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 songwriting forever. Lennon said he would never have considered using his own truth in a song until Dylan led him to write “Help,” a direct and authentic call for help. He went on to compose countless songs about himself, such as “The Ballad of John and Yoko” that detail the real facts of his life and times.
It was a progression sparked by pioneers of both folk and blues, such as Willie Dixon and Woody Guthrie. Willie explained that his blues sprung directly from the inhumanity of American slavery. Woody Guthrie’s songs came from the dispossessed of the Dust Bowl and Depression, channeling the real facts into timeless songs such as “Deportees,” which resound as strongly today as ever.
Loretta Lynn said “Coal Miner’s Daughter” originally had six more verses she cut out, all based on the truth of her Butcher Holler origins, with real details that still ring like bells, such as her mother’s fingers bleeding on the washboard. Similarly, Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” is the actual account of his mother’s attempt to keep him out of trouble. His mama tried – hard – and failed, as Merle went to jail several times. It’s all in the song.
Even songs we might consider only pop songs with no direct relation to actuality are often based on truth, thus giving them weight. Rihanna’s 2007 hit “Umbrella” was written by Terius “Dream” Nash, who infused the song with truth by writing it for his mother, who he had recently lost.
Similarly, Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson based “Rehab” on a funny refrain she kept singing in jest about “they want me to go to rehab, rehab, but I said no, no, no.” When Ronson suggested they turn it into a real song, Amy laughed, feeling it was too close to the bone. Too true. But he persuaded her to go for it, and a classic was born.
Meghan Trainor’s, “All About The Bass,” written with Kevin Kadish, started, not unlike “Rehab,” as a joke. She and Kevin bonded over their mutually chubby childhoods. “I’d never written about this subject ever,” she said, “and didn’t want to be preachy, so we made it funny.”
When Macklemore & Ryan Lewis asked spoken word artist Mary Lambert to compose a chorus for their song about embracing one’s own gay identity, they sent her the track to “Same Love” with the chorus wide-open, and she poured in her heart: “I can’t change,” she sang, “even if I wanted to.”
“I wanted to bring a universal truth. It’s why it resonated with people,” she said.
So through these decades we see many songs which have impacted the culture precisely because of the use of truth. Given that songwriting is a craft of contrivances, such as rhyming, the use of truth, which as Dylan explained is the very opposite of contrivance, lends the song a timeless and undeniable authenticity.
That use of truth is directly attached to the understanding that the more specific a song is, the more universal it becomes. The use of telling details and images rings true precisely because the content is real, and humans inherently sense and respond to genuine human truth. As Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin said about their song “The House That Built Me,” it was crafted with Eudora Welty’s wisdom that if you write well about one house, you will write well about every house. In the same way, if you write specifically and true about one human story, you can write authentically about the heart of every song: the human journey.