A Note On What Songs Are

–From A Letter To A Friend–


I enjoyed Berger’s article, but I think that while being visually observant in his language he missed a few things. Here’s a few notes.

He says, “The words of songs are different from the words that make prose. …in songs, they are first and foremost the intimate sounds of their mother tongue.” He then talks about rivers and the flowing of language, and that’s all true of course. But there’s something else. The words of song are incomplete. They only become whole with melody and a voice to sing them. They are unlike any other word form in that respect. Their closest relation is the language of theater plays. To read a play is one thing, but to see it performed is to see it come alive. Take the same song lyric and sing it to a different melody and the story will change. This is important because “song” is a verb. It does not exist until somebody does something: sings it, physical motion, intentional activity. Music itself, like dance, theater, and running, only exists when something is in motion. So yes, mother tongue, but that also happens in poetry and in good prose, no big deal. But melody and singing, that’s the point. And by the way, the melody is also a mother tongue. Cultures have melody forms unique to themselves. Nobody can really do a Bo Diddley song except either Bo Diddley himself or somebody from his mother tongue culture. I rasied myself on the country blues, specifically Lightnin’ Hopkins. But it took me all of my life so far to understand how to do any of those songs without being artificial.

Later on he says, “Songs put their arms around linear time without being utopian.” Then he goes on to talk about the Soviet Union and the gulags. He seems to be doing the same thing that many of us do to begin with, which is to consider that the songs we love are the only songs there are. That’s a mistake. It is in fact utopian. I wrote a song a few months back that has the line, “a song cannot tell a lie.” That’s BS, of course, and I knew it when I write it, but I was making a point. My point now is that “song” is a language form. Songs can lie and do corporate promotions along with the best of them, always could. There were songs to support Franco and Mussolini. Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land Is Your Land” in response to another song called “God Bless America.” Many people look at folksong as some sort of pure art form. But there are many folk songs that casually encourage rape, thievery and drunkenness. And there are many utopian songs. What is gospel if not childishly utopian?

All together I liked the piece, there were a lot of good insights. I especially liked the image of the song leaning forward to meet the listener. Of course songs look for bodies to inhabit. They don’t exist until somebody sings them.