Writing Lessons from Singer-Songwriters

From Writer Unboxed:

On one of my initial panels as a first-time novelist, when asked what authors inspired me in my writing, I replied, “I was probably influenced as much by Steve Earle and Steely Dan as anybody I read.”

I stand by that.

I started my creative life as an accompanist for two superb women vocalists on the coffee-house circuit (billing myself as “The World’s Most Adequate Guitarist”), and then joined a bar band and toured the Midwest, performing in such famed musical Meccas as Kokomo, Indiana; Ypsilanti, Michigan; and Lima, Ohio. (Best compliment I ever got: “Who’s the guy who sings like a chick, he’s really good.”)

Music has always had a profound effect on me (my paternal grandfather was a music teacher). My first obsession was folk music, and I was particularly fond of revival stalwarts like Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, Odetta, Pete Seeger, and Dave Van Ronk.

It was from them, especially the traditionalists, that I gained an appreciation for the story song, especially old ballads such as “Pretty Polly,” “Barbara Allen,” and “John Riley.”

But the songs I came to love most deeply were written by the musicians themselves, which made them more personal. And looking back, I can see that I learned a number of writing lessons from those efforts.

Granted, in general songs bear a greater resemblance to poetry than narrative, and they have the twin advantages of rhyme and music to bring their messages home. What I’ll be talking about here are songs that do indeed tell a story with the familiar beginning-middle-end structure.

. . . .

Tom Paxton: “My Son John”

This Tom Paxton original from 1966 really affected me, possibly more than the traditional ballads, because of its relevance to the Vietnam War and my own close relationship with my father:

My son, John, was a good boy, and good to me
When we had hard times, well, he stood by me
We were in work and out of work and on the go
If he had complaints, I never heard a-one
He would pitch in and help me like a full-grown man
My son, John. John, my son

My son, John, went to college and he made his way
Had to earn every penny, but he paid his way
He worked summers and holidays and through the year
And it was no easy struggle that he won
But he laughed at the ones who thought he had it hard
My son, John. John, my son

My son, John, got his uniform and went away
With a band playing marches, he was sent away
And he wrote me a letter when he had the time
He was losing his buddies one by one
And I prayed and tried not to read between the lines
My son, John. John, my son

My son, John, came home yesterday, he’s here to stay
Not a word to his father have I heard him say
He seems glad to be home, but I can’t be sure
When I asked him what he’d seen and done
He went up to his bedroom, and he closed the door
My son, John, John my son
He went up to his bedroom, and he closed the door
My son, John, John my son

This is a classic example of less is more, in that it’s not made clear what the son has “seen and done”—that’s left to our imagination, and it’s all the more powerful because of that, especially after the long buildup showing the relationship between father and son and the profound respect the former has for the latter.

Also, the last two lines are repeated, which provides a haunting effect—something hard to duplicate literally in fiction. Instead we have to find ways to repeat an imagine or an idea indirectly so that the association is made unconsciously—for example, the use of water, fish, glass, and eyes in the screenplay for Chinatown

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed