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The Delicate Balance: Music & Lyrics

Every song, by definition, balances music and lyrics.  How well a song works often has to do with how well that balance is struck.

On the spectrum of great songwriting, I think of Burt Bacharach and Hal David as being at one extreme.  Complicated music, direct lyrics.  The simple perfection of David’s lyrics can often be overlooked in the rush to appreciate Bacharach’s distinctive and complex music.

David’s lyrics sit on the unusual melodies and harmonies in perfect balance.  They are straightforward and easy to understand stories that are full of emotion and sing perfectly (really).

If you see me walking down the street
And I start to cry each time we meet
Walk On By, Walk On By
Make believe
that you don’t see the tears
Just let me grieve
in private ’cause each time I see you
I break down and cry
Walk On By
Walk On By
Walk On By

Anyone who has ever tried to write a ‘simple’ lyric like this, that sings beautifully, knows how hard it is.

The song is made all the more profound by words that don’t try to do too much, letting the music ‘do its work’.  This type of balance is at work in most, if not all, of their classic songs.

On the other extreme, there are songs with complicated lyrics – stories that require a lot of attention to register with the listener.  These often work best with simpler melodies and chord changes – again, striking the right balance.

As examples I’ll point to Subterranean Homesick Blues by Bob Dylan and Ode To Billie Joe by Bobbie Gentry.  Both lyrics are exceptional – I’ve copied them below in full.

Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues is an explosion of verbal creativity that at times literally forces the 12 bar blues form into a different shape.  It’s freestyle rhyming foreshadows rap music by some 25 years. Considering the ‘busyness’ of the words, it’s hard to imagine this song working as well as it does without the melody and harmony being as relatively simple as they are (simple in terms of notes, not rhythm).

Bobbie Gentry’s Ode To Bille Joe combines an extended blues form and bluesy melody with dense and multi-layered verbal storytelling. Again, the relative simplicity of the music serves the song very well – the ‘flavor’ is perfect – and allows the lyric to do most of the ‘heavy lifting’.

In the lyric itself. the balance between what is revealed and what is left a mystery is astonishing.  I don’t know of another song that does this better.  If you do, let me know!

It’s a practically perfect song that, perhaps because of the ‘one-hit wonder’ nature of Bobbie Gentry’s career, doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.

There’s obviously no ‘correct’ balance with music and words.  But it can be interesting and useful, when writing, to search for what feels like the right balance between them.


Subterranean Homesick Blues        (Bob Dylan)

Johnny’s in the basement/
Mixing up the medicine/
I’m on the pavement
/Thinking about the government
/The man in the trench coat/
Badge out, laid off
/Says he’s got a bad cough
/Wants to get it paid off

Look out kid
/It’s somethin’ you did
?God knows when
/But you’re doin’ it again
/You better duck down the alley way
/Lookin’ for a new friend
/The man in the coon-skin cap
/By the big pen
/Wants eleven dollar bills
/You only got ten

Maggie comes fleet foot/
Face full of black soot/
Talkin’ that the heat put
/Plants in the bed but
/The phone’s tapped anyway/
Maggie says that many say
/They must bust in early May
/Orders from the D.A.

Look out kid/Don’t matter what you did
/Walk on your tiptoes
/Don’t try “No-Doz”/
Better stay away from those
/That carry around a fire hose/
Keep a clean nose
./Watch the plain clothes/
You don’t need a weatherman
/To know which way the wind blows

Get sick, get well
Hang around a ink well
/Ring bell, hard to tell
/If anything is gonna sell
/Try hard, get barred/
Get back, write braille/
Get jailed, jump bail
/Join the army, if you fail

Look out kid
/You’re gonna get hit/
But users, cheaters/
Six-time losers
/Hang around the theaters/
Girl by the whirlpool/
Lookin’ for a new fool/Don’t follow leaders/Watch the parkin’ meters

Look out kid
/They keep it all hid/
Better jump down a manhole/
Light yourself a candle/
Don’t wear sandals
/Try to avoid the scandals
/Don’t wanna be a bum
/You better chew gum/
The pump don’t work
’/Cause the vandals took the handles


Ode To Bille Joe  (Bobbie Gentry)

It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was balin’ hay
And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat
And Mama hollered out the back door “y’all remember to wipe your feet”
And then she said “I got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge”
“Today Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”

And Papa said to Mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas
“Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please”
“There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow”
And Mama said it was shame about Billy Joe, anyhow
Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billy Joe MacAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

And Brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show
And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?
“I’ll have another piece of apple pie, you know it don’t seem right”
“I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge”
“And now you tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”

And Mama said to me “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?”
“I’ve been cookin’ all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite”
“That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today”
“Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way”
“He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge”
“And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge”

A year has come ‘n’ gone since we heard the news ’bout Billy Joe
And Brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo
There was a virus going ’round, Papa caught it and he died last Spring
And now Mama doesn’t seem to wanna do much of anything
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge

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