Metaphor, Guy Clark, and The Cape

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

Chorus: 

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

Chorus

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,

Elizabeth

Posted in Kids, Life, Music, Random, Uncategorized, Writing and tagged , , , , , , .

8 Comments

  1. In addition to finding your appreciation of music very similar to mine (I am going through a phase of obsession with the group Threshold which I cannot believe I never heard before) but since I am addicted to your writing of Elemental Mysteries I was a bit curious about this bit of info thrown out above – “Absinthe lover” – since that is a bit out of the ordinary 🙂

  2. Haha! I tried absinthe…maybe ten years ago on a visit to the Czech Republic and I loved it. There’s a funny story that goes along with it, but it will have to wait for another time. Needless to say, it was a memorable experience, and I was thrilled to find it available years later in American markets. I’ve tried a lot of different kinds over the years, but my favorite has become an all-American absinthe out of Northern California called. St. George.

  3. Every time I see anything about absinthe I always recall the short lived HBO program Carnivale which I think myself and 2 other people watched since it died rather quickly 🙂 It was constantly being consumed by blind seer Professor Lodz (pouring it over a sugar cube it appeared through a strainer) which made me remember it I guess.

    • I watched Carnivale briefly until I heard it was not going to be renewed. Then, I confess, I didn’t allow myself to get too attached. But I do remember the Professor. And I drink my absinthe the same way, a bit of water poured over sugar. It’s a lovely and complex liquor. If you like anise flavor, you might give it a try!

  4. I just returned to my home in Florida from a trip out to New Mexico. When I drive such a long way I like to listen to music and it brings back lots of memories. On this trip it was; Peter Paul and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, Ralph McTell, Don Williams, and a few others. When I returned home I was listening to Guy Clark sing, “The Cape” on YouTube and was wondered how to explain the meaning of this song to a friend. So I did a Google and found you! You nailed it, thanks! Great post! I enjoy lots of different of music, with a few exceptions. Just wanted you to know I enjoyed your post!

    Alan

  5. I never thought that writing a song could be considered writing, because I am trying writing on my own, without any professional help, and low and behold, two books telling the truth, in some cases reluctantly and now the third one coming up. This one not really about me but surrounded by the way of life I lived, lakes, and the north…and the weather. I wonder if there is a song in my words so far..

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