So far, the various posts that have been appearing in this space have talked about various aspects of writing and suggestions on how to improve one’s work. After a while, though, you want to start looking at examples of this kind of thing, articles and excerpts from folks who can do it right. Now, there are lots of opinions on what makes for good writing. When people talk about good writing, at least in forums and workshops, the focus is usually on poets and novelists, short story writers and essayists. That’s all well and good, but I want to talk about a set of writers that doesn’t always get literary glory: songwriters.
Emotionally, songwriters may have an easier time in evoking a feeling, since they have musical backing to help stir those pesky emotions. Narratively, not so much. Songwriters don’t get the luxury of setting a number of scenes or outlining characters with exposition and dialogue; they get a limited number of stanzas with a limited number of lines, and those lines have to fit within a specific rhythm and tell the story in a fixed space.
Granted, there’s no rule on how long a song has to be, but for various reasons, you’re not going to be using lyrics for much longer than a handful of minutes. Even bands like Iron Maiden, who will cheerfully clock in songs at 13 minutes long or more, use long instrumental interludes to reach those lengths. Thus, songwriters who really know their stuff start the process with some limitations already in place, and yet, the best of them tell stories that resonate, create characters that can live in your mind just as easily as those in whatever story or novel you’ve just read. While there are many, many songwriters practicing their craft, I’m thinking of a somewhat smaller group with this post, people whose songs almost always have a point beyond the usual top 40 subjects. Membership in this group includes folks like Lucinda Williams, John Prine (whose “Angel from Montgomery” is one of the most beautiful songs I know of, even when he sings it), Neil Young and James McMurtry.
McMurtry, who might be the least well-known of the folks I mentioned, comes by his gifts naturally: his mother was an English professor, and his dad is Larry McMurtry, the fellow who wrote Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show, among many others. James has been performing Texas-inflected blues-rock for quite some time, but it’s his lyrics that I want to focus on here, because his songs are almost always witty, succinct and effective at drawing pictures of the people whose lives you pass by on the interstate, the people who live in the open ranges and back roads of America. I could go into greater detail, but instead, you can read for yourself. The following are the lyrics for “Song for a Deck Hand’s Daughter,” one of McMurtry’s many narrative songs:
He’d always whistle Jolie Blonde
On his way out the back door on a Friday night
So many times he just stayed gone
Rarely did he try to treat your mama right
Shut off the tractor with the field half mowed
Set the brake and headed down the road
Came home for Christmas
Never said where he’d been
With no presents for the children
Only stories for the men
Still your mama called him daddy
She never told him no
Said she couldn’t help but love him
You wondered how it could be so
He’d work two weeks out on a river barge
She worked in the factory never missed a day
He’d spend his week off holding up the bar
Never took him long to drink a deck hand’s pay
Wind off the river
Cut the lines on his face
And left him dreaming of some other place
Maybe Memphis town or Baton Rouge
When it’s cold in Cape Girardeau
There’s nothing much to do
And if his suitcase wasn’t standing in the hall
He might not be coming home at all
And all the sides of him you never knew before
Would be drifting down the river to another back door
When I do a word count of those lyrics, I end up with 203 words (I didn’t count the repetitions of the term “(chorus)” and only counted the actual chorus once, so there’s some leeway there). Hell, my sixth-grader has to write more than that for his assignments in school. Yet in those 200+ words, McMurtry outlines three separate characters—the narrator and both of her parents—as well as the nature of her parents’ relationship, basic character traits and how the narrator feels about her father, and by implication, her mother. There are no wasted words there; everything McMurtry says in the song is there for a reason.
For example, look at the lines of the chorus. The first three lines outline a sadly common marital situation (especially in country songs), but the fourth line, “You wondered how it could be so,” stands out and changes the entire tone of the chorus. First off, it’s in second person, which is striking, because it forces the reader/listener to be the direct recipient of the narrative, instead of passively taking part. More importantly, it forces the reader/listener to not only reflect on the father, but on the mother as well; it casts doubt simultaneously on the mother’s affection and the father’s worthiness of it. Finally, it tells you something about the daughter, about what kind of emotional life she grew up having and the way she thought of her parents. That’s a ton of information to get in four short lines, and that’s one example of what I mean by good writing: evocative, effective and efficient.
Good writing is good writing, no matter where it comes from, and if you’re receptive to it, there’s something to be learned from most any example. Songwriting at its best can illuminate characters and situations with incisiveness and clarity, and learning how to do that in your own work is valuable. As always, however, your mileage may vary.