Blue Yodel #24 – Moonwalking with Big Mon

Let me say up front that this article is not about a night I had on the dance floor in the 80s with the father of bluegrass. It’s about remembering lyrics, but would you have started reading something called “Fun with Memorization”?

Last year I read a book on memory called Moonwalking with Einstein by . . . uh . . . hold on . . . be right back . . . Joshua Foer.

It’s about these people who participate in the World Memory Championships. They memorize decks of cards (the world record is 21.9 seconds for one deck), pi to tens of thousands of digits, strings of random numbers, poems, speeches, names—anything.

The book holds your attention as much as any thriller. Really. But its value lies in the memory techniques it describes. Apparently, people who compete in memory games have no more innate ability to remember things than you or I. They have just learned, and put into practice, memory techniques that are over 2,500 years old.

I’ve always been amazed by people who can remember a lot of songs. How many songs did Jimmy Martin know? Lester? Bill? They say Elvis had a vault of songs in his brain that he could randomly access while making a grilled peanut-butter-banana-and-bacon sandwich.

Before, when I wanted to learn a new song, I would sing it over and over again until I had it. But if I wasn’t singing the song a lot, pretty soon it was lost and I had to re-learn it.

I forget lyrics easily. I even forget lyrics to songs I wrote. If you see us play live and you hear me sing about Orange Nehi and duck-billed platypi, you know what happened.

I recommend reading the whole book, but here’s the gist of how to remember lyrics: turn the words into an oddly visual story.

Let’s take a verse of a song, say, Hard Times by Stephen Foster:

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor,
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears,
Oh, hard times come again no more.


Step One: Turn the words into a visual image. 

We usually don’t need to visualize every word of every line. Often you just need the first few words to get going. This one’s easy: “let us pause” turns into a head of lettuce with a dog’s paw on it.

If you need other parts of the line turned into visual images, maybe you turn “life” into a Viking named Leif. Or “count its many tears” into Count Dracula crying.

Now, you may be thinking, “Why would I do that? Isn’t that just more to remember?” Yes, but the next two steps take those words and images out of short-term memory and put them into long-term memory.

Step Two: Make the image vivid and active.

The images you come up with should be dynamic, sensual, even sexual, scatological and disturbing. The head of lettuce is glistening. The paws of the Viking are huge and hairy and he’s squeezing the head of lettuce and laughing maniacally. Count Dracula is weeping uncontrollably. You can hear him sob. You can see the Count. Make the image vivid, lurid, sensual, surprising—in other words, memorable.

I’ll leave it to you how disturbing you want to make it. Please don’t send me your more lurid examples, by which I mean please send me your more lurid examples.

As I said, these are old, old techniques, but they fell out of favor during the Reformation because extreme Protestants decided that using your imagination was a sure path to hell, so they introduced rote learning. Thanks, John Calvin!

Now, let’s say you have a bunch of images for each line. Here are a few examples, but you should come up with your own that are memorable for you:

Line 2: While we all sup sorrow with the poor (a whale crying and eating poor people).

Line 3: There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears (a finger pointing at a rolled up page of sheet music stuck in someone’s ears).

Line 4: Oh, hard times come again no more (Oprah singing the title of the song, maybe coming out of her mouth like a cartoon balloon).

So, now we have a bunch of odd images that trigger word associations, but how do we remember what order they go in?

Step Three: Put the images into an ordered path.

This is the loci method and it dates from Greco-Roman days.

If you’ve ever started a sentence with “In the first place…” then you’re part of that tradition, because that’s literally what it meant to the Romans: in the first place in my memory journey, here’s what I find.

So, first create your path. It can be a room in your house where you place the images in a set order, say from the left nearest corner around the room to the right nearest corner, then the floor and ceiling.

Or it can be a path through your house, say, starting at the front door. Or it’s the path you take when you walk around your neighborhood. The key is you always follow the same path with the same locations along the way. You can even associate numbers with the locations.

So, let’s say you have a path that starts at your front door (location 1). Take the head of lettuce and the Viking Leif and put that image there. Make it active. Maybe Leif is throwing the head of lettuce at the door with his big paws and laughing. You sing, Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears.

Now walk into the house (physically at first, then mentally) and to your left is the coat rack (location 2). The whale is trying on a coat and is bursting through it because the coat is too small. You sing, While we all sup sorrow with the poor.

Now head down the hallway where there’s a mirror (location 3). You point at yourself in the mirror and you see yourself with a rolled-up page of sheet music sticking out of your ears and you sing, There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears.

Now walk into the kitchen and by the toaster (location 4) Oprah is singing with a cartoon balloon coming out of her mouth with “hard times” on it, so you sing, Oh, hard times come again no more.

Take a day off.

Then, see how much you remember by following your mental path of visual, vivid images through the song again. Come back three days later and go through it again. Come back a week later. Then, a month. Something odd has happened. You no longer use the props of the images and the journey. You’ve put the lyrics into long-term memory.

So, at the next jam you say, “Let’s play Hard Times,” and you think, uh-oh, what’s the first line? In your head, you walk up to your front door and there’s the Viking named Leif throwing a head of lettuce with his huge paws and he’s laughing. Oh yeah, Let us pause in life’s pleasures. Then you mentally walk in the door to the coat rack, and so on.

I never did explain the moonwalking part, so you’ll have to buy the book.

I did a workshop on remembering lyrics at a camp last summer and we went on a walk around the campground creating a memory journey for the Hank Williams song, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. I still remember it.

I just can’t remember where I put my capo.

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About the Author

Chris Stuart

Chris Stuart is a writer and songwriter living in San Diego. He was the 2008 recipient of the IBMA Print Media Person of the Year award, co-writer of the 2009 IBMA Song of the Year, and past winner of the Merlefest Chris Austin Songwriting contest in bluegrass and gospel categories. You can follow him on Twitter @cvstuart, on Facebook, and at On Tuesdays you can find him having fish tacos at Roberto’s in Del Mar.