Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Songs #439, 440, and 441 - It's THREEsday!

Song #439 of 9999                    Song #440 of 9999                           Song #441 of 9999

Title: California Stars                 Title: Secret of the Sea                       Title: Listening to the Wind That Blows

Artist: Billy Bragg & Wilco         Artist: Billy Bragg & Wilco               Artist: Billy Bragg & Wilco
Year: 1998                                Year: 2000                                         Year: 2012
Album: Mermaid Avenue          Album: Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II      Album: Mermaid Avenue, Vol. III


Today, I watched a new documentary about Stephen Sondheim and he addressed one of the most often asked questions of songwriters: "What do you write first, music or lyrics?" He didn't really answer the question because for him, as for most songwriters, there really isn't an easy answer. But he did talk about innate musical elements within words, most obviously related to rhythm, and how words can suggest or even dictate a musical phrase. (I'm paraphrasing.) He also talked about the difference between poetry and lyrics, suggesting that poetry is often about economy of words while lyric-writing often involves communicating an idea over a long stretch of time.

Which brings me to my featured trio of songs for the day, all of which feature lyrics left behind by the late Woody Guthrie and set to music by Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett of Wilco. I have to wonder whether Tweedy and Bennett had a similar experience when faced with the prospect of turning Guthrie's lyrics into new songs. (I realize there's a whole movie about the project so the answers may be readily available but I write a daily blog so research is limited. :) And I wonder if they looked upon the lyrics as poetry or not. In the case of "California Stars," the imagery and repeated refrain suggest poetry although the meter is perhaps not as regular as one would expect. Same goes for "Secret of the Sea" which has plainer language but it no less eloquent. However, the lyric practically has a song chorus built into it with its identical first and third stanzas and repeated first line of each.

By contrast, "Listening to the Wind That Blows" reads instantly as a song. It has a cadence and rhyme scheme to the lyric that strongly suggests it be sung. It features a chorus with two lines that beg for a singalong moment ("Blow, wind, blow...") and a turn of phrase in the remaining lines perfectly suited for a hook. Tweety recognizes these moments and takes full advantage, inserting an extended pause between the third and fourth lines to heighten the effect. With acknowledgement to the fact that Stephen Sondheim's lyrics serve a much different purpose
 than Woody Guthrie's (i.e. musical theater is different than folk music—duh.), I also think this song is the best example of the three for supporting Sondheim's contention of how ideas are stretched over time through song lyrics.

Whatever your view on the poetry vs. lyrics argument, I'm certainly glad Wilco participated in this project with Billy Bragg, the driving force behind the project whose contributions to the records are worth a listen. These records provide us with some Summerteeth-era Wilco and serve as reminders of just how much Jay Bennett brought to the band before his departure and untimely death.

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