Michael Koppy

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A Certain Tendency in American Songwriting*

 

No, Don, the Levee Wasn’t Dry—and No One Was Drinking Whiskey and Rye....

 

Nothing is as approved as mediocrity—the majority has established it.   — Blaise Pascal (1623–1662)

 

Don McLean’s “American Pie” has been one of the most celebrated songs of recent decades—do a quick web search and you’ll occasionally even encounter it named the best song ever written. It’s regularly trotted out as a fine example of “Poetic Lyrics” in popular songwriting, and there’ve surely been countless precocious high schoolers and callow undergraduates who’ve written papers of which they’re quite proud that dissect the song; detecting references and deducing “hidden meanings” contained therein.

 

The chorus—almost always regarded as the most important part of any song lyric, and necessarily repeated several times (seven in “American Pie”)—goes as follows:

 

Bye, bye Miss American Pie.
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry.
Them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye,
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die;
This’ll be the day that I die.
1

 

What I find so annoying is the utter clumsiness—clumsiness not just motored by once and quickly (and so possibly pardonable in a rush of more resonant phrases and melody) but repeated, emphasized, hammered home, with all those iterations.

 

Levees are never “dry”—or wet—unless we’re talking about a recent rain or a dropped soda. A levee is not a body of water, but an earthwork that contains a body of water. One might note, similarly, that a lake may be dry; but not a bridge—nor a levee. Period.

 

And rye? Rye is a kind of whiskey—so “drinking whiskey and rye” is roughly equivalent to “eating eggs and egg yolks” or “watching television and a television show”.

 

Again, one can perhaps generously excuse a less-well written phrase if it comes in a tightly wrapped package of other ideas and observations, some or most of which stand strongly on their own—or comes along just once, possibly, in passing. That’s not what’s happening here, however—we’re just getting hit with one inanely half-baked notion after the other, with really nothing worthy of attention along the way, and then we’re to endure it all again, and again, and again....

 

There’s no excuse for treating writing of such abysmal conception and execution with anything other than ridicule and dismissal—and, more substantively (and perhaps unfortunately), for ignoring everything else delivered in the song. To repeat, the chorus above is the very heart of it—the part which needs to be the most elegant, precise, evocative and/or clear. And frankly, if a songwriter can’t even clear that fundamental hurdle, his or her extrapolations, illustrations, allusions and digressions likely do not merit further examination. So, um—ya got anything else, Don?

 

One can actually find, believe it or not, an apologetics which asserts McLean was referring to a supposed bar called The Levee in his hometown of New Rochelle which closed down—so it went “dry”—forcing drinkers to drive a couple of towns away to imbibe in the town of Rye, and that McLean is actually singing “drinking whiskey IN Rye”. I’m not going to waste my time investigating this—for two reasons. (Well, three if you count that life is too short to squander on deference to obvious stupidities—I also don’t spend time pondering if Elvis is still alive, or if he was the Second Shooter firing from the Grassy Knoll....)

 

First off, he’s not singing “whiskey IN Rye”—that’s pretty danged clear. (I’ll deal with aspects and examples of popular song criticism that are similarly wild-eyed and fatuous—sometimes from otherwise ostensibly knowledgeable and very respected critics—later in this essay.)

 

Secondly, if he actually were so profoundly self-referential and self-indulgent, it would make the entire song unhinged and self-absorbed to the point of insignificance. (I’ll propose some basic public and creative responsibilities in songwriting later in the essay as well.)

 

By the way, if one does explore the verses, despite the warning flags (including the vacant title, underscored as such by the recurrent title lyric line—“Miss American Pie” being a heavy-handed manufacture of ostensible cultural personification, but with the critical deficiency that it has really no connection to events in the song or to any external touchstone. Well except as a clumsy non sequitur signifier, I guess—and so yes, please, “Bye-bye....”) one simply encounters a delineation of superficial pop culture celebrities and events sheathed within irritatingly needless obscurations—recitation sans revelation, reflection shorn of insight; exanimate loquacity.2

 

In sum, there’s no necessity in taking writing this blundering, this innocuous—and this assertively, repeatedly delivered, despite all that(!)—seriously. Does one take anything away, really, from the disquisition? Is there even one useful insight imparted during the long commentary? For all McLean’s aspirations, and the renown the song has attained, it is in the end a tediously bumbling and unpolished exposition, married to a generally agreeable tune and dispatched with bumptious assurance, and nothing more. Pleasant, albeit sophomoric, piffle.

 

(And for those perhaps kinder or more indulgent toward Mr McLean’s lyrical maladroitness in “American Pie”, thinking me too exacting or categorical, I’ll later also address why such matters are in fact fundamental to capable and resonant songwriting.)

 

*Titled with apologies to the late François Truffaut. 

1“American Pie”, copyright 1971 by Don McLean. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107. 

2A reader arriving at this early point in the monograph with reservations about the general judgment—preferring to see a specific line-by-line analysis substantiating such a categorical determination—is directed to later sections, particularly in Part Four, but elsewhere as well, which do exactly that with other similar songs. There’s not enough time to here go through the lengthy “American Pie” line by line—but the deficiencies and general half-assedness of the effort are not at all unique to it.

 

“There Goes The(?) Robert E. Lee”

 

Either one is serious or one is not.   — Susan Sontag (1933–2004)

 

Before we move on, let’s look at another revered song, one that comes to us from the other direction, in that it attempts (via fictional first person chronicle) to present a direct and immediately accessible picture of historical actuality—sans “American Pie’s” bogus trappings and ostensible poesy:

 

Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train,
’Til Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again.
In the winter of ’65; we were hungry, just barely alive.
By May tenth, Richmond had fell, it’s a time I remember oh so well,

 

chorus:

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and the bells were ringing,
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and the people were singin’,
They went “Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na; Na, Na, Na, Na; Na, Na, Na, Na, Na.”

 

Back with my wife in Tennessee; when one day she called to me,
“Virgil, quick, come see, there goes Robert E. Lee!”
Now I don’t mind choppin’ wood,
and I don’t care if the money’s no good.
Ya take what ya need and ya leave the rest,
But they should never have taken the very best.

 

chorus repeat

 

Like my father before me, I will work the land,
Like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand.
He was just eighteen, proud and brave,
But a Yankee laid him in his grave,
I swear by the mud below my feet,
You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat.

 

chorus repeat3

 

Where to begin? Well, in the beginning....

 

This song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” written by The Band’s Robbie Robertson, has three verses, all of them serviceable, workmanlike. The (most important) first verse capably sets up the character, the milieu, his reactions, torment and loss. I quibble with this or that line and word choice, but it’s generally quite good work; demanding deferential attention—and especially promising (even novel) given that I for one can’t even think of one other Civil War remembrance in contemporary song from either a Union or a Confederate vantage.

 

But then.......unfortunately........we get to the chorus. And—Oh.  My.  God....

 

Of course, there was no single “night they drove old Dixie down”, though probably the most fitting candidate for such designation would be the day Federal troops finally entered the Confederate capital, Richmond, on—I just checked—April 2nd.

 

(Digression: So why the mention of May 10th in the song? The only significant event happening on that date was the capture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, many hundreds of miles away—but his apprehension was essentially an anti-climax at that point—and of far less consequence than Richmond being evacuated, Lee surrendering [April 9], or Confederate General Joe Johnston surrendering the largest Southern army [April 26] many days after that; among other larger and smaller rebel surrenders all across the South, stretching on to June 2nd. Dwelling on the calendrical caprice is unproductive here, except to note that in a song already cataloguing lesser-known historical events—and Union General Stoneman’s cavalry raids are certainly that—continuing such historical authority, even authenticity, is implicitly important; and further, affords the availability of an even wider foundation—while just tossing out a date without reason for it is a wasted opportunity. These observations and reservations may admittedly be of secondary moment, they’re certainly neither picayune nor impertinent. Later in this essay, I’ll look at similar opportunities that were brilliantly exploited rather than squandered.)

 

But let’s move on, because it’s the chorus as a whole that is such an incredibly cavernous and consummate disaster.

 

The night they drove old Dixie down (whatever date we’re agreeing that was, though again the only reasonable one is when the Union troops entered the Confederate capital) “and all the bells were ringing”. WHAT? In the defeated South? In a Richmond set ablaze by retreating rebels, and the remaining populace braced for the worst excesses of warfare by invading Yankee hordes? Bells don’t get rung all over a city in celebration of defeat (or by fire departments, few or none of which are gonna be functional or even staffed during such chaos). They weren’t in 1945 Berlin, in 1940 Paris, or in 1814 Washington when the British set fire to the White House and US Capitol. (The only people celebrating Union victory in Richmond, and while celebrating doing so with necessary circumspection, were the city’s blacks—clearly not at all the populace the singer of this song is representing.)

 

And “the people were singing”? WHY?!? The hated Yankees had just triumphantly taken over! The city engulfed in flames, drunken rioters in the streets—and if you didn’t know that, you surely assumed as much or similar, no? (You didn’t presume the women were all tossing flowers out windows to the revenge-filled Northerners; the remaining old men and boys out on their front porches offering whiskey to the detested invaders—did you? Or that everyone calmly left their threatened homes and possessions—to walk to church, where they all joined in song?) Except for the strictly mechanical aspect—the lines rhyme—they make absolutely no sense whatsoever.

 

However, we’re still not at the most insipid part of this song—this song that began with such great promise.

 

Because what, exactly, were “the people singing”? This is the climax of the chorus, after all—potentially the place where the song should reasonably be expected to have its greatest insight, it’s most profound and lasting resonance and revelation. So maybe it’ll all come together here—justifying those preceding couple of lines and wrapping everything up in an epiphanic resolution.   

 

Oh, no it won’t.

 

Incredibly—pointlessly, frivolously, idiotically—the people were all singing “Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na; Na, Na, Na, Na; Na, Na, Na, Na, Na.”! (Even while typing this—and having heard the song countless times over the intervening years since it was released—I can’t help but shake my head in disbelieving derision....)

 

This is songwriting so ineffectual, so nonessential—so utterly incompetent—that it should be laughed at in contempt.

 

Yet here’s what a few critics have written about it:

 

Ralph J. Gleason: “Nothing I have read … has brought home the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does…‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ is a remarkable song…It has that ring of truth, and the whole aura of authenticity.”4

 

Greil Marcus: “What it says was clear from the moment it was released…its power, though, is too great to take for granted…You can’t get out from under the singer’s truth…to this day none of us has escaped its impact, what we share is an ability to respond to a story like this one.”5

 

Gilbert Cruz: “One of Time Magazine’s Top One Hundred Songs of All Time.”6

 

My heart goes out to these fellows. They’re all surely bright, perceptive guys, and they all certainly and sincerely wanted to hear and engage a substantive and evocative, intelligent piece of lyric writing on this unusual topic, from this unheard quarter—as would I, myself a white Southerner. So they simply ignored the actuality…and wrote about what they’d like to have experienced.

 

Though it usually is, a song’s chorus doesn’t necessarily have to be the lyrically strongest part of a song. In an effort like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, for instance, with so much description and information set in the verses, the chorus could be something entirely distinct from them—and so the divergent but inane “Na-Na-Na”’s replaced with something equally as divergent but genuinely evocative; like the sentiments found in a church hymn perhaps, or maybe general reflections on the senselessness of war. (Imagine first jettisoning the “bells were ringing / people were singing” idiocy and replacing it with another angle of personal or general reflection from the narrator [in similarly patterned rhyming couplet], then following with a direct lift of lines from a Baptist hymnal over the extant tune—or even part an actual hymn or pastoral folk song, including that melody or a recognizable variation on it. I’m not asserting any of this thinking is necessarily the strongest way to go, but just about anything is stronger—more integrated, substantive and consistent—than the maundering drivel there now....) Later on in this essay, we’ll also take a brief look at the obvious general folly of using “la-la-la” and similar in a song which attempts to be a serious piece of work.

 

(As for the heading of this section—“There goes the(?) Robert E. Lee”—this quotes just one of Joan Baez’s at best ignorantly obtuse bastardizations of the song in her hit version of it; a song that’s already, as established above, largely a piece of inchoate babble. “The Robert E. Lee” was a paddle-wheel steamboat plying the Mississippi River in the latter 1800s. While one can obviously accept seeing it might elicit bystander interest, this has NOTHING AT ALL to do with ANYTHING in the song. I’ll not take time here detailing the further incoherences she cavalierly inflicts on the piece—it’s admittedly a bit of a divagation—but do some web searches if you’re curious. The song may not deserve great respect, but her departures and interpolations only compound its problems—and it all underscores, again, the superciliousness and superficiality pandemic in popular song and popular song criticism.)

 

3“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, copyright 1969 by Robbie Robertson. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107.

4Rolling Stone, October 1969.

5Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock and Roll (New York: Penguin, 1975), 55.

6Time Magazine, October 21, 2011.

 

To What End?

 

I’m patient with stupidity, but not with those who are proud of it.   — Edith Sitwell (1887–1964)

 

Perhaps the point has been sufficiently made in the previous two sections—but let’s quickly dispense with one more typical example from each of the two equally inarticulate schools of practice in contemporary songwriting we’ve exposed before moving forward.

 

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you some absolute crap—er, I mean “brilliantly imaginative writing”. I give you John Lennon’s “Come Together”:

 

Here come old flat top,
He come groovin’ up slowly.
He got joo joo eyeballs;
He one holy rollers;
He got hair down to his knees—
Got to be a joker
He just do what he please.

 

He wear no shoeshine;
He got toe jam football;
He got monkey finger;
He shoot Coca Cola;
He say “I know you, you know me—
One thing I can tell you is
You got to be free!”

 

chorus:

Come together, right now,
Over me.

 

He bad production;
He got walrus gumboot;
He got Ono sideboard;
He one spinal cracker;
He got feet down below his knees7.......—

 

Okay, enough, enough.... I said ENOUGH ALREADY!

 

We certainly don’t need to go on here. Lennon himself grants, “The song was created in the studio. It’s gobbledygook”8. (Yes it sure as hell IS, John—but ya know, we don’t really need you to clue us in on that. And by the way, admitting to mediocrity doesn’t absolve one of responsibility for it.)

 

This utter travesty would make a fine “Exhibit A” illustrating how bad things can get when an act knows it can get away with ANYTHING, and Simply Does Not Care.

 

“Come Together” has a great overall sound to it, no doubt. Of that there should be no disagreement—it is a very well produced recording. A very well produced recording of—well, yes, “gobbledygook”. Like a beautifully painted immaculately-kept classic automobile—without an engine or a steering wheel, sitting on four flat tires.

 

One can think of so many of Lennon’s songs that were similarly concurrently both endowed and crippled. A truly fascinating one, musically, for example, is “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, a great sounding composition, with an arrangement that’s stunningly unique and expertly, inventively produced—plagued with lyrics that are preposterously self-indulgent and in-your-face stupid. (I’ll carefully separate lyrics from music—and both from production—in later sections as well. This may strike as obvious and unnecessary, but it’s the failure to properly do so that licenses, enables—even unquestioningly consecrates—so many dumbfoundingly trivial efforts.)

 

And there’s multitudes of extremely successful—read: well-known, covered by other acts and commercially lucrative, but ultimately banal—songs like “Come Together”. This, folks, is where exalting stream-of-conscious idiocy and Dylanesque “Poetic Lyrics” has gotten us—as abetted by the lethal combination of celebrity idol worship and celebrity self-entitlement, both of which I’ll also address here later. And keep in mind that John Lennon could be—could be, when he restrained and applied himself—a generally capable and occasionally even truly affecting songwriter. “Come together, over me”? “Over me?” Does a refrain of that repeated adage—for what else is it? A maxim? A motto? A rallying cry?—make any sense?....

 

- - -

 

On the other side of the coin, here’s one of a zillion available examples underscoring how impoverished things are in the “Trying to Say Something Clear and Meaningful When Low on Talent” department—this by the unequipped but persistent John Mellencamp—and another song I’m sure you’ve endured far, far too many times:

 

Well I was born in a small town.
And I live in a small town.
Probably die in a small town.
Oh, those small communities.

 

All my friends are so small town.
My parents live in the same small town.
My job is so small town.
Provides little opportunity

 

Educated in a small town.
Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town.
Used to daydream in that small town
Another romantic, that's me

 

But Ive seen it all in a small town.
Had myself a ball in a small town.
Married an L.A. doll and brought her to this small town;
Now shes small town just like me9.......—

 

Again, fine, okay, pleaseENOUGH ALREADY! Please God! Let’s not go on.

 

Utterly abysmal writingcompetent, at most, on the level of a diligent third grader trying his or her best. But OH-so-self-important! This car isn’t even a classic automobileit’s an empty parking space. Really, just a waste of time. (And by the way, is the song really an extollation of the virtues of small towns and rural life—or of Mellencamp himself? I mean he gives no reasons small towns are great places, does he? But there’s a whole lot of him strutting and braggingand he makes damn sure we know he snagged himself a cliché Trophy Wife!....)

 

- - -

 

If you’re thinking, “Well, it’s easy to criticize songs like the ones above; anyone can do that. They’re obviously lesser efforts.” You’re absolutely correct; yes, it is like shooting fish in a barrel.

 

But “lesser efforts” implies they’re aberrationsand that they most certainly are not.

 

So do we just accept the tsunami of detritus deluging us dailyand must we resign ourselves to doing so because that’s simply what constitutes the overwhelming vast majority of efforts with which we’re provided?

 

I say we shouldn’t. I say we don’t.

 

7“Come Together”, copyright 1969 by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107.

8All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono by David Sheff. (New York: St Martin's Press, 2000), 201

9“Small Town”, copyright 1985 by John Mellencamp. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107.

 

A Personal Remembrance

 

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.   — King James Version Bible

 

When I was in my mid-teens, I performed—regularly, determinedly, earnestly performed—“Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and other songs by Bob Dylan; various songs by the Byrds, Beatles, Rolling Stones; “The Sounds of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel; and whatever other purportedly serious and thoughtful efforts I and others like me were told at the time were “important” and “meaningful”.

 

But frequently—almost always, actually—nagging at me was the feeling something was missing, something was off or even hollow in what I was singing and playing. I outwardly deferred to the judgments from on high that these were great anthems of progressive, even revolutionary, political, social (and musical) importance. Yet why didn’t I really subscribe to that? Why did so much of it seem to me to be simply jejune, self-indulgent navel-gazings on one end, and inarticulate and directionless rambles on the other?

 

At the time, reaching young adulthood in the oppressively provincial North Florida panhandle, I presumed that I probably just wasn’t sophisticated enough, smart enough, or cool enough(!) to fully get it. After all, the Record Industry, the Important National Media, and Other Big Successful Acts all said Dylan’s songs, especially, were “brilliant”(!), “revolutionary”(!), “towering”(!)—and he himself was “the voice of a generation”(!), writing “true poetry”(!) and so on, and so on....

 

(Bob Dylan’s deleterious influence on contemporary songwriting is so pervasive—and so unquestioned, despite the work itself inconveniently being so remarkably shallow and clumsy—that he and it will be frequently referenced and revisited throughout this essay. We’ll naturally focus directly on his songs—and on songs by others who’ve been influenced by him—at length. But unfortunate distractions along the way to considerations of the purely esthetic aspects of Dylan’s own efforts are that he’s also properly spotlighted here in the section on plagiarism; and in other parts of this essay we’ll shovel past the mountains of blind celebrity worship spewed out by his most obtusely rabid fans and eager disciples. While neither his personal and professional ethics nor the prostrate adulation of his adherents is directly of substance when discussing Dylan’s work itself, those peripheral considerations are necessarily germane in any discussion of the conventionally imputed merit and impact of that work.)

 

Growing up back there in Tallahassee, I was a particularly zealous fan of the Buffalo Springfield—a band whose members included Neil Young, Stephen Stills and others who’ve almost all subsequently continued on through successful music industry careers. And I was, believe me, Neil’s Number One Biggest Fan—to me he was a Great And Profound Artist, and could simply Do No Wrong.

 

And now? Now I can barely stand to hear the guy—and roll my eyes at his generally banal and poorly written songs, be they more recent ones or those very same efforts about which I rhapsodized so extravagantly Way Back When.

 

What happened to my enthusiasm for Neil?

 

Well, I got older, wiser—simply more exposed to and experienced in the world. I became more discerning, discriminating and demanding.

 

He didn’t.

 

This essay is specifically directed to those who’ve experienced comparable growth and accrued sapience; similarly willing to cast aside convention and cant.

 

Toward a New American Songwriting

 

In a time of universal self-deception, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.   — George Orwell (1903–1950)

 

In 1798, a book of poems titled Lyrical Ballads, by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was first published. For the second edition, three years later, Wordsworth inserted a long and sweeping Preface—in which he attempted to point out and emphasize the importance of the foundational thinking that had premised the book. (The basic thrust of the Preface, as was intended to be exemplified in the poems themselves, was to move poetry towards a more vernacular language, a revolutionary leap away from the elegant and ornate writing styles dominant at the time.) He even fully recognized the imposing and lengthy Preface might be seen as crass sales craft—as simply an attempt to garner favorable reactions to the poems independent of their intrinsic quality. Yet the urgency of what he had to say about poetry in general was so important, he felt, that a full presentation of those views was incumbent upon him, and necessary to advance the entire art....

 

In 1954, in the pages of the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, then critic (and, of course, within a few years internationally renowned director) François Truffaut wrote what became recognized as the seminal call to arms for the nascent Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) in French cinema. In a critical manifesto titled “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français” (“A Certain Tendency in French Cinema”) he documented and excoriated the ossified so-called “Tradition of Quality” then ascendant in French filmmaking. (His central thesis here was germinal in the development of the auteur theory, in which the director—the director who had both talent and the force to maintain a consistent worldview throughout his or her works—was asserted to be the most important creative participant in filmmaking. The director was, more than the screenwriter, producer or actors, the true “auteur”—author—of a film. Movies and film criticism in France—and eventually around the world—were never again the same.)

 

Two centuries after Wordsworth and sixty-plus years following Truffaut, I take inspiration from both efforts, and similar revolutionary artistic manifestos, to here examine the recent and current state of American popular songwriting (and attendant non-American Anglophone songwriting generally) and the two complementary but equally wrong-headed directions found in general practice: simplistic and impotent lyric writing on the one hand (cf “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “Small Town”), and so-called “Poetic Lyrics”—inarticulate, poorly-crafted and directionless drivel, as epitomized in the songs of Bob Dylan and his adherents, certainly, which have been held in highest critical and often popular esteem in recent decades—on the other (cf “American Pie”, “Come Together”). And I’ll propose some guiding principles and practices that might serve to help lead American songwriting to more resonance and significance.

 

I hope you’ll enter all this as one might begin an inquisitive dinner dialogue with intelligent friends, or a thoughtful afternoon conversation with a pal over coffee or a couple of beers at a neighborhood café—meaning we’re gonna jump around, digress, explore tangents, tell a few amusing stories, and back-track whenever it may be warranted or productive along the way. I expect both the general reader and practicing songwriters and musicians may find many observations and insights helpful, and even instructive.

 

By the way—a stylistic note: Throughout this piece, when song lyrics are directly quoted, they’ll appear in a way that certainly isn’t unique, but is admittedly unusual: with periods, question marks, exclamation points, commas, semi-colons, colons, dashes, parentheses, brackets and quotation marks as I decide they fit and best help define and convey the thoughts intended in those lyrics. Versions of those songs will be, as best as I can determine, as they are performed by the original writer(s), in respect to exact lyrics and placements of verses, chorus, bridge, etc. (If a major hit recording of the song is how it’s best known—and that version differs from the presumed original—the revised presentation may be the way the song is subsequently performed by the original writer(s) as well; meaning they’ve adjusted it to mirror the hit rendition. Yet I’ve tried to track down the earliest finished constructions when possible.)

 

And in the effort to find shared familiarity in the material considered, most of the songs examined—like “American Pie” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”—will be works that have been around for a while: songs the vast majority of which will be known by most readers, with only the occasional more recent example or obscure title.

 

Finally, I wish to acknowledge and thank the many people who’ve helped me over the years to think through the formulations herein—I’m one who tends to do his best thinking when bouncing ideas and notions back and forth with someone else, someone for whom I have respect and whose intelligence and insight I find particularly acute. So I’m in profound debt to Garrett Soden, Michael Varhol, Uri Herz and Tré Giles (Los Angeles), Rebecca Chalker and Richard Leslie (New York City), Frank Lindamood (Tallahassee), Steve Arwood (Nashville), Lynne Magin (Chicago), Karl Fredrik Lundeberg (Washington), Michael Robertson, Ken Bullock and Pete Petroski (San Francisco), Tom McFarland (Merritt Island), and Dan Simberloff (Knoxville). Most of these poor people endured some long (and I’m sure often disruptive) phone discussions and/or email exchanges on aspects of this piece; though I must emphasize that none of them agree with everything I write here—and some may disagree with just about all of it. So don’t hold anyone but me accountable for factual errors as you may find them, or culpable for critical or intellectual lapses as you may adjudge them to exist. And I sincerely thank each of the folks above for their time, their taste and intelligence.

 

- - -

 

But before we even get into critical specifics of songwriting at all, I think we should identify and dispatch as much of the accumulated barnacles and encrusted sludge that surround and suffocate the topic. Of all fields of entertainment and the performing arts, popular song is perhaps the most larded with extraneous nonsense—from imbecilic posturing and ludicrous marketing of acts themselves to pandemic insufferable fan worship. Inanity ascendant. One of course finds crass preening, cynical pretense and vapid idolatry everywhere in the performing and fine arts—hell, one finds it in every human endeavor—but probably nowhere is the cancer so metastasized as in popular song.

 

So first—and, admittedly, a long “first” it’s gonna be(!)—let’s look at several quagmires, snares and dissimulations we’ll try to avoid on our journey. Popular music, so ubiquitous and available, is rarely examined coldly—and the common human desire for heroes, villains, authority and vicarious nobility is so determined—that it’s a field rife with breathlessly delivered superficial appreciations. I’m going to take a patient tour d’horizon of many inconsequential manifestations that regularly preclude or undermine what might otherwise become serious discussions of popular music. These initial sections may end up taking more space than the substantive analyses that follow, but while many things I’ll address—perhaps most—are surely obvious to many, I think it’s important to expose and dismiss them deliberately, progressively, decisively, one by one by one....

 

(If you don’t wish to take time to revisit what should be the indisputable foundations for a discussion of this sort—and find an attempt at such to be tedious or even condescending—please accept my apologies and skip on to Part Two. But, with sincere respect to my readers, even a quick scan of the immediate sections below may still be helpful. We’re in somewhat uncharted critical waters, after all, and so getting initial bearings. Thank you.)

 

PART ONE: Distractions, Diversions, Deceptions

 

Ground Rule #1

 

When not applied strictly to painters, ‘artist’ has a pretentious sound to it.10   — Steven Moore (b. 1951)

 

I agree with Mr Moore, above. The term “artist” is elitist and exclusionary, and should be avoided, even in casual discussion. I’ll here consciously try to use the terms “songwriter”, “lyricist”, “composer”, “performer”—even the rather clinically cheeky “practitioner”—and similar.

 

The characterization of someone as an artist is an easy handle, of course, but it also legitimizes a lot of impertinent and pernicious nonsense. In everyday conversation, we so often use the word as a superlative descriptor: “The guy’s not just your regular plumber, he’s a real artist!” or “She’s not just a gardener, she’s an artist!” The two people are lifted above their peers into an exalted realm, “above the riff-raff”, when all that’s actually intended is to compliment the person in question for doing generally capable or even excellent work in his or her field—he does excellent plumbing, she tends one hell of a thriving garden. Good for them both, and good for us who benefit from their work.

 

But artist is indeed a very loaded term, implying an almost blanket license and excuse for grandiosity and outré self-indulgence—as if someone who has admirably mastered singing in public, for instance, is deserving of specially preferential and indulgent treatment; as though we should almost expect, and certainly applaud and reward, diva behavior. It allows—sanctifies—excess; because (again) they’re NOT just like you and me, they’re lovably crazy, unpredictable ARTISTS. Calling someone working in entertainment (and the so-called performing arts—which is, with similar pretense, really just high-brow entertainment, albeit stationed firmly elsewhere on the continuum, no?) an “artist” is an insidious elevation that contributes mightily to the tawdry celebrity culture so pandemic in contemporary society—and hallows a whole lot of second-rate work.

 

Songwriting can be an art; it is most often carefully considered and crafted work. Inspiration really is ninety-nine percent perspiration. And creating a song is, in the end, organized and thoughtful problem solving to reach a desired result, though the solving of the technical and thematic obstacles—due to the technical exigencies of the task at hand—can often severely alter what had been initially presumed to be that ultimate objective, that ultimate message. Yet whether intended from scratch, or arrived at serendipitously, if an over-arching and insightful vision is achieved, then the work may even be properly lauded as a work of art.

 

Similarly, on the matter of the inadvertent or deliberate aggrandizement perpetrated by casually throwing around the word artist, I recall writer Garrison Keillor intoning in his thunderous baritone some years back—I’m paraphrasing from memory here—“Writing is a great and noble calling!” (long pause) “But so is dentistry. And so is nursing. And so is road repairing.”

 

Yes.

 

We do ourselves and songwriting a disservice when we call those working in the field—including singers, instrumentalists and producers—artists. We cheat listeners and demean the hard work of songwriters when we mystify the process of writing and composing a successful song.

 

10The Novel: An Alternative History by Steven Moore. (New York: Continuum, 2010), 7

 

You’re My Hero!

 

Fools have a habit of believing that everything written by a famous author is admirable.   — François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) (1694–1778)

 

Similarly to eschewing use of the term artist, another piece of baggage we need to shelve a priori to substantive discussion is fanboy and fangirl exaltations—arrant indiscriminate genuflections before personal idols. It’s a common thing to say, “I’m a Beatles fan”—or a Bing Crosby, Kanye West, Sex Pistols, Supremes, Bill Monroe, Katy Perry or Whoever-the-Hell-ELSE fan. But if that enthusiasm, as it easily can, prevents or significantly colors otherwise intelligent appreciation—particularly precluding ready dismissal of inferior (or even downright incompetent) works by that practitioner when warranted—there’s no clear benefit in hearing your judgments on the act’s efforts. You have no legitimacy as a critic or auditor if you’re predisposed to blindly liking (or, far more pernicious, fabricating substantive justifications for) everything this or that act puts forth, as such opinions are obviously bereft of discernment.

 

Over the years, I myself have very much enjoyed a lot of what I’ve heard by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos—friends might understandably call me a “Buck Owens fan”.11 Yet I’m well aware he wrote some really—no, I mean really—embarrassingly bad stuff along with the good. I give you the A side of a 1967 single, a song of his called “Where Does the Good Times Go?”:

 

Where does the good times go?
Where does the river flow?
Where does the north wind blow?
Where does the good times go?
12

 

The really sad news here is that this—as with the “American Pie” lyrics quoted earlier—is the chorus, so sang three times(!) in the just over two minutes of the recording. YEOW!

 

I’ve also immensely enjoyed recordings and live concerts by the Clash back in the day—I still think their first-ever US performance, at Temple Beautiful in San Francisco, ranks as the best rock concert I’ve ever attended—and I continue to find their work engaging these many years later. An exciting and powerful band. But it’s quite unlikely you’ll ever hear me lecturing someone on how uniformly great their writing or composing ostensibly is, or find me performing one of their songs.

 

Look, we all have our individual enthusiasms and personal preferences; as we all have our guilty pleasures and transient fancies. And with a little study we can ferret out legitimate factual evidence to serve an illegitimate prefabricated notion—or if we can’t find it (and whether it actually exists or not) can create it. Such is the mental agility which is fundamental to everything from brilliant doctoral dissertations to hare-brained conspiracy theories, each appended with tons of impressive footnotes.

 

And we’ve all been buffaloed—our curiosity morbidly ensnared and eventual embarrassing continued awareness germinated at the supermarket check-out line—by this or that bit of tabloid weirdness perpetrated by this or that act; for whatever reason extraneous (or even integral) to the actual material created by the act.

 

Divorce yourself as much as possible from all that; we’re here to evenly examine the work itself.

 

So while I will here regularly use the facile handle of a practitioner’s name—something we all do, as an easy way into a general discussion of his or her work, standing in for all the collective actual work done by that practitioner—it’s something else that should be only carefully invoked in serious discussion. While not all of James Joyce’s stories were masterworks, and not even close to all songs by the Beatles were brilliant; yet we calmly speak of loving Joyce, the Beatles—or Jan Vermeer, Frank Gehry, the Rolling Stones, Louise Nevelson, Bill Hicks, Tupac Shakur, or Whoever. Careful with this; too much of it and you’ve become an unthinking fan—and an intellectual cripple.

 

On the other side of the coin, there will occasionally arrive a piece of work from a second-rate act and second-rate songwriters that rises far above their usual uninspired efforts—and it’s imperative, here as well, to divorce oneself from prejudices about the source and to consider the material itself. Later in this essay, as much as it pains me to do so, I’ll favorably note the significant accomplishment in a well-known song by the Eagles, an act I utterly detest on just about every level as the apotheosis—better, nadir—of insufferable mediocrity and swaggering commercial banality. But the song in question merits deference and appreciation, and such it shall be properly afforded.

 

Elsewhere, when discussing the musical side of songwriting, I’ll similarly and I hope fairly recognize the melodic gifts of composers whose public personas, in apparent but immaterial contradistinction, radiate doltishness; in acts I think thoroughly celebrate mindless vapidity.

 

The world isn’t patently guaranteed, all black and all white, every actor easily pigeonholed.

 

11I presented and produced Buck’s first two concerts when he came out of retirement in 1989, in Sacramento and San Francisco.

12“Where Does the Good Times Go”, copyright 1967 by Buck Owens. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107.

 

Herds of Excited Antelope Darting En Masse, This Way and That, on the Veldt

 

Fifty Million Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong!   — Title of a 1958 record album

If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.   — Anatole France (1844–1924)

 

Similar to blanket idolatry is the argumentum ad populum “proof” that this or that song—or this or that act—is unquestionably wonderful because it’s just so dang popular and commercially successful. Everyone goes to the concerts; the act is pulling in zillions of bucks each week; the songs are all high on the charts.

 

As I’ve written elsewhere before, there’s also no doubt McDonald’s hawks the most hamburgers and Proctor & Gamble sells the most toilet paper....

 

So what?

 

That Buck Owens song, “Where Does the Good Times Go?”, mentioned in the previous section? Well, it was the Number One Song on the Billboard Magazine sales charts for four straight weeks, and sold millions of copies. And? Does that mean it is well-written, insightful and substantive after all? No. Or that it’s unambitiously pleasant and infectiously painless? Well, maybe—I guess, to some extent, for whatever that’s worth. But it was primarily just product—product quickly marketed to pull in as much money as possible while the act was the biggest draw in country music, at the zenith of its popularity. And bad product—embarrassingly bad product.

 

Countless many writers, composers, painters, and performers who (and songs that) were wildly popular in past eras and decades have been completely forgotten by history—mention of their names today draws only uncomprehending stares. The same will come to pass for 99.99% of the exceptionally popular practitioners and efforts of today. Hell, the vast majority are forgotten next week, as the tightly packed herds of au courant taste-makers and conformist fans madly dash, en bloc, first this way and then that in desperate, panicked search for the next serving of perfect pablum.

 

For so many reasons, popularity is an extremely feeble metric to invoke in any assessment of artistic merit.

 

Science Explains Why Peeing Your Pants Beats the Hell Out of Nostalgia

 

Any of us who are worth anything spend our adulthood in unlearning the follies and expiating the mistakes of our youth.   — Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822)

 

In everyone’s life—and especially during stages of adolescence and early adulthood—there’s a soundtrack of popular songs associated with specific events and people: a love affair, a memorable afternoon or evening, a political awakening, an unfortunate incident, etc. And in Western culture those songs are regularly industrially-provided creations: composed, written, performed and recorded with all eyes ultimately locked on the financial bottom line. In any event, those songs become emotionally invested with far more personal involvement than any musical or lyrical appreciation of intrinsic application or merit might legitimately warrant. We are partial and attached to the entire milieu with which we associate the song; it has become inextricable from and wholly emblematic of the memory, whatever that memory may be. Critical detachment is obviated and a warm feeling of self-absorbed engagement and satisfaction is provided.

 

No news here.

 

Peeing one’s pants also provides a warm feeling all over—while it additionally rids the body of material which has been depleted of all nourishment.

 

Nostalgia simply bathes and revels in the unleashed warmth....

 

You gloried in this or that song when you were newly investigating the world, in love and 18 years old. Fine. That doesn’t mean it’s good work. It might be, but it most probably isn’t. Got it?

 

Coldplay, Madonna, Bieber, Beck....
Effluvia, Ephemera, Etcetera, Etcetera....

 

It’s easy to kid yourself about how clever a lot of second-rate stuff is…Bullshit is the true American soundtrack.   — George Carlin (1937–2008)

 

As observed earlier, we also all indulge in guilty pleasures—work which provides not even an emotional connection to particular life events, and which we candidly know to be patently inferior, but which we still find amusing, soothing, welcomely unchallenging or similar. (Quite often it’s simply stuff with which we’ve been assaulted so many times that it has become familiar—and therefore unthreatening, safe.) My own list of guilty pleasures in popular music might be said to include recordings by Gene Autry, Ricky Nelson, Ernest Tubb, the Doors, Buzzcocks and others more recent. The songwriting is almost invariably simple journeyman concoctions—nothing more was considered or possible—as are the performances. So while I personally find it occasionally comfortable—and may even myself sometimes perform one or more of the songs I first heard by these performers, I wouldn’t for a moment presume to champion many of the songs as more than pleasant trifles, light filler. I hope you will recognize your own such diversions, and affectionately dispatch them as well.

 

- - -

 

Garbage is always. We will die, civilization will crumble, life as we know it will cease to exist, but trash will recur and endure.   — Robin Nagle (b. 1961)

 

And then there’s the Daily Dreck—from a galumphing army of disposable acts incapable of more than the most transient postures and hackneyed trivialities; unequipped at displaying even a remote indication they might be other than subcontractors in the cynical marketing department of a major industrial polluter; belting out the innocuous, insidious and generally histrionic detritus that clogs radio, shopping malls, web channels, movies and television. The less time spent here, the better.

 

One can try to intimate substance, artistry and depth—and convince oneself it’s truly there—but crap is crap. Having a weakness for this or that expression of it is all too human—and while properly embarrassing, is grudgingly harmless so long as one doesn’t wallow in it to the exclusion of works of actual value, or insecurely defend that vulnerability to it by going on to waste time imputing substance that doesn’t exist and asserting stature that doesn’t properly obtain.

 

See You at the Grammys!—A Note on Industrial Smarm Festivals

 

These things are fiascos. It’s just idiots all taking themselves far too seriously.   — John Lydon (b. 1956)

 

While I’ve never read anything divulging Woody Allen’s reasons for not participating in the Oscars, I expect his thinking on such events may parallel mine. I know when I’ve done good work; I know when I’ve done lesser or even bad work—and admit it, you do (or should) as well. It’s certainly affirming to receive praise for one’s efforts—even necessary to some social extent. But I don’t require—or want—confirmation of any of it in the form of some tawdry award, or lack thereof, from my purported peers, ostensible fans or public vote. Yes, such things can be viewed as “all part of the game”—ways to help sell more merchandise—but is the game, really, simply to move product? If it is, then deck yourself out in a “meat dress”, put on modified motorcycle helmets and claim you’re robots from outer space, have someone else (someone more technically capable) write and sing and play the instruments for you, or put on diva airs and the most revealing attire you can; and have at it.

 

While all such affectations and deceits are obviously peripheral to the actual act of writing, composing and performing—and so have no direct effect on the quality of the work (and can perhaps therefore be defended as “harmless fun” or similar)—involvement in such industrial smarminess in fact rubs off; one becomes what one has beheld. One per force buys into prevailing enthusiasms and celebrity, competes with it—and slowly becomes champion of, and commodity in, the basest of swap meets.

 

Some years ago, I wrote to a major pop music critic, chastising him for an incompetently blind article. His indignant response closed with what he clearly thought was the perfect put-down, the ultimate kiss-off: “See you at the Grammys!” he wrote. When I read the line, alone in my office, I burst into an audible guffaw. But I felt honestly sorry for the poor guy as well. The Grammys clearly meant something truly deep and profound to him; having one was obviously the ultimate sine qua non of creative substantiation and legitimacy, and not being part of The Scene a defining damnation. Without the Grammys, whatever would we do to know what’s good?...

 

I’ve never even watched more than a few minutes of a Grammys telecast—or a Tonys, Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, MTV Whichevers, People’s Whatevers, Kennedy or AFI Whoevers—and would never, under any circumstances whatsoever, participate in person in such an embarrassingly transparent and oleaginous industrial circle-jerk13.

 

The entertainment industry has pretty much the same percentage of folks in it who are plain hacks as does any other line of work—meaning the vast majority generally do what’s reasonably expected, with not many capable of much beyond that. And while I’m an admittedly very demanding critic, very few of my so-called peers ever actually do something for which I really have honest unqualified admiration. It does occur, most certainly, but rarely—and so for me to even accept the vast majority of hacks as peers is to effectively denigrate my own efforts. There are some opinions I very deferentially consider—but placing any value on what the mass of the industry thinks is simply an abrogation of responsibility; a cry of desperate insecurity.

 

For an award to be welcomed as authoritative confirmation that this year one has done masterful work equally requires implicitly accepting that not getting an award next time around means one’s work wasn’t so good that year—when in fact the actual creative accomplishment may be far more significant. Again, you should know when you’ve done the best you can, when you may have found, through diligence and application (and occasionally actual inspiration), an innovative idea or presentation; and when you’ve successfully or unsuccessfully completed the work within the availabilities, limitations and exigencies present. Doesn’t a patronizing pat on the head and a pot metal paperweight actually cheapen such accomplishment?

 

I strongly expect that in a hundred years or so, our current societal fascination with asinine awards and awards show spectacles may be seen as a laughable illustration of the vapidity and hubris of our time. Awards and awards participation are not worth nothing; they’re worth less than nothing. This goes for those considered more high-brow as well: Pulitzers, MacArthurs, Nobels—does anyone honestly think a war criminal like Henry Kissinger or the unctuous and deplorable Mother Teresa deserved Nobel Peace Prizes? Or that Barak Obama properly merited the same award—just a few months after becoming president, having at that point actually achieved virtually nothing of international consequence? (In Obama’s case, obviously, his greatest accomplishment at the time, to the Nobel folks, was in merely not being his idiot predecessor, George W. Bush. While that’s most certainly an entirely admirable quality—and Mr Obama is clearly brilliant and an apparently wonderful human being—you and I ain’t Bush either, and we didn’t even make the short list....)14 

 

While this essay was being completed, Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature for his collected lyrics. The Nobel folks presumably here thought themselves quite clever and trendy in the matter, but the precarious posturing is at best cynical. If they were so determined to hand more money to this or that (already rich) popular American celebrity practitioner, why not to Woody Allen for his collected screenplays? Or to Garrison Keillor for his mammoth body of often excellent radio and print work? Or—while not American, still English speaking—the explosively brilliant playwright Tom Stoppard? Oh, dead set on an American songwriter? Ever heard of Stephen Sondheim? All four of them unquestionably, far, far better writers than the unfortunate Bob Dylan. (Yes, we’ll take a look at Dylan’s actual work later on; but as promised, his name will crop up regularly throughout.)

 

Do not take or cite the fulsome flummery of awards and industry accolades as anything other than transient celebrity ephemera, devoid of merit. I repeat, awards are not worth nothing; they’re worth less than nothing. No one should care how many Grammys or other statues an act has been handed—while not definitively exclusionary to having created great work, it is on balance more indictment than accomplishment; a diversion from the purported intrinsic merit in the work itself. Awards have absolutely nothing to do with art and craft. Ignore them.

 

Enough said; moving on....

 

13Many years ago, relatively new to the Entertainment Industry in The Big City, I was handed an award, for “Best Overall Production”—or maybe “Best Musical”, I can’t recall—but it was spoken of as “the biggie” at some critics’ affair in San Francisco. (This despite that I was the only producer and director in Northern California who as a matter of policy never gave out a single free press pass—every single critic attending one of my shows came in holding a full price, paid-for ticket. The principled reasons for why and how I engineered that policy is a story for another essay one day....) Someone phoned informing that my show had been selected, so I went to the event—held in a packed 1,400 seat theater—said a few words, and left shortly after. Really, it was a waste of time—and the plaque itself nonchalantly tossed into a dumpster on the walk back home. Who needs that stuff?

14For a long list of Nobel disputations, underscoring the regularly brutal nitwittedness of even that most-exalted of accolades, here’s a Wikipedia entry on many of them: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nobel_Prize_controversies

 

Ethics? In POPULAR MUSIC...?!?

 

The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.   — Hunter S. Thompson (1937–2005)

 

I expect—desire—that we may have punctured and deflated an entire bouquet of brightly colored popular beliefs and doctrines in preceding sections. Certainly the one place to not seek to find heroes and demigods is in the entertainment industry—popular music in particular, and songwriting as a specific handicraft and livelihood within popular music. The transience and essential insignificance of so much of the work, the capricious permutations of luck, and the potentially vast amounts of money to be gained all conspire to generally boot higher aspiration and principle from the field. (There’s an old saying: “The three places you can make a lot of money quickly are the stock market, crime, and entertainment”.) It’s common knowledge to even the general public—and despite the robust romanticization bestowed on practitioners (“artists”, see above) by that general public—that entertainment (and again, especially popular music) is a demimonde of hucksters, parasites, cheats, dirtbags, sleezeballs…and corporate accountants.

 

So while Elvis Presley’s manager, Tom Parker, famously told associates—only a couple of hours after Presley’s death—“This changes nothing!”, performers (and songwriters) can themselves be just as or even more cynical, calculating and avaricious. The tremendous odds against “making it big”, the stifling competition to be the one who hits the jackpot (and then keep on hitting it), and the jealousy of those others who have actually scored big time financially and critically, together severely dampen much if not most of any initial innocence and altruism an aspirant may have once had.

 

Songwriting, like any other pursuit in entertainment, is ultimately just a job—a task. A job with tasks to be tackled step by step, objective by objective, obstacle by obstacle. One that can pay big financial and other dividends if fortune smiles—but that smile is bestowed without reference to talent or application.

 

All too often, a songwriting credit (and most substantively, remuneration) is taken by someone—a manager, a star performer, a producer—who had absolutely nothing at all to do with the writing or composing of a song. Sometimes, more artfully, the credit is properly proclaimed—but the financial stipulations contractually required of the writer(s) and composer(s) in order to have the song recorded do the same damage. It’s just part of the power politics of the music business.

 

And though brilliant architecture—designed or serendipitously stumbled upon—is indeed most often a significant part of what makes a great song great, the quotidian challenge is more down-in-the-dirt engineering (and, business-wise, simple self-protection!) than receiving divine architectural intervention.

 

I hope that with just the couple more sections following below we may properly jettison all romantic illusions and obsessive exaltations of songwriting and songwriters (as well as of other aspects of, and participants in, popular music) and begin to tighten our focus in on the actual work itself. Bear with me....

 

Dunno Much ’Bout Art, But I Know What I Like!

 

When small men attempt great enterprises, they always end by reducing them to the level of their mediocrity.   — Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821)

 

In most of these introductory sections, I’ve attempted to place some limits on unsupported enthusiasms. Here I wish to open up the other side, to expand appreciationsand knock off some negative predispositions.

 

Don’t like rap? Absolutely hate Broadway musicals? Simply can not stand death metal? Easy listening?

 

Really? Reminds me of a proclamation I hear all the time from people about a certain kind of television program—and perhaps you’ve said it yourself—“I hate sitcoms!”

 

My response? “It’s not the form of the piece, it’s the execution. You’re allowing your understandable habitual disappointment to make you focus on the wrong thing.”

 

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s play a little game. I’ll name you a bunch of live four-camera sitcoms from the past many years—no animation (Family Guy, The Simpsons, etc), no single-camera show (M*A*S*H*, The Office, etc). There’s no doubt whatsoever that we’ll disagree on which ones we think were “good” and which ones were “bad”, but I have absolute confidence you’ll allow that some of these shows were indeed well-done, first-rate work. You actually enjoyed this one and that one. Ready?

 

Some from the UK, some from the US, in alphabetical order: All in the Family, The Andy Griffith Show, Blackadder, Cheers, Community, The Cosby Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Fawlty Towers, Frasier, Friends, Gilligan’s Island, The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mork and Mindy, Northern Exposure, Parks and Recreation, Roseanne, Seinfeld, Will and Grace, Yes Minister.

 

No, I didn’t say they were all great—to me personally some of these are just plain insufferable. But as with me, I guarantee that you also didn’t hate every one of them; because the ones you liked were, well —and I’m quoting YOU here—“the exceptions”.

 

Yes, they were indeed. And so it turns out you don’t actually dislike sitcoms. Sure, personal tastes differ—especially when it comes to what we each find funny! But what you really dislike is incompetent work and stupidity—not situation comedy as a genre. And you are right that ‘incompetent work’ and ‘stupidity’ are terms that most certainly and accurately describe the overwhelming vast majority of sitcoms.

 

The same self-awareness and openess should hold for genres of popular song. Yes, 99.99% of all the stuff in (country, Broadway, bluegrass, heavy metal, R&B, fill in genre here) is complete garbage. But it’s not the form—the style—it’s the execution.

 

Good work—incisive, entertaining, relevant, well-crafted work—can be done in just about any format....

 

Ethics? In SONGWRITING...?!?

 

Just because someone’s a musician, I don’t say he’s cleansed and holy. You got some dirty people in all walks of life. Look at all the things the politicians and people like that have to cover up and sweep under the rug—why in hell would a musician be any better?   — Johnny Shines (1915–1992)

 

And so now we come to Bob Dylan—earlier than we should, unfortunately. Because it would be a lot cleaner, less encumbered, were we able to limit our look at him and his work strictly to that work itself. But even before getting to his songwriting, as we’ll do in some depth later on, there’s a subordinate but substantive aspect of that work to address—and as he is without question the current lion of popular songwriting, to leave this unattended would be a dereliction of responsibility, and imply de facto apologia for a very unsavory and despicable practice; one perhaps illustrative of both the prevalent critical unseriousness of and (as lightly touched upon above) the moral bankruptcy regularly encountered in popular music.

 

Bob Dylan is an admitted plagiarist. He is a thief. When confronted, he claims he’s simply “using the folk process”, which—according to him—has always permitted stealing work created by someone else.

 

That is not just untrue, it’s a smear—and I’ll explain why.

 

“The folk process” is in fact primarily a convenient academic characterization for the antecedents of songs, the specific provenance and evolution of which is unclear, unknown. Full stop.

 

Over decades or even centuries in the pre-industrial world, a song would naturally and inexorably change and calve new versions as it was transmitted, usually orally, from one performer to another, one generation to the next—often incorporating bits and pieces from elsewhere into the continuously evolving admixture the song had become. The so-called folk process is an after-the-fact label for that untraceable and highly individualized process, nothing more. It is definitely not a license for self-entitled multi-millionaires—or anyone else—to knowingly steal the work of others, and sometimes make tons of money from that thievery, all the while claiming they’re just “aw, shucks” simple and innocent folk singers.

 

Dylan’s documented history of larceny dates from late adolescence15, but continued into his recording career, perhaps most noticeably early-on with his claim of authorship of—and therefore all those nice fat royalties from—“Corrina, Corrina”, a song very much still under the 1929 copyright (renewed 1957) of by-then destitute blues singer Bo Chatmon. Dylan’s career had already taken off, with money starting to roll in; Chatmon died a couple of years later, in abject poverty....

 

Dylan’s imperious plagiarism of the poetry of Henry Timrod and copyrighted work of Junichi Saga is undisputed. But again, when exposed and confronted, he defends himself by claiming he’s perfectly innocent, and (here’s the fun part) that anyone who doesn’t accept that is an “evil motherfucker!”.16

 

(While the primary subject of this essay is songwriting, it may be worth also noting here that Dylan can’t even seem to indulge in his hobby of painting pictures—paintings then sold for many thousands of dollars—without stealing.14 And his 2004 book, Chronicles: Volume I is packed to the rafters with outright plagiarized material. So there’s a history of thievery here, not isolated and possibly even innocent inadvertencies.)

 

A simple observation should come to the fore: Plagiarism wants you not to know or recognize the original and be wowed by what you’ve just encountered, crediting it to the immediate author; whereas allusion wants you to know—or be newly-informed via proper citation—of the original and be pleased by the concordance. And to predacious Bob, those who aren’t deceived by his larcenies are, to repeat, “evil motherfuckers”....

 

Finally, and quite telling—critically telling—is that despite the claim his own self-entitled theft is harmless and firmly “within the folk process”, Dylan’s on constant vigil when he’s on the other side,17, 18 immediately siccing his army of pugnacious Beverly Hills attorneys on adventitious trespassers when his songs are even remotely threatened with the possibility of copyright infringement, to squeeze as much money as possible from them—those other people now using Dylan’s, ahem, um, “folk process”....

 

You can’t have it both ways.

 

Bad artists borrow but great artists steal.

 

The above bit of fatuous casuistry, in various permutations attributed to various sources over past decades, has been tossed out, cavalierly, as some kind of twisted and indisputable defense for plagiarism, especially including Dylan’s. If we accept the assertion, however, then perhaps Dylan’s worshippers and apologists will have to agree that the Greatest Artist of the Past Half-Century isn’t their Bob at all…but Andrew Lloyd Webber19.

 

And just think about it for a moment. When some backwoods banjo player a hundred years ago appropriated a piece of music or a line of lyrics to perform at the Saturday night barn dance, there really was “no harm, no foul”—or nothing of financial or seminal cultural consequence, certainly. When Dylan steals, if the material is still under copyright, it takes income from his victims and stuffs it very firmly into his own coffers. And even when he thieves material that has fallen out of copyright, he still attempts to hide his thefts—when all it takes to act ethically and honorably is a few words, in even the smallest point type size, on the CD sleeve or his web site attributing the sources.

 

I’ll repeat the distinction made earlier: Plagiarism wants you not to know the original, whereas allusion wants you to know.

 

In just about any other discipline, a gloating crook like Dylan is shamed and shunned—usually with devastating career repercussions. That he simply steamrolls onward, entirely unaffected, may be still another emblematic illustration of the current unseriousness of popular music criticism, and the disposable nature of popular songs generally. If Dylan is or was ahead of his time in any serious capacity, it may simply be that his rapacious, malignant and self-entitled dishonesty is a perfect exemplar of the present diseased Trump Era. After all, if Bob Dylan can get away with outright plagiarism, it effectively licenses ANYONE to do the same.

 

As for accusations of Dylan ripping off melodies, however, music and melody is another topic entirely and will be examined in a later section of this essay. (Spoiler alert: he’s not guilty.)

 

15http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/handwritten-poem-by-teenage-bob-dylan-up-for-auction-20090519

16Rolling Stone, 9/27/2012, interview by Mikal Gilmore, titled, “Bob Dylan Unleashed”:

Before we end the conversation, I want to ask about the controversy over your quotations in your songs from the works of other writers, such as Japanese author Junichi Saga’s “Confessions of a Yakuza”, and the Civil War poetry of Henry Timrod. Some critics say that you didn’t cite your sources clearly. Yet in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition. What’s your response to those kinds of charges?
Oh, yeah, in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition. That certainly is true. It’s true for everybody, but me. I mean, everyone else can do it but not me. There are different rules for me. And as far as Henry Timrod is concerned, have you even heard of him? Who’s been reading him lately? And who’s pushed him to the forefront? Who’s been making you read him? And ask his descendants what they think of the hoopla. And if you think it’s so easy to quote him and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you can get. Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff. It’s an old thing—it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back. These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified. All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.

Seriously?
I’m working within my art form. It’s that simple. I work within the rules and limitations of it. There are authoritarian figures that can explain that kind of art form better to you than I can. It’s called songwriting. It has to do with melody and rhythm, and then after that, anything goes. You make everything yours. We all do it.

17https://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/sep/28/bob-dylan-paintings

15CBSNews Interactive 9/13/2012, by Lauren Moraski, titled “Dylan Calls Plagiarism Accusers ‘Wussies’”:

Meanwhile, Dylan himself has been caught up in lawsuit involving use of his name. In 1994, he filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against Apple, asking for a court order to keep the computer giant from using his name. There are also reports Dylan reached an out-of-court settlement in 1995 with Hootie & the Blowfish over the band's hit song ‘Only Wanna Be With You.’ Dylan reportedly claimed frontman Darius Rucker borrowed some of his lyrics in the track.

18Los Angeles Times; 6/26/1988, by Patrick Goldstein, titled “Rod Stewart Sounds an Echo of Dylan”:The song, ‘Forever Young’, is very much Rod’s song,” explained his manager, Arnold Stiefel.“When we were putting the album together, someone pointed out that there was a Dylan song with the same title, so we listened to the two songs. And it would be fair to say that while the melody and the music is not at all the same, the idea is similar.” Saying he was concerned, Stiefel immediately sent the song to Dylan, asking whether he had a problem with it. “His attorney relayed the message that he had no problem with the song—but he did want to participate in the ownership.” So Dylan will get a 50-50 split of all the royalties.

19For a quick audio survey of many melodies Lloyd Webber seems to have, um, “re-composed”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4eMf_smG4Uk

 

Ever Notice the Worst Writing in an Insightful Pop Music Review—Even a Rave—Usually Shows Up When the Critic Quotes the Band’s Lyrics?

 

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.   — Martin Mull (b. 1943)

 

There is very little actual music discussed in a review or other article on popular music or musicians that is directed to a general readership. This is of course understandable, insofar as even the rare musically knowledgeable critic faces the brick wall of an overwhelmingly musically illiterate readership—less than 2% of the population can read music at even a rudimentary level, and the percentage which understands even a loose general lexicon of musical terms (and their audio effect) is still very small. So our hypothetical musically conversant critic is largely prevented from entering into a full critique of the actual music in question. What’s left for him or her to comment upon and fill out their article is the act’s lyrics, the record production, and—most easily mined for presumably factual material by the critic but of least significance—the biography, posturing and industrial marketing of the act; perhaps extending on to the critic’s posited societal antecedents or impact of the act being examined. It’s a challenge to not waiver off the track into press agentry on one side, and speculative cultural fantasy on the other. Neither is popular song criticism.

 

(And don’t get me started on the ubiquitous “Best Songs of All Time” lists passed off as informative and intelligent reportage. Anyone can make up a “One Hundred Best”—or Five Hundred Best—list, but we don’t presume to try to sell them to people in supermarket checkout lines. Rolling Stone, in particular, seems to never stop finding things to um, er, “authoritatively” list: One Hundred Greatest Songs! Five Hundred Greatest! Greatest Guitarists! Performances! Singers! Albums!—hell, Rock Star Bean Dip Recipes! for all I know [or care]. If a publication or web site gets into relentlessly compiling “best of” lists, cancel your subscription or don’t ever click there again. You’re being held in contempt by complete idiots.)

 

- - -

 

These critics with all the illusions they create about artists—it’s really just idol worship.   — John Lennon (1940–1980)

 

Limitations imposed on a musically educated and serious pop music critic by his or her musically illiterate readership are unfortunate but forgivable of course. Of far greater note—another dimension entirely—is critics and academics who are just plain incompetent, or worse, panting lovesick groupies. The puppy love of over-anxious fandom can be encountered anywhere, of course—from the patriciate to the hoi-polloi. I give you just one of the more high-profile examples: Oxford University professor (and wide-eyed Dylan fanboy) Sir Christopher Ricks:

 

I think it’s an immense privilege simply to be alive at the same time as Bob Dylan! We should all be so grateful!

 

Yes, academics and intellectuals can be just as embarrassingly besotted with celebrity as anyone else. Lemme repeat that: Academics and intellectuals can be just as embarrassingly besotted with celebrity as anyone else.

 

But let me also be absolutely clear that finding meanings hidden in artistic works, diving beneath the superficial to unearth resonant, substantive and internally consistent alternate readings and applications of what the writer has provided—whether such was intentionally created by the writer or wholly imputed and supported by careful critical analysis—is an important and, if successful, vastly rewarding scholarly venture. Secondary and tertiary meanings in a creative work can be a sobering proof of artistic accomplishment—though, admittedly, a work may be admirably insightful and eloquent without them. Any questions? We are not philistines here.

 

- - -

 

Those who can do, those who can’t become teachers.   — George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950)

…and those who can’t teach become critics.   — H. L. Mencken (1880–1956)

 

Within the popular music fifth estate we also find a lot of frustrated latent, and de facto, conspiracy theorists—academics and would-be academics who can (and will) find and pound together the most absurd connections, concordances and extrapolations from the least convincing evidence, all to support his or her pre-existing idol worship. Religious zealots do it all the time—and so can the ambitious and/or willfully obtuse critic or academic. Ricks’ galumphing and utterly insufferable 528-page homage to Bob’s lyrics, Dylan’s Visions of Sin20, is a high-profile example of this—a book so poorly written and smugly self-satisfied with its own half-clevernesses that one quickly wants to simply throw the damned thing across the room in unalloyed disgust. Packed with disheveled sophistry and embarrassing genuflections—comparable, perhaps, to a lengthy North Korean news flash on the Dear Leader’s latest divine interventions—Ricks here is the ecstatic parasite finding immortal magnificence everywhere he looks. And I do mean everywhere! Forget about any “careful critical analysis” as mentioned above. One presumes the fellow may be an infectiously enthusiastic and engaging teacher to bright-eyed newly arrived college freshman out in the Big Wide World for the first time. But he’s an utterly lousy student—a walking personification of what might be called “literary confirmation bias”. If Bob wrote it, it is, ipso facto and by very definition to Ricks, brilliant. This guy is really just The Ultimate Fan, (requiring, per force, his enthusiastic devotional attendance at every single performance his idol plays within driving range). He goes so far—and I know this is hard to believe, yet it’s true—as to write the most insipidly juvenile fan letters to Dylan. No, no, not at all of the “let me ask about the literary antecedents or poetic evocations of this line in (insert song title here)”, but complaining with deep personal anguish about Bob’s decision to grow a moustache—like some lovelorn pre-pubescent girl moping in her room beneath her wall of cherished boyband posters.21

 

He also keeps in his office—again, I am not making this up—the bathtub that came from Dylan’s childhood home in Minnesota, purchased on eBay, “It’s where the baby Bob made his first splash!” ejaculates Ricks. YEE-OOW....

 

While downright creepy infatuation with his hero obviously doesn’t alone rule out Ricks as a critical commentator on Dylan’s writing, his critiques unfortunately (but naturally) do indeed end up fully consistent with what one would expect: rapturous, unhinged, acrobatic panegyrics supported by the thinnest of conceits and arguments. In the end, a wholly pathetic display of giddy, fatuous empty pedantry.

 

Idolatry is not criticism.

- - -

 

The problem with rock criticism is the lack of criticism of the criticism.   — Jon Landau (b. 1947)

 

Finally, we come to the Eighth Circle of Hell22: the exclusive backstage VIP lounge of fungible “rock journalist intellectuals”—almost an oxymoron, this—like (again), veteran Greil Marcus, to pick just one:

 

I’m not interested in what the songwriter thinks he or she is doing, what their desires are, what their intent is. What I’m interested in is what happens to the song when it’s out there in the world…Performance is more important than composition to me.23

 

With the absolutely stunning remark above, Marcus fairly disqualifies himself as a critic of popular song. His many books, including Mystery Train, the re-release of which was the focus of the above interview quote, while generally well-written, are essentially the purple prose of the academic romantic—and he’s obviously in water far beyond his depth when opining on popular songs themselves.

 

Not convinced? Here’s another bit of tough, incisive and no-holds-barred criticism from Mr Marcus:

 

If by classic blues you mean any recording from the ’20s and ’30s, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a bad classic blues.24

 

Hopeless.

 

Reporters like Marcus and Ricks should properly be writing for Tiger Beat or Teen Life, their breathless gushings wedged between gripping articles on “Beating Acne For Good!” and “Planning the Perfect Slumber Party!”.

 

For popular music to rise above the inconsequential, the posturing, the puerile, it’d be helpful if writers on popular music also rose, en masse, above the inconsequential, the posturing, the puerile....

 

- - -

 

But more to the matter at hand—intimated by the heading to this section: how many times have you delved into a music review from a reputably literate publication or specific respected critic only to find, down deep in the piece when the act’s lyrics are finally looked at, that those lines are totally, or near-totally, lacking in intrinsically worthy observation or insight?

 

The worst writing in the article, yes, ends up having been those quoted lyrics—another elegant symptom of the unfocused and widespread poverty in American songwriting.

 

20In deference to William Morris’ famous instruction, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”, stuff this brazenly bad should certainly be neither purchased nor despoil anyone’s bookshelves. (If you’ve simply got to see what could warrant such disgust, your local library probably has a copy; get it there. Send me an email with your own reactions....)

21New York Times, 9/9/2004, in an article by Charles McGrath titled “Dylan, Master Poet? Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”: After the release of Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album in 1997, Mr Ricks was upset by the thin little mustache that Dylan had begun sporting. “I just don’t think it looks good,” he said. “Do you?” He added that he thought about getting up a petition reading: “Mr Dylan, please remove the stipple from your upper lip.” “I didn’t send it,” he said, “because my students said it might hurt Dylan’s feelings.”

22Fraud. (And, okay—to many, this essay will seem to have originated in the Sixth Circle: Heresy. Fine with me....)

23ASCAP.com, 7/28/2015, interview by Steven Rosenfeld titled “Rock Critic Greil Marcus on the Power of Songwriters”.

24RockCriticsArchives.com, 3/12/2002, “Online Exchange with Greil Marcus”.

 


PART TWO: On Performance and Genre

 

 “Yeah I Know It’s Crap, But You Really Hafta See ’Em LIVE!”

 

You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.   — Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865)

 

To start off this short section, let me quote myself—a dictum I attempt to present, whenever necessary, in as close an approximation as I can to Charlton Heston playing Moses thunderously parting the Red Sea: A Recording Is Not A Performance. I’ll repeat that—forwards and backwards, with doubled exclamation points at the end: A Recording Is Not A Performance! A Performance Is Not A Recording!!

 

Excitement elicited by a performance is entirely unrelated to excitement elicited by a recording. In basest example, there’s no doubt one can be lifted to congenial enthusiasm drinking beer with friends, listening to or dancing to some practiced bar band covering hits of the day and yesterday. A fun evening is obtained.

 

A recording, however, has nothing whatsoever to do with that or any other live performance—and if the act, and the material of the act, actually merits recorded (meaning strictly aural) presentation, a whole other set of considerations derives25.

 

What works on stage doesn’t necessarily work on record—and vice-versa. A wrong or slurred note on stage will be imperceptible to 99.9% of the people there—on record it will likely stand out like a glaring, flashing red light to everyone who hears it. Such “imperfections”, so-loved by starry-eyed romantic purists and academics, can drive the actual performers nuts, of course—because if he, she or they had it to do again, the mistake wouldn’t be there! “Hell, every other time we played it right, dammit!”

 

Similarly—and of particular note to the objectives of this essay—a lyric that is pretty damn trite or just plain idiotic when heard on a recording can be mitigated, obfuscated (indeed effectively buried) by purposeful slurring, rushing through, an instrument playing a particularly loud or intrusive note or riff at that moment, an eccentric physical mannerism or stunt, or other diversion when performed live. But it remains absolutely there in the actual song, an artifact and proof of inferior songwriting.

 

A live presentation is called a “performance” for a reason....

 

25Within the recording industry, business-wise, the live album has been traditionally considered a kind of holding action in an act’s stream of product—a way to stay in the public eye, and ostensibly stay current, without having to actually write and prepare new material. It also serves, naturally, as a promotional device to help the act sell more tickets out on the road. (Quick note here: I one time asked a performer who’d put out one of the most successful live albums ever released how it all transpired. He chuckled and revealed that they’d only used one song recorded at the live gigs, and they went into the studio immediately afterwards to record all the songs again in that controlled environment. The audio engineer added an audience track to each cut—cutting in crowd hoots, hollers, laughter, applause—and it was all edited together and released as a massively successful “live” album. The wowed critics wrote about how exciting, magical—and necessary—the record was; because, of course, “Man, you gotta hear ’em live!” Not even one saw through the contrived artifice, the de facto hoax....)

 

Over the Top? Ya Think?....

 

Beauty of style—and harmony, grace, and good rhythm—depend on simplicity. I mean the true simplicity of a rightly and nobly ordered mind and character.   — Plato (428–348 BCE)

 

I’m gonna continue on performance considerations here, because (obviously) it’s the vocal that brings the actual writing to our ears—the vocal within the general context of the lyrical architecture and musical substructure.

 

A great vocal instrument—a voice that hits the notes squarely and rhythmically—is but the first step. The subsequent and far greater measure of a singer is his or her ability to deliver the intention of the lyrics without drawing attention to that delivery itself. Two educative cases come immediately to my mind: Eric Burdon’s well-known vocal on “The House of the Rising Sun” (sung to a memorably effective orchestration by the Animals, especially on guitar by Hilton Valentine and keyboards by Alan Price; of Dave Van Ronk’s from-the-ground-up re-arrangement of the traditional folk song) and the similarly well-known “I Will Always Love You” written and first performed by Dolly Parton.

 

The traditional “Rising Sun” is a folk song in simple 4/4 time arranged across as few as three chords (Woody Guthrie, others) that we presently know (via Van Ronk and then the Animals) as a song in 6/8 arranged across five basic chords—and which is, incidentally, really the first mass-market example of folk-rock, easily antedating efforts by the Byrds and others.

 

And while Burdon clearly has a powerful voice and solid intonation, it’s his phrasing of the lyrics to the song that fail to fully express the sentiments of the lyrics. He allows the 6/8 meter to chop his delivery into an almost galumphing staccato: “There is......a house......in New Orleans......they call......The Rising Sun……and it’s been......the ruin......”, and so on. Given all the positive attributes of the rendition, and his natural gifts, it’s unfortunate that he turns the song into as much a rote recitation as an evocative and powerful admonition. Don’t get me wrong, it certainly works as presented, but I’m not being picayune in pointing out the definite vocal deficiency here. And it is unfortunate. But it’s an aspect of singing just about any song that can be effectively anticipated and obviated with enough attention and care. Stretching this or that word or syllable, anticipating the beat here and there (meaning singing the last word in a lyric line ahead of the beat upon which it naturally falls) and/or retarding the lyric elsewhere, as may be found helpful there—all these things help to overcome any natural “sing-songy” tendency of a specific song lyric. While discussing phrasing may seem to be a minor and peripheral matter, it’s what has kept Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday (for just two examples of great singers) in highest regard for so many years. Sinatra’s actual intonation—his nailing of the notes—wasn’t perfect or even consistent; and Holiday’s vocal range was really quite limited. Indeed, the argument could legitimately be advanced that Burdon was gifted with a greater innate instrument than either; and yet Sinatra or Holiday—singing to the Animals’ great arrangement—likely would have diminished his exertion to insignificance in comparison. For an example of “Rising Sun” in which the phrasing is more capably handled, get a listen to Bob Dylan’s rendition on his very first album (pre-Animals, but post-Van Ronk, and in 6/8, so I believe credit for that now standard time signature for the song is properly Dylan’s, and it’s a significant development). Dylan obviously has no great instrument and he’s annoyingly affected, but he’s not at all a bad natural singer—not at all a bad deliveryman—and his better-than-average ability in that department is displayed here.

 

- - -

 

Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” offers textbook illustrations of so much of what has gone wrong in English-language popular singing. The song itself is precariously—but in Parton’s very capable writerly hands26, quite effectively—balanced between fey and heartbreaking. And it’s that innate slippery purchase that has made hearing so many renditions of it such an excruciating endurance test. Yes, I’m looking at you, Whitney Houston—along with all the Houston wannabes and various contestants on The Voice, American Idol, Britain’s Got Talent and innumerable similar other offensively déclassé TV shows....

 

The musical term “melisma” means holding a word or syllable for more than one note—perhaps its most common manifestation to those of us in the US is in the two notes allocated to the very first syllable of “The Star Spangled Banner”. There’s nothing at all inappropriate, cheap or deficient in using melisma—either through intentional writing or, if carefully invoked, in singing. What is insufferably self-indulgent—and almost always profoundly detrimental to the point of a well-written song (as “I Will Always Love You” most certainly is)—is the current addiction to over-the-top melismatic grandstanding as if such utterly irksome showboating somehow actually adds depth to a song. It does the exact opposite. Compare Houston’s tacky and overwrought singing of the song to, in particular, Parton’s own earliest 1970s performances of it. Yes, Parton uses melisma—it’s not the vocal application, it’s the garishly assertive intrusion of that vocal application on a song itself that is so destructive. Parton’s melismatic delivery is simple, effective; in contrast, Houston’s peremptorily tosses all sincerity, resolution and heart into a dumpster so she can show off like an insufferably snotty spoiled adolescent. Ridiculous and altogether painful—and again, detrimental to the intrinsic actual emotional effectiveness of the song.27, 28 

 

26By the way, a quick note back on “The House of the Rising Sun”: Parton recorded her own version of that song—unfortunately in a musical production that is just plain BAD—but in which her re-write of the lyrics does a marvelously expansive and thoughtful job of both making the song more easily sung and more lyrically coherent. Dolly Parton—to those who may not know—is a very capable songwriter; one of the current true masters.

27What does work, and to electrifying effect, in the Houston rendition, however, is the untelegraphed key change 2/3 of the way through. It is such a powerful device, however, that melding it with a properly self-aware and deferential performance of the rest of the song would require a lot of care and circumspection—and it may admittedly still be  ultimately impossible to square the two objectives. But had she (and her producers) been able to restrain themselves everywhere else, just this single device, correctly integrated, would have given them both a great performance of a memorably romantic ballad—Houston certainty had the vocal instrument—and the hooky “star vehicle” they coveted.

28It’s my understanding that Elvis Presley was determined to record his own rendition of “I Will Always Love You”, but his manager demanded Parton hand over 50% of all the song royalties if Presley did it—claiming (probably honestly) that this was the deal they made on EVERY song Presley recorded and released, as an Elvis record would almost guarantee the sale of lotsa copies and so lotsa royalties. It’s to Parton’s credit she refused the avaricious business entreaty—and it serendipitously for her eventually resulted in certainly gaining her much more money(!) from the song—but unfortunate that Presley didn’t record the song anyway, as one must expect his generally brilliant ability to precisely and effectively navigate between bombast on one side and commonplace on the other would likely have delivered a spectacularly, definitively affecting rendition. We’ll never know....

 

Dance? Okay fine. Dance! Now go away....

 

If anything, a lot of electronic music is stuff that hardly anyone listens to at home.

It’s really only heard when people are out at a club.   — David Byrne (b. 1952)

 

Where lyric writing is subjectively weakest—in which sub-streams of popular songwriting one finds the least craft and inspiration—is open to debate and personal bias as well as disciplined study, of course. As generalizations, a run-of-the-mill Nashville audience might understandably find rap songs lyrically worthless; a Broadway audience might dismiss songs from the punk sphere—and so on. We all have our personal prejudices, predilections and enculturated expectations. But I expect most would agree that songs intended primarily for dancing—from fiddle tunes to disco to electronic dance music might be excused from criticism of puerility, inconsequence or plain inanity in what’s being sung above the pounding beat and foot-friendly syncopations. There may be an overarching point advanced via the vocals in the occasional dance number—if so, and if it’s accomplished exceptionally well, that’s certainly praiseworthy—but what’s actually being said, and how evocatively, how inventively, is really quite beside the primary point. Let’s dance....

 

It’s Greek—Urdu, Swahili, Kazakh, Latin, Bengali—to Me

 

Melody is the essence of music.   — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)

 

Popular music with lyrics in a language the listener doesn’t understand obviously renders those lyrics and the vocal presentation of them as a solely musical experience—quite literally just another instrument in the musical mix, certainly devoid of precisely discernable content or message—and so also outside the scope of this essay. Excusez-moi. Je suis tellement désolé....

 

La-Da-Da-Da / Na-Na-Na-Na / Lie-La-Lie, Lie-La-Lie / Sha-La-Ti-Da

 

There is nothing more awful, insulting, and depressing than recurrent banality.   — Anton Chekhov (1860–1904)

 

A quick note on what’s technically termed ‘non-lexical vocables’ is perhaps in order here. As the section subheading above indicates, non-lexical vocables (we’ll abbreviate them as NLVs) are vocal sounds of all types that aren’t actual words—so not just ‘La-La-La’, but the comparable nonsense syllables found famously (or perhaps better: infamously?) in the long appendage and fade-out of Paul McCartney’s “Hey Jude”, in Paul Simon’s “The Boxer”; scat singing generally, whistling, cowboy yodeling, cheap Disney claptrap like “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “Chim-Chim-Cher-ee”—even a throw-away sigh, growl or similar—and so on.29 In some sub-genres of popular song they’re a major, even definitive, component (c.f. doo-wop songs, for instance, or again, yodeling in cowboy songs).

 

There are so many different possibilities for use of such sounds in a song that I hesitate to make a blanket judgment—this is an area in which there are going to be wide variations in employment and significant exceptions. An act like the Swingle Singers, for instance, or Bobby McFerrin, exist as brilliant exemplars of what the human voice can do when invoked solely as a musical instrument bereft of responsibility to convey shaded rhetorical objectives.

 

And there’s countless traditional songs in which entire refrains or the entire chorus is nothing but NLVs, as well as whole genres of songs—in cultures spread around the world—that are constructed of essentially nothing but NLVs.

 

Given all the above, however, some general observations are surely appropriate here, particularly insofar as later in the essay we’ll address two specific songs in which NLVs are major, and profoundly damaging, components.

 

And I think, while being open to multiple exceptions, we can offer that rarely—very rarely—can NLVs be justified within the context of the remainder of a song that is presented as a serious or substantive effort at linguistic communication. A little of this kinda thing goes a long, long way. I wonder if that’s not because using the human voice in the service of absolutely and assertively not transmitting identifiable information can seem a.) a cavalier contempt by the songwriter for the effort at communication generally, and/or b.) an admission that the songwriter was simply phoning it in at this juncture, treading water, resigned to being drained of ideas with space yet to fill, and/or c.) a signal to listeners that words in this song—in this part of it, certainly—really aren’t that important after all. Though perhaps seeming innocuous, NLVs can be a virulent menace to a serious effort. A failure of songwriting.

 

On the other hand, yes, occasionally a guttural wail or similar may be a legitimately indicated cri de cœur in the context of a song that deals, for example, with profound emotional distress or longing; a sigh can underscore a wistful resignation, longing or remembrance; and etcetera. (Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” is perhaps particularly noteworthy here. Before starting in on each verse, he hums the single note on which the first word of that verse begins, for several beats—and because the affectation here is so underplayed it avoids being an intrusion on the substance of the song and becomes, instead, a unique and entirely engaging appliance. Rare.)  

 

And while Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” isn’t likely to be something leaping into mind were we asked to suggest a “serious song”, he at least sets up—legitimizes—his “Sha-la-la-las” in his chorus there; deploying his NLVs as stand-ins for (presumably forgotten) actual lyrics within the context of the song, or as the self-aware youthful nonsense they otherwise are:

 

Do you remember when we used to sing
“Sha la la la la la la la la la la dee da”?
Just like that:
“Sha la la la la la la la la la la dee da;
La dee dah.”
30

 

Morrison may intrinsically somewhat justify his chorus here, but to my ears the song still and clearly drops several levels in accomplishment with the descent into nonsense vocables so high-lighted and integral to it. And as we’ll see in a later section, even ostensibly validating NLVs by slyly introducing them as a memory, or as a kinda “universal song code” the precise lyrics of which are immaterial does not, ipso facto, support using them. 

 

This stuff is like playing with fire.

 

29While I’ve resolved to largely refrain from discussing my own work in this essay, it’s perhaps pertinent for me to confess I’ve used a non-lexical vocable in one of my own songs—a well-placed belch, believe it or not. It works perfectly in the song, and always gets exactly the intended big laugh it was designed to elicit; and so is exactly the opposite of treading water, phoning it in. NLVs can work, in the right application.

30“Brown Eyed Girl”, copyright 1967 by Van Morrison. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107.

 

Country Music is “Three Chords and the Truth” Computerized Drums, a Catering Truck and a Smirk

 

I enjoy the videos with the sound off, where you can look at the belly buttons and everything. Some really pretty girls; but I don’t know about the music.   — Merle Haggard (1937–2016)

 

Today’s Tin Pan Alley is Nashville, a factory town if ever there was one, and the songs derived therefrom essentially a highly lacquered and polished Southern-accented analogue to the mechanical rock band noise found in any bar down at the beach. Country music’s well-lubricated industrial muscle mostly churns out rubbish that’s only a distant, cynical and cluelessly incompatible simulacrum of its forgotten white proletarian antecedents.

 

And the marketing of all that detritus underscores and exacerbates the wholesale poverty of the genre. A performance by one of the Nashville machine acts is really rather indistinguishable from watching an extended beer commercial. The acts in cowboy hats generally play the role of “traditionalists”—minus actual tradition—while what we might call the “progressives”, in permutations of hipster garb, simply add emblematic dollops of whatever clichés are presently au courant in other provinces of popular music. And it’s all delivered with the practiced glibness found at a convention of real estate agents.

 

The unfortunate socio-political foundation of current country music is a hardcore conservative-to-outright-reactionary politics married to the basest and smarmiest retailing cynicism, in which even the most circumspect and judiciously politically progressive or intellectually mindful songwriting and/or presentation presents a tangible challenge to parochial Nashville’s reigning accountants—all of which predictably results in the dumbest and shallowest dissimulations imaginable. Even the slightest “mis-step” can invite career homicide (cf the Dixie Chicks), while welcomed with raucous cheers and open arms is retrograde sexism, cretinous braggadocio, calculated religiosity and sanctimonious flag-waving. Find an old pickup truck, sign on some practiced video girls, affect a deeper, more “manly” baritone growl—then perhaps add in some cutaways to dogs, beer bar tableaux and pseudo-“down home” paraphernalia; dress the sets with patriotic props and working class marginalia—and rush the aggregate disheveled mess of footage to the editors to cobble together yet another video version of the same old same old.

 

The one true and unassailable positive about Nashville and country songs, however—and a critically important aspect we’ll return to later in this essay—is that the words in a country song are always clearly delivered, for easy and full comprehension. This isn’t just a vestige of Tin Pan Alley; it goes way back—past the songs of Schubert, Grieg, Beethoven; past the troubadours Blondel de Nesle and Bernart de Ventadorn; deep into history, surely—to the first vocal recitals accompanied by pounding rocks and sticks together. And while the overwhelming vast majority of country song lyrics that are so clearly delivered and comprehended is hack drivel, the current dominance of Nashville songwriting and country radio is testament to the importance of language—and a tangible rejection of the oft-promoted thesis that melody is the most important component in a popular song. (The preceding sentence is seminal, and may be worth reading again....)

 

Basic Nashville songwriting practice is to take one and only one interesting, novel or even substantive statement or locution—a key line, most often the whole or part of the ultimate song title—surround it with filler lines, repeat the key phrase a few times (in case we idiot listeners didn’t get it on first hearing), later during recording add in as many “hooky” performance and production decorations as can be developed—and move on to the next effort. (As we’ll discuss later in this essay, if there’s only one distinct or evocative idea in a song, the probability the song has any lasting merit—while admittedly not definitive—is certainly low. I myself have a file of between 150 and 200 key lines, insights, locutions, aphorisms and lexical inversions—in Nashville every single one of them would be parsimoniously turned into a complete song, through the general thinking and process described above. In my case, though, it’s unlikely that even 5% of them will ever get beyond where they sit right now—because I demand a whole lot more than one minor idea surrounded by transfat, construction paper and high fructose corn syrup. Much more likely—and of supreme serendipity if I’m so lucky and it can in fact be engineered—is that several may end up appearing in one song, enriching a singular experience.)

 

If there’s any helpful lessons to actually be learned from the malodorous effluvia pumped out of Nashville and environs, it’s primarily just the most basic and rudimentary practices of simple song structure—as noted above, today’s country music is the wayward scion of Tin Pan Alley and its historical conventions. Valuable knowledge, to be sure, and a great starting point—but only the most elementary starting point.

 

Country’s Smarter Half-Sibling: Americana

 

After they have been reassured and have lost their fear, they are so artless and so free with all they possess, that no one would believe it without having seen it.   — Christopher Columbus (1451–1506)

 

While I’m having a bit of fun above—the explorer was talking about the innocent natives he intruded upon after landing on Hispaniola circa 1492, after all—he may’ve well been describing today’s Americana music scene, because that’s where all the oh-so-sensitive-and-sincere-singer-songwriters have settled in. It’s been written that “it takes an Americana song five minutes to say what a country song says in three”—and whether a legitimate comparison or not, it’s indicative of the the cognate and inferential relationship of Americana to country. While country is freighted with obtuse swagger, however, Americana is the land of solipsism run amok—a national open mic night. (Also notable, en passant, is that like country music it’s an almost entirely Caucasian milieu.)

 

But of primary relevance to this essay, it’s a genre in which words—again, as in Nashville country—are generally of paramount significance. And it’s also the musical marketing category (which is how it was originated) most likely to produce material of lasting significance—this because Americana acts generally produce songs in which the words are presented for clear intelligibility and which largely aspire to thoughtful and perceptive presentation and reception. Whether such is actually achieved or not is another matter, of course, and the unfortunate and cancerous blight of inarticulate “Poetic Lyrics” is probably most often found manifest in Americana songwriting—a natural tendency, perhaps, given the current critical endorsement and approbation afforded that school of adherence.

 

The awkward relationship of Americana acts to country—the Americana Music Association is even headquartered in a suburb of Nashville and hands out its own annual awards there—serves as something of a brake on the creative freedom from industrial concerns and blandishments that full severance might encourage. As it is, there’s a constant pull and frequent cross-over from one brand to the other. And a song that appears on the Americana music charts can concurrently appear, without much fuss, on the country music charts. (The Americana label has even been the latter day tag [and marketing classification] for formerly MAJOR country acts, of course—a kinda “retirement home” for Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and others when newer, fresher meat [and ever more cynically imbecilic songwriting] is being championed and mainlined by Nashville. The fact that such acts were essentially marginalized by Nashville country mandarins also effectively substantiates that it is country music as a popular form and commodity that has devolved and depleted so appreciably over past decades; that the current meretricious miasma of posturing country music bozos and bozettes is not at all an evolving continuation, but rather an outright rejection, of the traditional higher aspirations and measures of the form itself in favor of its more menial representations.)

 

Further and after all, if the songwriters right next door are making Big Bucks writing asinine “bro country” garbage while you play the starving La Boheme artiste, the temptation to finally buy a nicer used car can easily be  an understandable if unfortunate enticement to enthusiastically begging your way into the foulest of déclassé souqs: Nashville country music....   

 

As the Fiddle Player Lounging Up Against the Chimney Proclaims: “Tradition!”

 

I thought the blues was a simple 12-bar format and it’s like a jam—we just improvise. Sonny Boy Williamson kicked the shit out of that for me. He said “We’re gonna do ‘Nine Below Zero’” and I thought well fine—it’s a blues! My assumption was you just tell me the key and the tempo and I’ll make it up. So I started, and he virtually whacked me round the head and said, “No, it starts with this!”, and he sang the opening motif to me—and then there’s a drum part, and then this happens, and so on; it was all very carefully and specifically constructed. I realized, suddenly, the blues isn’t an interchangeable jam at all—each song is very formally composed.31   — Eric Clapton (b. 1945)

 

A folk song does not exist in any of its variants, but rather in the aggregate of its variants.   — John Lomax (1867–1948)

 

Traditional songs present some considerations unique to the genre when discussing lyrical content.

 

First up is that the songwriters—well, loosely, at least until the mid-nineteenth century—are usually unknown, the song’s specific origins lost in time. This makes the song malleable, even amorphous; finding a “textbook version” to analyze becomes impossible—there are no textbook versions. As soon as a song or a specific line is taken apart, analyzed and re-assembled, one can stumble on a slightly divergent version of the song or line elsewhere that obviates any conclusions at which one may have just arrived. As John Lomax intimates above, a traditional song is a kind of stew, out of which each ladling can bring forth slightly (or wholly) different tastes and textures. So while one’s attempted re-write of, say, “White Christmas” might be immediately exposed as counterfeit, a previously unfamiliar insertion into a traditional song—or a new and novel inversion or revision—could easily be (or if entirely fabricated, be duplicitously ascribed to) legitimate cultural anthropological research and exploitation.

 

Second is that actual folk songs (and I of course include blues here) are almost invariably derived from a working class environment and so tend to eschew intricate constructions—the poetry in traditional songs tends to be a direct, moralistic or aphoristic presentation, largely devoid of formal literary aspirations or presumptions.

 

And third is that what I’ll call “mainstream traditional songs”—folk and blues songs that are in today’s common canon—have already gone through an essential curatorial process: the discarding, polishing and emendations of words, lines, entire formulations and ideas that, for one reason or another, were judged ineffective or of lesser resonance before the presently dominant construction. There’s a de facto curatorial reason this traditional song, in this generalized construction and not that one—or those others—is regularly performed and recorded.

 

Which brings up another point I want to make here, implied by the above—and one that will disturb and offend the easily upset fragile rigidities of so many adherents and purveyors of folk, bluegrass, old-time, blues and other traditional forms: not all traditional songs are well-written, well-crafted or musically interesting offerings. Just because it was born in the cotton fields or the coal mines, in the Appalachian hollows or on great wooden sailing ships—or originally recorded in the back woods and released on 78rpm record—does not mean the song is musically and/or lyrically at all meritorious, or even significant. It may be of unquestionable interest culturally and historically, but it’s not necessarily accomplished or laudable intrinsically.

 

More to the point, it is absolutely proper to note lapses in the songwriting if and when they occur—and where possible, to address and possibly favorably affect those lapses. The danger, of course, is when such efforts yield a song version stripped of any real relationship beyond the most superficial to its true patrimony.   

 

On the other hand—but often of great help, and again as alluded to in the statement by John Lomax above—a traditional song can be like a gigantic bibliography, offering a potentially rich source for ideas, nuanced alternate lyrical realizations, different interpretations and divergent melodies for the song. (And ideas, melodies and such that might be applied in entirely different song projects altogether as well. Any reader aghast at my denunciation of Dylan as the crook that he is may be surprised to find I think he and others often unfairly maligned for occasionally mining musical and lyrical ideas from traditional songs—and other songs—and using them as point of departure to fashion essentially entirely new compositions the antecedents of which are only barely discernable. This is a separate matter however, and I’ll address it in much more depth—along with other aspects of strictly musical/melodic consideration—later in this essay.)

 

Discussing traditional songs is obviously appropriate here because so many such songs are recorded and performed right alongside material from contemporary songwriters, and so deserve to be not simply ignored, exempted—or worse, patronized. These are not museum pieces: precious, frozen, sanctified.

 

I occasionally do blue collar union work in the Hollywood studios, where what’s usually blasting out of radios and internet connections—even despite the exponentially expanded options presented by Spotify, Pandora and similar—is the same fifty or so fucking so-called “classic rock” songs, over and Over and OVER again, ad-god-damn-nauseum. Yet one day recently, while working with some guys who were as sick as I of the expected rote playlist, I suddenly heard the first few notes of a song and performance I instantly recognized from many, many years before: one of the guys32 had somehow brought up “Lula Walls” (sometimes called “Lulu Walls”), by A.P. (Alvin Pleasant) Carter and recorded by the Carter Family in 1928. The tide of memories both real and inferred that flooded over me brought actual tears to my eyes, such was both the complete and utter unexpectedness of it in the present circumstance and the length of time since I’d last heard the song—a perfect illustration of the power of nostalgia, (see above).Indeed, I’d learned and played “Lula Walls” as a teenager growing up in the Deep South.

 

But despite the power with which the song entered my hearing that morning, looking at it with dispassion yields a piece of writing that, with the sole exception of the two word description of the titular character preceding mention of her name in the chorus, is about as pedestrian and banal as one might possibly devise:

 

One evening getting dark we first met at the park,
A-sittin’ by the fountain all alone.
I lifted up my hat and then began to chat;
She said she’d ’low me to see her at her home.

 

chorus:

Such a star I’ve never seen;
She’s as pretty as a queen;
She’s as perfect as an angel from above.
If she’d only be my wife
I’d live happy all my life,
With that aggravating beauty Lula Walls.

 

If she was only mine, I would build a house so fine,
And around it so many fences tall.
It would make me jealous free that no one else but me
Could gaze upon that beauty Lula Walls.

 

chorus repeat

 

One evening getting late I met her at the gate
I asked her if she’d wed me in the fall.
She only turned away and nothing would she say;
That aggravating beauty Lula Walls.

 

chorus repeat33

 

Folks, this is platitudinous vapidity. The only substantive thought or experience in the entire song is the idea of a beautiful woman being an aggravation—not an easy conquest—to the singer. An “aggravating beauty”—I’ll buy that idea and locution. But now DO something with it! Because everything else here—all the adulations and all the mises en scene presented—are empty clichés, utterly depleted of insight, evocation or interest; with the rhymes arriving with all the delightful subtlety of a Sherman Tank. In short, “Lula Walls” is a fair example of what today’s country songwriting continues to spew onto the American public: one half-baked but serviceable notion—surrounded and smothered by absolutely nothing beyond innocuous bromides and padding.

 

The original Carter Family was a clear and wholesome representation of the heart, and evocation of the aspirations, of working class rural white America in the early twentieth century—an important and largely unaffected act whose recorded performances stand the test of time. But as one of two generally recognized major founding acts of the today’s country music (the others being Jimmie Rodgers, “The Singing Brakeman”, and arguably, Uncle Dave Macon) the songwriting constructions that in their hands delivered generally genuine and innocent, if unsophisticated, paeans has devolved into the hack and cynical manufactures vomited out of today’s Nashville. Rather than move above and beyond its antecedents, today’s country music maneuvers ever further beneath them.

 

- - -

 

Yet, to be precise, even the Carter Family doesn’t represent—their songs aren’t fully quintessential of—strictly traditional music, insofar as much of their material was either written ground-up or near ground-up (largely by A.P. Carter) or was songs derived (via the actual folk process, Bob) from commercially created songs that wended their way into isolated rural areas via that route (such as, archetypically, the well-known song, “Wildwood Flower”, wayward descendant of 1860’s “I’ll Twine Mid the Ringlets” by J.P. Webster and Maud Irving).

 

So let’s briefly discuss a song that is inarguably a traditional song; authors unknown, but there were surely scores of them—probably hundreds—spread over several centuries on at least two continents. There’s not even a certain title for the song, though, through the general democratic curatorial process mentioned above, most people today know it as “The Cuckoo”.

 

As the preceding sentences should understandably prepare us to accept, there’s a zillion variations: in what verses to include (of the perhaps thirty or so documented. Fifty? A hundred?...), in what order (if any) they properly appear, in what each individual line might convey—and possibly in what each and every individual word should be(!). Here’s the basics of the version I’ve played now and then over the years34:

 

Oh, the cuckoo, she’s a pretty bird,
An’ she warbles when she flies.
She’ll never holler “cu-ckoo”
’Til the fourth day of July.

 

Jack o’ Diamonds, Jack o’ Diamonds,
I know you from of old.
You robbed my poor pockets
Of their silver and their gold.

 

I've played cards in England;
I've played cards in Spain.
An’ I'll bet you ten dollars
I'll beat you next game.

 

I’m gonna build me a log cabin
On a mountain so high,
So I can see my baby
When she goes walkin’ by.

 

Yeah, the cuckoo, she’s a pretty bird,
An’ she warbles when she flies.
She’ll never holler “cu-ckoo”
’Til the fourth day of July.

 

My practice, when dealing with—when looking to take on and possibly performing—a traditional song is to look at what’s available in the stewpot; to look around for as many flavors or ‘collectable elements’ (verses, basically, but significant variants of those verses as well) as may be available and to then carefully determine which ones best work together to common end. In the above “Cuckoo” I use just four verses—from the perhaps 20-30 I’ve encountered here and there over the years—with one, what we’ll call the “title verse”, used to bookend the others; to open and close the song. Nothing at all unique here, except perhaps the very limited number of available verses I incorporate.

 

My reason for that severe limitation is that this song, like so many traditional songs (again, including blues songs) can quickly devolve into a dish with too many flavors, I feel—so many disconnected verses (read: ideas) that it becomes more an inchoate litany of disparate complaints or uncoordinated observations, or a mix of both, than a cohesive whole.

 

Traditional songs tend to be constituted of very simple and straight-forward building blocks. But simple doesn’t mean simplistic—‘simple’ can also be an adjective used to otherwise properly describe elegance and power, both of which there is a lot of in a good traditional song. There’s also often a lot of dross. And to my ears, even with verses of roughly uniform eloquence, just pumping out verse after disconnected verse diminishes the overall impact—there’s a strong element of “throwing in the kitchen sink”. If there’s a wish to lengthen the song for time, my choice, almost always, is to call on the instrumental accompaniment, or to possibly designate one specific verse as a de facto chorus and re-insert it more than once into the proceedings—again, here neither solution is at all unusual.

 

In my rendition of “The Cuckoo”, we have, along with the title verse, two of the remaining three concerning gambling, with the final one concerning admiration for a particular woman—so just two primary propositions, wrapped in a somewhat amorphous but engaging bracket. While for dancing and similar—where words are of secondary importance and as much as anything else serve to simply break up the monotony—throwing everything ya got into the stew is fine, naturally. But for presentation, for there to be an actual reason for these words to be sung, to my ears there should be a continuity either obviously delineated or clearly implied. More than one general theme is fine, I think—two certainly, and possibly even three. But careful! Anything more and impact is probably sacrificed. Less is more!....

 

(Later, we’ll look at another traditional song I’ve also played for many years—a down and basic 12-bar blues—and matters examined here will be looked at from another angle.)

 

The objective, when assembling a traditional song—and “assembling” is a good way to put it—should be to seek concordances, continuities and complementary angles when possible, and to massage and mold them into that coherent presentation that lets the listener know there’s more here than just a heap of words from all over with no armature, no reason for internal association other than an indeterminate and confused historicity.

 

As I briefly noted earlier, Dolly Parton did—intelligently, capably did—exactly what I describe here to “The House of The Rising Sun” in preparation for her own recorded performance of it. She presumably spread out the extant available verses on her desk, studied that material and physically re-arranged the pieces and parts, and added in her own slight emendations. (But prepare yourself: The musical accompaniment and production on her recording of the song is just plain retched—a bad reminder of how vapid Nashville production can be. Her construction of the lyrics, however, is great—as is her singing, naturally. And the rest? Well, consider yourself warned.…)

 

Traditional songs require the same thought and precision in construction—or again, in assembling—as a song written ground-up, but with the critical and pivotal additional requirement that the song eventually presented be properly, intelligently, consistent with historical antecedents. (I should perhaps emphasize that somehow—maybe by citing a brazen counter-example—but I can’t immediately think of one, so let’s hope the point is fully assimilated and appreciated.)

 

31Mojo, 3/2/2013, interview by Michael Simmons, titled “Eric Clapton: My Life in the Yardbirds, Cream and Beyond”.

32I later learned it was one of the set painters—a New Yorker born in Puerto Rico—who knew, very much liked and had specifically typed “Carter Family” into the internet connection; a rewarding exemplar illustration of the wonderful and unexpected stew of cultures and ethnicities that comprises America. It made me smile broadly, proudly; with humility and deference.

33“Lula Walls”, copyright 1928 by A.P. Carter. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107.

34Probably mostly taken from Clarence Ashley’s early-to-mid twentieth century version, as recorded by Alan Lomax in 1961.

 

Yes, Yes, We Too Are ALL SO PROFOUNDLY SORRY You Weren’t Born on a Mississippi Cotton Plantation....

 

Acting is the expression of a neurotic and insincere impulse. Quitting acting, that’s the sign of maturity.
— Marlon Brando (1924–2004)

 

Anecdote #1: I remember an edition of Fresh Air, the NPR interview show, some years ago in which the host, Terry Gross, interviewed John Fogerty of the band Creedence Clearwater Revival. When Gross asked Fogerty to simply say the words “turning” and “burning”—key words in the chorus of his song “Proud Mary”—he answered something like the following: “Uh, uh—turning and burning. But, but—when I sing, it just comes out ‘toynin’ and ‘boynin’. I don’t know why; it just naturally comes out that way....”

 

Yeah, right. I’m so glad to have ‘loyned’ that—I used to think you were a flouncing poseur, John, but you’ve really ‘oyned’ my respect. (Ya see, when I talk I say “learned” and “earned”, John. But when I write, for some reason it just comes out “loyned” and “oyned”. I don’t know why; it just naturally comes out that way….)35

 

- - -

 

Anecdote #2: A few years back a good friend sent me a link to a song performed by a then emerging act with which I was unfamiliar called Alabama Shakes. I clicked to it and endured no more than 30 seconds before reaching my limit with the florid travesty. That it turns out the lead vocalist is herself half-African American does nothing, of course, to license her blatant and ignorant de facto contempt for the rural black culture she pretends to represent and personify with her cavalier and disrespectful burlesque. She clearly has a capable voice; it would be nice to experience it without her inane plaster of pretension and condescension.       

 

- - -

 

Popular song performance allows—better: seems to actively encourage and reward—the most baldly contrived and manufactured personas, inauthentic presentations, and counterfeit conceits; all the while pompously dissembling as exactly the opposite. It’s another measure of the innate poverty of so much in the discipline that acts (vocalists in particular) regularly seek to obscure their authentic selves behind insufferably concocted masks and fabricated “characters”—and that news media and public are so often at best acquiescent to, at worst eager collaborators in, the wholesale and demeaning charade.

 

The tendency in the vocal presentation is perhaps most apparent when a traditional blues song comes into play—suddenly the most erudite, educated and cosmopolitan performer will affect a slurring delivery and over-the-top accent he or she thinks is required to render justice to, or at least to properly perform, the song. “I jes’ be a-singin’ dis heah song so’s y’all ken be a-enjoyin’ muh truthful poh’boy se’f up heah on duh stage—ya gots me?” or some such similar act.

 

Earlier I predicted that a hundred years from now awards and awards shows will be viewed as a quaint and treacly hallmark of the hubris of our times. A second prediction I’ll here make is that a hundred years from now the kind of condescending and vainglorious vocal mannerisms exhibited by so many performers today—especially when appropriating presumed rural black dialect—will be viewed with the same distaste and disgust with which we presently adjudge performing in blackface. 

 

From Tom Waits’ (and one-time inamorata Rickie Lee Jones’) slurring barfly fabrications, to the self-indulgent grunting inarticulations of Van Morrison and Randy Newman, to the outright racist “I jes’ be a uneducated cotton plantation share cropper” (or more currently, “Whitey-Wants-to-be-a-Ghetto-Gangsta”) crap of so many white blues performers and rappers, to the contrived “good ole country boy” twangs of Dwight Yoakam and (occasionally and incredibly) even middle-class bred Englishman Mick Jagger(!), the weirdness infects just about all branches of popular song performance.

 

35For the record, no, Fogerty wasn’t Born on the Bayou”, but in cosmopolitan Berkeley, California, and raised in the comfortable suburb of El Cerrito, a few miles north. And singing that song and others in his oeuvre without the obnoxiouslycounterfeit vocal contrivances would not diminish their impact. He’s not a bad songwriter.

 

Art School Confidential36

 

What all the posturing results in is a vast detachment and cynicism on the part of the performers, since it’s impossible to have respect for an audience that’ll take just about anything you care to dish out.   — Lester Bangs (1948–1982)

 

It was all so very businesslike that one watched it fascinated. It was pork-making by machinery, pork-making by applied mathematics.   — Upton Sinclair (1878–1968)

 

Because ever-newer handfuls of promotional pasta are constantly whizzing by our ears, with the throwers hoping this time, finally, something will firmly stick to the wall, the rest of us become simply The Gullible Marketplace. The act attempts try after try, experimenting sequentially with wholly new manufactures of song orchestration and production, or (much, much more often) of costuming and “image”.

 

We are told the commercially successful act—the Madonna, David Bowie, Björk, Britney Spears or (insert-name-here)—is “reinventing itself”, with the procession of consecutive “re-inventions” presented as a sure sign of the act’s Continuing Cultural Importance. Of course, most of the “re-invention” (and I’ll put that spurious term in quotes every time I here use it) is nothing more than, and quite literally, just an uncomfortably tenuous and self-conscious fashion parade—entirely dispossessed of considered insight or cultural relevance beyond the most transient, the most superficial. Um, “Ziggy Stardust”, anyone…?37

 

Alternatively, for the as yet unheralded act, the rebrandings serve as a door opening device; a serial set of calling cards on industrial and public awareness, in desperate hopes that sooner or later one of the constructions commercially clicks. I mean, dammit, what do we have to DO to become Big Stars, after all!?!? As for the songs themselves—what it’s supposed to be all about, no?—novelty and production receive far more attention than the actual writing and composing.

 

The cart has come completely off the rails and wildly careened about ten miles downhill; while the horse looks down on it all in confused consternation. It’s art school run amok. Signifiers sans signal.

 

And while there’s nothing intrinsically disqualifying in preposterous and desperate attempts at being noticed, the begged question is how much such ridiculous theatrics and flatulent affectations ultimately undercut any claim to actual substance. After all, if you wander into the room or on stage, in serious demeanor, wearing a flowerpot on your head—or arriving in a fiberglass “egg” and unctuously introducing yourself as “Lady Gaga” or some such38—there is, certainly, a strong likelihood what you have to say will be as equally pre-fabricated, shallow, and bereft of authenticity. Cheap show-biz contrivances and dumbed-down schlock are, for instance, the primary tools of the vast ridiculous majority of TV sitcoms.

 

We all dress our best—and put on an act; well, put our best foot forward—when trying to impress. And a good half of show business is most certainly just trying to make an impression; to “sell the wares”.But significant content invariably requires time to germinate, gestate and effectively convey—not a process normally embraced by the impatient and fame-obsessed.39

 

And as for the art school crowd40, so determined to appear—desperate to somehow, somehow be—“cutting edge”, even (cough, cough) “dangerous”(!), I offer this lovely and properly deflationary reckoning from French symbolist poet Paul Valéry over a century ago:

 

Everything changes. Everything changes—except, that is, the avant garde....

 

Far better to take the time and produce the sweat to perhaps end up offering actual substance in the material being delivered—the songs—than in yet more eye-rollingly imbecilic behavior, pretentious posturing or flamboyant dress.

 

Popular song is not alone, of course, but more than any other area of show business and the performing arts it encourages, celebrates—even sanctifies—the most banal and ersatz; impression over expression.  

 

36This section’s subhead taken from the title of the four-page graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (subsequently adapted by him into a screenplay, with the resultant film directed by Terry Zwigoff).

37Let’s be absolutely clear about this and similarly vapid and uninhabited “characters” portentously trotted out by desperate acts as if such self-indulgent games of dress-up bear any resemblance to something worthy of consideration. A character is an entirety; not just a pretty frock and a blank stare pasted on a human frame belching out non sequitur song lyrics. That kind of artless display is, rather, simply the embodiment—the literal personification—of empty and pretentious posing for fashion; devoid of merit or relevance; entirely undeserving of our time or attention....

38Or, similarly, if vainglory results in you naming your band “fun.” (sic—yes, with that period) or your single self “tUnE-yArDs” (sic), “Will.I.Am” (sic)—or any one of the myriad other idiotic monikers rampantly infecting rap, hip-hop and heavy metal in particular but permutating throughout popular music—one can’t help but wonder if you simply have too much time on your hands. Here’s an idea: instead of trying to impress us with your self-importance (and your so awe-inspiringly courageous contempt for prevailing orthography!) spend that time re-writing some of the crap you’re performing and recording. Just a thought....

39Words of advice: when asked what someone wants to be or do, be wary if he or she immediately answers, “I want to be famous!”—otherwise known as “Art School: The Patti Smith Curriculum”. As should be clear by now, such objective—Walt Whitman, Salvador Dali and so many others to the contrary—while not inimical to creative ability and artistic merit, is at best most usually an invidiously counter-productive diversion from it.

40I myself was a student at both the San Francisco Art Institute and the California College of Arts and Crafts (at the time still in Oakland)—art schools are a great environment in which to experiment, play and have fun; unavailing milieux in which to create art.

 

The Disarmingly Enabling Inscience of Rap and Hip-Hop

 

We fret about words, we writers. Words mean. Words point. They are arrows. Arrows stuck in the rough hide of reality. And the more portentous, more general the word, the more they also resemble rooms or tunnels. They can expand, or cave in. They can come to be filled with a bad smell. They will often remind us of other rooms, where we’d rather dwell or where we think we are already living. They can be spaces we lose the art or the wisdom of inhabiting. And eventually those volumes of mental intention we no longer know how to inhabit, will be abandoned, boarded up, closed down.   — Susan Sontag (1933–2004)

 

Using a quote from Susan Sontag, above, as the epigraph for this section may strike as unabashed “radical chic”—or simple indefensible pretention—as we’re here to briefly discuss rap and hip-hop. (In fact, I accept the argument that even describing rap and hip-hop as popular “song” may somewhat miss the mark, insofar as there’s a strong propensity in the form to virtually bury strict musicality in a flood of words and rhythm; there are major rap stars, surely, who couldn’t knowledgeably play even Note One on an actual musical instrument, or creditably sing Note One without going through auto-tune ....)

 

This is a genre in which words—and what is being said, certainly—is the whole ballgame, or 90% plus of it. But unfortunately—and given the inherent emphasis on the lyrics here, possibly even more clearly than in other forms—most of what’s being said is utterly worthless, and (similarly to the low-life glorifications in narcocorrido ballads) in its worst manifestations (aka so-called gangsta rap and similar) elemental, censurably repulsive, posturing garbage.

 

What is incontestably noteworthy however, is how within rap (and we’ll use the term inclusive of its sundry offshoots and sub-genres) the lexical constructions and rhymes can veer so far, far away from “standard”. Rap has arguably accelerated the acceptance of “half rhyme”—or imperfect rhyme—in popular songwriting (although its employment still remains most acclaimed, probably, in the poems of mid-nineteenth century poet Emily Dickinson).

 

And the freedom that not being tied to actual or even near rhyme allows is invigorating to popular songwriting generally. We’re all tired of “kissing/missing”, “love/above”, “chance/dance” and other obvious pairings—though this isn’t to say even the most banal rhyme can’t work within a fitting context (read: worthwhile surrounding information) and with helpful vocal delivery (such as, again, the singer arriving on the obvious rhyme well before the note upon which it would naturally fall). And in rap, almost as a rule, it’s the Wild West of Whatever Works—traditional expectations in rhyme, meter and overall construction generally be damned.41

 

Effective writing in rap—and here I’m gonna jump right on the bandwagon the reader surely anticipates and expects—is perhaps best evinced in the stage musical, Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda (and in his preceding effort, In the Heights42).

 

When information is coming in rapidly, relentlessly—substantively—occasional lapses in craft can be forgiven, are essentially obviated, because the very next idea comes right on its heels without allowing the listener the opportunity to analyze or reflect: the general notion is enough. Contrast this with the first song we’ve looked at here, “American Pie”—where the failures aren’t obscured by adjacent brilliance or even adjacent substantive information. In contradistinction, Miranda’s work generally provides us with a lot to consider throughout; most of it presented with respect for our intelligence, unafraid—and able—to reach us using a rich vocabulary. (There’s also very little purposely obfuscating dialect or patois, either inherent in the lyrics or affected in the delivery, something that often infects rap.)

 

Yet writing adagio to perform prestissimo is a simple enough endeavor—right, ya just speed it all up beyond reasonable expectation in performance. The simplest sleight of hand. However, without there being consistent actual worthwhile substance in that torrent of words—because some of it, and it’ll be a different part for each individual auditor, will be fully comprehended—the song is exposed as but verbosity for verbosity’s sake. Miranda regularly delivers, but the vast overwhelming majority of rap and rap-influenced songs don’t even come close.

 

Whatever the generally low quality of the writing in rap and hip-hop—and it's certainly that—the freedom the form it brings to popular songwriting itself is refreshing and liberating. We are all tired of “kissing/missing”, “love/above”, “chance/dance”—and “moon/June/spoon”—no? 

 

41As for the delivery—the actual rapping—there’s always been popular songs that weren’t truly “sung”. A talking blues (first appearing in a song entitled just that, “Talking Blues”, by Chris Bouchillon, in 1926) and a patter song (Gilbert & Sullivan did them brilliantly in the late nineteenth century) are just two examples; (as is the vocal technique called “sprechstimme” in an operatic context). But that aspect of rap is largely irrelevant to this essay.

42Both shows do suffer on stage, however, from the counter-productive directoral freneticism so common in contemporary musical theater—choreography largely sans raison d’etre or achieved evocation; marshaled throughout in the apparently desperate and insecure panic to KEEP-EVERYTHING-MOVING-MOVING-MOVING-DAMMIT-DAMMIT-DAMMIT-PEOPLE-WILL-GET-BORED-AND-FALL-ASLEEP-IF-WE-DON’T!!—but that’s another topic for another essay one day....

 

Above completed as of 5/14.

Writing and editing still in process below

 

PART THREE: Production

 

Repetition, Cliché, Repetition, Cliché, Repetizzzzz....(Or: “It Was a Really Dark and a Really, Really Stormy Night”)

 

It is always possible to create something original.   — George Gershwin (1898–1937)

 

(MORE IN THIS SECTION COMING SOON)

 

Didn’t I Just Hear That Song on a Commercial for Chewing Gum? Paper Towels? A Bank? Well, Whatever—Gosh It Sure is Catchy!...

 

He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.   — St. Francis of Assisi (1181–1226)

 

 (MORE IN THIS SECTION COMING SOON)

 

A Blindingly Beautiful Gilded Frame Isn’t a Masterpiece Painting

(this section last edited 1/7)

 

You gotta have a gimmick.   — Ethel Merman (1908–1984)

 

Earlier, I noted that a primary difference between a recording and a performance is that a live performance allows an act to divert attention from lesser writing through a variety of tactics, but that these only really serve that live performance, because the second-rate writing remains in the writing itself; in the song. But the attempt to obfuscate deficient writing does continue into the recording studio—often using many of the same subterfuges. If you can't understand what's being sung, and there's no lyric sheet to guide you along, the act—from the Rolling Stones to even strong writers like Gordon Lightfoot and Van Morrison—can get stuff past that upon clear hearing would be exposed as very weak work.

 

(MORE IN THIS SECTION COMING SOON)


 

In sum, all the peripheral trappings—the act’s good looks and attire (or lack both thereof), the promotional gimmicks, the hooks inserted into the production of the recording—have nothing, obviously, to do with the songwriting.

 

(MORE IN THIS SECTION COMING SOON)


 

PART FOUR: Songwriting

 

Vermeer Painted Only 34 pictures; Salinger Wrote But Two Novels; Chaplin Created Just One Incandescent and Eternal Little Tramp

(this section last edited 3/1)

 

We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should really be excellent, because this is our one life.   — Steve Jobs (1955–2001)

 

Rarely ever is there an act capable of actually creating and delivering multiple offerings of meritorious work. And especially so if conceived in rapid succession. It happens—in songwriting think, perhaps, of the intact Beatles from Meet the Beatles through Abbey Road, over just a half decade (and despite many less-than-stellar cuts on all those albums)—but so rarely as to be near singularly aberrant.

 

Just creating one song which popularly survives beyond its immediate milieu is a rare and noteworthy accomplishment.

 

It’s naturally a fact of life that most people—writers included—have a limited amount of primary ideas to impart. They often repeat essentially the same immediate concern, again and again, in variation of the theme, as they themselves continue to grapple with it internally. Venturing beyond and outside primary curiosities, where motivation is less easily aroused, obviously and understandably requires more attention and application—more thought and hard work—and the result can evince that effort by being less focused, more superficial. The writer is here simply doing his or her job, foremost, and applying his or her craft—to greater or lesser effect—to bring in a check and pay the rent. In worst case, it means just churning out product—slighter works that are unlikely to be effective in evoking substantive reaction. In best case, the craft affords the writer with the ability to do creditable work—and may possibly even serve to awaken a legitimate new “itch”, driving the topic into higher internal debate and analysis, and resulting in a more successful, resonant, execution.

 

And in the songwriting itself, it’s far more admirable and lasting for a writer and composer to create one brilliant song than a hundred mediocre ones. Quantity don’t count; quality does.

 

So is “The Folk Process” An Expired Mechanism?

(this section last edited 4/29)

 

It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.   — Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930)

 

To answer the question above: no, “The Folk Process”, certainly in its loosest and most general connotations, isn’t an expired mechanism; not at all. Songs certainly do change—all the time. Every time a new act covers an extant song the argument can be made that a de facto contemporary manifestation of the folk process is taking place—the new rendition is a continuation of the creation of the song (though the harness and restraint of enforceable copyright restricts most actual outright piracy to the margins).

 

But a more strictly defined folk process also continues, even in this age of the internet with all its offered accesses and protections.

 

A quick over-view of some key aspects of copyright law is perhaps in order.

 

First off, on the music side, a melody can be copyrighted, but a chord sequence can’t. And for those reading who have no musical knowledge, the reason for this is that any number of melodies can be derived and constructed from the exact same chord sequence, as a melody is just a single note to the next single to the next, and so on; a chord contains many notes and many ways to get from one note to another. (Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”, mentioned earlier, has the exact same chord sequence as  Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock”, the Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me”—and zillions more songs. If a chord sequence could be copyrighted, very few 1950s pop song would ever have existed—probably most of ’em, if study were made, would be instantly recognized to be a simple variation on one of two basic chord structures: C-Am-F-G, (in this or another key—so more properly notated as I, vi, IV, V) and the 12-bar blues, in whatever key. So the first songs written in each sequence—copyrighted—would have squelched the thousands [tens of thousands?] of songs that actually followed. Make sense?)

 

On the lyrics side, writing new lyrics for, or inserting other lyrics into, a copyrighted song, without permission, is called making an “unauthorized derivative work”.

 

How much one can get away with on either side of the matter—melody or lyrics—is up to the legal system in each and every individual case, of course. Meaning first there has to be a lawsuit filed, then it has to be won (or lost) to know if the defendant’s work violated copyright (or not).

 

Could one bring a successful suit against an act—say a female singer—who simply changed the word “her” in a song to “him”, in order to work for her gender preference? Well, first off, anyone can be sued for anything—but we used the word “successfully” in our question, and so the answer is probably no, as it’s unlikely any damage to the work could be successfully argued, and so such a suit would surely be tossed before even reaching the courtroom. Yet it most certainly is, very strictly, an alteration of the copyrighted lyrics, no?

 

I know this may all seem a bit arcane and petty—and you betcha, “legalistic”—but it very directly impacts even the most innocent of songwriting efforts.

 

- - -

 

But I’ve been part of the real contemporary folk process myself—and perhaps you have as well.

 

For example, here’s another song—coincidentally, as with “Lula Walls” first recorded in 1928—by Furry Lewis43. It’s the first song I ever learned to play (although then in very simplified form, naturally) called “I Will Turn Your Money Green” and also sometimes known as “Follow Me Baby”, or finally, by the title I learned it as, “Rockefeller Blues”.

 

When I was in Missouri, they would not let me be.
When I was in Missouri, they would not let me be.
Wouldn’t rest content till I came to Tennessee.

 

If you follow me baby; I’ll turn your money green.
If you follow me baby; I’ll turn your money green.
I show you more money than Rockefeller’s ever seen.

 

If the river was whiskey and baby I was a duck,
If the river was whiskey and baby I was a duck,
I’d dive to the bottom, Lord, and I’d never come up.

 

Lord the woman I hate, I see her every day.
Lord the woman I hate, I see her every day.
But the woman I love—she’s so far away.

 

Talk about sweetheart; I declare I’m a honest man.
Talk about sweetheart; I declare I’m a honest man.
Give my woman so many dollars, it broke her apron string.

 

All she give me was trouble; trouble all the time.
All she give me was trouble; trouble all the time.
I been troubled so long that trouble don’t worry my mind.

 

I been down so long it seems like up to me.
I been down so long it seems like up to me.
The woman I love; she done quit poor me.

 

What’s the need of me hollering; what’s the need of me crying?
What’s the need of me hollering; what’s the need of me crying?
The woman I love, she don't pay me no mind.
44
 

I learned the song from Jacksonville, Florida, blues player M.L. Riley, who learned it directly from Furry Lewis years previously. Until a couple of decades later, I myself had never heard Lewis’ rendition of the song—and by the time I finally did, the song I was performing, musically, was about ten light-years away from his original. The lyrics—while still certainly recognizable—had also evolved. There were entire verses I had never heard—or if I maybe had heard them when learning the song so long ago, had decided not to incorporate and subsequently just forgot. The lyrics and the order in which I presently perform the song go like this:

Follow me baby; I’ll turn your money green.
Follow me baby; I’ll turn your money green.
I’ll give you more money than them  Rockefellers ever seen.

 

People in Missouri, they sure are down on me.
People in Missouri, they sure are down on me.
Guess I shoulda stayed home, back in Tennessee.

 

I been down so long it looks like up to me.
I been down so long it looks like up to me.
So I’ll head back on home to Tennessee.

 

Follow me baby; I’ll turn your money green.
Follow me baby; I’ll turn your money green.
I’ll give you more money than them  Rockefellers ever seen.

 

This is obviously a much simpler song—reduced—than what Furry Lewis performed (or, if I recollect correctly, what M.L. Riley probably taught me). And I honestly can’t recall how I got to where I am with the song today: the twists, turns and inadvertent variations that became set in concrete—until the next inadvertent variation, and so on.

 

You may also note that it structurally resembles my version of “The Cuckoo”, mentioned earlier—“title verse” first and last; with three verses in between them in “The Cuckoo”, two in “Rockefeller Blues”. (In both songs, I also add in instrumental sections—instrumental verses and improvised bridges.)

 

And while I would’ve been far too deferential to say so then, the fact of the matter is that even at the time I recognized there were too many elements—verses with quite disparate, unconnected concerns—to easily hold together within a cohesively serious song. And so I took what I particularly liked and could scavenge to make, in my view, a workable lyrical whole—still, of course, properly crediting the song to Furry Lewis. (Going for “serious” meant I had to sadly eschew the thoroughly entertaining “If the river was whiskey” verse, but so be it.)

 

Rigid folk purists will at this point (naturally, and with supreme indignation) claim Lewis’ song was already a brilliant, cohesive whole—and who the hell was I to presumptuously, promiscuously tamper with it!

 

Their preconceptions on the matter are simply wrong—and wrong-headed. Furry Lewis’ original work is enjoyable, engaging—and an important piece of American folk culture. And he wrote and composed some really good stuff in the song. It is not, however, sacrosanct nor immune to thoughtful emendation.

 

And as noted above, on the musical side, while still a 12-bar blues construction, the song I’ve played over the years surely differed significantly from Furry Lewis’ composition from the outset—and it continued and continues to diverge and evolve as years pass, having less and less resemblance to his original.

 

And friends, that is the folk process at work.

 

43Walter “Furry” Lewis was an interesting fellow. Musician by night, when the irregular opportunity arose;  professional street sweeper for the City of Memphis by day—as he was damned well intent on never being completely broke, and absolutely determined to get a pension when he reached retirement age. Joni Mitchell wrote a song about him called “Furry Sings the Blues”—and while most folks might’ve been touched, even proud, to have a song written about them lauding their abilities, it got Lewis angry, as he didn’t like someone making money using his name without getting a share....

44“I Will Turn Your Money Green”, copyright 1928 by Furry Lewis. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107.

 

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Song Lyrics vs. Poems (and vs. Essays, Short Stories, Novels, Fairy Tales, Jokes—and Telephone Books...)

(this section last edited 2/14)

 

Once an object has been incorporated into a picture it accepts a new destiny.   — George Braque (1882–1963)

 

A discussion that can quickly get deep into the woods and choked by the weeds is defining the difference between a poem and a song lyric. Yes, one has music and the other doesn’t; yes, one is primarily read and the other primarily heard—but I maintain those differences, and others so carefully, thoughtfully delineated by intelligent and perceptive people, are actually incidental and after-the-fact. The determining element isn’t prescriptive or proscriptive at all, but affective: if it works with music—if it is of a piece in presentation—then it is, obviously, a convincing song lyric, no matter what the initial impetus, intention or origin of the written lines.

 

If this seems like an evasion or cop-out, it’s not. Yet to engage and address the matter more definitively, obvious generalizations and both examples and counter-examples can be helpful.

 

A song needs to be wholly intelligible on first hearing—if not every word and line, certainly enough of them to induce confidence in the listener that the song merits his or her attention. What music (all of it: melody, rhythm, time signature, and etc) and performance (including production) allow is the ability to highlight those parts of the written presentation that merit focus, and to hide—underplay, audibly obfuscate—those aspects which are of lesser moment or craft.

 

All other ostensible differentiations between a song lyric and any other written communication is subordinate. It’s not necessary that the lines of a song rhyme—many well-known songs have no rhyming at all.45 It’s not necessary that a song have a repeated chorus. And so on. ALL that matters is whether the words work within the musical setting.

 

So the considerations that come into play are particular and specific to the written lines themselves, and how they can be effectively communicated with music.

 

(MORE IN THIS SECTION COMING SOON)

 

45For example, “Moonlight in Vermont” (written by John Blackburn and Karl Suessdorf), “America” (Paul Simon), “Fields of Gold” (Sting), “Across the Universe” (John Lennon), “Lady” (Lionel Richie), “Frank Mills” (James Rado, Gerome Ragni, Galt MacDermot), and many, many more.

 

The Twentieth Century Ended Almost Two Decades Ago

 

Great art speaks a language which every intelligent person can understand. Modernism speaks a different language.   — Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980) 

 

 (MORE IN THIS SECTION COMING SOON)

 

If Ya Wanna Send A Message…

 

 

If you cry “Forward!” you should without fail make plain what direction to go.   — Anton Chekhov (1860–1904)

 

 (MORE IN THIS SECTION COMING SOON)

 

“But it’s POETRY!”—Refuge for the Inarticulate

 

David Bowie’s songs should be about nothing, because it allows them to be about everything!   — Ben Greenman (b. 1969)46

 

46The New Yorker, 1/9/2016, article entitled “Beautiful Nonsense”.

 

 (MORE IN THIS SECTION COMING SOON)

 

The Transcendent Lessons of Browne’s “These Days” and Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee”—Albeit ‘Transcendent Lessons’ Both Positive and Negative

(this section last edited 5/7)

 

Trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle.   — Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564)

 

So, now let’s take a look at two well-known songs, each of which demonstrates both exemplary and mediocre songwriting in the very same song.

 

- - -

 

One of Jackson Browne’s signature efforts, a song he reportedly wrote while still a teenager(!), called “These Days”, is particularly noteworthy in that it contains an example of outright lyrical brilliance—directly adjacent to an example of a self-satisfied cleverness; a feeble and lead-footed masquerade of brilliance.

 

Of notable interest here is that Browne himself changed the lyrics to this song several times in subsequent years—presumably aware of its deficiencies and attempting to arrive at a less self-conscious effort.

 

Here’s his original version—in its entirety. Lyrics that were later tossed by him are crossed out; and new, additional or replacement lines are underscored:

 

I’ve been out walkin’;
I don’t do too much talkin’ these days.
These days—
These days I seem to think a lot
About the things that I forgot to do for you;
And all the times I had the chance to.

 

I stopped my ramblin’.
I don’t do too much gamblin’ these days.
These days
These days I seem to think about
How all the changes came about my way;
And I wonder if I’ll see another highway

 

And I had a lover.
I don’t think I'll risk another these days—
These days.
And if I seem to be afraid
To live the life that I have made in song,
Well it's just ’cause I’ve been losing so long.

 

Well I’ll stop my dreamin’;
I don’t do too much schemin' these days.
I’ll keep on moving;
Things are bound to be improving these days.
These days—
These days I’ll sit on cornerstones
And count the time in quartertones to ten, my friend.
Please don’t confront me with my failures
I had not forgotten them.
47, 48

 

The rhyme scheme that Browne built for himself, with its interior rhymes and enjambments—in a song that attempts to be a profound and soul-searching evocation—is almost antithetical to that grasp for sincerity; a little too structurally sophisticated. (Again, however, one might remember, kindly, that he was just a teenager when he wrote the first version—and like all of us at that age he evinced the tendency of trying a little too hard to impress). Maintaining the demanding rhyme scheme, the tightness, without causing eye-rolling in his audience by simply “going for whatever rhymes” is a very difficult tightrope to walk—but he generally arrived at a fully and capably realized piece.

 

It’s the final four lines I’d like to quickly focus on here—look them over again, above. The first two of the four are, indeed, of the eye-rolling variety. Sure, “quartertones” and “cornerstones” obviously rhyme, but it’s an utterly meaningless goulash of words. You “count the time in quartertones”, Jackson? (What does that even mean?) “Sitting on cornerstones”? (What does THAT mean as well—and how, exactly do you do it? A cornerstone is a foundation stone—so with a wall of bricks already sitting on it. ) And what importance or pertinence does counting “to ten” have to do with anything—beyond the mechanical (in that it arbitrarily sets up the slant-rhyme of the word “them” which ends the next line)? Gimme a break. This is cleverness for its own sake—cleverness without substance or raison d’etre beyond puerile smugness. The added “my friend”—as contrasted to the “for you” at the same point in the first verse, which does contribute value there—adds nothing here; and because it adds nothing smacks, really, of a too-easy grasp to simply chalk up one more rhyme, a cheap one at that, just for the hell of it. (But I’ll admit, charitably, that this can be a hard temptation to resist—especially in a song like this, so heavily interlaced throughout with rhyme.)

 

The two lines following, however—the final two lines of the song—are of an entirely different magnitude of proficiency. “Don’t confront me with my failures; I had not forgotten them” is simply brilliant stuff—reaching deep into each of us who hears it. I want to go further here, to underscore the brilliance in that one line. Were I myself to have written it, I’m sure I’d have written “Don’t remind me of my failures…”—so ‘remind’ instead of ‘confront’; and a much less effective or efficient use of language than what Browne comes up with. Why? Well, the reference to memory is nailed just a few words later, with ‘forgotten’—so using ‘remind’ here is a waste of two syllables in his set-up to what concludes both this verse and the whole song—syllables that he instead brilliantly allocates to the word ‘confront’, which adds to the line the implication of uncertain contestation.

 

What we have are two textbook lessons in those four lines—one on exactly what not to do, immediately followed by one displaying what a flash of real brilliance can deliver. Whether one buys the finished song or not—and I myself am somewhat ambivalent, beyond simply gagging at the ‘cornerstones / quartertones’ house of cards. Good that he discarded the original second verse—which was pretty much just aimless prattle—but the remaining now-second verse still strikes me as overly self-referential. Perhaps I’m too demanding. But I also suggest the song’s final line would be improved slightly by replacing “I had” with “I’ve”—it a.) provides better scansion, b.) sings a bit better, and [by far, most pertinently] c.) makes the statement more directly immediate. Yet those final two lines remain unequivocally terrific, and the whole song a generally smart piece, particularly given the very challenging structural confines he set for himself.

 

- - -

 

Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” is another song in which one finds some outstanding en passant statements—lyric lines which make the listener cock his or her head in startled appreciation.

 

The song49:

 

Busted flat in Baton Rouge, headin’ for the trains,
Feelin’ nearly faded as my jeans.
Bobby thumbed a diesel down just before it rained,
Took us all the way to New Orleans.
Took my harpoon out of my dirty red bandana
And was blowin’ sad while Bobby sang the blues,
With them windshield wipers slappin’ time and
Bobby clappin’ hands we finally sang up every song
That driver knew.

 

chorus:

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,
And nothin’ ain't worth nothin’ but it's free,
Feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues,
And buddy, that was good enough for me,
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.

 

From the coalmines of Kentucky to the California sun,
Bobby shared the secrets of my soul,
Standin’ right beside me through everythin’ I done,
And every night she kept me from the cold.
Then somewhere near Salinas, Lord, I let her slip away,
She was lookin’ for the love I hope she’ll find,
Well I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday,
Holdin’ Bobby’s body close to mine.

 

chorus repeat50

 

Wistful sentiment aside—and I think Kristofferson got most all the immediate resonance into the song that he could’ve wanted—there are components of it which are rather simple; achieved without much difficulty. When a place name is used in a song, unless the place has a specific necessary reason to be cited, it’s usually invoked simply to rhyme another word—the word the lyricist is covetously aiming to use—to be rhymed, in other words, so that the desired important thought can be delivered. Alternatively, sometimes it’s just another “bit of color” to add into the lyrics, and it’s chosen primarily just for its sonority. So the lines with Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Kentucky, Salinas—even California, though this last proper noun serves the additional value of being an adjective to ‘sun’—are all pretty easily arrived at. (He could just as easily have written, for example, “From the mines of Pennsylvania [or “the canyons of Manhattan”] to the Arizona sun…”—there’s lots that could easily and competently fill out this space. But his primary objective was to simply set up the stronger “Standin’ right beside me through everythin’ I done, and every night she kept me from the cold.”)

 

The above observations are secondary, however, and obviously also open to vigorous debate, one by one. What is primary, and incontestably impressive, is the chorus. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”—immediately followed by “nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ if it’s free”—a quick and powerful one-two punch straight to the gut. The point he’s making comes across immediately, but the lines are so evocative and so resonant that they deserve—demand—being repeated to oneself over and over again long after the song has ended. This is great songwriting.

 

Kris, you’ve done really good job. So take a deep breath here, okay? If you can’t add yet more colorful story or another layer of resonance to the song—and it’s really, really quite good just as it is—can we just stop here?

 

It’s just that I’m a little apprehensive about what might happen if we don’t....

 

Aw, damn, LOOK what’s happening! I was afraid of this!....

 

Because now we’re suddenly into the dreadfully affected and over-the-top “la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la” ostensibly workable substitute for an actual third verse—which Janis Joplin belches out in the best-known edition of the song but which (in her possible defense?) just follows the template provided by the very first recorded performance of it, sung by Roger Miller, albeit far less bombastically. And, naturally, it turns the song into a sing-along travesty. (Kristofferson himself didn’t first record the song until a year after Miller, and I wasn’t able to ascertain if Kristofferson himself regularly stretched things out with the whole “la-la-la” verse before it got to Miller for recording. So where the appendage originated is unknown to me.) In any event, the whole contrivance tells us the preceding picaresque travelogue and the moving emotional evocations were just a dumb song—a pop ditty. It gives us a big fat middle finger for being so gullible, for believing in what we’ve just heard. Nothing to see here—move along, dummies, nothing to take seriously or to heart.

 

I expect a songwriter with Kristofferson’s genuine gifts—not a lot of his stuff is great, but when he’s on, he is ON!—could write a (real) third verse to this song and hit the whole thing outa the park. But it was written at a time when Nashville country songs were, in my memory certainly, getting shorter and shorter—shorter even than the 2:45 median length then current in radio-friendly pop and rock songs—and so one often encountered country radio songs of “two verses with the chorus after each, and out”. (Yet even mainstream Nashville darling Roger Miller added that third verse of non-lexical vocables, so there must have been a general “industrial preference” for this song to be longer, no? Why isn’t it? Because there’s an abnegation of responsibility, a failure of songwriting, when the only alternative considered—well, the one arrived at—is “la-la-la-la-la”.)

 

How should one deal with a song that feels—or even inarguably is—“too short” for the magnitude of the ideas and presentation so far provided, and would be disserviced by tacking on a lot of nonsense? Simple, really. There’s two primary components of a song: the lyrics and the melody—the music. Going out of “Me and Bobby McGee” instrumentally would have been an easy, secure—and satisfying—culmination to some brilliant songwriting. And whether ones agrees about that choice or not, it certainly beats the hell outa having the reflective raconteur go into idiotic la-la-la-la-las....

 

But another, much better suggestion is to insert an additional verse—a new second verse, making the present one third, as it does serve as a solid lament and summation of precedent events and experiences—which takes a different look at what’s available within the established context and content. Perhaps a reflection on the America the two footloose protagonists find before them—an expansive take on the people and land they encounter and from which they learn as they grow and experience? (In such scenario, one might presumably utilize a rather standard organization of verse 1, verse 2, THEN the chorus, short instrumental bridge, verse 3, repeat chorus and out; and so making a song lasting somewhere around 3:00 to 3:30—WITHOUT inane sing-along....)

 

As is, we end with a piece of really great songwriting, with its horse shot right out from under it mid-stream—crippled (forcibly drowned) by inadequate application or thought. Or was it perhaps by plain lack of competent and sensitive oversight in the production studio and corporate offices? Did Kristofferson have an additional verse he for some reason, discarded? (In that case, it’s time to re-write it rather than go with less—the great song, extant, is a magnificent opportunity for amplification or augmentation. There’s very little chance here of spoiling it with elaboration.) Or was it maybe just offhand carelessness? Laziness? Who knows...

 

47Greg Allman, who many years after it was written had a pop hit with the “These Days”, changed the last line to “I’m aware of them ”, which to my ear isn’t as strong as “I had not forgotten them”. In the latter, the admission of awareness is there as well—but with the added impact of these particular failures having apparently occurred in the past (perhaps even long in the past) and so providing an added aspect of the still-smarting sting, and shame that time can’t ameliorate.

48“These Days”, copyright 1967 by Jackson Browne. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107.

49“The lyrics here are Kristofferson’s original lines as I’ve been able to ascertain them. In Janis Joplin’s much better-known recording, a few words were replaced by new ones. In my opinion, most of them actually benefited the song, though some did disadvantage it—so a net plus, perhaps.

50“Me and Bobby McGee”, copyright 1969 by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107.

 

Well How ’Bout That, Some Country Music IS…

(this section last edited 2/22)

 

 …three chords and the truth!   — Harlan Howard (1927–2002)

 

As noted earlier, the One Great Convention which advantages country music over so much in rock and rap is that the lyrics in Nashville songs are intended, and expected by the audience, to be fully, unequivocally comprehended. The writing may be low grade hack work—and just as in rock and rap, it most often surely is—but dammit, yer gonna UNDERSTAND it! So-called “Poetic Lyrics” rarely appear in a song intended for a country listenership.Yet though it’s unusual to encounter country songs that merit legitimate praise, such of course do and have existed. What’s interesting is that most all of the songs I’ll mention below, when they came out, were played on country radio stations and appeared on the country music charts—but TODAY, unless rendered by an already established major act and so benefiting from major commercial push (which in some of the cases below, is exactly what transpired back when as well) would much more reasonably be expected to be considered “Americana” rather than “country”. These are songs which aren’t yer usual bombastic Nashville garbage. I defy anyone with any popular music preferences—including heavy metal, Broadway, rap, bluegrass, you-name- it—to not be reached and affected by at least one or more of the following, songs the origins of which are spread out over most of the last century: “Down The Old Road to Home” (songwriter Jimmie Rodgers, 1932), “El Paso” (Marty Robbins, 1959), “California Cotton Fields” (Dallas Frazier and Earl Montgomery, 1971), “The Gambler” (Don Schlitz, 1978), “The Dance” (Tony Arata, 1988), or “Travelin’ Soldier” (Bruce Robison, 1996). These are story-songs, metaphors, socio-political laments, personal reflections, simple soliloquies; but all expertly crafted and with both what passes as honest self-awareness and genuine insights. They’re songs, in other words, that—among more universal accomplishments—should inspire all songwriters to achieve similarly brilliant efforts.

 

Let’s look a few of those mentioned above—going through them all would take too much time and space here, but no matter how familiar one may be with any or all, I urge readers to give a close listen to each once again. Please.

 

- - -

 

The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir often freely reported that “El Paso” was the band’s “most requested song”—a remarkable allowance insofar as while properly emphasizing the strength of the songwriting in “El Paso” it also inadvertently admits to the across-the-board insignificance of the band’s own ground-up creations, particularly insofar as the rabid audience for this particular act might reasonably have been expected to be more open to the “poetic” and less prosaic lyrics in the band’s original material, and to obviously know that material intimately. Further, the Dead’s performances of “El Paso” were nothing to brag about—click around and find one—so, no, it wasn’t the presentation that made it so loved by their audiences. The Dead’s “El Paso” was really just Weir doing a creditable Open Mic Night rendition, loosely accompanied by the rest of the band, and nothing more. What makes it work is, indeed, that it’s simply a brilliantly written song—even stripped of Grady Martin’s stunningly nonpareil lead guitar work on Robbins’ original recording.

 

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso,
I fell in love with a Mexican girl.
Nighttime would find me in Rosa’s cantina;
Music would play and Felina would whirl.

 

Blacker than night were the eyes of Felina;
Wicked and evil while casting a spell.
My love was deep for this Mexican maiden;
I was in love, but in vain I could tell.

 

One night a wild young cowboy came in—
Wild as the West Texas wind.
Dashing and daring, a drink he was sharing
With wicked Felina, the girl that I loved.

 

So in anger I challenged his right for the love of this maiden;
Down went his hand for the gun that he wore.
My challenge was answered in less than a heartbeat;
The handsome young stranger lay dead on the floor.

 

Just for a moment I stood there in silence,
Shocked by the foul evil deed I had done.
Many thoughts raced through my mind as I stood there—
I had but one chance and that was to run.

 

Out through the back door of Rosa’s I ran;
Out where the horses were tied.
I caught a good one, it looked like it could run;
Up on its back and away I did ride—

 

Just as fast as I could from the West Texas town of El Paso,
Out to the badlands of New Mexico.
Back in El Paso my life would be worthless;
Everything’s gone in life; nothing is left.

 

It’s been so long since I’ve seen the young maiden.
My love is stronger than my fear of death.

 

I saddled up and away I did go
Riding alone in the dark.
Maybe tomorrow a bullet may find me;
Tonight nothing’s worse than this pain in my heart.

 

And at last here I am on the hill overlooking El Paso;
I can see Rosa’s Cantina below.
My love is strong and it pushes me onward;
Down off the hill to Felina I go.

 

Off to my right I see five mounted cowboys;
Off to my left ride a dozen or more.
Shouting and shooting, I can’t let them catch me;
I have to make it to Rosa’s back door.

 

Something is dreadfully wrong, for I feel
A deep burning pain in my side.
Though I am trying to stay in the saddle,
I’m getting weary, unable to ride.

 

But my love for Felina is strong and I rise where I’ve fallen;
Though I am weary, I can't stop to rest.
I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle;
I feel the bullet go deep in my chest.

 

From out of nowhere Felina has found me
Kissing my cheek as she kneels by my side.
Cradled by two loving arms that I’ll die for;
One little kiss, then Felina good-bye.
51

 

“El Paso” is so well constructed and so well written that there’s really very little that can be negatively criticized—it must simply be held up and admired in awe for the dazzling work it most certainly is. Especially noteworthy, perhaps, is that the first two-thirds of the song is told in past tense—it’s all backstory, not even truly within direct time-line of now, as we have no idea how long he’s been gone from El Paso when he returns and we’re suddenly plopped down into the very midst of the real-time cataclysmic climax. And the last line is told—presumably and incredibly, because from where else could it arrive—from beyond the grave! Well, the next world, anyway, or the precise moment of death—so he’s gone but ain’t yet buried. (Even the great song, “Green, Grass of Home” [by Curly Putman, 1964], stops short of actually addressing us from after death—the raconteur instead singing to us in solemn acceptance of its impending arrival—and I doubt that song would’ve gotten away with it.) Talk about finality. And is there anyone—any listener—who doesn’t buy it?

 

And, of course, there’s the uncertainty of whether Felina does actually arrive or if she’s the imagined wish fulfillment—the phantasmagoria—of a dying man; in a slant repurchase of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”.

 

Yep, that’s all that need be taken apart here, as we respectfully back a few steps away to look and listen. “El Paso” is incontestably and monumentally brilliant work—work that will most assuredly stand the test of time. On far smaller scale of overall or sustained achievement, obviously, but of commensurate creative magnitude of The Iliad or The Odyssey.

 

- - -

 

Another great piece of writing—and really quite simple; not at all overly ambitious—is “Down the Old Road to Home”, written now almost a century ago:

 

Dear, I’m thinking of you while here all alone;
I’m wishing and longing for you and for home.
I’d give this whole world if I could only say,
“I’m climbing that hill, headed that way.”

 

chorus:

For I’m lonesome and blue for some place to roam;
And I wish it could be down that old road to home.

With a troubled mind and a heart full of pain,
I’ve searched the whole world for fortune and fame.
But I’m longing to be with you once again,
So we could stroll down old memory lane.

 

chorus repeat

 

There’s a little red house on top of a hill,
Not very far from an old syrup mill.
And I’d give this world if I could only say,
“I’m climbing that hill, headed that way.”

 

chorus repeat52

 

Jimmie Rodgers’ songwriting here, unassuming as it is, captures all that needs to be said about being away from home—and, I unhesitatingly assert, it is that unassuming simplicity that brings home the heart of the song. While I often admire Paul Simon’s songwriting, his very similarly inclined “Homeward Bound”, so much more elevated and precise than Rodgers’ effort here, to my ears doesn’t reach the same level of emotional pull this simple song evokes in a listener—and “Homeward Bound” is by no means an insignificant piece of work.

 

The argument has been presented to me that it is Rodgers’ recorded performance that makes the song resonate, not the actual lyrics (which, in the same argument, are intrinsically overly sentimental and ripe). While there certainly are better and worse fits of any specific song to particular performer, I remain unconvinced that a sincerely rendered presentation of “Down the Old Road to Home”—by any capable performer—would strike a sophisticated and intelligent listener as false or lesser work. It’s just that good. (In fact, one thing that Rodgers adds into his recorded performance—yodeling—severely detracts from his own effort. You almost feel sorry for him here, as yodeling was an identifying trademark of his singing, and he surely felt obligated in include some on nearly every record he made—unfortunately, in this case.)53

 

- - -

 

“The Gambler” is an interesting effort which perhaps deserves some examination and comment as well. (We may benefit by distancing from the well-known Kenny Rogers rendition—which creditably weaves through the song in generally journeyman fashion, certainly, before latterly careening off into near pop sing-along caricature [shades of “Me and Bobby McGee”]—to discuss the song itself.)

 

Schlitz caught lightning in a bottle using the game of poker as metaphor for great lessons of life; there was so much material to mine and incorporate. And he came through with a great piece of songwriting:

 

On a warm summer’s evenin’,
On a train bound for nowhere,
I met up with a gambler;
We were both too tired to sleep.
So we took turns a-starin’
Out the window at the darkness.
The boredom overtook us,
And he began to speak.

 

He said, “Son, I’ve made a life
Out of readin’ people's faces;
And knowin’ what the cards were
By the way they held their eyes.
So if you don’t mind me sayin’,
I can see you’re out of aces.
For a taste of your whiskey
I’ll give you some advice”.

 

So I handed him my bottle,
And he drank down my last swallow.
Then he bummed a cigarette
And then he bummed a light.
And the night got deathly quiet;
And his faced lost all expression;
He said, “If you’re gonna play the game, boy
You gotta learn to play it right:

 

“’Cause every gambler knows
That the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away
And knowin’ what to keep.
’Cause every hand’s a winner,
Just like every hand’s a loser;
And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.

 

chorus:

“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em.
Know when to fold ’em.
Know when to walk away
And know when to run.
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table.
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done.”

 

And when he finished speakin’
He turned back toward the window
He crushed out his cigarette
And faded off to sleep.
And somewhere in the darkness,
The Gambler he broke even.
But in his final words
I found an ace that I could keep.

 

chorus repeat54

 

If it was Schlitz himself who originated the multiple chorus repetitions that Rogers then later also employed, it’s unfortunate and it somewhat—and unnecessarily—lessens the effort. A big, happy sing-along after the primary character DIES?!? Was it just to lengthen a great song from 2:45 to 3:30—was that the objective? If so, may I suggest, here again, an instrumental pass or two on that chorus instead?55

 

But, really, for what more could one ask in a popular song? A good story that comes off as almost a fable of The Old West; a pleasant melody; and not just one, but several well-played observations and insights in a complete and well-rounded presentation. This is work to admire.

 

But, really, for what more could one ask in a popular song? A good story that comes off as almost a fable of The Old West; a pleasant melody; and not just one, but several well-played observations and insights in a complete and well-rounded presentation. This is work to admire.

 

I will, off-handedly, offer that to me, even though the character of The Gambler outright dies in the song story—which one might assert should already clearly put the entire composition into higher relief, I’ve always felt yet one additional verse still might advantage the effort, or at least wouldn’t over-burdened the concept: a verse wherein we take yet one more step away from preceding events to paint a larger picture or reflection. Without taking a lot of time to consider what such an additional verse might reveal or advance, I can certainly allow that my nebulous “feeling” here may simply be flat out mistaken, or ill-considered at best—as there’s no question Schlitz has done a bang-up job.

 

51“El Paso”, copyright 1959 by Marty Robbins. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107.

52“Down the Old Road to Home”, copyright 1932 by Jimmie Rodgers. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107.

53Similarly and famously, Western swing band leader Bob Wills apparently felt constantly compelled to insert his wildly intrusive [albeit also ultimately entertaining, from a strictly performance standpoint] “A-ha!”s and other distracting falsetto interruptions into his band’s performances. The tail wags the dog—schtick becomes the identifying showbiz necessity—to the detriment of a serious song. In Will’s case, of course, he was leading a dance band—see the section on dance music earlier. But I’ve often wondered if his interpolations didn’t really just derive, at first anyway, from jealousy; simple fear of being over-shadowed, upstaged, by the vocalist in his band. (It’s MY band, dammit, so I’m gonna make sure everybody’s CONSTANTLY reminded of that!) Who knows....

54“The Gambler”, copyright 1976 by Don Schlitz. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107.

55Yes, I’ve suggested this same musical solution in similar circumstance earlier as well, concerning “Me and Bobby McGee”. And though the reader may think me simplistic in that consistency, let me cite (again) Garrison Keillor’s work: in this case, a simple but profoundly effective production allocation of time in the A Prairie Home Companion radio show. Almost always following his “News from Lake Wobegon” recitations—10-15 minutes generally accepted to be the highlight of that two-hour broadcast—there came a strictly instrumental musical interlude; an opportunity for audience reflection and thought on what had just been transmitted; very, very much as one might encounter in a well-programmed church service following the pastor’s homily or sermon).I absolutely believe this was programmed there for similar effect, from similar showbiz experience and awareness. (After all, what is a good—rather, an effective—church service but good showbiz, eh?) When one has delivered work that allows—if lucky, even requires—reflection and thought, the “tried and true” segue is into a musical, (ie a NON-verbal) denouement. Think about it....

 

 (MORE IN THIS SECTION COMING SOON)

 

Sincerity Is Not Depth!

 

My life is short. I can’t listen to banality.   — V. S. Naipaul (b. 1932)

 

 (MORE IN THIS SECTION COMING SOON)

 

Bob Dylan: BAD FUCKING WRITER

(this section last edited 2/20)

 

If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding the truth; the bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.   — Carl Sagan (1934–1996)

 

Anecdote #1: Dave Van Ronk, arguably the paterfamilias of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s, reportedly used to enjoy relating the following story: One late night, Bob Dylan—then crashing at Van Ronk’s residence—came in holding tight to some papers, lyrics for a new song he’d just written, eager to learn Van Ronk’s reactions. The convivial Van Ronk, apparently always an available and honest critic, handed over the guitar and Dylan played and sang his new composition. Van Rank immediately launched into a short battery of questions—obviously not at all impressed. “Bob, it doesn’t make any sense. WHAT ‘wind’? What are you talking about? What’s the point? What ‘answers’? ‘answers are blowing in the wind’?!?” Van Ronk apparently liked to tell the story as a self-deprecation, enjoying the laugh at his own expense—as “Blowin’ in the Wind” was of course successfully marketed to an adolescent generation, brought in a whole lot of money, and attained cultural landmark status. (The key adjective in the preceding sentence is the word “adolescent”, which we’ll get back to addressing here later.) Yet were Van Ronk sitting across from me right now, I’d step forward, take hold of and shake him by his shoulders, look him in the eye, and say, “But Dave! Dave! You were right! It IS poorly-written! It IS crap! Trust your gut, dammit—and let go of your insecure self-doubt just because it became a pop hit!”....56 

 

- - -

 

Anecdote #2: Many years ago I came across mention of a Dylan song of which I’d never heard, and which had apparently been a big hit when covered by another performer. I immediately thought, “Wow! Here’s a chance to take a look at a piece of his work without being won over or affected by the melody or performance—a song that was successful, not secondary, and so apparently spoke to a lot of people. Wonderful! What a great opportunity.” I googled the lyrics—the web was already able to deliver really useful info like that—and I studied them....

 

Let’s see here.... Well those two lines do (kinda) refer back to this (half-baked) thought over there, yes. Okay. And that entire short verse over there does make intrinsic sense, no question about that. On the other hand even though that verse does hold together, it’s got nothing to do with any of the rest of the song. Okay. The title, the kinda “point” line, is repeated again over there—that’s neither good nor bad, but worth noting that he’s at least trying to create a whole here.... And on and on—I spent serious time with it, back and forth trying to make connections and discern objectives, to find this or that resonant locution or insight, to deduce the over-arching intent and direction. It was an interesting exercise.

 

A year and a half later, wanting to see if maybe I’d missed something the first time around, I took that same song AGAIN, and went through it all another time, line by line, verse by verse. A completely fresh investigation. After all, maybe I missed something important, a pivotal connection, allusion or piece of sagacity. (I mean he’s “Bob Dylan Voice of My Generation”, right? Or so I was basically—and still with innocent deference—thinking at the time. All the encomiums and accolades can’t be misplaced, can they?) And I came to the same conclusion about the song as I had 18 months earlier: incompetent blather, pedestrian crap. I still haven’t heard the song—and melody and performance can certainly make a difference in one’s enjoyment. But what we’re discussing is the writing.

 

No, I’m not gonna name the song here, because the specific piece isn’t important. But try the experiment yourself. Find a song of his you’ve never heard, web search and print out the lyrics, and take a long, careful, thoughtful and dispassionate look at it.

 

When you take away tune, performance (his vox and the backing band’s) and look at the writing, the pervasive disjointedness, clumsiness, the posturing faux folk (“the loser now will be later to win” is probably my all-time favorite—YEE-OOW! Ya can’t even quote that line from “The Times They Are A-Changin’” without guffawing), and the flailing-away emptiness appears throughout. And you’ll perhaps conclude as I did that there ain’t enough there to warrant attention—life is too short to voluntarily indulge insufferable posturing and inchoate pointlessness.

 

- - -

 

Anecdote #3: In my research for this essay I actually discovered a previously unknown, long lost verse to one of Dylan’s most celebrated songs, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”!

 

Here’s the first verse of that well-known song:

 

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
And where have you been my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains,
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways,
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests,
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans,
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard,

And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard,

It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall!57

 

And here’s the previously completely unknown verse I found:

 

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw twelve drummers drummin’ and eleven pipers pipin’,
I watched ten lords a-leapin’ and nine ladies dancin’,
There were eight maids a-milkin’ and seven swans a-swimmin’,
And six geese a-layin’ with five golden rings,
I saw four calling birds and three chirping French hens,
I saw two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree,
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard,
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall!

 

Yes, this is a joke. (So is Bob’s pleasant yet pretentiously impotent song. And my contribution to it is on the same level of “poetic brilliance” as what he brought in....)

 

- - -

 

If we wanted to add an Anecdote #4, we could use the first part of the earlier section entitled A Personal Remembrance—wherein I note I’d always innocently intuited, even while still but a teenager, that there was just something missing; something vapid and vacuous in his work.

 

- - -

 

I think we can agree that one would never put—well, it would be misguided to put—into the same sentence, the words “Bob Dylan” and “articulate”. His songs have proven a special godsend for academics and bored intellectuals eager to spend time finding, analyzing and interpreting the purportedly deep meanings and hidden associations in his rambling efforts—there’s a good-sized cottage industry of obsessive fans poring over every song, utterance and appearance by their hero—their hero who deftly (and I’d say with very good reason) evades actually discussing his work. The upshot of that evasion, of course, is that while it frees him from having to explain his poorly written songs it concurrently feeds the hungry cottage industry of obsessives that takes on the burden—and ultimately, due to celebrity culture and the particular popular fascination with an ostensibly “unwilling” celebrity, puts more money into his bank accounts.

 

 

 

(Re Rap: To pick on poor Bob Dylan yet again, his tediously blathering “Subterranean Homesick Blues”—another of the many, many songs sometimes claimed to be “the first rap song”—would be a fair counter-example to good rap writing: some, but very little, information, in a preposterously prolix presentation.)

 

56Even though this incident doesn’t appear in the book, I highly recommend Van Ronk’s autobiography, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, co-written with Elijah Wald—a well-written, light-hearted but incisive inside look at the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene. And while we’re mentioning co-author Wald’s work, two other welcome and well-written books by him that are similarly meritorious are How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll (a somewhat overly provocative title, surely, but a thoroughly excellent and enlightening history of American popular song) and Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. All intelligent, informative, worthwhile. Get them, read them.

57“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, copyright 1962 by Bob Dylan. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107.

 

(MORE IN THIS SECTION COMING SOON)

 

Licensees, Adherents and Acolytes / Simulacrums, Spin-Offs and Copies

 

Imitation is the sincerest form of show business.   — Roseanne Barr (b. 1952)

 (MORE IN THIS SECTION COMING SOON)

 

Sit Down an’ Open a Beer—Here’s What We Been A-Lookin’ Fer…

 

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.   — Aristotle (384–322 BCE)

 

My driftin’ memory goes back to the spring of ’43,
When I was just a child in Mama’s arms.
My daddy plowed the ground and prayed that someday we would leave
This run-down, mortgaged Oklahoma farm.
Then one night I heard my daddy sayin’ to my momma
That he finally saved enough for us to go.
California was his dream, a paradise, for he had seen
Pictures in magazines that told him so.

 

chorus:

California cotton fields!
Where labor camps were full of weary men with broken dreams.
California cotton fields:
As close to wealth as Daddy ever came.

 

Almost everything we had was sold or left behind,
From Daddy’s plow to the fruit that Mama canned.
Some folks came to say farewell or see what all we had to sell;
Some just came to shake my daddy’s hand.
The Model A was loaded down and California bound;
A change of luck was just four days away!
But the only change that I remember seeing for my daddy
Was when his dark hair turned to silver grey.

 

chorus repeat58

 

58“California Cotton Fields”, copyright 1969 by Dallas Frazier and Earl Montgomery. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107.

 

 

It was Christmas Eve babe,
In the drunk tank.
An old man said to me, “Won’t see another one.”
And then he sang a song:
“The Rare Old Mountain Dew”.
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you.

 

Got on a lucky one;
Came in eighteen to one.
I’ve got a feeling
This year’s for me and you.
So happy Christmas.
I love you baby.
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true.

 

They’ve got cars big as bars;
They’ve got rivers of gold;
But the wind goes right through you;
It’s no place for the old.
When you first took my hand
On a cold Christmas Eve,
You promised me
Broadway was waiting for me.

 

—You were handsome.
—You were pretty,
Queen of New York City.
When the band finished playing
They howled out for more.
Sinatra was swinging,
All the drunks they were singing.
We kissed on a corner
Then danced through the night.

 

chorus:

The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing “Galway Bay”;
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas Day.

 

—You’re a bum!
—You’re a punk!
—You’re an old slut on junk,
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed.
—You scumbag, you maggot,
You cheap lousy faggot!
Happy Christmas your arse—
I pray God it’s our last.

 

chorus repeat

 

—I could have been someone.
—Well so could anyone!
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you.
—I kept them with me, babe;
I put them with my own.
Can’t make it all alone;
I’ve built my dreams around you.

 

chorus repeat59

 

59“Fairytale of New York”, copyright 1985 by Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107.

 

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Steve Sondheim Jealously—Desperately!—Wishes He Were Right… But He’s Wrong

 

The song is ended, but the melody lingers on....   — Irving Berlin (1888–1989)

 

(MORE IN THIS SECTION COMING SOON)

 


PART FIVE: A New American Songwriting

 

Rules Were Made to be Broken—BUT…

 

Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art.   — Claude Debussy (1862–1918)

One moment of incompetence can be fatal.   — Frank Herbert (1920–1986)

 

(MORE IN THIS SECTION COMING SOON)