HISTORY OF SAW
Compiled and presented by Jim Johnson for SAW's 25th Anniversary Party (December 11, 2004)
As Don mentioned, he had asked me some weeks ago to research the SAW archives and interview the past SAW Presidents to try and put together a brief history of the organization to present tonight.
When he first mentioned it, I thought – Well, this won’t be any problem – I can put this together in no time. And then I started to get into the project and realized that it was a bit more of a challenge than I had realized.
Going through 25 years of records and newsletters along with interviewing folks, and then trying to boil all of that down, all of that history into something relatively short, concise and interesting turned out to be quite a project.
Since I have only been a SAW member for a bit over a year, I decided to start by tracking down the answers to some of the questions that I was curious about as a new member, in the hope that others might share that curiosity, and tackle it from that perspective.
You know it’s sort of normal on milestone birthdays to look back at when you were born and how it went. So, one of the first of the questions that I had was: How did SAW get started 25 years ago? How in the world do you create an organization like this out of the clear blue sky from absolutely nothing. Who started it and who were the founding members?
Well, it turns out that SAW was the brainchild of two people. Their names are Anita Winters and John Lyon. Anita served as SAW’s first Executive Director for four years. John was a radio personality for WMAL-AM in Washington. And they came together fittingly, over the radio.
Anita wrote an article in a 1992 edition of the SAW Notes in which she talked about the birth of SAW. They say that good artists borrow, and great artists steal. So, as I aspire to greatness, I am now going to steal directly from Anita - and read you just a bit from her article:
“It was 1979. WMAL-AM. It was John Lyon’s voice wafting over the airwaves and he was saying something about writing a song. I was in my kitchen. I stopped, with mop mid-swab, and thought “Aha! a kindred spirit!” Perhaps that sounds quaint to today’s SAW membership, but in 1979 I thought I was the only songwriter in metropolitan Washington.”
“I wrote lyrics, or I thought I did. But how could I be sure? I had no one to show them to because, except for my friend Maryellen Lewis, who sang, played guitar, and composed a couple melodies for my words, I didn’t know another soul who did what I did. John’s revelation was the motivator for what eventually became the Songwriters’ Association of Washington.”
“An exchange of letters and a flurry of phone calls followed, and finally we agreed to meet at the Writer’s Center, then located in a funky space at Glen Echo Park. John brought Len Jaffe, I brought Maryellen and Ron Payne joined us. Later on, Russ Schramm would also become one of the founding members. The Writer’s Center’s Jane Fox sat in with us that first Fall evening and it was she who told us we wanted to form an association; we hadn’t figured that much out yet!”
“As I recall (and the memory is blessedly dim), none of us knew much about starting an association, but we had grit.”
“We met with a songwriters’ group from Philadelphia and when the time came, John peppered WMAL listeners with announcements of the forthcoming meeting. Nine months after conception, the baby was born. Approximately 40 people showed up at Glen Echo that Sunday afternoon and they were representative of the type of membership that still comprises SAW today: amateurs, professionals, lyricists, composers, musicians, a couple of poets, and the curious. It was an exhilarating day.”
“And the work was just beginning. We formed a board, developed a newsletter, sponsored concerts (at Glen Echo Park, on WMAL, at Garvin’s on Connecticut Avenue), had meetings (mi-gawd, did we have meetings!), held songswaps, and asked questions.”
“Who was SAW for? The commercial songwriter, the dabbler, or both? What should be the focus? How could we increase membership? When should the meetings be held? Where? What about the music scene in Washington? Was there a music scene in Washington? As with any toddler, there were spills, bruises, misunderstandings and tantrums. But we always rebounded – the strength of SAW today is testimony to that.”
“The Mid-Atlantic Song Contest was born in those early years and it underwent several refinements along the way. WMAL was an early co-sponsor; eventually we would walk alone. Today it is one of SAW’s most successful undertakings.”
“What has been gratifying to observe over the years has been the growth in SAW’s professionalism, the seriousness with which it conducts its business, and the stability of the organization. Despite leadership changes, fluctuations in membership, the ongoing scramble for appropriate meeting places, and the hectic workload of all the volunteers who keep the group rolling, SAW continues to fill the broad needs of those who call it home.
It’s still a place for both the beginner and the professional; more importantly, it brings all songwriters together in the spirit of camaraderie that was the basis of its inception. SAW members cheer each other’s successes and mourn the disappointments. Indeed, who else knows exactly how it feels?”
That was an excerpt from Anita’s Winter’s article on the birth of SAW. And, if her songwriting as anywhere near as good as her article writing, it must be excellent.
And so, SAW was born. Another of the questions and curiosities that I had was? What was the initial goal or purpose of the association?
What I learned from interviews with some of SAW’s founding members was that the organization was created initially for the purpose of making contacts with fellow songwriters and networking. Which is, of course, one of the main benefits that has continued through its 25 year history. And, our membership has grown from those modest beginnings to our current count of 392.
Educational workshops on songwriting were also an early area of focus, which, of course, continue to this day.
The Mid-Atlantic Songwriting Contest was created around four years after the birth of SAW. I was surprised to learn that there was some controversy regarding the contest when it was initially discussed.
There were some folks who felt that a contest was not part of the SAW’s mission, and might shift the organization’s focus away from its objectives. Obviously, that view didn’t prevail and the songwriting contest has been an enormous artistic and financial success for 21 years.
Another of the surprises I learned while researching SAW’s history was that - it was certainly not a given that we would see this 25 year anniversary. This is a real achievement. There were times when it almost folded due to lack of volunteer support. There were times when SAW was nearly insolvent, and couldn’t pay its bills.
But, through the dedication of scores of volunteers and the leadership of its officers and directors, it not only survived, but thrived. Through 25 years, were have seen a succession of 13 Presidents, or interim Presidents of SAW. I know some of them are with us tonight. Some have gone on to other things. And sadly, some have passed on. But they are all leaders who have been instrumental in the success of SAW and were critical to achieving its 25 year anniversary.
So, if you will indulge me, I would like to read their names, have them stand if they are here, and join me in recognizing them for their leadership, tireless work and dedication to SAW.
Please join me in a round of applause in appreciation for these folks and all they have done for the Songwriters Association of Washington.
And so, after I was able to satisfy my curiosity about how and why SAW came to be, I was off into finding out about the rest of what happened over the its 25 years of existence.
I’m here to tell you, there is just too much.
Through all the 25 years of workshops and seminars to further our knowledge of the art and craft of songwriting.
And, all the songwriter exchanges, receiving critiques and feedback on our work
All the open mic’s, and the song circles, and the pitch-a-thons, the evolution of the newsletters, the financial areas, the volunteer initiatives, the partnerships and joint ventures, the web page, the publicity initiatives, the membership surveys
And the song contests, and the friendships and fellowship that we have all experienced through our membership in SAW
There is just too much history for one brief talk.
SAW has a past far beyond the surface that I am able to scratch here.
So I will close tonight with the offer to any of our members with an interest to know more about the details of SAW’s past, that the archives are open and available for your research and perusal.