National Poetry Month 2016: Great Lyricists

Musician On Stage
Musician On Stage
Music is a great way to enjoy poetry. // Image courtesy insouciance on Flickr.

In the US, April is designated as National Poetry Month (among many other things). And while I’m an English teacher, I admit that I actually don’t care much for poetry. Heresy! But put that poetry to music and suddenly it becomes something magical. I’ll let other writers and teachers tackle the poets; this poetry month I want to talk about songwriters and lyricists. Music is often touted as a great way to learn a language, and I believe that wholeheartedly, but I think the quality of the lyrics makes a huge difference in how effectively you can learn from a song.

There are too many that I could possibly list, but no matter what I would have to start with Tom Chapin, the poet and bard of my childhood. He’s always my first suggestion when parents want English children’s music. His songs use simple language and a wry sense of humor, and many of them promote positive lessons on topics like tolerance in “Family Tree”:

The folks in Madagascar
aren’t the same as in Alaska.
They got different foods, different moods
and different colored skin.
You may have a different name,
but underneath we’re much the same.
You’re probably my cousin and the whole world is our kin.

or environmental stewardship in “Someone’s Gonna Use It”:

When you stand at the sink did you ever think
about the water running down the drain?
That it used to be in the deep blue sea
and before that it was rain?
Then it turned to snow for an Eskimo
to use in a snowball fight.
Then it floated south ’til it reached your mouth
to help you brush your teeth tonight.

Someone’s gonna use it after you.
Someone needs that water
when you’re through.
‘Cause the water, land and air,
these are things we’ve got to share.
Someone’s gonna use it after you.

Twenty-odd years later and I still know entire albums by heart. They are catchy tunes.

It’s worth mentioning the late Harry Chapin, Tom’s older brother and a giant in the American singer-songwriter/folk scene. Tom’s music for families and children is great, but sometimes you want something a little more mature. Harry had a knack for weaving stories, often bittersweet or outright sad, into his music. “Cat’s Cradle” is basically the story of parenthood:

My child arrived just the other day.
He came to the world in the usual way.
But there were planes to catch and bills to pay;
he learned to walk while I was away.
And he was talkin’ ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew
he’d say “I’m gonna be like you, Dad.
You know I’m gonna be like you.”

I’ve long since retired; my son’s moved away.
I called him up just the other day.
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind.”
He said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I can find the time.
You see, my new job’s a hassle and kids have the flu.
But it’s sure nice talking to you, Dad.
It’s been sure nice talking to you.”

And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me,
he’d grown up just like me.
My boy was just like me.

And “Thirty Thousand Pounds of Bananas” tells the actual true story of an out-of-control tractor trailer full of bananas in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

He was a young driver,
just out on his second job.
And he was carrying the next day’s pasty fruits
for everyone in that coal-scarred city,
where children play without despair
in backyard slag-piles and folks manage to eat each day
about thirty thousand pounds of bananas.

If you’re not a fan of folk music, then allow me to shift gears into popular music for a second. The genre has a bad reputation for being shallow, but there are great writers in the genre. My long-time favorite is Ben Folds, who (like Harry Chapin) is a fantastic storyteller, though with an electric guitars-and-keyboard pop style instead of a solo acoustic guitar. He also has some great character studies:

Your Uncle Walter’s going on and on
’bout everything he’s seen and done.
The voice of 50 years experience,
he’s drunk, watching the television.

You know he’s been around the world.
Last night he flew to Baghdad
in his magical armchair.
Cigarettes and a six pack, he just got back.
The spit’s flying everywhere.

(“Uncle Walter”)

Fred sits alone at his desk in the dark.
There’s an awkward young shadow that waits in the hall.
He has cleared all his things and he’s put them in boxes;
things that remind him: “Life has been good.”

Twenty-five years,
he’s worked at the paper.
A man’s here to take him downstairs.
“And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones.
It’s time.”

(“Fred Jones Part 2)

Be warned that Ben Folds doesn’t shy away from using strong language, so this isn’t one for your younger children (maybe). But for those of you who don’t mind salty language, “Army” and “Song For the Dumped” are two of my favorite of his story songs.

Finally, if you prefer something a little more offbeat, you can’t go wrong with They Might be Giants. While some of the lyrics border on absurd or nonsensical (like “Dead”), and others on standard pop music’s repetition of just phrases and rhymes for rhyme’s sake (“Cyclops Rock”), there are lots of more linear, story-like songs.

I never knew what everybody meant
by endless, hopeless, bleak despair,
until one day when I found out.
The first time I ever left my house
it saw me and followed me home,
and stayed with me for my whole life.

For years and years I wandered the earth,
condemned to a life of bleak despair.
Then, one day, I looked around
and found it had disappeared.

(“Hopeless Bleak Despair”)

How can I sing like a girl
and not be stigmatized
by the rest of the world?
Tell me, how can I sing like a girl
and not be objectified
as if I were a girl?

I want to raise my freak flag
higher and higher, and
I want to raise my freak flag
and never be alone.
Never be alone.

(“How Can I Sing Like a Girl?”)

They also have a couple albums of educational albums out: one for letters, one for numbers, and one for science.

I could go on, but I’ll stop myself here. That’s plenty of new music to explore, isn’t it?

Who are your favorite songwriters? Is there anyone I should know about? Comment or Tweet at me!

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