Oh, Say, Can You See the Imagery by the Dawn’s Early Light?

It’s Independence Day here in the good ol’ USofA, and some of us are taking a holiday. Seems like a good time to rerun a a post from a couple years ago.

Oh, Say, Can You See the Imagery by the Dawn’s Early Light?

Before it was a song, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was a poem (“The Defence of Fort McHenry”), although apparently Francis Scott Key did have a melody in mind when he wrote it (“The Anacreonic Song,” a popular drinking song with bawdy lyrics that had its origins in England). This combination of words and music, dear ones, became our national anthem—yes, the song we play at every baseball game from high school to the Majors. (Later I’ll be doing a post on irony.)

There are many fine poets practicing the trade … as songwriters. I’ve long admired the imagery and emotion conveyed by the words of a good song. Take this, for example, from “That’s That” by Hugh Prestwood:

There’s a weeping willow on the outskirts of town

Where I took a pocket knife and carved out our names

In the morning I am gonna cut that tree down

Gonna build a fire and watch us go up in flames …

Pretty dramatic imagery, no? (And it even rhymes.)

Songwriting, of course, lives and dies on a good rhyme and a catchy hook. But I’m not really talking about that—the felicitous combination of sound and words. Absolutely, it’s magic when it happens: the lyrics and the music come together in some sort of wonderful alchemy and the resulting whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You sit at a concert, maybe outdoors on a warm summer evening, and listen as the crowd sings along with the band; those words have had an impact.

Still, that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking, say, about the final perfect lines of Jackson’ Browne’s “The Late Show” in which the narrator waits in a car at the curb:

It’s like you’re standing in the window

Of a house nobody lives in

And I’m sitting in a car across the way

(Let’s just say) it’s an early model Chevrolet

(Let’s just say) it’s a warm and windy day

You go and pack your sorrow

The trash man comes tomorrow

Leave it at the curb and we’ll just roll away …

Honestly, it slays me every time, this image of dumping one’s sorrows into the trash and driving away from them. (Read the rest of the lyrics here; they’re quite nice.)

I’m talking about Roseanne Cash (“The Wheel”), or Lyle Lovett (“Simple Song”), or Shawn Colvin (“Monopoly”). Joni Mitchell. Ray Lamontagne. Rickie Lee Jones. Arresting lines like Karla Bonoff’s “I loved you … with the wild heart of the young” that heartbreakingly evokes what first love felt like or the exhaustion and loneliness conveyed in Adam Duritz’s “feeling that it’s all a lot of oysters but no pearls” are what I’m talking about. Anyone who’s had trouble sleeping will see himself in Kristian Bush’s “Insomniac” (“I’ve tried counting sheep and I’ve talked to the shepherd”); I find it almost painful to listen to Peter Gabriel’s “Digging in the Dirt”—I’ve been in that car and I’ve had that argument and it’s almost more than I can bear.

But that’s what good writing is all about, right? A turn of phrase, an emotional reaction. Some of the best wordsmithing around, in my opinion, is in song lyrics. No doubt you’ve got some favorites of your own.

UPDATE: There’s more on this subject here.

Tweet: I’ve long admired the imagery and emotion conveyed by the words of a good song.
Tweet: Some of the best wordsmithing around, in my opinion, is in song lyrics.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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2 Comments

  1. Sarah Thomas says:

    I agree! There’s a local group from around here that does a bluegrass song–Blue Mountain–about a man who left his love and regrets it. A line goes, “No glass of whiskey can tell me you miss me.” LOVE that. Good lyrics are poetry set to music.

  2. […] I read this short profile of singer-songwriter Paul Anka in Vanity Fair earlier this year, and thought it was nice writing and a great illustration of how words can move people—even the words to a song. […]

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  1. […] I read this short profile of singer-songwriter Paul Anka in Vanity Fair earlier this year, and thought it was nice writing and a great illustration of how words can move people—even the words to a song. […]