Songwriter U: Universal Truth in Song

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From Woody Guthrie & Willie Dixon through Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Bob Dylan & Paul Simon to Amy Winehouse, Meghan Trainor & Beyond, the Use of Truth in Song Resounds

“It’s good to start with something true,” Paul Simon said in regard to his iconic “Still Crazy After All These Years.” It was a title which emerged, he said, while he was taking a shower. And he didn’t love it, because it was a true reflection of how he felt about himself. But like any savvy songwriter, he used it. And it’s that truth, he said, that instills a resonance into the song that gives it lasting power.

“It’s very helpful to start with something true,” he said. “If you start with something false, you’re always covering your tracks.”

It’s advice taken to heart by legions of songwriters, who recognize that the use of personal truth in a song adds strength to a lyric that can’t be denied. And over these past decades of popular music, we see countless examples of songwriters transforming their own truths into powerful songs. From folk icons such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to blues kings like Willie Dixon, to country legends such as Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard, through John Lennon and the Beatles, Bob Dylan and beyond to Amy Winehouse, Meghan Trainor and Sia, a pattern emerges, that of the truth itself used as the template for a song.

Bob Dylan confirmed his belief in the use of truth in songs back in 1992, 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.”

Therein lies the vital dynamic. The songform itself is a form of contrivances, contrived to appear uncontrived. Use of rhyme, meter, songform – all of it is contrived, yet the goal remains to create a song which seems organically created, uncontrived, as natural as a tree or a star. And one way of doing that is to instill truth into the song. The truth holds the song together so that it won’t, as Van Dyke Parks said, “fall apart like a cheap watch in the street.”

Dylan’s use of truth impacted the popular song forever. Lennon said he would never have considered using his own truth in a song until Dylan opened his mind. “Help,” he said, was 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’s an evolution of the popular song directly linked with the emergence of the singer/songwriter in the ‘60s and ‘70s, sparked by Dylan along with Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, Carole King and ultimately all the others. Soon as songwriters started writing songs for themselves to sing, as opposed to those writers who came before crafting songs for other singers, the nature of the popular song shifted. Knowing ones song will be recorded no matter what, the songwriter was freed to write about more than love and romance, the predominant theme of previous popular songs for decades. Suddenly the content of popular song shifted forever, and expanded profoundly. Dylan, as Robbie Robertson said, showed songwriters that “anything goes.”

It was a progression sparked by pioneers of both folk and blues songwriting, such as Willie Dixon and Woody Guthrie. “The blues,” Dixon told me, “are the facts of life.” The blues is a genre which grew directly from the brutal inhumanity of American slavery. Guthrie wrote songs of 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.

Country songwriters embraced the power of truth. Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” which originally had six more verses she cut out, is based on the truth of her Butcher Holler, Ky. upbringing, 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 sad but actual account of his mother’s attempt to keep him out of trouble. His mama tried — hard —and failed, as Haggard went to jail several times, and from an early age. 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. “Umbrella,” a giant hit for Rihanna in 2007, was written by Terius “Dream” Nash, who told me that after landing on the title, he injected the song with truth: “I knew I could take this metaphor and make it deeper,” he said. “I thought of my mother, who I lost in ’92, and this became what I hoped God would say, ‘You can stand under my umbrella.’ The line, ‘You can’t see shiny cars in the dark,’ that’s true. In the dark, when you’re alone, you only have yourself, nothing else.”

Similarly, when Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson were working on songs in 2007, they took a walk during which Winehouse, just in jest, started singing a funny refrain 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, Winehouse laughed, feeling it was too close to the bone. Too real. But he persuaded her to go for it, and a classic was born.

More recently Sia was working on a song with the title “Chandelier.” Intended for Rihanna originally, she realized it could contain her own truth, and it became a song for the songwriter to sing. “I remember thinking that I could write a song about swinging from the chandelier,” she said. “A party anthem … but as I was writing it, it turned into a song about my battles with addiction, inadvertently … I realized it was personal, and that I was attached to it.”

Meghan Trainor’s most famous song, “All About The Bass,” written with Kevin Kadish, started, not unlike “Rehab,” as a personal joke. “We wrote it laughing,” said Trainor. “We thought nobody is ever gonna hear this.” It was during a Nashville writing session when she and Kadish bonded instantly over their shared love for old school music, and the fact both grew up as chubby kids. “He brought the line ‘All bass, no treble,’” she said, “which I saw right away as thick and thin … I’d never written about this subject ever, and didn’t want to be preachy, so we made it funny.”

But Trainor and Kadish, like Winehouse and Ronson, took what could have been a lightweight joke song and did that thing songwriters do, transform it into something heavier, deepened by personal truth. Like “Rehab,” it became a way of laughing at the darkness, and rising above it. As Simon did with “Still Crazy,” the songwriter embraces that which we yearn to avoid, and transforms fear into something timeless and lasting. A song. And doing so provides a drama of reality, and a celebration, that makes some sense out of the human comedy.

One of the most stunning examples of personal truth being injected into a powerful song is when Macklemore & Ryan Lewis asked spoken word artist Mary Lambert to compose a chorus for their song of bravely embracing one’s own gay identity, “Same Love.” They sent her the track with the chorus wide-open, and she poured in her heart: “I can’t change,” she sang, “even if I wanted to.”

I realized the truth was pragmatic and rational,” she said, “and I wanted to bring a universal truth. It’s why it resonated with people … when they sent me the song, I felt this was a real gift, because this was my story.” It’s also the story of millions, born gay yet told their whole life to deny their own truth. It became a theme song of empowerment, of embracing bravely one’s own truth, even in the face of ongoing adversity.

So we see through these decades so many songs which have impacted our culture precisely because the songwriters bravely incorporated personal truth into their songs. The power of that truth is directly attached to the knowledge that the more specific a song is, the more universal it becomes. As Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin told me about their song “The House That Built Me,” a GRAMMY-nominated hit for Miranda Lambert, it was crafted with Eudora Welty’s wisdom that if you write well about one house, you will write about every house. It is by use of the little details — those details and images which ring true because they are based on the truth — that we tell a story that dynamically reflects the essence of humanity.

Which is not to say use of truth in songs is always necessary, or unchained from challenge. Dylan has been criticized several times after writing songs based on truth, such as “Joey,” about the mobster Joey Gallo, or “Tempest” about the Titanic, for distorting that truth.

So to culminate this exploration of truth in songs with a statement that both confirms and contradicts this ancient theme, we get Dylan’s response to that criticism. Within which we find both the aim and the accomplishment of the songwriter through time, ultimately blending truth and fiction into a myth bigger, and perhaps more resonant, than both. It is in songs, and from songwriters, we learn about the full meaning of words, and in this instance, the complete meaning of the word ‘truth.’

“People are going to say, ‘Well, it’s not very truthful,’” Dylan said. “But a songwriter doesn’t care about what’s truthful. What he cares about is what should’ve happened, what could’ve happened. That’s its own kind of truth.”

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  1. I agree that aspects of truth is good to have in songs if possible, but it sure isn’t necessary. A songwriter tells “stories” mixed with music. The Harry Potter story isn’t true, but it touched a lot of people. Ol’ Red (sung by Blake Shelton) isn’t true, but it was a hit for him because the story line was clever and folks liked it. Brother Dylan was right when he said “A songwriter doesn’t care about what is truthful”. It’s all about what the song says. I myself have written and finished around 200 songs (most are solo writes), and probably half aren’t truthful story lines at all. But folks like and identify with em’ in some way. When we co-write we combine ideas to make a song believable lyrically & musically. It doesn’t have to be true as long as the story’s told well within the song’s context.

    • Hi Todd, I completely agree. I didn’t mean using truth was necessary. I meant that if used, it can add resonance and power. Simply another tool, but with reason why. Dylan said that to me – that the ‘yellow railroad’ line in Absolutely Sweet Marie still mattered because it was true. That it was not a contrived image. But that doesn’t mean literally true to his life. And I never meant you can’t weave in what is not true. That is always a part of it. How much of what is true you want to use, and when not to use it. It is just another spice. But you are right – if the song works, if the story is told you went to tell – that matters much more than use of truth.

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