Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Skill I Really Admire

One of the side effects of my infatuation with the Avett Brothers is a growing appreciation for good songwriting. The other day on my way to work, I heard the song "Vincent" by Don Mclean (yes, I DO listen to something other than the Avetts, ha ha!), and I was struck by how beautiful the lyrics for the song are.
Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer's day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul

Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colors on the snowy linen land

Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand
These lines with their visual imagery evoke Van Gogh's paintings so vividly. I especially like that last pair of lines ("Weathered faces....soothed beneath the artist's loving hand"). I know faces like that.

What I really appreciate about the lyrics is how efficient they are. In less than 70 words, Mclean not only provides a quick trip through a gallery of Van Gogh's work, but also captures a sense of the loneliness and intensity that characterized the artist and eventually led him to suicide. Not a word is wasted. As a person who can't seem to write anything except long-form stories, I'm simply in awe of this kind of writing.

There's another song I greatly admire that I've been meaning to talk about in a blog post, and that is Tom T. Hall's "Little Lady Preacher." While Mclean's song is poetic and impressionistic, I've always thought Hall's song is a wonderful story in miniature.

Oh, the little lady preacher from the limestone church
I'll never forget her, I guess
She preached each Sunday mornin’ on the local radio
With a big black Bible and a snow-white dress

She was 19 years of age and was developed to a fault
But I will admit she knew the Bible well
A little white lace hanky marked the text that she would use
She’d breathe into that microphone and send us all to hell

I love the way Hall chooses the details that not only allow us to picture the little lady preacher physically but that also create her as a living character in this morality tale. Hall actually creates three distinct characters: the little lady preacher, the narrator of the song, and Luther Short, a "hairy-legged soul lost out in sin" who gets the privilege of taking the lady preacher home after each radio session. Besides having three well-developed characters, the song also has a plot with rising action and a climax. 

I can see me standing in the studio that day
I had to face the heartbreak, unemployment and all

In 32 lines (that rhyme!), Hall brings to life a story that is funny, yet sympathetic and says something about human nature and life.

That's just looking at the lyrics. Add in the element of melody, and I'm really impressed by the skill it takes to produce something that seems so effortless.

It seems only right to close this post with a chance to appreciate the whole package, for both songs.

 Don Mclean - "Vincent" 

"Little Lady Preacher" - Tom T. Hall

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