Most would agree with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
“Music is the universal language of mankind.”
Without giving it a moment of thought, music permeates your day.
It’s cuing the segments in your morning shows, booming from the ceiling in the convenience store, beating behind the cash register of the cafe that brews your morning coffee.
It’s broadcasting everywhere: in the car on your way to work, in the earbuds of the joggers in the park, through the sophisticated headphones teens wear on their walk to school.
The problem with this universal presence is that it stays in the background, providing little more than ambient noise. Without giving it our full attention, we miss the deeper opportunities available to us.
As a writer, you’ve likely experimented with music as a mood setter, as a productivity tool. Even scientists agree: listening to classical music benefits learning, memory, and creativity.
Writers of all genres acknowledged the creative and transformational powers of music:
Tolstoy said, “Music is the shorthand of emotion.”
Maya Angelou shared, “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”
According to Douglas Adams, “Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be Beethoven, and Mozart tells you what it’s like to be human. Bach tells you what it’s like to be the universe.”
Poet Edna Vincent Millay said it best:
“Without music I should wish to die.”
This list of songs, chosen from a small pool of singer songwriters from the last sixty years, covers a wide range of themes, often presented in binary opposition: hope and despair, freedom and responsibility, innocence and experience, self-determination and victimhood, death and rebirth.
These songs celebrate the mundane, difficult realities of life, exposing the numerous falsehoods lurking behind the promise of the American Dream, behind the “work hard and prosper” mantras of previous generations.
The common denominator is compromise.
All of these characters, human and non-human, must bend, adapt, and endure hardship to survive. And while there’s much to explore on a literal level, the larger truths lie just below the surface.
Let’s take a look at nine classic songs, representing some of the best work of their genres.
Spend some quality time with the lyrics and arrangements. Allow the words, characters, scenes, and situations inspire your next big story or blog post.
“Let Him Fly” by Patty Griffin
Patty Griffin’s 1996 song “Let Him Fly” describes an epiphany, the precise moment one realizes a relationship has run its course, that it’s time to separate and move on.
Things can move at such a pace
The second hand just waved goodbye
You know the light has left his face
But you can’t recall just where or why
So there was really nothing to it
I just went and cut right through it
I said I’m gonna’ let him fly
Patty recorded this solo guitar and vocal version as a demo. Her record label decided to release it without further instrumentation on Living With Ghosts, her debut album. Recorded in her Boston apartment, you can hear a police siren in the background. The simple, stripped-down arrangement creates ample room to focus on the lyrics.
“Factory” by Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen’s 1977 song “Factory,” appearing on his critically acclaimed album Darkness on the Edge of Town, provides an introspective look at the American Dream and its inherent dualities: freedom and restriction, life and death, hope and despair.
Early in the morning factory whistle blows,
Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes,
Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light,
It’s the working, the working, just the working life.
The refrain conjures the repetition, monotony, and melancholy of a factory job. The most important line, “Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life,” reveals the irony in the bargains we strike to earn a living.
“Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman
Tracy Chapman’s 1988 hit “Fast Car” explores the promises and falsehoods of the American Dream. Told through the lens of a personal relationship, the narrator becomes increasingly disillusioned with each verse.
Although the song explores similar territory as “Factory,” “Fast Car” takes a different turn, celebrating hope in the chorus—if only in retrospect.
So, I remember we were driving, driving in your car
Speed so fast, I felt like I was drunk
City lights lay out before us
And your arm felt nice wrapped ’round my shoulder
And I had a feeling that I belonged
I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone
Winning a Grammy award for Song of the Year, “Fast Car” confronts multiple societal issues: poverty, alcoholism, independence, and codependence.
“Here Come Those Tears Again” by Jackson Browne
In this mid-seventies classic by Jackson Browne, the narrator, faced with what he most desires, pauses to consider whether he’s up to the challenge.
The on-and-off-again love story rings true. How many of us, after putting ourselves back together after a painful breakup, harbor serious doubts about second chances—especially when our love interest has a history of leaving and returning?
Baby here we stand again
Where we’ve been so many times before
Even though you looked so sure
As I was watching you walking out my door
But you always walk back in like you did today
Acting like you never even went away
Well I don’t know if I can
Open up and let you in baby
Here come those tears
Here come those tears again
The upbeat arrangement provides the perfect contrast to the dark, brooding lyrics. What would you do? In the end, Jackson’s narrator walks away:
Some other time baby
When I’m strong and feeling fine maybe
When I can look at you without crying
You might look like a friend of mine
“I Am a Town” by Mary Chapin Carpenter
Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “I Am a Town,” takes the listener on a stunning visual tour through a typical small town in the Carolinas. The view from the windshield elevates the ordinary, forcing the listener to slow down and pay attention.
I remember looping this song several times after my first listen. The acoustic guitar, piano, and cello arrangement conjures the feel of summertime, of open windows and country roads. According to Carpenter, the song began as a poem, with the melody and music emerging later.
I’m a town in Carolina, I’m a detour on a ride
For a phone call and a soda, I’m a blur from the driver’s side
I’m the last gas for an hour if you’re going twenty-five
I am Texaco and tobacco, I am dust you leave behind
I am peaches in September, and corn from a roadside stall
I’m the language of the natives, I’m a cadence and a drawl
I’m the pines behind the graveyard, and the cool beneath their shade,
Where the boys have left their beer cans
I am weeds between the graves.
“I Am a Town” appeared on Come On Come On, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s fourth studio album, charting seven singles and selling over four million copies.
“(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night” by Tom Waits
(Shawn Colvin’s version)
Remember when Saturday night mattered, when a single night could erase a week’s worth of drudgery and disappointment? This Tom Waits classic recreates the excitement and anticipation of a Saturday night on the town:
You got paid on Friday, your pockets are jingling
Then you see the lights, and you get all tingling
Cause you’re cruising with a six
You’re looking for the heart of Saturday night
Then you comb your hair, you shave your face
Trying to wipe out every trace
Of all the other days in the week
You know that this’ll be the Saturday you’re reaching your peak
After setting up this familiar scene, the narrator pauses to consider “the heart” of the experience—the combination of elements giving it life:
Tell me, is it the crack of the pool balls, neon buzzing?
Telephone’s ringing, it’s your second cousin
Is it the barmaid that’s smiling from the corner of her eye?
Magic of the melancholy tear in your eye?
Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler’s “Red Dirt Girl”
(Brandi Carlile’s version)
“Red Dirt Girl” is the title track from Emmylou’s 2001 album. The album won a Grammy Award in the Best Contemporary Folk Album category.
Covering vast territory, the song begins on a bright note, capturing the innocence and hopefulness of youth:
Me and my best friend Lillian
And her blue tick hound dog Gideon,
Sittin’ on the front porch cooling in the shade
Singin’ every song the radio played
Waitin’ for the Alabama sun to go down
Two red dirt girls in a red dirt town
Me and Lillian
Just across the line and a little southeast of Meridian.
Midstream, realizing her place in the world held limited prospects, the narrator holds out hope:
There’s not much hope for a red dirt girl
Somewhere out there is a great big world
That’s where I’m bound
And the stars might fall on Alabama
But one of these days I’m going to swing my hammer down
Away from this red dirt town
I’m going to make a joyful sound
Finally, she “dug right in,” embracing compromise, but the loneliness and loss are too much for her.
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
Providing a snapshot of the late-sixties counterculture, this 1969 anthem from the Rolling Stones discusses drug use, addiction, and political unrest. These same issues resonate today in anti-violence demonstrations, climate change, and Black Lives Matter protests.
I saw her today at the reception
A glass of wine in her hand
I knew she would meet her connection
At her feet was her footloose man
While conceding to the often naïve idealism of the decade, the song doesn’t let the listener down, offering hope for the disillusioned:
No, you can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime you find
You get what you need
The song has been featured in countless films.
Patty Larkin’s “Booth of Glass”
When Patty Larkin sat down to write “Booth of Glass,” she couldn’t have imagined the cultural and technological changes on the horizon. Nevertheless, the song illustrates the frustration felt when someone longs to connect and walks away unsatisfied.
Listening to it today, one would be hard pressed to find a working phone booth. Still, the feeling is universal. One can’t help appreciate the profound effects of technology on our lives. Today, it’s the call that goes straight to voicemail, the unanswered text burning a hole in the back pocket.
I change my dollar for a dime
Walk the shoulder
To the pay phone line
By the roadside bar
On a neon night
I pull up my collar in the wind
Warm my hand
And the pocket tears again
I hear a jukebox start
It’s got a bass drum heart
After sharing this intimate space with the reader, Patty cuts straight to the heart of the matter:
Just once I’d like to find you
Just once I’d like to find you
What other classic songs might inspire good writing?
Share your thoughts in the comments below.