Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Getting the details right

Mary Sullivan

When casting about for inspiration for my writing, when I feel the need to step it up a notch, I turn to a number of sources, often to songs I like. I have a tendency to gild the lily, to describe too much, which can then leach the description of poignancy.

I admire songwriters who can tell a great story in three or four minutes. In fact, it boggles my mind that so many do it so well.

A Canadian singer/songwriter whose work I adore, Lynn Miles, has won innumerable awards including a Juno, the Canadian version of a Grammy. I'm blown away by her songwriting skills. One song in particular always gets to me, Black Flowers, about a woman who lives beside a coal mine and lost her husband in that mine. The only thing that will grow in her yard is black flowers. The song is so effective because Ms. Miles uses just the right details, sparingly. They are few, but telling. Here's the chorus:

And the undertaker
is a busy man
He got a clean blue shirt
He got soft pink hands
Got a paved driveway
and a brand new car
Black flowers 
grow in my yard.

The simple brilliance of this stuns me. In so few lines, the message is clear. This story isn't about the undertaker, but in describing him, the songwriter has told us everything that the woman's husband wasn't and everything that the woman herself desires. That terrible juxtaposition between what he owns—a paved driveway and a brand new car—and what she owns—black flowers growing in tainted soil—is heartbreaking. These few lines also say so much about the town. The undertaker is a busy man. There is a great divide between the haves and have nots, and the undertaker, because of the nature of his job in this particular town, makes a profit from the tragedy of others just by doing a job that is essential. On a side note, Ms. Myles grounds us firmly in the woman's point of view with the small bits of poor grammar. He got.

I found it on youtube if you are interested in listening:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9ilZeGVr3M

I'm going to quote another song with the risk of making it sound as though all this woman writes about is darkness, but that isn't so. She also writes upbeat songs, too.

What I like about the following verse is the seeming lack of connection between the lines, but again so much is said in its simplicity.

8 hour drive on a two lane blacktop
Nobody loves me today
3 in the morning, hard scrabble country
Went and pushed everybody away

Look at the parallel between the driver's physical and emotional isolation. This woman's loneliness and regret throb in this one spare verse. Wonderful.

Are there any songs you feel tell a compelling and complete story, and that affect you deeply every time you hear them?

2 comments:

Mary Preston said...

Most of the music I listen is without lyrics. I liked the examples given.

StacieH4 said...

I think Bruce Springsteen creates a powerful image and tells a compelling story with many of his songs.

I admire those artists who tell interesting stories and maintain their distinctive voice so well, no matter the subject matter. Miranda Lambert is someone who does that very well, especially with Mama's Broken Heart.

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