Documentary Songwriting is an outgrowth of the oral tradition of people’s singing about their experiences. The method offers specific steps to follow and uses tools, such as laptops and smartphones, that were not available in past.
Documentary songwriters began contributing to the tradition in 2009. Malcolm Brooks and Hannah Batley collaborated on a song in which Malcolm asked Hannah to explore creating a melody as she read words that Malcolm had typed out. Hearing the results encouraged them to continuing writing in this way.

  • Monica Kelly, at Bay Chamber Concerts and Music School, sponsored Malcolm Brooks in leading a course in documentary songwriting, during which six students followed the method and generated original songs.
  • Will Foote explored generating songs about his high school and college cultures. He went on to collaborate on songs with rural farmers in upstate New York.
  • Marieke Slovin was the first to commit to learning the method and incorporated the learning experience as part of her doctoral dissertation. She went on to explore transforming the oral histories of Massachusetts mill workers and of close friends.
  • Rohan Edwards signed on as the first documentary songwriting intern from Bennington College. He developed songs about family relationships.
  • Independently, Tom Cabaniss pioneered a path of creating lullabies from letters that mothers wrote to their babies. He founded the Lullaby Project at Carnegie Hall.
  • Alex Wilder took documentary songrwiting to Cuba, and Nora Willauer took it to Spain. Their works became the first documentary songs in Spanish.
  • Joaquin Contreras used it as part of a documentary on migrant workers and also as a means of documenting family histories.
  • Melodi Var Öngel took the method to Cyprus as part of a reconciliation effort between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. Her work later became featured in a TEDx talk in England.
  • Zach Arfa acted as a documentary songwriter in a play production, generating documentary songs as part of the play’s performance.
  • Jonny Westhorp and Will Foote collaborated in Belgium with refugees seeking asylum. The songs offer testimony to human perseverance and the universal desire for freedom.
  • Nora Willauer applied the method to writing songs with women who had experienced sexual and domestic abuse. Her work was featured on NPR’s Morning Edition.

A detailed account of the first use of the method appears in Malcolm Brooks’s doctoral dissertation:

Sunflower and the Birth of the Documentary Songwriting Method

(An excerpt from Autoethnography of a Composer with a New Composing Method (Malcolm Brooks 2013))
While reading the history of Sunflower below, you may be interested to hear the very first sing-through that marks the birth of the documentary songwriting method. Hannah Batley reads back her spoken words and improvises a melody. The skeleton of the final melody is evident in this first sing-through.

The history of Sunflower, from Malcolm Brooks’s dissertation:
In 2009, Hannah Batley, a local composer, and I had collaborated successfully on a choral song for the Rockland Unitarian Universalist Church, of which she was the musical director. We decided to collaborate on another piece, and Hannah showed me a melodic and lyrical idea that she had been exploring. She had written:
So hold me and sing to me songs
Of the Sunflower
With God in its seed.
(Batley & Brooks, 2010)
We discussed where the song should go next. I asked her about the origins the sunflower idea. She told me about a deceased man in her community, a friend of the family, who had played a grandfatherly role for her during her childhood. As she described him through anecdotes, I heard myself saying, “Hannah, that’s the song.”
She repeated the anecdotes and, this time, I typed down every word she said. From there we began breaking the story into paragraphs and the sentences into phrases, one to a line. Her spoken words began to look like a poem in free verse.
Our session drew to a close Hannah and I reviewed what we had done. I felt that Hannah’s chorus now fit well in between the rough verses that her spoken words had provided. I also felt the desire to add three lines to the chorus with hopes that Hannah would not object. I felt that one more line might make Hannah’s message even clearer. I sang the chorus as:
So hold me and sing to me songs
Of the Sunflower
With God in its seed.
Remind me life is beautiful.
Remind me of the sunflower.
That’s all I need.
(Batley & Brooks, 2010)
At our next session, Hannah and I completed the song. As I played guitar, based upon the chords she had originally written, Hannah improvisationally made up a melody to the words she had spoken, now in verse format. We were surprised and pleased with the outcome. There were more anecdotes than we needed, so Hannah chose which ones to keep.
At the time, I did not think that Hannah and I were following a method. We were merely trying to a complete a song. Yet the transition from spoken word to finished song did imply a process, even if it was an explorational one. To provide a sense of this transition from spoken word to song, I present below both the original words that Hannah spoke and the lyrics that were shaped from them.
Hannah’s Spoken Text, April 18, 2010:
He was my adopted-by-affection grandfather in the area and my sister’s godfather officially. And he used to sing me Ukrainian lullabies in the kitchen rocking chair and he used to carve ducks out of wood. He had a wood shop and, every time I would walk in, he would kiss my hand. It got to the point where I would walk in like this. (Hannah demonstrates: Hand outstretched and waiting.)
He used to always carry sunflowers seeds in his pocket because to him they showed the wonder of God. He was amazed that a small brown seed, if you just planted it and gave it a little love, could grow into a sunflower. That was his representation of God among us. The mystery of life, the mystery of it.
He was trying to teach me how to point my toe. He would say, “Point your toe,” and I would raise my hand and point to my toe. He taught me how to do the loud wink (Hannah demonstrates: she opens her mouth as she winks), and he was the best at breaking bread. He loved, loved to bake bread.
He had a chair that no one else sat in because it was his chair. You could sit in his lap in his chair.
We went every Christmas Eve to their house and it was a tradition if there was snow, he would throw a snowball at the car.
We played a little wiffle ball. We wood stand on the mound on he driveway. That’s where the pitcher would stand, and we would play wiffle ball in the driveway.
And he taught me how to draw trees, pine trees, with pencil. You do lots of little lines like needles instead of trying to draw the
whole shape.
He smoked a pipe when he was younger but then he stopped. I think he got lip cancer. I can’t remember. I was really young.
He died when I was thirteen or fourteen. I don’t remember. He was in the hospital. Something had happened. He didn’t die for what he was in there for. He died fro a blood clot. It was very unexpected.
He was called Papa Pod, by the way.
He used to say “whoopee” a lot. It was kind of funny. It was juxtaposed to his personality. At his funeral in the tree cathedral—that was a spot of woods in front of his house—we were spreading his ashes. We had finished and had said a prayer and no one knew quite what to do next. Keenan, his grandson, said, “whoopee,” and we all laughed.
There was a rocking chair in the kitchen where I sat in his lap and also his own chair in the living room where I also sat in his lap.
(Hannah Batley, personal communication, April 18, 2010)
Here are the lyrics shaped from the spoken text:
He would try to teach me how to point my toe.
I would point to my toe with my hand.
No one sat in his chair ’cause it was his chair,
But if you sat in his lap he’d understand.
In his pocket he kept seeds from a sunflower,
‘Cause to him they showed the wonder of God.
He was amazed how brown seeds turned to sunflowers.
Oh, that was my Papa Pod.
So hold me and sing to me songs
Of the sunflower with God in its seed.
Remind me that life is beautiful
Remind me of the sunflower.
That’s all I need.
We used to play wiffle ball in the driveway.
There was a rock where Papa Pod would stand.
I would tremble as I watched him do his wind up.
That bat seemed so enormous in my hand.
Christmas Eve we would drive over to his house.
He would wait for us outside if there was snow.
He would aim at the car and throw a snowball.
It was a tradition all of his own.
So hold me and sing to me songs
Of the sunflower with God in its seed.
Remind me that life is beautiful.
Remind me of that sunflower.
That’s all I need.
He was the best at baking bread.
How he loved, he loved, he loved to bake bread.
He had a place that he called the tree cathedral.
It was a spot of woods in front of his house.
It was there that we all stood and spread his ashes.
It was there that he never came out.
So hold me and sing to me songs
Of the sunflower with God in its seed.
Remind me that life is beautiful.
Remind me of that sunflower.
That’s all I need. (Batley & Brooks, 2010)
The song “Sunflower” marks the birth of the Story-to-Song Method (now most often called the Documentary Songwriting Method) and the culmination of the first stage of evolution of a creative method. In retrospect, I am amazed at how long I had stumbled along trying to help people build songs from titles based on phrases in spoken stories. I had overlooked the stories themselves. I had been looking for a story within a title rather than a title within a story. After the completion of “Sunflower,” I began to consider a new lesson:
36. All parts of a song – melody, rhythm, chorus, verses – may lie within a spoken story.
Like a Cree hunter (Berkes 2008), it was up to me to honor the gift – whether it be a deer or a song – and reverently find it.
I was also expanding an earlier composing lesson about observing my own culture to find ideas. Rather than composing alone, however, I was creating with someone else. Together we were drawing on Hannah’s “outside world” for inspiration.
Here is a finished version of Sunflower, as it was recorded and released in 2013.