Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Lyric Game

There’s a song I play a lot by the band the Decemberists. It’s called “July, July!” and my love from it stems from two lines that fall right in the middle of the song:
“And I say your uncle was a crooked French Canadian
And he was gutshot running gin.”
Something about those lines makes me laugh every time I hear them. I like the songs I like for a lot of different reasons – the poppy beginning of “She’s Lost Control,” the bass line of “Superstitious,” Peggy Lee’s smoky voice on “Why Don’t You Do Right?”— but there are some songs I like almost solely for literary reasons – because a line in them just pops out and gives me the pure pleasure of a line of poetry.
Strangely enough there’s often nothing overly poetic about these lines. Rather, I love them because they seem to get something right. Novelists have pages and pages to set up and describe a character, but songwriters have to get the essence in a few lines. With the Decemberists' lines I get the feeling of a story described in minature, or compressed into its essence. I feel the same way about these lines from a Billy Bragg song:
“I know people whose idea of fun
Is throwing stones in the river in the afternoon sun.”
I can see the stones falling in the river and I know exactly the kind of people he is trying to describe. And then there are the lines from “St. Louis Blues:”
’Tweren’t for powder and for store-bought hair
The man I love wouldn’t have gone nowhere.”
I think I would trade Moby-Dick and Huck Finn in their entirety to for that line, especially “store-bought hair.”
With other songs it's more often a feeling of something timeless being expressed in a scant few syllables. In "Old Man River," there's a line:
"I'm tired of living
And I'm scared of dying."
Rivers of ink have been spilled, and yet no one has ever described depression better. And someday, when I learn to embroider, I will stitch on a pillow the line from Hole's "Doll Parts:"
"I want to be the girl with the most cake."
My newest favorite is from Robert Johnson's "Kind-hearted Woman Blues:"
“She’s a kind-hearted woman.
She studies evil all the day.”

I'd love to use this as an intro quote for a novel but I've never written anything yet that fits it. This is a highly personal list but I'd love to hear what lines set your mind going when you hear them.

1 comment:

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Those are some great lyrics. Love them and your comments on them.
As for using them in a novel, you had better check with ASCAP. Sometimes you can use but with a hefty royalty that publishers don't want to pay for.