Lyrics and literature: fruit from different trees

By Andrea Tarella – Flickr: Rebecca Ferguson Milano (Milan, Italy) 30/01/2012, CC BY 2.0,
Owen Shiers
Julie of Hidden Jules






Today I’ve listened to three songs. The first was pretty and traditional, and sung by Owen Shiers in Welsh, a language I don’t speak, but just as I can be moved with little understanding by an opera in Italian, I enjoyed it thoroughly for its tune, its feel and the artistry of the performer. The second, telling the story of white supremacist killings from America’s bloody past, is unlikely to be sung at Trump’s Inauguration – but deep respect to Rebecca Ferguson for making it a condition of agreeing to perform. And the third grew from scattergun words I committed to paper about my 35 years with alopecia, and sent to a talented singer-songwriter called Julie Williams. It’s a while since Dylan kicked off a debate among academics by winning the Nobel Prize in a category for which many considered a songwriter ineligible. I suggest that if we’re debating whether song lyrics are literature, there are a few factors we might take into account.

  1. They’re only half the story. Whether the tune generates the lyrics or (as in the case of Bernie Taupin’s words prompting music from Elton John) vice versa, the words are only part of the process and the outcome. Like premature babies in an incubator they can’t breathe alone. For evidence of this, I investigated Radiohead, one of my favourite bands – finding that lyrics sung with idiosyncratic power and feeling by the brilliant Thom Yorke seem harrowingly deep in their musical context, but when cast away onto a blank screen become limp, random and distant.
  2. Choosing as an example the beautiful Exit Song, I realised that these isolated lyrics surprised me after repeated hearings. They’re so difficult to identify as a listener (with old ears, anyway) that I’ll push my case further and suggest that the words are in fact dispensable. If Yorke were to deliver sub-Jabberwocky non-words, the song would hold. The emotion would carry us along and the more verbal among us might well supply our own, like children making sense of the unknown. As a child singing Jesus, good above all other in assembly, I didn’t understand ‘persevere’ so heard and delivered, “Give us grace to burn in fear.” (Hm. No wonder I was inhibited and insecure at school.) In the case of music that makes a deep connection – as symphonies and concertos, preludes and sonatas have to do – lyrics may be superfluous to requirements. How can they then be seen as literature, defined as: written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit (OED)?
  3. In songs where the clarity of the words is less muddy, the tone may be achieved through lyrics that supply emotional triggers without substance, coherence or originality, depending on associations we make as listeners. I offer, as something of a fan, Angels by Robbie Williams – arguing that while the song’s impact has ensured it a place at weddings and funerals, the lyrics connect in this way while trailing a long way short of literature. Similarly, scrambled eggs presumably made way for Yesterday because like all of us Paul McCartney understood the emotional power of the past, the poignancy of longing for what we’ve lost – a shared part of the human condition that gives simple lyrics meaning for each of us.
  4. Literature is an art form; the OED definition makes this clear. A classic novel can take years to write, to edit and redraft and sometimes restructure, to rework and refine. A tune, on the other hand, can come to the songwriter almost complete; Yesterday appeared to Paul McCartney in a dream and Jack White wrote Seven Nation Army during a sound check. Many claim to have composed songs in ten minutes, half an hour, an hour or two. Of course it is unfair to compare a pop song to War and Peace but if we could interview Ted Hughes, W.B. Yeats, Wilfred Owen or Keats I believe they would describe the process of writing their greatest poems as intense, protracted, exacting and precise. (The manuscript of Anthem for Doomed Youth that survives shows only Sassoon’s edits, not the working that went into the poem before Owen gave it to him. If anyone ever edited someone else’s song lyrics in this way, I’d be interested to know why and how.)
  5. In the context of prizes for literature, there’s the question of justice. As author Chris Hill says in his blog written after Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, not song: “And what of the people who have been deprived this year? If Haruki Murakami goes out for a run in Tokyo tomorrow and gets knocked down by a bullet train he will never have won the Nobel Prize. But Bob Dylan will.” I’d use a different example. The sublime Marilynne Robinson hasn’t won the Nobel Prize either, although alongside the Pulitzer she has won a literary peace prize, God bless her. And no, I don’t think Dylan should win that either!
  6. There is no disputing the power of song lyrics. I’ve experienced it on demonstrations with such choruses as We will overcome. And today, when I read on Twitter that Rebecca Ferguson said she would continue performing at Trump’s inauguration only if she could sing Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, I found on Youtube some of the most stunning lyrics I’ve ever heard, delivered with passion and grace. Are they equally moving even in silence, without notes, chords or a human spirit embodied in a voice? Have they been crafted? Well, in this kind of traditional song the words are subject to rhythm and rhyme. As Baa Baa Black Sheep shows, however, such discipline does not in itself guarantee that the criteria for literature are met. But for me, Strange Fruit comes as close as a song can.

    Strange Fruit

    Southern trees bear strange fruit
    Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
    Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
    Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

    Pastoral scene of the gallant south
    The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
    Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
    Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

    Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
    For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
    For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
    Here is a strange and bitter crop

    © Peermusic Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Universal Music Publishing Group

When I gave Julie Williams of Hidden Jules my thoughts on alopecia I didn’t shape them. I think I could only do that if fitting them to a tune in my head – in the way I enjoyed writing new lyrics to songs as a teacher scripting a school play. This was different. Although it looked like a poem on the page, really all I passed on was notes with phrases like ‘out of hiding’ and ‘dancing wild’ (because songs don’t like adverbs) and a few metaphors: alien, baby, dolphin. So I don’t consider myself the co-writer of this song that means so much to me. What Julie has done is simple, coherent and clever. And there are layers there for the listener to uncover in a line like, “This babe has grown, she’s grown so strong.” Because words have multiple meanings and associations – so on the one hand, no, I’m not a babe, I’m sixty and free from caring how people see me in a body-conscious media world; I’m also a feminist who loathes the word. But on the other hand I’m a woman now and my bare head is a powerful symbol of diversity as well as liberation. And yes, alopecia made me emotionally helpless for a long while, but now I’ve outgrown my fear, and I understand strength as the ability to look, live and love beyond it. So it’s this line that moves me most. But that’s personal. Will anyone who hasn’t experienced my 35 years find in it all these layered meanings? And do they make the song literature? No and no. They just make it a song I love. Maybe you’ll like it too.

Oh, and I like Bob Dylan. I just don’t think song lyrics are literature any more than a peanut butter sandwich is a curry.

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