It’s those things, of course. But it’s also the words — how the words work together to project heartache, longing, regret and that elusive thing called truth.
The wonderful Ken Burns series, “Country Music,” now playing on PBS, has me thinking about lyrics, the songwriters who compose them and the artists who sing them home. One episode recalled the definition of country music offered in the 1950s by songwriter Harlan Howard: “Three chords and the truth.”
Country music has long suffered more disdainful analysis. Play a country song backwards, they say, and a guy gets his job back, then his house back, his wife returns to him and even his dog trots home. But country’s best lyrics, like the best of pop and more recent musical genres, offer sound lessons in the broader craft of writing.
Sweet dreams of you
Things I know can’t come true
Why can’t I forget the past
Start loving someone new
Instead of having sweet dreams about you
For thinking that my love could hold you
I’m crazy for trying
And crazy for crying
And I’m crazy for loving you
For the past several years, I’ve been using song lyrics and other bits of familiar language in college classes on writing for the media. I don’t recall where I found the idea, but I’m sure many teachers of writing have used a similar approach to inspire students by showing them the magic and beauty, the rhythm, pace and measured pauses of “writing” in their daily lives.
Each semester, I ask students to bring to class a favorite song lyric, a favorite poem, a treasured verse of faith — a line or two that has stayed with them, not only because of what it said, but because of how it said it. The response hasn’t always been enthusiastic, which bums me out because I take it as failure on my part (I could write a country song about it if I knew three chords), but usually a few students take the assignment to heart.
My music playlist bears no resemblance to theirs, of course. I share lyrics from Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy Buffet, from Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, from Pete Seeger and the Beatles:
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends
I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved them all
And they have come back to me with lines from Green Day and OK Go and rappers, bands and singers I know nothing of, but whom I can appreciate for how their words resonate. One introduced me to country’s Kacey Musgraves …
Just hoe your own row and raise your own babies
Smoke your own smoke and grow your own daisies
Mend your own fences and own your own crazy
Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy
“Own your own crazy.” I love it.
I recite a bit of Mary Oliver, Maya Angelou, Robert Frost and John McCrae …
In Flanders fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
… and from one of the most searing expressions of grief and loss I’ve ever read, W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” …
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My moon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
This moment is a hallelujah. This moment
is your permission slip to finally open that love
letter you’ve been hiding from yourself,
the one you wrote when you were little
when you still danced like a sparkler at dusk.
I assure students at my public university that I am not being evangelical except in service to language when I urge them to look for metaphor and simile and story in the Talmud, the Koran, the Bible: Psalm 91 and the Beatitudes from Matthew. Read out loud and savor Saint Paul’s epiphany on love in I Corinthians 13:
And now abideth faith, hope, love: these three, but the greatest of these is love.
They have, in turn, shared some of their favorite verses, including one who offered a profound lesson in economy, from John 11:35:
With his documentary, Ken Burns reminds us that the heart of good country music is storytelling. Honest storytelling. “Life,” Loretta Lynn says in one episode, explaining her songwriting. “I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it.” You see it in the words, the stories, of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, the songwriting couple who gave us “Love Hurts” and several of the Everly Brothers’ most memorable tunes, including “All I Have To Do Is Dream”…
I can make you mine, taste your lips of wine
Anytime night or day
Only trouble is, gee whiz
I’m dreamin’ my life away.