Lyrics: Songs to Remember and Tips From the Masters
Lyrics: What Makes a Good Lyric?
“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
Lyrics are often the most memorable part of a song besides the melody. But what is it that makes up a good lyric? I have a tendency to pick out lyrics that tell some kind of story, which appeals to my fascination with narratives in songs. I can also appreciate a lyric that is just plain bizarre, too. If I’m in the right mood, a lyric doesn’t even need to make any sense. There’s something about the nonsense of a good off-the-wall lyric that lightens the mood.
The star-maker says, “It ain’t so bad.”
The dream makers gonna’ make you mad.
The spaceman says, “Everybody look down.
It’s all in your mind.”
[VIDEO] The Killers-Spaceman (Live On Letterman)
The song has a vibrant rhythm, with its lyrics oscillating between life-affirming philosophical tidbits and an awe at the often confusing world around us. Although the chorus may seem on the surface to embrace the idea of not making sense, there’s more to be discovered in the introspective verses.
Songs and the Stories They Tell
Some of the greatest storytellers, in my opinion are the Folk Music singers of the early part of the 20th century. For example, Woody Guthrie creates an amalgamation of not only a storytelling lyric, but an actual story with his song “Tom Joad.” As you may know, Tom Joad was a character in John Steinbeck’s, “The Grapes of Wrath,” and this song pretty well encapsulates the general plot of the book, and the sentiment of the hard-working folks caught up in the plight of the Dust Bowl era. The lyrics are phenomenal, kind of a musical Cliff Notes, if you will.
Here’s a few lines:
Tom Joad got out of the old McAlester Pen;
There, he got his parole.
After four long years on a man killing charge,
Tom Joad come a-walkin’ down the road, poor boy,
Tom Joad come a-walkin’ down the road.
Read the rest of the lyrics to Tom Joad and search the entire catalog of Guthrie’s lyrics on Woody Guthrie’s official website. In related news, Woody Guthrie’s lost novel, “House of Earth,” has just been published by Infinitum Nihil/Harper Collins with some help from actor Johnny Depp.
Finding Your Melody
I’m a big fan of musical documentaries. About a week ago, I was watching the recent documentary on Bob Marley’s life. One part of the film referenced how Bob Marley would come up with the lyrics for his songs. It says he would often play his guitar simply humming along to the chords he was playing, letting the melody come out, and the words would come later.
I really liked this approach to songwriting. So, I tried this myself the other day, and it works. It seems like such a simple approach, but sometimes the best approach to getting lyrics out is the best. It takes a lot of the pressure off of the writing aspect of creating lyrics, allowing you to focus on how the music and the words will fit together. Try this yourself and see how it works.
[VIDEO] Bob Marley Documentary Official TV ad, Available on Netflix and DVD
If you’re looking for more insight into lyrics, American Songwriter does a feature each week called, “Lyric of the Week,” which is always worth your time. This week they took a look at artist John Prine, a folk hero to many, and a lyrical force behind many great songs.
Lyrics and Poetry: Are they Related?
Well, kind of. It’s been said that the first poems were sung and passed along in the oral tradition, which seems to indicate that these two forms of creativity are related. Much like early Folk and Blues music, poetry finds itself in close proximity to these oral traditions. There’s also, Lyric Poetry, which seems to suggest yet another association. Certainly, the two are related, but in practice, they operate in different ways.
If I was attempting to illustrate how a poet might aspire to songwriting, or how a songwriter might aspire to poetry, I’d offer a few bits of advice. In the typical, “verse/chorus/verse,” method of songwriting, poetry shares a similarity in that poems often have stanzas that resemble a verse in a song.
Also, a refrain in a poem shares many similarities with a chorus. So, to the poet or songwriter attempting to break new ground in either realm, this is a good starting point.
Although, many poets will reluctantly admit that they just don’t have it in them to write lyrics, the only way to find out if you’ve got it or not is to try.
What are your favorite lyrics or lyric writing techniques? Share a couple with us in the comments section below.