Gimme Some Truth: The Use Of Truth In Songwriting

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Woody Guthrie would scour the newspapers every day for true stories on which to base new songs. He knew there was nothing more powerful than the truth. Asked about the source of the blues, Willie Dixon said, “The blues are the facts of life. The truth.” Merle Haggard wove “Mama Tried” and other classics directly from his own life. John Lennon said “Help” was an authentic cry for help. Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” was spun entirely from the facts of her Kentucky upbringing. Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” emerged from the unwelcome advice she kept receiving. “Still Crazy After All These Years,” Paul Simon said, was a true statement about himself.

In all these songs and countless others, songwriters inject songs with truth, an element that is designed to give the songs solidity and resonance. “It’s good to start with something true,” Paul Simon said. “Still Crazy,“ he added, was a title that emerged while he was taking a shower. And he didn’t love it, because it was too accurate. But like any savvy songwriter, he used it. It’s that truth, he said, that instills a gravity to a song that cannot be faked. “It’s very helpful to start with something true,” he said. “If you start with something false, you’re always covering your tracks.”

Bob Dylan confirmed his belief in the use of truth in songs when I asked him about the “yellow railroad” image in “Absolutely Sweet Marie”: “Now, look,” he said, “that’s as complete as it can be … It’s all true … These aren’t contrived images.” Exactly. They are the opposite of contrivances. Dylan’s use of truth impacted popular... Sign In to Keep Reading

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