The Lyric as Literature

April 4, 2016



My weekly writers’ workshop is structured to provide time for writing lessons as well the opportunity for participating writers to read and receive constructive criticism on whatever they are working on.

The lesson portion is partitioned for poetry, screenwriting and fiction. The members of the workshop each take a turn teaching a lesson to the group.

I took a couple of fiction lessons but this year I combined my love of literature with my love of music and undertook a series of lessons on the lyrics in a variety of musical genres. I want to show the literary aspects of popular song, as well as the social relevance of the lyric.

An early avenue to writing for me was music. A song with a good musical hook, rhythm and words that spoke to me got me thinking about the written word.

Song lyrics compare well to story structure. Consider Cab Calloway’s Minnie the Moocher, the story of a young woman living a hip urban lifestyle with her “bloke named Smokey”. And there’s Chuck Berry’s many mini-social dramas such as School Days, and Maybelline. A master of musical story telling is Ray Davies with songs like Big Black Smoke and the exceptional Waterloo Sunset. You just need to look at Pete Townshend’s early career teenage psychodramas such as Pictures of Lily and I’m a Boy to understand the story is as essential as the music.

I may upset readers but The Beatles were so-so as literary songwriters, as were The Rolling Stones and Brian Wilson.  Bob Dylan is considered a storyteller. But even his most literary-like compositions such as All Along the Watchtower, which contains dialogue, characterization, exposition, is almost incomprehensible for a plot or cohesive storyline. These are great songwriters but not always great storytellers. David Bowie’s Space Oddity is a complete story, with a character, a beginning, middle and end. The same can be said of Paul Weller of The Jam with his song Down in the Tube Station at Midnight, or Athlete’s Wires.

Often songs present a slice of life, a moment frozen in time, like Mose Alison’s Parchman Farm, or Louis Armstrong’s rendition of the traditional St. James Infirmary.

My first lesson will look at the blues and the blues lyrics of specific artists whose brilliance transcends their moment in time. Robert Johnson, a blues artist whose impact was greater in the future, than in his lifetime. Johnson, in an opinion shared by others, is the progenitor of modern electric blues and rock music. The secular and social significance of his life and lyrics will be examined. Another artist, Bessie Smith, was quite famous in her lifetime. She was considered the foremost blues singer of the era. Smith had a sweet side and a bawdy side and her lyrics shows the human and earthiness of the blues.

I hope that separating the sound form the word of the blues will offer a new perspective on the art of storytelling in a rhyming, musical context.

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