From pop to poetry: singer-songwriters who should be taken seriously
Kevin Murphy reflects on the poetic genius of songs that have become, for many of us, the soundtrack of our lives.
In 1981, as part of my degree in English Literature, I submitted a dissertation with the weighty title ‘A Justification of Contemporary Singer-Songwriters as Serious Literary Artists: a Critical Anthology of Modern Song’. The gravitas of my title didn’t seem exaggerated as this was precisely the time when many popular songwriters were being heralded as poets and even prophets. Books of lyrics were avidly studied by listeners who wanted to ponder the deeper meanings of their songs.
In my study I argued that certain songs were as profound and complex as the finest poetry and that many songwriters employed a range of sophisticated techniques to communicate their messages. In other words, these popular artists deserved to be called poets!
In the year of my writing, two of the chosen songwriters, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, turned 40. Another, Leonard Cohen, was 47. I could never have imagined then that Dylan and Simon would still be going strong in 2021, the year in which they turned 80! And in 2013, I finally got to listen to the 78-year-old Leonard Cohen live in concert at the Manchester Arena.
The creative longevity of these writers confirms my belief, expressed in that degree essay, that their early success was not simply a popular product of youth culture or passing fashion. Dylan and Simon had in fact begun literary-based degrees; Cohen was a published poet and novelist when he turned to songwriting. Any doubts about the literary credentials of singer-songwriters must surely have been finally quelled when Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016.
So, 40 years on, I reflect again on the artistry of these three foundational songwriters whose work combined to re-shape an art-form and rescue poetry from elitism, obscurity and even irrelevance.
And I see a parallel in an artistic revolution that took place 200 years earlier in the field of poetry.
In 1800, Coleridge and Wordsworth combined to produce Lyrical Ballads. They were consciously and explicitly reacting against poetry that had become removed from ordinary experience and inaccessible to the vast majority. The Preface to this work outlined their radical project.
“The principal object, then, proposed in these poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect…”
These poets chose ‘humble and rustic life’ as their subjects, and stated that such subjects would ‘speak a plainer and more emphatic language’. The preface states: “There will also be found in these volumes little of what is usually called poetic diction… a large portion of the language of every good poem can in no respect differ from that of good prose. We will go further. It may be safely affirmed, that there neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition.”
And so, Wordsworth and Coleridge offered lyrical poetry in a ‘naked and simple style’, perhaps even naïve and child-like at first appearance but ultimately profound and powerful. It seems to me now, looking back, that Dylan, Simon and Cohen were in the vanguard of another artistic movement which forged a similarly new poetry in the form of popular song.
Of course it is recognised that poetry and song are age-old partners.
Indeed, I read a fascinating claim recently that language itself has its roots in song, and not the other way round. In other words, we sang before we spoke!
So what made the trinity of Dylan, Simon and Cohen such important figures in the history of music and language?
Bob Dylan must surely be recognised as being the most influential popular songwriter of the late 20th century. He burst onto the scene in the early 1960s, named himself after a lyrical poet, and drew on the folk-tradition of his hero Woody Guthrie. His early songs were consciously modelled on folk-song.
In A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, his opening line, “O where have you been my blue-eyed son?” is adapted from a Scottish ballad which begins, “Where have you been, Lord Randall, my son?” But Dylan’s subject is vaster. He writes in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis which threatened a nuclear Armageddon rather than a family estrangement.
The rhythmically chanted lines accrue a sequence of vivid, and mainly disturbing, poetic images: “I saw a new-born baby with wild wolves all around it… I met a young child beside a dead pony.” The prophetic and apocalyptic portrait is shocking and yet full of compassion for human suffering.
Dylan’s political and social protest could also be much more individual and specific. He reacted to the shocking murder of a black woman working as a domestic servant and exposed the hateful prejudice and racism of the supposed judicial process in an arresting song called The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. Again, melodically simple, the song paints disturbing portraits of the poor victim, the arrogant and privileged assailant, and the bias and ‘disgrace’ of the court hearing.
Dylan’s language is certainly in keeping with the sort prescribed by Wordsworth and Coleridge. It is colloquial and unpretentious and yet skilfully patterned to the waltz-time strumming of three guitar chords for the verses. But the chorus language is more intense and charged: “You who philosophise disgrace, and criticise all fears…”
To my mind this is the perfect model of ‘protest song’
Interestingly, Billy Bragg has used it as the basis for his own powerful protest song, The Lonesome Death of Rachael Corrie, which portrays the shocking death of a young American woman protesting in Gaza.
Dylan was first categorised as a protest singer, but his versatility as an artist was soon apparent as he wrote insightfully about the search for love and meaning. One of his shortest and sharpest lyrics, All Along the Watch Tower, is actually a deeply existential questioning poem, set to music. The bleak conversation between a ‘joker’ and a ‘thief’ who seem trapped suggests that ‘life is but a joke’. This is extended to other characters in the panorama all along the ‘watch tower’ and the two riders who approach at the end are presumably going to repeat the same dialogue of angst.
T S Eliot famously wrote: “Poetry communicates before it is understood.” The quote could certainly be applied to Dylan’s songs which are linguistically delightful, even if some lines are still perplexing after a number of hearings.. For example, “The kings of Tyrus with their convict list, are waiting in line for their geranium kiss…” Dylan loves to play with colourful allegory and ominous symbolism. His songs have prompted a whole hermeneutic industry as fans and critics alike have tried to figure out what the writer had in mind with this and similar images.
Leonard Cohen, though seven years older, came to the party after Dylan, but with a proven pedigree as a poet of startlingly vivid lyricism. Like Dylan’s, his voice is an acquired taste and he has often been mocked for his sonorous, lugubrious bass which can sound mournful and even traumatised.
Nevertheless, Cohen’s best songs are stunningly beautiful word-scapes that unspool to subtle melodies, sometimes based in the simplest inflections of tone and rhythmic pattern.
Suzanne is a hypnotic and mystical portrait of a woman but is far from being just a male song of romantic yearning.
The middle verse introduces a religious reflection: “And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water…” and, for me, this diversion underpins the deepest subject of the song. There seems to be a disconnect in Cohen’s imagination whereby mind and body cannot unite: both the Messiah and Suzanne herself remain alluringly out of reach.
In my opinion, Cohen’s best song is Famous Blue Raincoat. The song is framed as a late-night letter to a former rival in a love triangle: “It’s four in the morning, the end of December, I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better…” In this haunting dramatic context, Cohen is now forgiving and reconciled: “I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you, I’m glad you stood in my way.”
Though the words have a colloquial feel, they are actually skilfully tailored into lines deploying the unusual metrical foot known as amphibrach, which is a stressed syllable in between two unstressed ones: “What can I tell you, my brother, my killer, what can I possibly say…” This charges the apparently spoken language with a poetic intensity.
Stranger Song is a less celebrated work but, I believe, a lyrical masterpiece. Admittedly, it does give a rather negative view of love relationships which are pictured as transient and deceitful. The imagery running through the song is of strangers, dealers, card-players and train travellers.
Permanence and security cannot be found, only a temporary solace until it is time to board another train.
The 1960s were famously an era of so-called ‘free love’, but Cohen’s honest and chilling indictment paints the empty truth of it.
His life is a rootless journey from town to town in search of the American dream. Cigarettes and magazines help to fill the time but cannot prevent him admitting: “‘Kathy, I’m lost,’ I said, though I knew she was sleeping; I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.”
Interestingly, the middle-eight or bridge section which sometimes charges songs with the deepest meaning is here just a sketch of a trivial and playful conversation on a bus about a ‘man in a gabardine suit’ whom the couple pretend is a spy.
The Sound of Silence is a more generalised and universal portrait of the alienation and breakdown of communication of modern urban life. Drawing on Psalm 87 (‘my one companion is darkness…), Simon imaginatively addresses his own song to ‘darkness, my old friend’. The urban scenery is cast in a nightmarish light: “My eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light.”
Simon paints a bleak picture of a world where souls live solitary lives, disconnected from each other and unwilling or perhaps unable to reach out to communicate with each other. In fact, worse than that, he sees them as complicit in their alienation and slavish in their submission: “And the people bowed and prayed, to the neon god they made…” Ironically, the only revelation he finds is in the graffiti on ‘subway walls and tenement halls’, which he entitles the ‘words of the prophets’.
I could say so much more about the way these three artists developed over the next 40 years. Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland, for example, shows his extraordinary versatility and vitality at an age (he was 44) when most performers would have been thinking about hanging up their guitar. Suffice to say that these lyrical balladeers have each amassed a body of work as impressive as any recognised poet.
But to conclude let me simply repeat what I dared to posit in an undergraduate essay four decades ago, namely that these pioneers deserve credit for changing an art-form and inviting a majority rather than a minority to become absorbed in pondering words and meanings and providing the soundtracks to many lives.
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