Saturday, October 12, 2019

Stories in Music

I was raised in the 1970s on a steady diet of Neil Diamond, Simon & Garfunkel, and John Denver. I later learned that actual rock and roll and even disco were big in that era, but at my house, we were all about the singer songwriters. When I say "we," in this case, I mean my three big sisters, who were teens to my little kid. If I came home and could hear "Matthew's Song" or "Cracklin' Rose" from the street, I knew Peg was vacuuming with the record player turned up high enough to hear over the noise.

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So I blame my weakness for sentimental, story-telling songs on them. Songs you can hear the lyrics clearly enough to sing along with. And while I've loved all sorts of music and musicians in the years since then, if I had to pick a favorite type, that'd be it.

In the past week or two, I've been on a big nostalgia kick in my listening, finding songs by the women singer songwriters I loved in college and just after.  I realized that although the plot isn't as complete as in a book, there is a sense of character and emotion that appeals to me in the same way the best books do. These are from a different era than "Cecilia" and "Country Roads," but I know those earlier songs primed me for these.

Here's heartbreak in a song:

"Cold Tea Blues" by the Cowboy Junkies

If I pour your cup, that is friendship
If I add your milk, that is manners
If I stop there, claiming ignorance of taste,
that is tea

But if I measure the sugar
to satisfy your expectant tongue
then that is love,
But if I measure the sugar
to satisfy your expectant tongue
then that is love,
sitting untouched and growing cold

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Or how about the pensive reminiscing here:

"Memories of East Texas" by Michelle Shocked (excerpt)

Memories of East Texas                                                                                                                                 
And piney green rolling hills                                                                                                                           
Covered in the springtime                                                                                                                              
With golden daffodils                                                                                                                                      
Rowing on Sandy Lake come April                                                                                                                
Harvesting hay in June                                                                                                                                  
Sitting by the road watching well-fires burn                                                                                                   
By an old October moon                                                                                                                                 
I learned to drive on those East Texas red clay backroads                                                                            
And I mean to tell you my friend                                                                                                                    
They weren't no easy roads                                                                                                                           
You had to watch out for all the curves                                                                                                          
Down by Kelsey Creek                                                                                                                                  
And detour through the Lindsay's pasture                                                                                                    
When the water ran too deep                                                                                                                        
Memories of East Texas                                                                                                                                 
And Gilmer, county seat of Upshur                                                                                                                
Looking back and asking myself                                                                                                                    
'What the hell'd you let them break your spirit for?'                                                                                        
You know, their lives ran in circles so small                                                                                                   
Ah, they thought they'd seen it all                                                                                                                  
And they could not make a place for a girl who'd seen the ocean                                                                 
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Or how about this domestic saga?
"He Thinks He'll Keep Her" by Mary Chapin Carpenter

She makes his coffee, she makes his bed                                                                                   
She does the laundry, she keeps him fed                                                                                    
When she was twenty-one she wore her mother's lace                                                                 
She said, "forever," with a smile upon her face                                                                           
She does the carpool, she P.T.A.'s                                                                                             
Doctors and dentists, she drives all day                                                                                      
When she was twenty-nine she delivered number three                                                               
And every Christmas card showed a perfect family                                                                      
Everything runs right on time                                                                                                    
Years of practice and design                                                                                                      
Spit and polish till it shines, he thinks he'll keep her                                                                    
Everything is so benign                                                                                                             
The safest place you'll ever find                                                                                                 
God forbid you change your mind, he thinks he'll keep her                                                           
She packs his suitcase, she sits and waits                                                                                   
With no expression upon her face                                                                                              
When she was thirty-six she met him at their door                                                                      
She said, "I'm sorry, I don't love you any more"                                                                         
(chorus repeats)                                                                                                                       
For fifteen years she had a job and not one raise in pay                                                               
Now she's in the typing pool at minimum wage                                                                           
(chorus repeats)                                                                                                                       
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And then there's this one, which truly is a story song. I like to sing the last bit "in the solitude SHE DESERVED" because it's so upsetting.

"The Queen and the Soldier" by Suzanne Vega

The soldier came knocking upon the queen's door
He said, "I am not fighting for you any more"
The queen knew she'd seen his face someplace before
And slowly she let him inside.
He said, "I've watched your palace up here on the hill
And I've wondered who's the woman for whom we all kill
But I am leaving tomorrow and you can do what you will
Only first I am asking you why."
Down in the long narrow hall he was led
Into her rooms with her tapestries red
And she never once took the crown from her head
She asked him there to sit down.
He said, "I see you now, and you are so very young
But I've seen more battles lost than I have battles won
And I've got this intuition, says it's all for your fun
And now will you tell me why?"
Well the young queen, she fixed him with an arrogant eye
She said, "You won't understand, and you may as well not try"
But her face was a child's, and he thought she would cry
But she closed herself up like a fan.
And she said, "I have swallowed a secret burning thread
It cuts me inside, and often I've bled"
He laid his hand then on top of her head
And he bowed her down to the ground.
"Tell me how hungry are you? How weak you must feel
As you are living here alone, and you are never revealed
But I won't march again on your battlefield"
And he took her to the window to see.
And the sun, it was gold, though the sky, it was gray
And she wanted more than she ever could say
But she knew how it frightened her, and she turned away
And would not look at his face again.
And he said, "I want to live as an honest man
To get all I deserve and to give all I can
And to love a young woman who I don't understand
Your highness, your ways are very strange."
But the crown, it had fallen, and she thought she would break
And she stood there, ashamed of the way her heart ached
She took him to the doorstep and she asked him to wait
She would only be a moment inside.

Out in the distance her order was heard
And the soldier was killed, still waiting for her word
And while the queen went on strangling in the solitude she preferred
The battle continued on.

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The funny thing, I'd maintain that I really don't like country music, but that's what most of this would be classified as. Which just goes to show you that genres can be limiting, and that a masterful writer can shine in any genre. 


  1. I loved Suzanne Vega. I even went to eat at Tom's Diner in NYC just because of her. I leaned more alternative/Anglo pop in the 80s (The Smiths, The Cure, Depeche Mode, Stone Roses, etc), but I also had a soft spot for singer songwriters and riot grrrls.

  2. I grew up in the 70's too but the music in my house was Englebert Humperdinck, Neil Sedaka, Tom Jones thanks to my mom.

    When I was a bit older (late 70's) I was disco all the way lol

    Karen @ For What It's Worth

  3. I love those lyrics by Suzanne Vega. Thanks for sharing them, I hadn't read/heard them before.

  4. I learned to play guitar when I was eighteen and that ability has been one of the delights of my life. I immediately took on John Denver and Peter Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan; I love all these singers to this day. I adore Mary Chapin Carpenter, though I've never learned any of her work. She's the only one of these singer-songwriters I know, but I'll look for the others. There is something magical about someone who sings, plays, and writes, I think. Like a picture book author who is also an illustrator.

    I'd call these folk musicians rather than country, but that's just me.


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