Tag Archives: Bruce Robison

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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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.