When I teach writing classes, I often play the song “Copperhead Road,” by Steve Earle for the students. If you don’t know it, here’s the video.
When it’s over, I point out what makes the song so extraordinary. It tells the story of three generations of men named Conlee* Pedimore; grandfather was a moonshiner, father was a bootlegger, and the narrator is a pot farmer. The music progresses from pure folk, to slightly harder-edged roots music, to full-blown rock and roll, depicting the progression of generations. The lyrics are filled with specific imagery:
“…he’d buy a hundred pounds of yeast and some copper line…”
“…him and my uncle tore that engine down/I still remember that rumblin’ sound…”
“…now the DEA’s got a chopper in the air/I wake up screaming like I’m back over there…”
When the song over, I usually get a lot of blank stares; what does this have to do with writing?
Then I point out that Earle has told a story of three generations, of three distinct eras, and shown how they intertwine. To do the same thing in prose would take hundreds of pages and probably several years of research and writing; for example, look at “The Godfather,” novel and film(s). Earle manages it in around five minutes.
And THAT is the magic of music.
In the context of the classes, I usually use it to point out how the right detail can do the work of hundreds, if not thousands, of words. But in the larger sense, to me it is magic. I can understand crafting lyrics, chipping away until you’ve got that diamond-hard bit of perfection.
But the music…I’ll never get that.
I’ll never understand how a simple chord change, how moving your fingers on a fret board can change emotions from anger to joy, from amusement to sadness, from any of our millions of feelings to another of those millions. Yet it happens all the time.
I’ve written many novels, and in most of them music plays a part. But in the Tufa novels (The Hum and the Shiver, Wisp of a Thing, Long Black Curl, and the upcoming Chapel of Ease), music becomes part of the story. The Tufa, descendants of Celtic fae folk now living in Appalachia, keep their magic in their songs. When they play music, or sing certain songs at certain times, unnatural things can happen. As I say, in the story it’s magic, but it’s only a slightly exaggerated version of how I feel about music in the real world.
A national anthem, a school song, a shared memory of that stupid one-hit wonder when you were in high school, all these can pull us together. A protest song can swell the ranks of us-vs-them. A love song…well, we all know what they can do.
What songs have affected you the most, and why/how? And writers: what songs have inspired you?
*all the official lyric sheets show the name as John Lee, but I’ve been listening to this song for nearly 30 years, and I swear it sounds like he’s singing “Conlee.” It might be a mondegreen, or perhaps I’ve just been hearing it wrong all this time.