I don’t know. Maybe I’ve been watching too much of the Brian Greene PBS series The Fabric of the Cosmos lately. It’s fascinating—things blow up and there’s talk about black holes and eleven dimensions.
What I’ve learned is that somewhere there’s a dimension where I have Russell Moore’s voice and he has mine, but I’m trapped in this one. God may or may not throw dice, but he has a great sense of humor.
What has this got to do with lyrics?
In the Newtonian world of songs, things seem to behave normally. It’s a place where rhythm and rhyme fall as predictably as apples. Where the verses tell the story and the chorus gets to the heart of things. Where chord progressions resolve. Where the gravity of the words pulls you toward meaning.
And then there’s the quantum world of songs, where nothing behaves predictably. Where there are no rules. Where words have multiple meanings and where the listener creates the song as much as the songwriter. Where you can be two places at once: in the third of row of a Gibson Brothers concert and catching a baseball on a diamond in upstate New York in the 1950s.
Around the horn, a can of corn,
A ground ball will get you two.
A life of iron and diamonds,
Was all the miners knew.
That’s the chorus from the Gibsons’ song Iron and Diamonds. I just like it. It gets to me every time. Maybe because I sat on the bench a lot.
What I’m after here is the lyrical moment.
For the songwriter, it might come from a line that bubbles up from the depths. For the singer, it might be the emotional resonance of a line—whether dramatic or comedic—recreated in every performance as if by magic. And for the listener, it might be the initial shock of recognition. All three are as unfathomable to me as quantum mechanics.
Why do some lyrics affect us more than others?
One of my favorite lines is from Pass Me Not (which I sometimes refer to as the California highway song), with words by Fanny Crosby in 1868 and music by William H. Doane in 1870. It’s been recorded by everybody from MC Hammer to WS Monroe.
I like everything about the song—the archaic language (Let me at a throne of mercy find a sweet relief), the way the chorus explodes with frantic regret (Saaaaavior, Saaaaavior), and the big open vowel sounds, as if they were written for a bluegrass trio.
But beyond that, there’s a moment in the third verse (rarely sung, as is the fourth verse) that always hits me hard—in a Damnit it, I’ve sung this song a thousand times, and it still gets to me way. The words are by Thy grace. Here’s the complete third verse:
Trusting only in Thy merit,
Would I seek Thy face.
Heal my wounded, broken spirit,
Save me by Thy grace.
I could make up a bunch of stuff about those words—the long vowel sounds, the resolution on the word grace, the desperation of the singer struggling out from a wounded, broken spirit.
But really, I have no idea why I love that moment. I long ago left the church, although I sometimes write Gospel songs as a way, I think, of spending time with my father, who was a Disciples of Christ minister. When I was a kid I thought he was one of the disciples—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and George. (My father’s full name was George Custer Stuart. I have a good story involving my sister and a council on an Indian reservation where she worked as a Vista volunteer.)
I just like the lyric, that’s all.
But I started wondering if good singers have favorite lines too. So, I asked a few. It doesn’t have to be a heavy moment—just an appreciation for a well-turned lyric. It could even be funny. I got some interesting responses.
From the song Train Long Gone, “I stare like a dog at the door.” Clever lyric I think. Very succinct and colorful. Speaks of forlorn longing and all you have to do is picture it.
I have a line and story that to this day makes me giggle. We recorded a song called Forty Years Of Trouble, written by Troy Spencer. In the chorus there’s a line, “I laid the track, Never rode the train.”
When my son Ryan was 3 or 4, we had an appointment at his doctor. Ryan had one of his Thomas the Tank engine toys with him. The doctor said to Ryan “Oh You like Thomas the tank engine.” Ryan very proudly answered, “Yes I’ve laid the track, never rode the train.” Right Dad. Till this day I sing that line and chuckle.
Man, there are so many good lines out there! OK. Right off the top of my head…
from Mark Erelli’s Hartfordtown 1944:
“Then a spotlight played on a platform set so high up in the air
That everybody held their breath and they prayed a silent prayer.”
It’s the moment when everything goes wrong at the circus. There’s such a feeling of suspense in the line.
…from one of my own songs, Chains of Letters:
” ‘Cause to tell you the truth, I’m mystified why each cross of your “T’s” and each dot of your “i’s” seems like such a treasure to own”
I think I got some really good lines in that song, and when I think back on how they came to me, I really can’t pin the moments down. Automatic writing juxtaposed with long intervals of silent contemplation.
And of course, from Jean Ritchie’s masterpiece, Black Water, there are many moments:
At the start of the springtime we planted our corn
At the ending of the springtime we buried our son
Then yonder comes a nice man, says “Everything’s fine,
My employer just requires a way to his mine”
So they tore down the timber and covered the corn<
And the grave on the hillside is a mile deeper down
And the man stands there smiling with his hat in his hand
As we watch the black waters running down through my land
And the jubilation of the last verse:
If I had $10,000,000 or somewhere thereabouts
I’d buy Perry County and I’d run ’em all out
And I’d sit on the shore with my bait and my can
And watch the clear waters run down through my land
There’s so many great lyrics. Here’s one –
I like that lyric in Early Morning Rain where Lightfoot says –
Out on runway number nine, seven o seven set to go
And I’m stuck here on the ground where the cold wind blows
That old liquor tasted good and the woman all were fast
Well there she goes my friend, she’s rollin now at last
Those tangible details bring the personal and the internal right to the front. You can really sense the lonesomeness, the rootless, limbo state where the speaker lives.
Can anyone tell me the meaning of or the rest of the story behind Don’t This Road Look Rough and Rocky? Particularly – “Don’t my baby look the sweetest, when she’s in my arms asleep.”
I’ve imagined various situations, but it’s unclear from just the lyric. Maybe it doesn’t matter. I keep listening to this song and others with similar mysteries. Much of the basic thing – sadness at parting for instance – is clear. But the missing details are maybe what makes me keep coming back to it.
A little mystery in a lyric can be a good thing. Dylan’s a master at that. A good lyric will imply a lot as it tells a story. I had a high school English teacher that talked about how poetic language was “pregnant with meaning” – i.e., the references and their juxtaposition suggested a whole bunch of things that would take a lot more words to say in prose. Little Georgia Rose is one of those that made me want to know more about Bill Monroe. Who is this Rose who he knew as a baby, and later sang love songs with?
When Tim says, “A little mystery in a lyric can be a good thing,” I think he lucidly expresses not only that songwriters shouldn’t make things too obvious or literal, but that what moves people in a song arrives out of mystery.
Good lyrics get the job done, and that’s no small thing. But great lyrics defy gravity; they lift the weight of everyday existence; they get us out of our selves for a brief, otherworldly moment.
I’d love to hear about your favorite moment in a song.
Now, about string theory…