Monthly Archives: February 2014

Songwriting: The Devil’s in the Details

One of the most important elements of songwriting is fashioning a world that is both believable and intriguing. The good songsmith subtly achieves this effect through the placement of seemingly accidental details in a song, which, when drawn together, coalesce to from a distinct impression of a time and place. A good example of this technique can be found in Bruce Robison’s “Travelin’ Soldier,” a song later recorded by the Dixie Chicks on their album “Home.”

The first stanza sets up a situation which provides us with a number of clues about when the song occurs and what expectations we should have of that world,

Two days past eighteen,
Waiting for the bus in his army green,
Sat down in a booth in a café there,
Gave his order to a girl with a bow in her hair.

The world the songwriter created is a world where buses are a common form of transportation, a young soldier wears green, and the girl waiting tables at the café wears a bow in her hair. From this we can readily deduce that this world exists sometime in the twentieth century, most likely sometime from the Second World War on. We can stretch a bit and assume all of this is occurring during a war, since even mentioning a soldier suggests a martial tone somewhere in the action. To demonstrate how important these seemingly small details are, let’s change up a couple things and see where it takes us

He’d been eighteen for just one day
Waiting for the train in his army gray
Sat down in a booth in a café there,
Gave his order to a girl with a bow in her hair.

All we’ve changed is the color of his uniform and the mode of transportation. Its still a young soldier talking with a girl in a café. However, the world that this action now exists in is probably going to conjure up images of the 1860s, with a young Johnny Reb talking to a southern belle in a hoop skirt. While changing the bus into a train doesn’t do this by itself, the gray uniform suggests the image of a confederate soldier. Mentioning a train supports this conjecture as trains were a popular method of troop transport during the 1860s. The world that is imagined through these first four lines is important, because outside of mentioning a letter as the preferred method of communication, there is little else to give a hint about when the action is taking place until the second verse.

At the beginning of the second verse we are given two concrete details that tell us when and where the events are occurring as the young soldier sends letters back from California and Vietnam. Coupled with the images of buses and green uniforms we now know for sure that the world this song exists in is America during the nineteen-sixties or seventies.

So the letters came from an army camp
In California and Vietnam.
And he told her of his heart, how it might be love,
And all the things he was so scared of.

Continuing with our little experiment, though, lets change a couple of details and time travel a bit, while keeping the general action the same,

So the letters came from the battle sites,
From the Wilderness and St. Marys Heights
And he told her of his heart, how it might be love,
And all the things he was so scared of.
He said when its getting kinda rough over here
I think of that day sitting down at the pier
And I close my eyes and I see your pretty smile.
Don’t worry but I won’t be able to write for a while.

By switching out the geographic location of two places mentioned in passing we have once again seamlessly shifted the action by a century. The importance of the geographic locales being mentioned, while seemingly a minor detail in the overall movement of the song, is actually a keystone in how we imagine the action occurring.

The last verse of the song conjures further images of nineteen-sixties America as the songwriter places us in the midst of a small town high school football game.

One Friday night at a football game
The Lords Prayer said and the Anthem sang
And a man said won’t you bow your heads
For a list of the local Vietnam Dead

Crying all alone under the stands
Was a piccolo player in the marching band
And one name read and nobody really cared,
But a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair.

Setting the action of this verse at a high school football game is especially poignant when one considers the juxtaposition of the strong young men on the football field and the very same sort of young men who were dying in the war. Of course, the main movement of this verse of the song could have just as easily been captured at the local First Baptist,

Sunday morning at a church in town
The bells they rang, folks gathered round,
And the preacher-man said won’t you bow your heads
For a list of the men from here, now dead.

Sitting all alone in the choir loft
Was a girl in a dress crying real soft
And one name read and nobody really cared,
But a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair.

The main difference between these two places in our current discussion is how the high school football game is a scene played out sometime in the last hundred years or so, while our hypothetical church service could have happened at any point in time from the 1605 founding of Jamestown up to the present. Another advantage of the high school football game is how the religious and civic spheres of American life are invoked with one line, “the Lord’s prayer said and the Anthem sang.” It is a subtle reminder of a soldiers duty, fighting for God and Country.

All of this is to demonstrate the power and importance of the small details that support the action. While they appear singularly inconsequential within the general movement of a song, it is these details which draw us into the world in which the song resides. The likelihood that the movement and message of the song will be believable to the listener is directly correspondent to whether the listener believes in the world in which the song unfolds.

Here is Bruce Robison singing “Travelin’ Soldier.” And below is our time-shifting nineteenth century rewrite (for educational purposes only, cya).

1st Verse:
He’d been eighteen for just one day
Waiting for the train in his army gray
Sat down in a booth in a café there,
Gave his order to a girl with a bow in her hair.

He’s a little shy so she gives him a smile
He said would you mind sitting down for a while
And talking to me cause I’m feeling a little low.
She said I’m done in an hour, I know where we can go.

So they went down and they sat on the pier
He said I bet you got a man but I don’t care.
I’ve got no one to send a letter to
Would you mind if I sent one back here to you?

Chorus:
I cry
Never gone to hold the hand of another guy
To young for him they told her
Waiting on the love of a traveling soldier.

Our love will never end.
Waiting for the soldier to come back again.
Never going to be alone,
When the letters say the soldier coming home.

2nd Verse:
So the letters came from the battle sites,
From the Wilderness and St. Marys Heights
And he told her of his heart, how it might be love,
And all the things he was so scared of.

He said when its getting kinda rough over here
I think of that day sitting down at the pier
And I close my eyes and I see your pretty smile.
Don’t worry but I won’t be able to write for a while.

Chorus:

3rd Verse:
Sunday morning at a church in town
The bells they rang, folks gathered round,
And the preacher-man said won’t you bow your heads
For a list of the boys from here, now dead.

Sitting all alone in the choir loft
Was a girl in a dress crying real soft
And one name read and nobody really cared,
But a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair.

Chorus

The graves of Confederate dead in Lancaster County, Virginia.

The graves of Confederate dead in Lancaster County, Virginia.

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Vive La Famille!

You probably won’t have heard a thing about this in the news, but over the past couple of years there have been massive demonstrations in France by devout Catholics protesting the states decision to legally dissolve the traditional understanding of the family. Mark Richardson has an excellent piece at his blog about the protests and the latest machinations of the cultural termites gnawing at the heartwood of the West. While you’re over there, be sure to read his E-book on liberalism, it is an invaluable resource in understanding liberalism and learning how it can be defeated. Liberalisma Delenda Est! Vive la Famille!

family

The Seer and the Fool

What distinguishes the philosopher from the sophist, is that the philosopher has the humility to perceive that there is much that is hidden from him, while the sophist assumes that what he perceives is all there is to know about a thing and then proceeds to mock anyone who suggests that he may be missing the bigger picture.

The Children Belong to All of Us

A few days ago I wrote about Joe Wethington, a father who was infuriated that neither the state nor a privately owned company had had the sense to put their foot down and tell his daughter that she was just too young and immature to go skydiving. He had tried to stop her himself of course but she just wouldn’t take no for an answer and so daddy decided that if you can’t control ‘em, might as well join ‘em. Mr. Wethington jumped first without incident; his daughter had a parachute malfunction and, in her panic, failed to deploy the back up chute. By some miracle she survived the three thousand foot plummet back to earth. To say she was lucky would be an understatement. Not everyone survives the impact of colliding with the cold hard world.

Emma Neiderbrock wasn’t so lucky. Miss Neiderbrock was a sixteen year old from Farmville, Virginia, who lived with her mother Debra Kelley, a professor of criminal justice at Longwood University and a published expert on sexual and domestic violence. While she did not approve of her daughters infatuation with the brutally violent horrorcore rap scene, neither Ms. Kelley nor her estranged husband, the Rev. Mark Neiderbrock, felt that they could simply just tell their daughter no. So it happened one day they all drove more than seven hundred miles so Emma and a friend of hers could attend the “Strictly for the Wicked” horrorcore festival in Michigan. After the concert the family returned to Farmville, bringing with them another friend of Emma’s named Samuel McCroskey, a twenty year old Californian who went by the moniker “sykosam” on the horrorcore fan sites where he and Emma had first started corresponding the year before. The plan had been for them to finally meet in person at the concert and then he’d stay and visit for a couple of weeks with Emma at her mother’s before he flew back home to California. Unfortunately the plan went awry when McCroskey discovered Emma had been texting another guy she had met at the concert. Enraged, he murdered her, her friend, and both of her parents.

Generally a parent’s inability to say no to their child doesn’t leads to such brutal and immediate consequences as this. Most times all it really leads to is bratty kids and burnt out parents doing their damnedest to avoid each other. Walk by the toy section of your local Walmart or the candy rack by the grocery store checkout-line and you will see the intense conflict of intergenerational warfare waged a dozen times in a day as parents sacrifice the high ground and sue for an end to the screaming, placating their offspring with candy and trinkets. Of course the brief reprieve that this abdication of authority has purchased is never a lasting peace. Hostilities inevitably recommence, usually within the hour.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and there are many who have noticed the growing power vacuum within American households. For decades television and popular culture have been gnawing at the underpinnings of the traditional family, specifically, the authority of the father as head of his household. Correspondent to this loss of parental authority is a rise in the authority and influence exercised by the state. The number of families dependent on welfare has risen dramatically in recent years, an increase that mirrors the rising number of single mothers raising multiple children. Given the inherent stress and burdens of raising a family alone, it is little wonder that the increase of extra-curricular programs at government schools have been widely applauded and supported, especially in the urban areas hit hardest by the disintegration of the traditional family structure.

It is not uncommon nowadays for a child to eat two meals a day within the government schools, courtesy of the state (taxpayer). Recently, Governor Christie (NJ) suggested that the schools should just go all in and serve dinner too. Given these developments, one begins to wonder if another decade will bring dormitories for the students, perhaps letting them go home on Sunday afternoons to visit their families.

More immediately, the Obama administration has been working to increase the number of children held in government schools during any given day by expanding the pre-k programs. Naturally, they’ve trotted out a bunch of “education experts,” to tell the public how fundamental early education is for a child to succeed, but the truth of it is the state really just wants to increase the number of young minds directly under its influence. Parents who are just scraping by working two part-time jobs trying to pay the bills are more than happy at the offer of free childcare, and given the economy its hard to blame them.

The state has steadily filled the power vacuum that was left when parents abdicated their own authority. The federal government has grown increasingly confident of its hegemony over the hearts and minds of our children. Most recently it has begun bullying and bribing every state in our nation to begin implementing the Common Core curriculum. Through the implementation of this curriculum the federal government has obliterated the numerous educational options previously available to parents and made it incredibly difficult for local and state governments to have any say in how the children of their communities are educated. While supporters of Common Core talk about the importance of implementing national standards in education, the real effect of this initiative will be the creation of a cookie cutter populace, uniformly shaped and opinionated, indistinguishable from one state to the next, and formed solely by the banality of the mass media and the inflexible educational standards of the federal Leviathan.

There are those among our citizenry who won’t terribly mind this particular development; it’s one less thing they’re responsible for, one more thing the government’s taking care of. Certainly, the Joe Wethingtons and Debra Kelleys of our nation will breather a sigh of relief, and say, “Finally, at last, maybe the feds will be able to put their foot down and tell those children no.” Because, remember, they’re not your responsibility. They’re not even yours. As the Common Core advocates over at John Podesta’s Center for American Progress like to say, “The children belong to all of us.”

Thoughts on Wilbur’s “For C.”

Richard Wilbur, “For C.”

After the clash of elevator gates
And the long sinking, she emerges where,
A slight thing in the morning’s crosstown glare,
She looks up toward the window where he waits,
Then in a fleeting taxi joins the rest
Of the huge traffic bound forever west.

On such grand scale do lovers say good-bye—
Even this other pair whose high romance
Had only the duration of a dance,
And who, now taking leave with stricken eye,
See each in each a whole new life forgone.
For them, above the darkling clubhouse lawn,

Bright Perseids flash and crumble; while for these
Who part now on the dock, weighed down by grief
And baggage, yet with something like relief,
It takes three thousand miles of knitting seas
To cancel out their crossing, and unmake
the amorous rough and tumble of their wake.

We are denied, my love, their fine tristesse
And bittersweet regrets, and cannot share
The frequent vistas of their large despair,
Where love and all are swept to nothingness;
Still, there’s a certain scope in that long love
Which constant spirits are the keepers of,

And which, though taken to be tame and staid,
Is a wild sostenuto of the heart,
A passion joined to courtesy and art
Which has the quality of something made,
Like a good fiddle, like the rose’s scent,
Like a rose window or the firmament.

Reading the first stanza one is presented with the image of a wisp of a girl leaving her lovers apartment after a night together. With a clash she sinks into the harsh frantic world of the city where she is lost in the “huge traffic bound forever west.” It is telling that she leaves in a taxi, hinting that it is not her apartment. One could suggest it was a one night stand except for the glance she casts back at the upper window where he waits, gazing down at her. The world they shared together came to an abrupt end with the “clash of elevator gates’ but in this brief glance some small reminder of it remains.
The first line of the second stanza succinctly states the unifying theme of the first three stanzas, “On such grand scale do lovers say goodbye.” The second image we are presented with is that of a couple dancing beneath the stars on a lawn in late summer. This couple is curious because it seems that they have only just fallen in love while at a summer dance. “for them . . . Bright Perseids flash and crumble.” It seems as if the breif duration of their dance is mirrored in the heavens as the meteors flare for but a moment before they disappear.
The third stanza begins with the words “Bright Perseids flash and crumble”, perhaps another motif of the first half of the poem? The third couple we encounter are a pair of lovers parting ways before a long ocean voyage. This stanza is a difficult one to read, especially the last three lines where Wilbur’s verbs and adjectives all run together to the point where you can’t tell if he’s talking about the lovers or the sea. Regardless, on the literal level, there they are on the dock, weighed down by greif and baggage and apparently three thousand miles of knitting seas is all it takes to cancel out these lovers crossing and unmake the amourous rough and tumble of their wake. I don’t know what it is seas knit exactly, but I expect Wilbur uses the term wake as it is generally used in relation to a funeral.
In all three of these examples there is a finality to the lovers parting, as if whatever they shared had come to an end; “the traffic bound forever west”, taking leave with stricken eye see each in each a whole new life foregone”, “cancel out their crossing and unmake the amourous rough and tumble of their wake.” It could be said that the most memorable thing about their love, at least as far as the poem goes, would be that it was, and now it is gone, and it is only through its absence that we come to realize what it was that we lost. It is only in the fourth stanza that all of this is drawn together, as we see what is most striking about their love, “their fine tristesse and bittersweet regrets . . . the frequent vistas of their large despair, where love and all are swept to nothingness.” All three of these vignettes deal in the fleeting unstable passions of star-crossed romantics.
It is telling that the first time the poet addresses the reader is at the start of the fourth stanza. This simple acknowledgment of another draws in the vast scope of the first three stanzas to the intimate space between a man and a woman as the speaker addresses his beloved. It is within this certain and constant space that a new kind of love is explored, ‘that long love, Which constant spirits are the keepers of.” This love allows for permanence like that of the firmament. Love as “passion joined to courtesy and art” allows for this space to exist like something crafted and defined. This love is architectural in its permanence and yet somehow infinite. The last two lines are absolutely amazing in his use of similes as he moves from the close and human scale of a fiddle or a rose scent or a rose window or . . . the firmament! How does this transition occurr?! This is absolutely amazing how Wilbur moves from the human scale to the universe without missing a beat and all of a sudden we see the transformation from “love and all swept to nothingness” to love encompassing all! IN these lines Wilbur crafts an amazing transition where at first the absolutely vast scope of the universe seems to negate love itself but then in eight short lines Wilbur turns this propostion on its head and demonstrates the absolute intimate vastness of love grounded firmly in the small things of the everyday.