Brendan Hogan: Last week we talked about how blues musicians are oftentimes overlooked in the discussion about songs of social consciousness, especially during the era of the folk revival. It got me thinking that the same kind of dismissive attitude also applies to their contributions to poetic songwriting. April is National Poetry Month so I thought this weekend's feature would be a good time to look at that.
Blues songs are particularly interesting because they are strict in some ways. Harmonically and melodically they adhere to pretty formulaic structures. The lyrics often had to be cryptic because what some singers expressed was not acceptable to large segments of society, or perhaps they are cryptic to us as a function of past regional dialects. Either way, these limitations lead to increased creativity for many blues artists of the early 20th century.
Robert Johnson's music offers great examples. He couldn't sing about Beatrice breaking his heart and leaving him sexually frustrated in "Phonograph Blues", but he could say how much he loves her phonograph if only she didn't break his winding chain. The double meanings weren't restricted to sex, either. They could also apply to love, especially the unrequited kind, as in Johnson's "Love in Vain":
"When the train left the station there were two lights on behind / The red light was my baby and the blue light was my mind."
Sometimes not saying something is more potent than saying it.
Another master of poetic lyrical imagery in blues is Furry Lewis. Take his song "Falling Down Blues". With essentially the backing of one chord he tells a woman how much he loves her, wants her, and needs her without ever saying it plainly. He ultimately winds up frustrated, leading to the best and most cryptic lines in the song:
"She caught the rumbling; I caught the falling down / I didn't see her; I didn't turn around"
In other words, she caught the train; I drank until I couldn't stand. I didn't see her leave; I didn't even say goodbye.
Mike Mellor: Oh, now we're getting into some shit.
I was worried that this topic was going to go "Dylan, Prine, Waits, oh my!" Of course, the work of those guys is so important to me that it infiltrates my dreams, but everybody knows their value. I really appreciate the footing you've placed down for this conversation.
The "folk blues"—to me—has always been resonant the same way Walt Whitman is resonant, or Emily Dickinson or Mark Twain, for that matter. None of those three have much in common with each other besides the fact that they were American when America was deciding how to be American, and they shaped it. The same can be said about the sharecropping grandchildren of slaves in the agrarian South. The same way American literature was created out of an education in the past but also a steadfast insistence on an entirely different modern aesthetic, so went American music. Robert Johnson and Furry Lewis were both pioneers of THE American music aesthetic, the same way Whitman, Dickinson and Twain were pioneers of the American literary aesthetic.
And the tradition continues, of course, even if we keep mis-identifying every aesthetic shift as SOMETHING ENTIRELY NEW. Virtually nothing in the age of broadcasting + archives can be entirely new, but we persist as humans in the timeless tradition of making new language to make new sense of slightly new variations of old situations.
If this sounds hyperbolic, it's because I've been obsessed with Kendrick Lamar for the last four months, and I feel like his poetry has changed my life, or at least validates things I have experienced. The way I feel about Whitman, Twain, Johnson and Prine is how I feel about Lamar. With his latest album he has distilled his personal experience as an American into a gorgeous elegy for the forsaken children of Los Angeles. By doing that so successfully, so artistically by tying songs with different moods together with imagery and meter, he has created a space in ghetto life to start discussing the BIG picture of internal + external bullshit that plagues us.
We've had rap acts for a long time damn the man and castigate black folks for being unenlightened, but through poetry Lamar has given us the humanism, context, understanding, compassion and empathy to properly assess the situation and adjust. I'm not saying it is going to bring about a change, but it should, and that enlightened potential is artistic gold.
There are a number of songs on Good Kid, m.A.A.d City that are worthy of this ostentatious introduction, but only "Good Kid" is radio-friendly without edits. It's a song about looking for a way out (of the ghetto) when all you see are inter-locking traps that keep you in (gang violence, police brutality, drugs). The kid suffers a string of indignities but always comes back to the motif of future respect through perseverance.
Brendan: See, this is why I disagree with Wynton Marsalis when he rails against hip hop or anything with a "four to the floor" beat as being of little artistic or musical value. Hip hop and the blues share more in common than they have differences (and perhaps that's a topic for another discussion), but where blues music and its lyrical content is duty-bound to harmonic structure, hip hop is not. That allows for a free form kind of word play that, if nothing else, relies on internal rhyme to act as an anchor or pivot point tying each line to the next. When a writer can spin off like that it creates a tension that is very musical, constantly leading the ear forward (like a diminished chord in a Ray Charles song, for the music geeks).
That Kendrick Lamar song, and the way he delivers the lyrics, reminds me of the Townes Van Zandt song "She Came and She Touched Me". They both share an intensity brought on by the delivery of the lyrics as much as the lyrical content itself, and yet neither relies on delivery alone. Both are extremely well-written songs.
Mike: You're on to something with "leading the ear forward", literally. Next time you're on the T look for one of the kids listening to rap on headphones. Their necks jut out as if the music is dragging them by the ear. And if you look closely their shoulders rock with the rhythm, but the head movements are synchronized to the anchors and pivots of the rapper.
Many Townes songs have that same propulsion, but this is the best example ("For the Sake of the Song" comes to mind, too). It's the juxtaposition of the looping rhythm and the fast stream of imagery, sentences and thoughts spilled across and abruptly chopped between lines. The difference I suppose is that Townes is writing figuratively (the song is about heroin, I think) and Kendrick is writing Compton realism, albeit laced with figures of speech.
Speaking of Los Angeles and junk, I have another song that leads me by the ear but in an entirely different way. The lyrics of Warren Zevon's "Carmelita" are minimalist as far as narratives go. The scant details of the protagonist trying to score some dope open up a plethora of inferences and assumptions as you try to fill in the blank spaces in your imagination. Each verse is set up almost like a joke, with the first three lines building the tension for the release of the punch line.
Brendan: While "Carmelita" is a great song, I ask you to defend its lyrical content as an example of poetic verse, as opposed to a straight narrative, sir.
Mike: Does Carmelita not qualify as free verse?
If it were strictly a narrative it would go something like, "The radio station playing mariachi music isn't coming in clearly on my radio. I'm sitting here in a dark room in Echo Park dreaming of a woman in Ensenada. The glowing tubes in the radio are visible in the dark room. I'm playing with my gun because I need a fix and I'm broke. I pawned my typewriter to buy a fix from my dealer. I'm going to meet him on Alvarado Street by the chicken restaurant." Instead the song has:
* Metaphor ("playing solitaire / with my pearl-handled deck"),
* Connotation (double-negative in "The county won't give me no more methadone"),
* Shrewd word-play ("sinking down" in line with "strung out"), and
* Tones throughout that reinforce the protagonist's sense of isolation.
But I'm not the creative writing major or the songwriter in this conversation. Am I missing something?
Brendan: I hear what you're saying. In fact, in putting the show together I found that there is a sliding scale that separates a song like "She Came and She Touched Me" from "Carmelita" and that there are many songs that fit somewhere in the middle. I guess the test that I run in my head is whether a song lyric would stand on its own without the support of music, but that's not a very fair test. A song lyric has certain guidelines to adhere to that poetry doesn't, including harmonic and melodic structure, and it also has to live with the implication that it will tell a story in somewhat short order. To measure what makes a song verse poetic is probably an impossible task, and you make a good argument about "Carmelita".
In that vein, the title track to the new Steve Earle record, "The Low Highway" is a song that I think combines great story telling with poetic verse. It's nothing new, but Steve Earle has mastered the tradition of telling a story using plain, accessible language augmented by abstract image to punctuate his point.
Mike: Oh, that reverb. I know we're supposed to be talking about lyrics, but that echo on his voice, the way it rings when his voice opens up...it's great.
Anyway, I first heard this song on WUMB a few weeks ago. It struck me as an update to but the antithesis of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land". There is no doubt the masses of this country are better off in 2013 than they were in 1940 (and if you disagree with this you're either a poor WASP or a goddamned idiot), but their American trajectory was upward and our American trajectory is downward. The two songs reflect it.
The part that gets me most:
"Traveling out on the low highway / By the yellow moon and the light of day / From the snow white crown of the mountain tall / To the valley down where the shadows fall
Met a man with a rifle in his hand / Been away to battle in a distant land / Taught him to hate, taught him to kill / Now he's out on the road with a hole to fill"
We just marked the 10-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Few people are writing songs like this now, and yet Earle was writing them about folks in Afghanistan (on all sides of the conflict) before we even got tangled up in the Iraq mess again. And he does it so eloquently, somewhere between the eloquence of Whitman and the gutter of Bukowski, with just as much humanism as either of them, for the hyper-political time of the 21st Century. He's a gift.
Brendan: That's exactly what I was thinking; it's an updated or reconfigured "This Land is Your Land". He even uses the juxtaposition of concrete and abstract imagery in the same way Guthrie did.
"Wheels turn around on the asphalt singing / 'Every sin is a prophecy'.
I heard an old man grumble, a young girl cry / Saw a brick wall crumble and the white dove fly / A cry for justice and a call for peace / The voice of reason and the roar of the beast.
And every mile is a prayer I prayed / As I rolled down the low highway."
The same gift Steve Earle has can also be found in, and traced through, all forms of American music, from Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl songs, to Jack Kerouac's "Blues and Haikus", to Bo Diddley's "tombstone hand and graveyard mind", to Kendrick Lamar's m.A.A.d city. I don't know if it's distinctly American, but it's in everything that is distinctly American. So when people say Americans have no culture, or no music of substance, it frustrates me. Not only do we have culture and substance, but it continues to permeate every crack and corner of our popular song and folk music as it has for over a century.
Mike: And if we have no culture, why is the rest of the world obsessed with our nothing?
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