I’m in awe of good songwriters. A good song is a complete story told in three or four minutes. Set to music. Now, I’m a decent writer, but I hold a certain reverence for those talented individuals who can tell a story, put it to music, and often, sing it too. That, my friends, is talent.
I listened to a variety of music growing up, from the Statler Brothers to Led Zeppelin, folk music of all kinds and classical music, too. My own musical training was classical (voice and piano) but I always had an affection for traditional country music. When I went to school in Houston, I fell in love with Texas songwriters. Lyle Lovett was the first, quickly followed by Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark.
Now, a lot of you may never have heard of Guy Clark (or Van Zandt, which is a crime), but you’ve probably heard his songs. They’ve been covered by some of the biggest names in country music. However, if you’ve never heard Clark sing, you’re missing out. I’ve heard him described as a musician’s musician. He builds guitars and often plays them. He’s a songwriter, a mentor, and he’s probably one of the most emotionally evocative performers I’ve ever seen with nothing more on stage than himself and a guitar. If you think I’m exaggerating, here’s a video of Clark performing his song, Dublin Blues, last year:
Okay, this has kind of turned into a Guy Clark Appreciation Post (which is fine) but I wanted to get back to the idea of songs as really tiny, efficient stories and what we can learn from that as prose writers. One of the reasons songwriters can get away with telling big stories in tiny settings is effective use of metaphor.
Wikipedia has a great definition of metaphor: ‘A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea; e.g., “Her eyes were glistening jewels.” ‘ Great definition. Good example. A better example is Clark’s song, The Cape:
Eight years old with flour sack cape
Tied all around his neck
He climbed up on the garage
Figurin’ what the heck
He screwed his courage up so tight
The whole thing come unwound
He got a runnin’ start and bless his heart
He headed for the ground
He’s one of those who knows that life
Is just a leap of faith
Spread your arms and hold your breath
And always trust your cape
All grown up with a flour sack cape
Tied all around his dream
He’s full of piss and vinegar
He’s bustin’ at the seams
He licked his finger and checked the wind
It’s gonna be do or die
He wasn’t scared of nothin’, boys
He was pretty sure he could fly
Old and grey with a flour sack cape
Tied all around his head
He’s still jumpin’ off the garage
And will be till he’s dead
All these years the people said
He’s actin’ like a kid
He did not know he could not fly
So he did
The Cape is one of my favorite songs. In 171 words, Clark gives us the story of a character at three stages of life. He’s optimistic. A risk-taker. Is he successful? Maybe. We’re not too sure, but that’s not really the point. The point of this little story is that whatever the risks were, our main character was willing to take them and keep taking them throughout his life.
It’s a universal theme that most of us can relate to. Maybe you’re the kid jumping off the garage and maybe you’re the person who says “he’s acting like a kid,” but we can all place ourselves somewhere in this story. How does Clark achieve this in 171 words?
Metaphor. Clark uses the image of the cape, a recognizable symbol of invincibility to his audience to drive the song. The Cape is such an evocative metaphor that he doesn’t have to spend much time explaining his character. All he has to say is that there’s a little boy standing on the garage wearing a flour-sack cape, and he’s ready to jump. Our minds do the rest. (I can do an entirely separate post on metaphor and audience, so we’ll leave that alone here.) For now, just keep this in mind: metaphor is powerful, and it’s a great shortcut for writers.
Listen for it. Learn it. Use it to create layered writing.
Oh, and on a personal note: if you’re a writer, get yourself a cape.
“He did not know he could not fly…so he did.”
Thanks for reading,