Not all songs need to be love songs

I’m not naturally called to be a songwriter, but I have my reasons for wanting to do it. Partly it’s to avoid copyright issues that arise from distributing recordings of songs other people wrote. But mostly it’s because I think that life is a lot richer than you can tell from the songs being written these days.

Two of my songwriting heroes are Randy Newman and Mark Knopfler, precisely because most of the songs they write are not love songs. Newman was the first to point out for me that there’s an awful lot to life that isn’t romatic love, and therefor isn’t being addressed in songs. Knopfler never said so, but just look at the range of topics he’s written on—Mason and Dixon, NASCAR, prairie weddings, MTV, war, Sonny Liston, itinerant gospel singers, Ray Kroc—and you’ll see that he’s one of the few that gets this.

Perhaps that’s why Appalachian music appeals to me so much. There are standard topics that crop up—coal mining, leaving the farm, mother, relatives dying—but at least they aren’t romantic love songs.

There is a theme that ties together most Appalachian songs, but it’s not romantic love (or the current-day equivalent, sexual attraction). I don’t know yet how to describe it accurately, but it is a sort of yearning, for things that were lost (e.g. home, mother) or never achieved (success, marriage) or might be achieved in the future (heaven). It’s not despairing, or even melancholic, but rather a recognition and an acceptance of our fallen state.

Those old songs still have their power, but they are increasingly unable to touch modern souls as they should. Not because we’ve conquered the deeper issues they raise, but mostly we can’t relate to the circumstances they describe. We’re not coal miners or oppressed farmers, our mothers and fathers don’t die on us like they used to, we don’t see marriage anymore as the capstone of an adult life.

I’d like to find ways to tap into that yearning which speak to modern souls. So I’m working on a list of situations that challenge us today. Feel free to make your own suggestions.

  • Boomerang children
  • Aimlessness in the early adult years
  • Letting the biological clock run out
  • Fear of commitment
  • Wage slavery
  • Rootlessness
  • Consequences of promiscuity
  • Addiction to technology
  • Dependence on state services
  • Helplessness in the hands of medical science
  • Consumerism
  • Slaves to fashion
  • Alienation from the church
  • Weak or nonexistent community
  • Being at the mercy of powerful financial/political interests
  • Us vs. them
  • Fragility of a complex society
  • Selfishness
  • Fanaticism
  • Chronological/cultural snobbery

And let’s not forget the timeless seven:

  • Greed
  • Sloth
  • Anger
  • Gluttony
  • Lust
  • Pride
  • Envy

5 thoughts on “Not all songs need to be love songs

  1. Good list – I think that is why I am usually stymied when asked what kind of music I listen to – generally easier to describe by saying what I do not listen to ie pop or especially pop country. Most of the time I think music that resonates with me is done by singer/songwriters, everything from Bruce Cockburn to Pearl Jam to Greg Brown, and yes some Mark Knopfler too. I’ve started following a local bluegrass/hillbilly band too, mix in some Wailen Jennys if you want to. Oh, and I do like the the Reel Time Traveller stuff and the Ed Snodderly I got from you some years back. :) Much as I have tried to like the real old time stuff, I have not had much success, perhaps for the reasons you articulate above.

    Keep up the good work –

    Doug Peterson

  2. The rootlessness would probably tie in with this, but I was thinking “restlessness” or “impatience with life”, where we chase the perfect circumstances but do not have the wisdom or understanding to know when/if to put down roots and stay.

  3. Heather,

    Good one! I might group those things you mention as lack of contentment, but they all have different manifestations. One kind of discontent I’ve been thinking about lately, which I don’t quite know how to peg, is a critical spirit, when nothing ever measures up to one’s standards. It doesn’t necessarily manifest itself as complaining or whining—the person afflicted can be quite matter-of-fact about the situation, even accepting—but what kind of life is it when your default attitude is that nothing is suitable?

    I’ll add all this to my mental list, even if I can’t find good names to add to the public one.

  4. Randy Newman, huh?

    Short people got … no reason

    And after that, he thinks we’ve got a friend in him?


  5. Anon,

    Short people? Let’s not forget that this is the guy who wrote “God’s Song”, one of the the most cynical songs ever.

    When challenged on the messages of such songs, Newman says “What makes you think that’s what I think?” Knopfler said the same thing when confronted about “Money for Nothing.” It’s a good reminder. I don’t think the writer of “Banks of the Ohio” was endorsing murder, and I certainly don’t when I sing it.

    On the other hand, I think we can’t absolve ourselves of responsibility for our actions. I stopped singing the original words to “Banks of the Ohio” when I noticed some small children listening to me sing them and thought it might not be a good story for them to hear. I might still sing them in an all-adult gathering, but I’m not sure–it’s a difficult thing to adopt a murderer’s mindset, even to tell a story, and probably something one should consider carefully.

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