SONG LYRICS AS LITERATURE
Posted by Gerri George
Lyrics are flash stories; they are poems, they contain elements of memoir; in some cases, they address personal themes, at times universal. Lyrics reflect the individual journey or cultural observations of the songwriter. They are a serious art form.
But are they literature?
Although there are many definitions of literature, my bookshelf copy of Webster’s New World Dictionary offers the following:
Literature: all writings of prose or verse, especially those of an imaginative or critical character…. excellence of form, great emotional effect….writings of a particular time, country, region….all the compositions for a specific musical instrument, voice, or ensemble.
Lyric: a lyric poem; the words of a song, as distinguished from the music.
The definition of a lyric is simple; applying the definition of literature to song lyrics is not. The above is a broad definition of literature, vis-à-vis lyrics, to be sure, but I’d rather fold lyrics into the literary family, than exclude them.
Like literature in general, song lyrics often reflect the times in which they were written: While the song Yankee Doodle Dandy seems nothing more than a cheerful patriotic ditty of words and music, in reality, it was hugely political. The website Archiving Early America explains that the song, first a nursery rhyme ridiculing England’s Oliver Cromwell as ”Nankee Doodle,” evolved into “Yankee Doodle” (indicated a trifling fellow), and “Dandy” (affected manners and dress). The British made fun of the American colonial motley crew, the early version who wore furs and buckskins, but over time, the motleys got their revenge, singing Yankee Doodle Dandy when the British surrendered. Great emotional effect? Writings of a particular time, country, or region? All the compositions for a specific musical instrument, voice, or ensemble? The lyrics can certainly be classified as literature. Who knew?
No one would argue the significance of Woody Guthrie’s lyrics. The insight helps to make his work shine as literature.
From Ed Cray’s book, Ramblin Man: Woody Guthrie on songwriting, “I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. He considered himself The Dustiest of the Dust Bowlers. His lyrics in the classic “This Land Is Your Land,” are writings of a particular time, country and region, and offer great emotional effect. He labeled his guitar “This Machine Kills Fascists” which acknowledges the premise and passion of his lyrics. No slouch himself, of course, Bob Dylan, in Chronicles, Volume One, said Woody Guthrie’s songs “…had the infinite sweep of humanity in them.”
Sherrie A. Inness in her book Disco Divas: Women and Popular Culture in the 1970’s, says sexual openness was still going strong, but lyrics were becoming more self-reflective, a manifestation of the times. Singer-songwriters were trained in the style in which lyrics mattered. Carole King, “So Far Away,” and Carly Simon dealt with honesty, past lovers, and separations, themes not uncommon to literature.
Robert Hazard’s lyrics in “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” were timely and historic. The song continues its huge popularity with many uses worldwide, and has been covered by at least 30 artists.
Popular Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter Carsie Blanton, who tours nationwide, creates lyrics that are catchy, yet smart; they’re accessible (just ask her avid fans). Metaphors, similes. Her lyrics can also be fun – not unlike Paul Simon’s approach to “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.”
In her Baby Can Dance, (see video filmed in New Orleans) her lyrics reflect a view that it doesn’t matter how you dress or look, as long as you can dance; talent wins out. The title track on Idiot Heart, Carsie’s new CD: He was a dark-eyed man and I knew right away, It was gonna take a turn for the worst, So I said “Hey, heart, if you’re gonna go crazy Give a little warning first” Idiot heart I shoulda left you at home You gimme nothin but hard love bad luck When you gonna leave me alone? Click here: Baby Can Dance
In the title track from Buoy, her previous CD, she offers a tour-de-force of similes:
he showed up
brighter than a buoy
slicker than a submarine
bonnie as a berry
cuter than a kidney bean
she was struck
dumber than a detour
quicker than a pistol shot
revving like a motor
hotter than a parking lot
Carsie’s songs are transferrable to Broadway, TV, and film, but they are, first, literature. They have universal appeal. Imaginative prose? Yes. Great emotional effect? Yes. Jonathan Takiff, PhillyNews.Com, compares her to Madeleine Peyroux, Norah Jones or Nellie McKay. Reviewing Carsie’s new CD, Idiot Heart, Jess Righthand, in The Washington Post, calls it “classic songwriting at its best.” Her songs are available at www.carsieblanton.com.
Today, it’s singer-songwriters Adele, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Beyonce, and Carsie Blanton, to name a few, as well as Bono, Usher, the Wood Brothers, and Bruno Mars. The songs, sometimes just a few minutes long, 3 verses, and 3 chorus’ (one chorus, repeated three times), are structured with the rules of music. Story emotions flow. You be the judge of the literary nature of such compositions.
Then again, you might simply think of a song as uplifting, entertaining, finger-snapping, and toe-tapping.
(Carsie Blanton lyrics used with her permission.)
Gerri George, WRR@Large Editor, stories, which often portray the human side of outsiders, have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Literal Latte, Penn Review Literary Magazine, The Bucks County Writer, Quiddity International Literary Journal, and elsewhere. “A Rose by Any Other Name” was a Pushcart Prize nominee. “Night,” read by a professional actor before a literature-loving audience in London, Soho, also appears on the Liars’ League website, under the Sex and the City theme. She received a Barbara Deming Memorial Fund writing grant for women artists. Her article, “The Benefits of Chocolate,” (Yum!) appeared on Futurehealth.org.