The Poetics of American Song Lyrics

The Poetics of American Song Lyrics

Edited by Charlotte Pence
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 312
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt12f4rt
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  • Book Info
    The Poetics of American Song Lyrics
    Book Description:

    The Poetics of American Song Lyrics is the first collection of academic essays that regards songs as literature and that identifies intersections between the literary histories of poems and songs. The essays by well-known poets and scholars including Pulitzer Prize winner Claudia Emerson, Peter Guralnick, Adam Bradley, David Kirby, Kevin Young, and many others, locate points of synthesis and separation so as to better understand both genres and their crafts. The essayists share a desire to write on lyrics in a way that moves beyond sociological, historical, and autobiographical approaches and explicates songs in relation to poetics. Unique to this volume, the essays focus not on a single genre but on folk, rap, hip hop, country, rock, indie, soul, and blues.The first section of the book provides a variety of perspectives on the poetic history and techniques within songs and poems, and the second section focuses on a few prominent American songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Michael Stipe. Through conversational yet in-depth analyses of songs, the essays discuss sonnet forms, dramatic monologues, Modernism, ballads, blues poems, confessionalism, Language poetry, Keatsian odes, unreliable narrators, personas, poetic sequences, rhythm, rhyme, transcription methods, the writing process, and more. While the strategies of explication differ from essay to essay, the nexus of each piece is an unveiling of the poetic history and poetic techniques within songs.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-157-1
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. xi-xx)

    Not many editors can pinpoint the exact moment a specific project began, but I can say for certain that it was September 12, 2003, the day Johnny Cash died. I was living in Nashville, teaching composition and poetry writing at Belmont University where 27 percent of the entering freshmen¹ are part of the Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business. The university sits on a hill that hovers at the end of Music Row, those legendary two streets that Nashville record labels and studios call home. When students miss class at Belmont, the reason often involves the words “touring...

  4. Part One. Poetic History and Techniques within Poems and Songs
    • THE DAY JOHNNY CASH DIED
      (pp. 3-5)
      LAMAR ALEXANDER

      Johnny Cash died on Friday in Nashville.

      The man whose voice sounded like a big freight train coming is gone.

      During the 1980’s I once asked him, “Johnny, how many nights a year do you perform on the road?”

      “Oh, about 300,” he said.

      “Why do you still do that?” I asked.

      He looked back at me, puzzled. “That’s what I do,” he said.

      During this past weekend, radio stations have been playing the songs of the man who performed 300 times a year for all of us—the man in black. Stores all over Nashville and all over the...

    • REDUCED TO RHYME: ON CONTEMPORARY DOGGEREL
      (pp. 6-25)
      DAVID CAPLAN

      To hear contemporary rhyme, we must listen carefully and widely. “Every reformation in English poetry has involved shifts in attitudes toward rhyming, in the practices of it, and in the rules for its proper conduct,” Anne Ferry notes.³ Just as rhyming changes across literary eras, it works differently within the same historical period. One kind of writing may rhyme to challenge another or to resist a perceived encroachment. Explaining why she wroteMuse & Drudge, Harryette Mullen observed “that rhyme is too powerful a tool to be abandoned to advertising, greeting cards, or even platinum rap recordings. I hope to reclaim...

    • THE SONNET WITHIN THE SONG: COUNTRY LYRICS AND THE SHAKESPEAREAN SONNET STRUCTURE
      (pp. 26-34)
      CHARLOTTE PENCE

      I was flipping through a poetry anthology and came upon this partial definition for a sonnet: “a form every poet will try.” While the definition may not help a beginning poet understand how to write a sonnet, it felt like an inside joke from lexicographer to reader—similar to Samuel Johnson’s hidden gems inA Dictionary of the English Language, such as his definition ofMonsieur: “a term of reproach for a Frenchman.”¹ What I enjoy about the sonnet being defined as a form every poet will try is how it is correct even while it errs. A sonnet is,...

    • RAP POETRY 101
      (pp. 35-42)
      ADAM BRADLEY

      A book of rhymes is where MCs write lyrics. It is the basic tool of the rapper’s craft. Nas raps about “writin in my book of rhymes, all the words pass the margin.” Mos Def boasts about sketching “lyrics so visual / they rent my rhyme books at your nearest home video.” They both know what Rakim knew before them, that the book of rhymes is where rap becomes poetry.

      Every rap song is a poem waiting to be performed. Written or freestyled, rap has a poetic structure that can be reproduced, a deliberate form an MC creates for each...

    • IT DON’T MEAN A THING: THE BLUES MASK OF MODERNISM
      (pp. 43-74)
      KEVIN YOUNG

      The blues contain multitudes. Among the last mysteries, blues music resists not only sentimentality but also easy summary: just when you say the blues are about one thing—lost love, say—here comes a song about death, or about work, about canned heat or loose women, hard men or harder times, to challenge your definitions. Urban and rural, tragic and comic, modern as African America and primal as America, the blues are as innovative in structure as they are in mood—they resurrect old feelings even as they describe them in new ways. They are the definitive statement of that...

    • GANGSTA RAP’S HEROIC SUBSTRATA: A SURVEY OF THE EVIDENCE
      (pp. 75-89)
      JOHN PAUL HAMPSTEAD

      Gangsta rap emerged from hip-hop as a self-consciously controversial, provocative subgenre in southern California in the late 1980s with the work of Ice-T and N.W.A, before finding a foothold in New York City with hard-hitting rappers Run-DMC and Kool G Rap. While gangsta rap’s aggressive, percussive delivery and focus on social problems had been inspired by “conscious” acts like Public Enemy and Rakim, it was the noirish intrigue of the inner-city criminal underworld gangsta rap depicted that guaranteed both commercial success and moral panic.¹ From its very beginning, gangsta rap was publicly criticized for its materialism, violence, and misogyny by...

    • AT THE CROSSROADS: THE INTERSECTION OF POETRY AND THE BLUES
      (pp. 90-105)
      KEITH FLYNN

      “The power of music that poetry lacks is the ability to persuade without argument,” William Matthews has written, but the best poems hide their argument, as well as the seams in their form. The style is the mysterious bond between the audience and the poem’s mechanics, slipping in and out of the reader, inviting him or her back to read it again and again, coaxing the imagination out like energy in a spring. We all have a sound blueprint within us, a voice we would like to inhabit. I would love to be a being of pure sound. To make...

    • COUNTRY MUSIC LYRICS: IS THERE POETRY IN THOSE TWANGY RHYMES?
      (pp. 106-121)
      JILL JONES

      “Highbrow” and “lowbrow” are terms literary critics and social scientists have been using since the phrenology movement of the nineteenth century. For decades sociologists have used country music as a register of the lowbrow taste associated with the lower socioeconomic class in American society. Their studies in the 1990s put classical music on the top of the scale and country music at the bottom.¹ Most often country music was associated with rural, unsophisticated, less well-educated audiences, mainly from the South or Midwest. But in the last couple of decades, a gigantic industry has evolved that has brought country music to...

    • SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES BETWEEN SONG LYRICS AND POETRY
      (pp. 122-133)
      PAT PATTISON

      Since the invention of the printing press, poetry, once spoken and performed, has been delivered mainly to the eye. Lyrics are delivered mainly to the ear. Many consequences follow from this simple fact.

      One simple consequence is that the poet can depend on the reader being able to stop and go back, even to look up words while reading the poem. A lyricist can’t.

      Since readers can pause and continue reading at their own pace, the poet can use quite complex language: less familiar words, ambiguity, multiple meanings, intricate metaphor. The density of poetic language is a poet’s way of...

    • WORDS AND MUSIC: THREE STORIES
      (pp. 134-142)
      WYN COOPER

      When I was a college sophomore in the late 1970s, I took poetry workshops from a noted narrative poet. The first week of class, he gave us a handout of poems and song lyrics, without identifying the authors. Not whole poems or entire lyrics, just snippets. We were asked to differentiate the poems from the lyrics. Not all song lyrics rhyme, and some of the poems he gave us did, so it wasn’t as easy as it might sound. It was his way of showing us that poetry is superior to song lyrics, and we would have long discussions about...

  5. Part Two. Analysis of Twentieth-Century Songwriters
    • THE TRIUMPH OF ICARUS: SAM COOKE AND THE CREATIVE SPIRIT
      (pp. 145-157)
      PETER GURALNICK

      Sam Cooke was a singer’s singer (“Sam was the one and only,” said Ray Charles. “Nobodysounded like him—I mean, nobody even came close”).¹ He was the preeminent gospel singer of his day (“Sam brought sex into the church,” said Bobby Womack). His enormous crossover success with “You Send Me,” his first pop single under his own name, led to an outpouring of criticism and an army of quartet singers who followed in his wake, creating in the process a template for what came to be called “soul music.”

      Sam Cooke wrote his own songs, owned his own publishing...

    • THE JOE BLOW VERSION
      (pp. 158-168)
      DAVID KIRBY

      I’m having a beer, or more than one, with Newt Collier in the Humming-bird Soundstage and Tap Room on Cherry Street in Macon when a big man comes in. A really big man, as a matter of fact, maybe six feet six, 280 pounds. Newt, whose first gig was with the Pinetoppers, which was Otis Redding’s original backing band, says, “That’s what Otis looked like when he walked into a room.” This makes sense, because, when his father contracted TB, Otis dropped out of high school and took up well-digging, which, in the day, probably involved a lot more picks...

    • A NOBEL FOR DYLAN?
      (pp. 169-179)
      GORDON BALL

      For decades I have admired the work of Bob Dylan, whom I saw at Newport 1965; my memoir ’66 Framesrelates first contact with his music, and he has a small cameo in my chronicle of years on a farm with Allen Ginsberg and others.

      In August 1996 I first wrote the Nobel Committee, nominating Dylan for its literature prize. The idea to do so originated not with me but with two Dylan aficionados in Norway, journalist Reidar IndrebØ and attorney Gunnar Lunde, who had recently written Ginsberg about a Nobel for Dylan. Ginsberg’s office then asked if I would...

    • LYRIC IMPRESSION, MUSCLE MEMORY, EMILY, AND THE JACK OF HEARTS
      (pp. 180-185)
      CLAUDIA EMERSON

      Some years after I began teaching and writing with great intensity, I volunteered for the further immersion of being a literacy tutor in Pittsylvania County, Virginia—a large rural county in Southside with an unusually high rate of illiteracy. I was assigned to work with Cecil, a man in his mid-fifties who worked in a local lumber mill. Cecil’s goal was to be able to read the stock-car results in the paper. He had never learned the alphabet. So we began.

      After the first session, he asked the most basic and, for me, profound question. We’d been talking about recognizing...

    • DON KHAN AND TRUCK-DRIVING WIVES: DYLAN’S FLUCTUATING LYRICS
      (pp. 186-192)
      BEN YAGODA

      I was at Madison Square Garden in 1974 to see Bob Dylan in his first concert tour in five years. With the opening notes of the opening song, “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” it was clear (to quote another Dylan song) that “revolution was in the air.” This was most definitely not the “Most Likely” familiar from the albumBlonde on Blonde, on which it had originally appeared. Dylan and his accompanists, The Band, changed the tempo, the arrangement, even the melody. On the record, singing the opening lines—“You say you love me /...

    • THOUGHTS ON “ME AND BOBBY MCGEE” AND THE ORAL AND LITERARY TRADITIONS
      (pp. 193-198)
      DAVID DANIEL

      The story is well-known. Between gigs flying a helicopter in the Gulf of Mexico for an oil company, Rhodes Scholar–turned-struggling-song-writer/pilot Kris Kristofferson gets a call from Fred Foster, his boss at Combine Music, who tells him to write a song called “Me and Bobby McKee.” “And here’s the hook,” he said: “Bobby McKee is a she.” Bristling a little at being told what to do—and at what seemed like a horrible idea to him—Kristofferson hid from Foster and did nothing about it for months. But the idea stuck. Kristofferson was on the verge—or just over the...

    • THE SOUP THAT COULD CHANGE THE WORLD
      (pp. 199-202)
      BETH ANN FENNELLY

      Caroline Herring earned her MA in Southern Studies at Ole Miss, where I teach. She graduated before I got here but I’ve been listening to her new album lately, so I asked one of my colleagues what she’d been like as a student. “Memorable,” he answered, and described how, on the first day of class, he had the students go around in a circle and say why they were interested in Southern Studies. Herring replied, “I’m looking for honest Christians.” Apparently, she found some: Her thesis was on the 1920s’ Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. All...

    • LAUGHING IN TUNE: R.E.M. AND THE POST-CONFESSIONAL LYRIC
      (pp. 203-211)
      JEFFREY ROESSNER

      In the early 1980s, R.E.M. arrived as the antithesis of almost every trend in corporate rock music. In the era of ubiquitous hit albums such as Prince’s 1999, Bruce Springsteen’sBorn in the U.S.A., and Duran Duran’sRio, top-forty rock was hyper-produced, strident, and awash in synthesizers; in marked contrast, R.E.M.’s style was murky, understated, and laden with chiming guitars. Rock was big city, multinational, stadium-sized; R.E.M. was local, quirky, Southern, and the band represented a burgeoning underground scene created and sustained by college radio. Significantly, mainstream rock also continued to trade on the clichés of confessional lyrics, in which...

    • SWEETNESS FOLLOWS: MICHAEL STIPE, JOHN KEATS, AND THE CONSOLATIONS OF TIME
      (pp. 212-224)
      ERIC REIMER

      Even after three decades of writing and performing for R.E.M., Michael Stipe’s status as one of rock’s most accomplished and poetic lyricists remains obscured for some by the perception of an opaque composing style governed by free association, playful but frivolous word salads, and semantic enigmas. This reputation was largely forged through his work on the band’s very first album—1983’sMurmur—but has been reinforced by any number of individual songs since that time and, at least very early in his career, was further accentuated by his famously indistinct vocal delivery. All of this heightened the effect produced by...

    • SWEEPING UP THE JOKERS: LEONARD COHEN’S “THE STRANGER SONG”
      (pp. 225-231)
      BRIAN HOWE

      Many a songwriter has been branded “poetic,” but the Canadian Leonard Cohen has a particularly strong claim to poetry. At the Jewish day school Herzliah, he became an acolyte of Irving Layton, to whom Cohen, much later in his life, would dedicate the song “Go No More A-Roving,” a setting of a Byron ballad that poignantly capped an itinerant life: “So we’ll go no more a-roving / So late into the night.” (On the same late-career album,Dear Heather, he also set to music a villanelle by Frank Scott.) He plunged headlong into the literary scene at McGill University, where...

    • FACING THE MUSIC: THE POETICS OF BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
      (pp. 232-242)
      ROBERT P. McPARLAND

      The New Jersey Turnpike can feel like a long way—like a long poem. There is more space between the exits than on many other state roads. The landscape seems moonlike in places. Traveling a long road anywhere in the United States, you might want to put on a Springsteen song. Springsteen is good company: His catalog is full of America, rich with poetic life, enduring like the tough sinews of America itself. On the N.J. Turnpike, there is Exit 8 for Freehold and there is Route 33 out to the shore. The terrain of Springsteen’s younger days is not...

    • COMING INTO YOUR TOWN: OKKERVIL RIVER’S “BLACK”
      (pp. 243-252)
      STEPHEN M. DEUSNER

      A kidnapped child who grows into a traumatized woman. A devious father who escapes punishment for his crimes. A hysterical, heartsick lover coercing a recovery. These are the strikingly dramatic, yet deceptively mutable elements Will Sheff, singer and songwriter for the Austin, Texas, indie-rock band Okkervil River, uses to create “Black,” a harrowing song from the group’s 2005 albumBlack Sheep Boy. Even with such clearly drawn characters, a dark mystery remains at the core of the song, as the relationships are all determined by an unspeakable event that happened long ago, a guarded secret known to everyone but the...

    • STILL HOLDING AT THE SEAMS: MAGNOLIA ELECTRIC CO.’S JOSEPHINE AND THE CONTEMPORARY POETIC SEQUENCE
      (pp. 253-260)
      JESSE GRAVES

      Contemporary poetry and independent/roots music increasingly resemble twins separated at birth, not exactly identical, but nurtured by the same native sources. Both genres have been set adrift from their traditional methods and outlets of distribution, and both have found greater independence on the web and through new media, but have also found a more diffuse marketplace. Both have small but dedicated followings that cross generational and cultural boundaries, and both exist on the fringes of larger economic entities that more or less neglect their existences. The deepest and most consequential bond, however, exists in the style and subject matter that...

    • NOT TO OPPOSE EVIL: JOHNNY CASH’S BAD LUCK WIND
      (pp. 261-266)
      TONY TOST

      “There is less trouble in the world,” Edward Dahlberg assures us, “when we are reared by streams, animals, trees, as legend says.” In “A Boy Named Sue,” the Shel Silverstein composition Cash performed for the first time in front of the citizens of San Quentin prison in 1969, the narrator’s displeasure is that he has grown up as a kind of comic legend. Because his father deeded him nothing but a woman’s name, he has faced a life of mockery and abuse. When Sue discovers his father later in the song and prepares to slay him in revenge, the father...

  6. GLOSSARY
    (pp. 267-274)
  7. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. 275-275)
  8. CONTRIBUTORS
    (pp. 276-282)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 283-288)