have brought it to a music publisher?
He'd say "Put it in 32 bars and we'll take it!"
We're confined to a framework of music, and I feel that the words can be poetic, but I wouldn't say poetry in the strictest sense.

What makes a good book for a musical?

We lived in an atmosphere of comedy - jokes, blackout lines, funny routines. My father assigned me to keep his scrapbooks. At first I was interested in reading only his rave notices, but when I began to grow up, I got more interested in reading what the critics were saying about whether the play was good or not. And I began to be impressed by what made a good book - how, even if you had a great comic star like my father, you needed to have a sensible story, a plot that developed, with a beginning, a middle, and an end that would tie everything together.

What I learned then still applies, all these years later. If you don't have a story that will hold the audience, you won't have a successful show. And as for the songs that go into that book, they have got to move the plot forward. I don't care how good a song is - if it holds back the storyline, stalls the plot, you audience will reject it.

Immersion in the art

A songwriter, a beginning songwriter, should have friends, if possible, who are similarly interested; should move about, if possible, in the milieu of work that he has chosen for himself; should, as any other artist, become immured in the stuff, the gossamer stuff, that is the root and earth and base and flower of his career. He should move in music. He should think in lyrics. And he should find friends who move and think similarly. He probably would be motivated in that direction, regardless of my advice, if those are his interests. Certainly people seek people for friends who have mutual interests.

A song's place in a musical

A song must move the story ahead. A song must not hold back the story, or stall the show. A song must take the place of dialogue, moving the story along. If a song halts the show, pushes it back, stalls it - nor matter how good the song - the audience won't buy it; they'll be restive, unhappy; and the song, at least as far as the show's concerned, will fail.

Another thing - the songwriter mustn't fall in love with his own song. If it doesn't belong, he can't push it into a show. Let him save it; maybe it'll fit in another show. A song must be written in the idiom of the characters of that particular play, and must fit that spot in that play - else it doesn't belong, spoils the show and defeats itself. And the songwriter just can't slip it in. The audience, going along with the story, knows when the song is stuck in, feels it, resents it and can't enjoy it, and the song, in that show, fails.

Women songwriters

Why aren't there more women writing songs?

There aren't more lady songwriters for the same reason that there aren't more lady doctors or lady accountants or lady lawyers; simply not enough women have the time for careers. The man in our society is the breadwinner; the woman has enough to do as the homemaker, wife and mother. Yes, I do think song writing is a man's game. It requires push, energy, movement, mixing; and it is a field that is and has been dominated by men. No, I do not think men have more talent.

But there are a great many women in the arts; novelists, painters, sculptors, poets - but the proportion is far lower in the field of song writing.

I think I answered that before. I think it's because of the push needed, the going out and mixing, the need for collaboration and teamwork. In a show or a movie, of course, one must work with many people. Many women just don't have the time for it. A woman may write a book at home, at her leisure, and that's it. When it's finished it goes off to the publisher. The same goes for the others of the personal arts.


I wrote that - the words to "I feel a song coming on" - but I don't believe a word of it. A song just doesn't come on.

I've always had to tease it out, squeeze it out, and anyone that tells you that a song is something that's an inspiration - I hate that word - or a magic spark, or an IBM machine gets you going, has got to prove that one to me. It's hard slave labour. Ask anyone who writes - it's slave labour and I love it.

Keeping a book

You write what you feel. You write because of that need for expression. You keep it in tune with the times - but you don't write with the specific purpose of trying to cerate a hit. If you're doing it strictly to make money, you're crazy. There are easier ways - far easier - to make money. And oh yes! - the lyricist should keep a book.


Yes, for jottings. Ideas occur. Put them down, or they'll get lost. A phrase will spring out of a newspaper, a novel - even out of an encyclopaedia. It may be a title, it may be a line, it may be a thought; if it excites you, put it down.

Do you keep such a book?

That thick.
(Lifting a hand and creating a three-inch space between thumb and forefinger)


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