Storytelling songwriters

Freshman year in college, my wonderful parents generously equipped me with a terrific Macintosh SE/30, which I used daily for five years. It was very speedy, which gave it a long life, but when it was new, it had an unexpected drawback – it played games too fast. I had a copy of Tetris, which I played a lot, and the machine’s speed meant the Tetris played in my room was faster than any Tetris on campus. Not by a lot, but by enough that when I played on other machines, I felt like I was experiencing what would now be called “bullet time,” which made rotating and placing the pieces quite easy and, conversely, when other players would challenge me on my home turf, my Mac would always leave them gasping, as they were not accustomed to its frantic pace. For that little slice of time, in that small venue, I was the best Tetris player around, and it was a fun feeling, albeit not a marketable skill.

Another skill I am fond of is the speed with which I can recognize music. I cannot play music, or compose it, but I sure can place a tune from the smallest sliver of it. (Coincidentally, this too is another unmarketable skill – lucky me!) Still, it is fun to have at least a hint of a musical talent, as I have always loved music, and music has always meant a great deal to me. When I stumbled across the current WordPress Writing Challenge (a thing I didn’t know existed until recently), my first thought was to dismiss it, as I found the suggestion of writing about three images a little contrived for my tastes. I returned to the idea later when I realized that the three images might not have to be pictures per se but instead any trio of evocative images. Rather than rummage through family pictures, or assign meanings to other peoples’ pictures, I thought I would assemble three images conjured by other writers, in this case lyricists. I love music and its ability to lodge deep in one’s consciousness. I love how songs trigger associations unbidden when they come on. And I love the craft of how some writers pack so much thought, meaning, and significance into the modest package of a song. I do not aspire to write songs, but I do admire those who do it with a deft touch. I have written about music elsewhere on this blog (here and here), so let me try to pick some new things, although I am sticking with musicians who I have had the chance to see in person.

• • • • • • •

DavidWilcox-e1355750872305I just included David Wilcox in my last post, so I debated about including him here. I decided I could not not include him. I know of very few writers who so consistently craft an interesting story into their music. My first thought was Farthest Shore, about what is ephemeral and what is permanent – a lovely song, but not quite the sort of imagery I am trying to corral for this collection. So I turn instead to Eye of the Hurricane, which you can watch and hear him perform here. In various interviews, Wilcox has explained this song is about addiction, but like so much good art, it is malleable enough to take on a range of complexions, reflecting you back at you. Wilcox’s best hook in the song comes in these words:

Hope is gone and she confessed,
“When you lay your dream to rest,
you can get what’s second best
but it’s hard to get enough.”

It’s not easy to put big, deep thoughts into cheerful little ditties, and any writer would be hard pressed to distill so much wisdom and loss into one brief thought as that.

• • • • • • •

shindellMoving on, I turn next to Richard Shindell. Similar to Wilcox in age and style, he has a darker, more brooding sensibility, and can paint a very bleak portrait of the world when he chooses to do so. I learned about Shindell from the 1998 record Cry, Cry, Cry, released by a band of the same name made up of Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky, and Richard Shindell. If all you did was buy that album for its cover of James Keelaghan‘s Cold Missouri Waters, then you would find that money well spent. For today’s collection, I am sticking with singers performing their own compositions, and my first thought was A Summer Wind, A Cotton Dress, which is a powerful song full of dangerous ambiguity and resolve and resignation. Yet for today’s assemblage, I am going to lean instead on Shindell’s Wisteria, which you can watch here. If you would like cleaner audio, you can listen to it here, via’s Spotify embedding. This song relies on negative space, as a lot of key things are left unsaid. Pining for the past in the absence of another is a common trope, but the contraction at the end of the opening word Let’s suggest he is melancholy for a shared past, which then makes the listener ask a series of pointed questions about what trajectory he and his partner find themselves on. By imbueing the spaces of the house with so much meaning that is unknown and unfelt by the current occupants, he reminds us of how we ourselves are unknowingly surrounded by the past. In this song the payload is carried in chorus, and runs as follows:

The vine of my memory
Is blooming around those eaves
But it’s true it’s a chore to tame wisteria.

I am certain when Shindell mentions taming the wisteria, he is talking about maintaining appearances beyond yardwork, and all the heartache that implies. While it is a sterile thing to talk about the efficiency of writing, I think Shindell manages to condense a tremendous amount of emotional energy into this song in very few words, like a painter suggesting forests with the lightest smidge of his brush.

• • • • • • •

Susan WernerMy original plan for the third writer was turn to Patty Griffin’s Long Ride Home. I remembered that I had already written about this song back in 2007, and I have not seen her perform, so alas Patty does not get the nod. (But go listen to that song anyway – you will be glad you did.) I next considered Paul Simon, as he is a master craftsman. I touched once on his song Hearts and Bones here, and I had his song Darling Lorraine in mind, but so many people have discussed his songwriting talents that seemed like a copout, so I turn instead to a singer who has never known his fame, but will always stand out in my mind as one of the purest talents I have ever seen – Susan Werner. I cannot even count how many times I have seen Susan play, and I once even had a cup of coffee with her, trying the whole time not to appear too giddy. While I don’t know what her career goals have been, I suspect she would have enjoyed more popular acclaim than she has found, and it is a shame to me she has not. Her voice is ethereal, she has a lovely sense of humor and stage presence, she is very attractive, and a wonderful musician. Why she is not more widely known is a mystery to me, but the advantage is that she still plays small enough venues to connect with the room in  a way larger spaces do not permit. Thinking about her music, even though many of her songs have an irreverent side to them, I have chosen a tougher one called Barbed Wire Boys (which you can watch here). It’s an homage to the Midwestern farmers among whom she grew up. I had admired it when I listened to it on her album, but it was in a dingy room in King of Prussia where I heard her sing it in person, and the song took on a whole new dimension. It touches on topics that could easily be schmaltzy or trite, and handles them with care and gentleness, conveying respect and affection for the old-fashioned way in which these men lived their lives. It is a wonderful song, with a snippet here for flavor:

Tough as the busted thumbnails on the weathered hands,
They worked the gold plate off their wedding bands.
And they never complained, no they never made noise,
And they never left home, these barbed wire boys.

• • • • • • •

As an aside, a whole post on music and I have not mentioned either Cat Stevens or the Cowboy Junkies – that may be a record for me. There is no larger point to this collection – simply my fondness for these three musicians and my admiration for their craft. So much awful music spills out into the world over the radio and Youtube and Pandora these days, and clearly a lot of it sells well. What a pleasure then to know there are writers like Wilcox, Shindell, and Werner who can take lessons and episodes from the world around them, rinse them of the unessentials, and clarify them down to the truth underneath. Sometimes when I am confronting writer’s block, it is the long, long gulf between my words and this sort of purity that slows me down, but that sure doesn’t stop me from enjoying it when I find it.


6 thoughts on “Storytelling songwriters

  1. A-ha – you mention Cat Stevens. You might like my post tomorrow (Nov 23): “Remember This? Cat Stevens’ album Tea for the Tillerman (or being miles from nowhere and back again).” I am a blogger who, like you, also has an interest in memoir. My website – – devotes to my posts and my memoir “Maybe Boomer.” The Cat Stevens post is timed for Nov 23 as that is the album’s release anniversary date. I hope you read it and enjoy.

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