Words and Music: Writing About Music and Song in the Composition Classroom
Several years ago—in the mid 1990s, I think—I read in the Times Literary Supplement an article suggesting that today's songwriters have taken the place in our culture that poets held for so long. That might, in a sense, be true. But the literary marketplaces in which the great poets competed with mediocre and bad poets seem vastly different from today's music marketplace in which great songwriters compete with mediocre and bad songwriters. Our music industry demands a greater financial investment from its consumers than the poetry industry, if I may call it that, ever has. On the other hand, the "reading" of songs—even good ones—typically doesn't require the same intellectual investment from audiences that good poetry often does. But why shouldn't we demand from a song the same quality of impression and experience that we demand from a poem? Perhaps more to the point, how do we understand quality in a song? How does the added element of music affect—by enhancing or masking—a song lyric's poetic qualities? How does the expected entertainment value of a song affect its possible literary or communicative value? At bottom, what are we listening to and why are we listening to it?
With these ideas and questions in mind, I designed a composition course entitled "Words & Music," in which a group of first-semester freshmen was invited to explore the music they listen to every day. Student work in this class focused largely on the literacies of popular music, of songs and songwriting. Just as a course in film teaches students new ways of looking at the genre, so the "Words & Music" course suggested to students new ways of hearing the music around them, and in so doing, hopefully, offered them a pathway to a more enriching experience of their culture. Students felt that writing in this class was challenging but not a chore; they felt, I believe, a sense of ownership in relation to both the class and the writing they did in response to assignments. Being allowed to write in both academic and creative genres about something both familiar and expressive validated their individual thoughts and experiences and gave them a sense of what it means to think creatively and write with authority. To me, in my role as a teacher of writing, the course held a lot of potential for making use of a literacy that students hold in common to some degree but that is at the same time distinctively shaped by the individual student's background, value system, interests, and personality.
During our semester together, the students and I explored pop music history and such thematic blocks as "Song as Narrative," "Song and Culture," "Music Without Words," and "Song as Social/Political Commentary."* Along the way, I invited to class Dr. Ted Olson, a scholar of Appalachian literature and culture, who gave an informative presentation on the historic "Big Bang of Country Music," the Bristol sessions of 1927. (My university is located just a few miles from the site of this event.) I also invited local celebrities—Rob Russell, leader of Rob Russell and the Sore Losers, and The Everybody Fields, recently featured on NPR's Mountain Stage—to play for the students and discuss their work as performers and songwriters.
As a composition course, "Words & Music" allowed students to write in a number of reflective and analytical genres. They wrote four major essays during the course of the semester and a final exam essay at the end; scattered throughout were shorter assignments that allowed for writing different from the standard essay format.
The first major assignment was to narrate an experience that must in some way be related to a song. In addition to the usual elements we try to get students to include in such narratives—presenting the experience as vividly as possible, using relevant details in both event and description, recreating setting, clearly describing action, characters, dialogue, and so on—I required students to make use of their chosen song—its lyrics, tone, etc.—in the telling of the story. A significant element to this assignment was, furthermore, that their particular experience should serve as an example of some universal "truth" about themselves, their readers/peers, and the culture in which they live; they were to try to understand their personal experience in a broader social context. The audience for this narrative was identified as the imaginary readers Where Have You Been? Where Are You Going?, an imaginary newsletter distributed each semester to college freshman throughout Tennessee. As such, the audience was not faceless. Readers were roommates, neighbors in the residence halls, classmates. But they are not only students at East Tennessee State University. They were also attending schools all over Tennessee. They were first-year students at larger universities in Knoxville and Memphis, at other regional state universities such as UT-Chattanooga and MTSU, at campuses in both urban and rural settings, at elite private colleges, and at colleges with strong religious affiliations. These readers were of many faiths, of many racial, economic, and social backgrounds. But they were, in general, the same age as the writers and entering adulthood in the same way—by continuing their educations.
Narratives from college freshmen are often rather predictable, and this assignment yielded several essays that were easy to see coming. One young woman wrote a good essay about her high school love and used a Michelle Branch song called "Good-bye to You." Not so predictable, however, was the essay by a young man who is a member of a band and a budding songwriter. He wrote about the fears of leaving the security of high school—outsider though he was there—and going out into a larger world. His fears took shape in a piece of writing, a song he called "Into the Open." He told the story of writing the song, along the way letting readers see the bigger high school picture as well.
My favorite response to this assignment, however, was an essay called "African Sunday." The writer, a young white woman, tells a story from the period of her life during which she lived in the Ivory Coast, a story of a Sunday when she attended an African church with her family and a group of friends. The usual dust had been turned to mud by recent rains, and the air on the walk to the church was sticky and alive with smells—"the smell of chickens that were left to run wild, too many people crowded together, and strange things cooking over open fires. . . . of unwashed bodies, urine and wet sand." As you might imagine, this American girl wasn't happy, feeling so removed from the people surrounding her but being made to sit where, she writes, "there was not room for a piece of paper between me and the woman next to me." Then the music started. The song was an African folk song sung in French. The a cappella voices blended into reverent harmony. "Suddenly," the narrator says, "I wasn't thinking about the flies or the heat; I was part of them and together we were a part of Africa. . . . It was as if the world had stopped to listen." The larger context into which her story fits is that of humanity's being universally the same in many ways, and "regardless of the surroundings there is always good in them." Sometimes music is what helps us find that goodness.
The goal of the second essay—a profile—was to draw students outside themselves a little bit. Their own taste and interest remained the basis for their choice of topic, but they were to write their essays about an intriguing person/band/performer in the music world. They might write about a performer who had achieved worldwide celebrity or they might choose somebody local. The audience for this profile was identified as the readers of a local entertainment paper, such as Johnson City's Loafer.
If I had a disappointment in the responses to this assignment, it was that, although almost everybody chose somebody interesting to profile, only one student wrote about a local performer. Still, many of the choices were surprising—Frank Sinatra, the Eagles, and Leonard Cohen joined other, more contemporary subjects such as Trapt and Vince Gill.
I think the students found their third major assignment the most difficult—but, at the same time, the most informative experience. Our culture has been, for the past few years, full of musical and music-related ideas, activities, and opportunities that have never been heard of before (or at least have not been heard of in a long time), and students were asked to speculate about causes and connections related to some element of music in our culture. They had some choices to make at the beginning: they could choose a musical culture that interested or puzzled them—punk, gangsta rap, bluegrass country (ala Nickel Creek and Alison Krauss), American Idol pop, contemporary Christian praise/worship music, etc.; they could choose the cultures offered by certain kinds of gatherings revolving around music—raves, bluegrass festivals, particular bar scenes. Once their choice of subject was made from among these phenomena and trends, the students were to define it and speculate about specific causes that might explain it; they were to argue that the causes they considered were likely or plausible—not necessarily definitive—explanations for their chosen music culture phenomenon; they were to anticipate readers’ questions, objections, and alternative explanations. The assignment asked them to be sure not to consider only the most obvious of causes but to look also for the hidden. Students again chose interesting topics—the influence of the Beat Movement on songwriters like Dylan, the hair band phenomenon of the 1980s, the rise of Celtic music—but found it difficult to make the transition from profile to speculation.
The last major assignment for the course was a contextual analysis. Students were to choose a song that makes a statement about politics or society. Their mission in this assignment was to write an essay that (1) explained the situation the song addressed, (2) explained the songwriter's lyrical and musical commentary on the situation, and (3) evaluated that commentary according to its context. As for audience concerns, students were to imagine that the lyric of their chosen song and their accompanying essay were to appear in a collection of student essays called What Songs Tell Us About Who We Are. One student chose to discuss Lennon and McCartney's "Revolution" in the context of the late 1960s. Another chose Eric Bogle's "The Band Played 'Waltzing Matilda,'" a song connected to the involvement of Australia and New Zealand in World War I. Yet another wrote about Paula Cole's "I Don't Want to Wait," a 1990s pop song about "what happens to a family during and after war"—the war being, in this song, World War II.
I'd used similar assignments based on editorial cartoons, but I found that the song assignment seemed to work even better. Although editorial cartoons yield some great topics for students, the songs seemed to bring something extra to the paper. Perhaps it's the personal connection the individual is able to build in relation to a song. Perhaps it's the more emotional content of lyric and music. Whatever the reason, the contextual analyses done with the song at the center yielded not only great topics for student writers but also seemed to allow them to make an emotional connection that the reading of a cartoon—or history or headlines—doesn't. In addition to incorporating research into their writing processes, the students appeared able to feel more empathy for their subjects.
The most effective of the shorter assignments was one called the Desert Island Disc List. (I think I took the basics of this idea from a recurring item in Rolling Stone.) Students were asked to picture themselves on vacation, taking a three-hour tour on the SS Minnow, or picture themselves as a little emperor exiled to a small island for their delusions of world domination. Their only luxury was to be a solar-powered CD player and their ten favorite compact discs (or songs). They were asked to choose their ten favorites, not an easy thing to do once you start thinking about it, but what they found hardest was ranking the choices from one to ten and then writing a paragraph explaining and defending each selection and ranking. One of the benefits I hoped students would receive from this exercise was an understanding that their selections express something about themselves, that the way the songs were chosen and ranked should ring particularly true with the way in which the individual views the world.
Another shorter topic was to be a performance review. Students were expected to attend a live music performance. The genre and setting was their own choice. I expected them to write about the experience not as one-dimensional, as if they were watching it on television, but as a sort of three-dimensional event. The full effect of live music is achieved only by the combination of performer, performance, and setting. Students' written reviews of the performances they attended were to incorporate these three elements, drawing them together in their papers in a way similar to the overall performance itself.
As their final short assignment, students were to write a song lyric. The subject matter and style were their choice. They were asked to think about typical song structures we had explored in class—length of lines, rhyme, number of lines in a section, difference between lines in a verse or chorus or bridge, difference between content and movement of different sections. What do the verses accomplish? Do they move a story along? Do they provide examples and/or explorations of a main idea, like the paragraphs of an essay? How do the words in the chorus work? Do they present the main idea that the other parts attempt to expand upon or explain? What makes a good, memorable hook? Is it all melody, or does it have something to do with the words as well? Students were allowed to put music to their lyrics if they wanted to do so, but only one did. They could write an original lyric or write original words in imitation of the structure of an admired song.
After a semester of exploring songs and styles, students still struggled with this assignment, but I think most of them enjoyed it. They learned a greater respect for the writers of the songs we had been listening to all semester, but they also learned to respect their own creativity, no matter the level at which it functions. Learning to understand songs better helped students learn to understand their own writing better and have a better sense of their own creativity.
* A couple of mechanical details—our text was Rolling Stone: The Decades of Rock and Roll, Ed. Holly George-Warren et al., San Francisco: Chronicle, 2001; the class met in a multimedia classroom.