Songwriter U: The Poetry of Spoken Language, Part II


Conversational language works perfectly in song because it’s direct; it connects with the listener with the sharp immediacy of real conversation. Dylan understood this when starting a song by lashing out anger, as in “Positively 4th Street”: “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend …”

“That’s another way to write a song,” Dylan said about this line. “Just talking to somebody who that ain’t there. That’s the best way. That’s the truest way.”

Many times during our interview, Dylan emphasized the use of real language and 
symbols, such as the “yellow railroad” in “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” That was not a contrived, meaningless image to him, as he said. It was something he saw. And in that usage of the random symbology of our own lives, he found again a kind of poetry than in songs takes on a power of real poignancy. It touches the heart as much as the brain. 

Paul Simon explained that the use of conversational language to start a song is effective, because, “you have to wait for the audience … their concentration is not even there. You have to be a good host to people’s attention span. They’re not going to come in there and work hard right away. Too many things are coming: the music is coming, they rhythm is coming, all kinds of information that the brain is sorting out.”

The solution, he explained, is to start simple before gradually deepening the water: “Give them easy words and easy thoughts, and let it move along, and let the mind get into the groove of it … At a certain point, when the brain is loping along easily, then you come up with the first thought or image that’s different, because it’s entertaining at that point. Otherwise people haven’t settled in yet.”

As an example, Simon offered his infectiously exultant song from Graceland, “You Can Call Me Al”:  “It starts off easily with sort of a joke with very easy words, ‘Why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard?” But by the time you get to the third verse and people have been into the song long enough, you can throw abstract images.”

By creating a foundation first of simple, understandable words, Simon explained, a song can take on more “because there’s been a structure, and those abstract images will come down and fall into one of the slots that the mind has already made up about the structure of the song.”

This understanding is crucial to the development of a lyric. Word choice, word usage and a fine equilibrium of simple and complex expression is all connected directly to the dynamic of singing a story to fellow humans. The mission is not to dazzle with words, but to create a world which feels genuine. Which is not to deny the power of song to express deep, abstract ideas which require poetic and metaphorical language, but it needs to be tempered with spoken language. Hence, slang, idioms, and even clichés, when underscored by music, take on a new life in a song.

The idiom “simple twist of fate” has echoed through our language for decades, yet takes on a new life when matched with music. Now the old phrase is seen anew, removed from regular life and placed in this realm. Something as mundane as “with a little help from my friends” becomes warmly poignant when sung. Other simple phrases, such as “blowing in the wind,” or “let it be” are potent passages on which entire songs can be founded.

Even slang and bad grammar is ideal for songs. Though Mick Jagger’s an educated man, he knew well that “ain’t got no satisfaction” sings better than correct grammar. Slang is immediately understood, and is perhaps closer to genuine human experience than poetry.

David Byrne also understood this when writing the words to “Houses In Motion” by Talking Heads. Rather than adjust this line for grammatical perfection, he intentionally maintains bad grammar for the unhinged, human effect it creates:

“Right about then is where she give up
She has closed her eyes, she has give up hope …”


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