Songwriting: Songwraiths

A popular technique often used today in commercial songwriting is avoiding the use of unique concrete details in order to broaden the appeal of a song. The thinking goes that if you write a song about a specific place or people the song will not be as marketable outside of that region. This has lead to a rise in songs that generally stick strictly to universals and avoid the particular as much as possible. When it is done right a leanness of detail within a song can lend it a haunting quality that seems to transcend capture by any particular time or place. However, there is always the danger that this wisp of a song becomes something of a wraith, so disconnected from the particulars of the world that our imagination finds within it little to grasp and hold onto. Such songs quickly fade from the popular memory. Earlier, I wrote of how the song “Travelin’ Soldier” used small but significant details to create a world that was human in scale, but also much larger than just what was described by the lyrics. In the Carrie Underwood song “Just a Dream” we are provided with an excellent example of what happens when songwriters choose to focus more on the action of the song then the world it unfolds in.

“Just a Dream” was written by Hillary Lindsey, Steve McEwan, and Gordie Simpson at a Nashville songwriting session. Their intent was to write a song where it seemed like a woman was going to her wedding, but it ended up she was going to her husband’s funeral. The over all action contained within the lyrics is quite brief, basically describing the woman driving to the funeral and the funeral itself. The first line of the song is practically a direct echo of the opening line of “Travelin’ Soldier,”

It was two weeks after the day she turned eighteen
All dressed in white, goin’ to the church that night
She had his box of letters in the passenger seat
Six pence in a shoe, somethin’ borrowed, somethin’ blue

Once again, the first four lines of the song allow us to begin to imagine the world the story exists in, a young woman dressed in white driving to a church with what we assume are a box of love letters and some keepsakes on the passenger seat. The description immediately calls to mind a wedding but there is something amiss in her driving alone in a car with just a box of letters and keepsakes.

The next few lines mimic the movement of a wedding, as the woman arrives at the church,

And when the church doors opened up wide
She put her veil down, tryin’ to hide the tears
Oh, she just couldn’t believe it
She heard the trumpets from the military band
And the flowers fell out of her hands

However, while we imagine a bride entering a church in her white dress and veil, the tears seem a little out of place. When we hear trumpets from a military band, and we know something is wrong, especially when the crying young woman drops her flowers. At this point the chorus of the song comes in, spoken from the young woman’s perspective, as she grieves the loss of her husband.

Baby, why’d you leave me? Why’d you have to go?
I was countin’ on forever, now I’ll never know
I can’t even breathe
It’s like I’m lookin’ from a distance, standin’ in the background
Everybody’s sayin’, he’s not comin’ home now
This can’t be happenin’ to me
This is just a dream

While it is apparent that the woman must be going to her soldier husband’s funeral, we still have very little to go on about the world that all of this is occurring in. We know that it is a world in which people drive cars, military personnel are dying, and funerals are held at churches, so we can assume the action is taking place sometime in the last sixty years during a war. Other than that, there is very little in the way of details to flesh out the world of the song. The second verse essentially reinforces the details of the dramatic situation set up in the first verse while providing us with little new information about where or when the action is occurring,

The preacher man said, “Let’s bow our heads and pray”
Lord, please lift his soul and heal this hurt
Then the congregation all stood up and sang
The saddest song that she ever heard
And then they handed her a folded up flag
And she held on to all she had left of him
Oh, and what could’ve been
And then the guns rang one last shot
And it felt like a bullet in her heart

In the second half of the verse we are reminded of her husband’s military service and probable combat death through the image of the folded flag and the shots of the rifle salute, but aside from a neatly played simile in the last two lines, these details accomplish little in furthering how we are to envision the world of the song. Once again, all we can imagine from the lyrics is that sometime in the last sixty years or so a young bride’s husband died at war and she was distraught at the funeral.

The other great weakness of this song is the lack of depth and perspective in how it describes the action. The immediacy of the description doesn’t allow us to see anything beyond the sorrow of the young woman. While it could be that the songwriters were trying to communicate her isolation in her sorrow, it’s hard to imagine her alone when her perspective is all you can see in the song. The chorus continues directly from the young woman’s perspective as she demands to know how her husband could have left her, ending with the words, “this can’t be happening to me.”

Baby, why’d you leave me? Why’d you have to go?
I was countin’ on forever, now I’ll never know
I can’t even breathe
It’s like I’m lookin’ from a distance, standin’ in the background
Everybody’s sayin’, he’s not comin’ home now
This can’t be happenin’ to me
This is just a dream

While one can understand her sorrow at her loss, the overall emotional scope of the song is curtailed by a lack of perspective that borders on self absorption, as if her becoming a widow was a greater tragedy than a young soldier dying. This effect is heightened by the dearth of knowledge we have about the young soldier. Within the lyrics of the song his character has no presence whatsoever, there is nothing there to even begin to imagine what he was like or provide us with some way in which we could emphasize with him. He almost comes off as a prop for her sorrow. It is her personality within the song which demands all of our attention.

In contrast to this, Robison’s “Traveling Soldier” presents us with a wider world in which we can emphasize with the love the couple has for each other, the soldier’s fear of dying young and alone, and the young girls tragic sense of loss when she discovers that her love has died fighting overseas. Robison creates this larger perspective by allowing for the interplay of multiple characters and emotions within the arc of the story. The world he creates through his lyrics is large enough to allow for multiple perspectives and the telling details he intersperses through out his song draw us into a familiar world we believe in and recognize. “Just a Dream” gives us but a brief glimpse of a moment with few details to recollect it’s passing. It is a fleeting wraith of a song.

Hillary Robison and Gordie Simpson sing “Just a Dream
Bruce Robison singing “Travelin’ Soldier

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