As both an eminent, award-winning American poet and music critic, David Kirby has published more than two dozen volumes of poetry, criticism, essays, children’s literature, pedagogy, and biography, including the definitive biography of Little Richard titled Little Richard The Birth of Rock and Roll. A frequent contributor to such newspapers as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times over the past several decades on topics of both poetry and music, Kirby has achieved a renaissance-like talent for writing nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, all with equal skill. The seminal essay he has written for this month’s issue of Plume, “The Road Goes On Forever and The Party Never Ends,” weds his vast knowledge of vintage rock and roll lyrics with his keen insights into the pedagogy of poetry writing. This essay reads as a brilliant distillation of both his listening and thinking about the complementary relationship between the verbal scaffolding of poetry writing and lyricizing. One feels in reading this essay that Kirby has reached a critical high point in his long career as a both a poet and music critic, discerning as he does with self-effacing, risible wit the profound lessons that song lyrics can provide on the composition of memorable poetry.
The Road Goes On Forever and The Party Never Ends
I make my students sing. They don’t like it, or at least they say they don’t, but as with a lot of things they encounter as they mature, they change their minds later. My university’s public relations office interviewed a recent grad on Instagram and asked her about her time at Florida State. One question was, “What one memory of your time at FSU do you think you’ll always remember?” and she answered, “One memory of my time at FSU I’ll always remember is when David Kirby made my class randomly stand up and sing a song in class.”
Does this sound as though I should not make my students sing? Her big memory wasn’t of having her heart broken or watching our football team beat the University of Florida team or legally buying a drink in a bar the first time but of singing Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning” or The Clovers’ “Love Potion No. 9″ in a group of her equally baffled peers.
Here’s why I do it.
- All songs are about sex or at least relationships, as are a lot of poems.
Actually, everything is about sex, according to Foucault, except sex. Sex is about power. As for my students, like young people everywhere they either like sex because they’ve had good experiences or don’t like it because they’ve had bad ones or are curious about it because they haven’t had it at all. There are no atheists as far as sex goes, which gives my students everything in common with the songs I make them sing.
Songs have always been sexy. Boomers like me remember being warned that rock ‘n’ roll was the devil’s music, but before that, Henry Ford attacked jazz for its “abandoned sensuousness,” and Ladies Home Journal said that it led its listeners to commit “the vilest of deeds,” whatever those might be. They weren’t wrong, of course. As opposed to classical forms, the music of the last hundred years traffics in vocal and instrumental swoops and slides that resemble cries of terror and ecstasy, though it’s hard to say which since the two states are so often intertwined.
Writing about a ragtime show in Leeds, J. B. Priestley noted that light classical orchestras and music-hall bands were being replaced by a “syncopated frenzy”: “shining with sweat, the ragtimers almost hung over the footlights, defying us to resist the rhythm, drumming us into another kind of life in which anything might happen.” Take another look at those words I italicized. Sure sounds like poetry, doesn’t it?
Songwriter Thomas Dorsey says this of the Ma Rainey show: “The room is filled with a haze of smoke. She walks into the spotlight. . . . She’s not a young symmetrical streamlined type; her face seems to have discarded no less than fifty-some years. She stands out high in front with a glorious bust, squeezed tightly in the middle. . . . When she started singing, the gold in her teeth would sparkle. She possessed her listeners; they swayed, they rocked, they moaned and groaned as they felt the blues with her. . . . The bass drum rolled like thunder and the stage lights flickered like forked lightning.”
Closer to our time, an English tabloid featured an article on Elvis with the headline “THIS MAN IS DANGEROUS,” and the first sentence read, “I have never met Elvis Presley—but already I dislike him intensely.”
Okay, but “art is dangerous,” said Duke Ellington. “When it ceases to be dangerous, you don’t want it.” He was talking about music, but the same is true for poetry.
More than any other art form, poetry and music have the potential to contain what contemporary music writer Ann Powers calls “all the ugly and problematic things about sex as well as its pleasures, demonstrating how yearning and sensual release could reduce a person to gibberish.” Music can give its listeners “funny feelings,” as the young Powers’ friend Lisa said about looking at photos of Keith Richards. But from those funny feelings come a sense of “somebodiness,” to use Martin Luther King’s term, a sense of “the full experience of being human, every inch of flesh and spirit, nothing denied.”
Another way to put it is to say that a song that matters to you is one that provides an epiphany. In her memoir Stray, Stephanie Danler says, “Epiphanies aren’t lightning bolts. They are a hummed note, a prayer mumbled constantly, brought to the surface given the right conditions. It’s as if I’m always hearing three ways, first shallowly, collecting, then one level deeper as I’m processing, and finally, I am hearing with my body, which is when I’m hearing myself.” When you pass a kid on campus with a set of earbuds and they smile or do a quick dance step, that’s probably because they’re listening to a song that tells them who they are. I try to write poems that have that effect, and I damned sure try to teach my students to write that way.
That’s why, on the first day of a recent workshop, I passed out lyrics to and had students sing The Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” It was horrible. But fun! Another time, I might have them do the ultimate pop-song treatment of adolescent angst, “A Teenager in Love” by Dion and the Belmonts (“Each night I ask the stars up above / Why must I be a teenager in love?”).
Giving students the confidence to stand up and be somebody in the face of their own appalling incompetence is reason alone to have them sing. But there’s a lot more to say on the subject, starting with . . .
- Like poems, the best songs are accidents.
Throughout his life, Irving Berlin worried that his gift would just leave him, that he’d wake up one morning and never write another hit again. When he went to his doctor to say that he suffered from insomnia and had tried counting sheep, the unsympathetic doctor told him he’d do better to count his blessings instead. The result was 1954’s “Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep),” which reached #5 on the Billboard charts, only slightly higher than versions song by Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney.
Jimmie “The Singing Brakeman” Rodgers’ hits include “Blue Yodel No. 9,” but that’s because he saw a traveling Swiss yodeling act, liked their sound, and decided to incorporate it in his music.
Al Jolson was famous for performing on one knee, but the first time he did it, all he wanted to do was take the pressure off of the foot of the leg he was kneeling on because of the excruciating pain he felt from an ingrown toenail. Since he was suddenly half his height on stage, he had to gesticulate even more wildly, and when the crowd went wild, he made kneeling part of his routine.
In 1941 John Lomax packs up his his 350-pound Presto “portable” reproducer, a needle-driven recording machine that captures songs on heavy, fragile acetate disks, and goes in search of blues legend Robert Johnson, only to be told that he’d died years ago. “But while you’re here,” says somebody, “there’s another guy down the street who plays bottleneck guitar and sings high just like Robert.” That other guy turns out to be McKinley Morganfield, who becomes Muddy Waters, who becomes a one-man link between all the prehistoric Delta blues songs that never got recorded and the full flowering of rock in the sixties.
Out on the West Coast, Nat King Cole is relaxing backstage after a show when manager Mort Ruby hands him a shopworn sheet of paper and says, “A guy on a bicycle says he has a song for you.” The guy is eden ahbez (ahbez thought caps should only be used for “God” and “Infinity”), and the song is “Nature Boy.” “Let’s do it,” says Nat King Cole, and “Nature Boy” not only establishes Cole’s solo career but also introduces him to a white audience—that is, after frantic Capitol Records execs find eden ahbez living under one of the Ls in the Hollywood sign and get his permission to release a record which Capitol is unsure about, though Cole sticks to his guns. “Nature Boy” reaches #1 on the charts, and Billboard names it the best record of the year. Soon more chart-topping versions are released by Frank Sinatra and others, and today there are more than 550 versions of “Nature Boy.”
All art, whether it’s painting or making movies or writing songs or poems, is a result of the deliberate transformed by the accidental. Sure, you have to start out with a plan, but then the doorbell rings or you get a phone call or you remember when your dog died or you saw your sweetheart for the first time, and suddenly that song or poem you’re working on takes a different turn and, if you’re lucky, a better turn.
- Students learn techniques from music they can use, even if they don’t know they’re learning it at the time.
For example, songs use images to tell stories, just as poems do. Tom Petty says, “A good song should give you a lot of images. You should be able to make your own little movie in your head to a good song.” You can’t hear Johnny Cash’s “Long Black Veil” or Steve Miller’s “Take the Money and Run” without seeing figures moving toward a destination that will turn out to be different from what they’d thought it would be, just as you can’t not see a carriage stop at Emily Dickinson’s grave or a little horse and some snow when Bob Frost pulls up and contemplates some words that are lovely, dark and deep.
Songs also teach word play (see The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” or Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top”) and rhythm (anything by The Animals or The Kinks). A lot of young poets rush their poems, so it’s good to show them the value of a pause, as in Sinatra’s “(Love is) The Tender Trap.”
And songs also teach you how to use these effects sparingly. According to Burt Bacharach, who wrote “Walk On By” for Dionne Warwick and “I Say a Little Prayer for You” for Aretha Franklin and hundreds of other hits, a hot lick in a song is something you only want to use once or twice. It’s like you have a great smile. Turn it on at the right moment, and the person you’re talking to will be eating out of your hand; flash it constantly, and they’ll think you’re insane. Listen to Jackie Wilson’s “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher” to see what I mean: Wilson could hit a high note that would lift the roof off of any opera house, but he doesn’t bring it out till the song’s very end.
- A good song can energize you the way a good poem should.
In the 1920s, when department stores began to stock phonograph records, an industry insider said, “Quite a big proportion of those who come in to hear our records have in mind no particular numbers. . . . They just say, ‘What have you got that’s new?’” It’s essential that music tell you something you don’t know already.
When he was a kid in Oklahoma City, Ralph Ellison heard Duke Ellington’s band and remembered that their sound was like “news from the great wide world.”
Your students have never heard of The Andrews Sisters, but singing “The Boogie Woogie Boy of Company B” will change their lives. And they probably think they know what country music is and even tell you they don’t like it, but take them through David Allan Coe’s “You Never Even Call My By My Name” or Wanda Jackson’s “Hard-Headed Woman” and watch them wriggle with joy.
- Students learn they can love something they thought they hated.
See David Allen Coe’s “You Never Even Call My By My Name,” above. See also the former student in paragraph one whose biggest memory of her undergraduate years was singing in my class. She didn’t want to do it in September, but by December, she was belting ‘em out like everybody else.
Nobody fell in love with “The Waste Land” the first time they read it, but that poem changed lives. Grappling with something that unsettles or even repulses you is one way to grow.
- Students need to see someone having fun.
Sure, you have to shovel boatloads of tactics and techniques into your young poets. But modeling the poetic life might be just as important, or, given that your students who continue to write will chart their own course no matter what you say to them, even more important than showing them how to write a pantoum or ghazal. The poet Michael Hettich says he got his start this way: “I don’t remember how old I was when my father sat me down beside him on the living room couch to read to me from his favorite poets, but I do know that I was young enough to understand very little of what the poems meant, and that their meaning didn’t really matter at all. My father seemed another person when he intoned these poems, and yet he seemed exactly himself. And I felt very close to him then and very much myself: happy and pregnant with vivid possibilities.”
Beyond performing your own joy with them, when you have your students sing the great songs, you can also expose them to the lessons of the great singers. Little Richard tells us to put on a show. Don’t just be there. Your audience could be doing a dozen other things, but they came to see you—put on a show for them. Otis Redding sang “These Arms of Mine and “Can’t Turn You Loose” and a dozen other songs that drove fans into states of ecstasy, but he was nice to everybody. Al Bell, who ran Stax Records, remembers that employees got excited when they knew the singer was coming in: “He would go around to all the offices, greet the secretaries. . . . And it was just Otis being Otis. But the whole atmosphere changed.” And if you were at a Sam Cooke concert, no matter how big the room, it’s said it seemed as though he was singing to you alone. That’s not an easy quality to put into a poem, but it’s sure worth trying for.
- Every student needs an enemy.
Look, they’re going to find fault with you no matter what you do. Why not give them an easy target? Maybe they’ll forget about all the other things you’re doing wrong.
- So does every teacher.
See point #8, making appropriate pronoun substitutions.
- Like poems, songs are messy.
Take the first rock ‘n’ roll, the sounds issued by, say, Sun Records. Sam Phillips, who recorded Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash in his Memphis studio, had a knack for steering his artists back to the growls and mumbles that not only made them seem more neighborly to their blue-collar audience but also allowed listeners to enter into the music’s sense of playfulness. Phillips’ “barely legal country upstarts,” in the words of Ann Powers, were trying to get away from farming and truck driving and often hoped merely to become regional stars who could play in small-town movie houses and high school gyms in the south, but as Powers says, “Phillips helped these flashy itinerant workers stay in touch with the parts of themselves that didn’t take so well to upward mobility.” When Carl Perkins of “Blue Suede Shoes” fame complained that a particular recording session had been “one big original mistake,” Phillips replied, “That’s what Sun Records is.”
Meanwhile, out in Clovis, New Mexico, Buddy Holly was making records that showcased a vocal technique that involved “worrying a lyric, taking words and syllables apart and reassembling them using hiccups and tics and pauses and halting breath, exactly the way a teenage boy would mentally rehearse asking a girl on a date, or a girl might go over that very same request in her own head later, until its meaning splintered into pieces.” Holly wasn’t a looker like Elvis or a strutting peacock like Chuck Berry, so he had to come up with a sound that was unique. As did his entire band: when you listen to Buddy Holly and the Crickets, half the time drummer Jerry Allison sounds as though he’s hitting a wet cardboard box with an axe handle. Yet it worked. Cue up “Peggy Sue” or “Rave On” or “Maybe Baby” and you’re a kid again, stumbling around the gym floor and hoping your partner doesn’t notice that you can’t dance.
The accidental part of the creative act is always the most fun. Another way to say that is, if something looks as though it’s not going to work, it probably will. Recalling Elvis’s first stage show, Sam Phillips said here was a kid who wasn’t playing country, and he wasn’t playing rhythm ‘n’ blues, and he looked “a little greasy.” The venue was “just a joint,” and the audience was a bunch of hard-drinking folks who weren’t about to settle for a tepid performance. But they didn’t have to. Their reaction, said Phillips, was “just incredible.”
And because songs and poems are messy, we don’t always get them the first time around. REM vocalist Michael Stipe says something similar about song lyrics, namely, “I doubt very few people in the world can tell you all the words to ‘Tumbling Dice’ by the Rolling Stones. It probably holds a lot more meaning to be able to make up your own words and make up your own meanings about what the words are saying.” In the same way, T. S. Eliot said, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”
There is, however, one crucial difference between poems and songs you should be sure to tell your students about. As my Facebook friend Daphne Maysonet says in a recent post, “Being in an industry in which, as soon as you enter, you have the ability to compete with your heroes is very rare. There is no qualification to submit poems to a literary journal. No credential. Submission is not hierarchical. Submitting to a well-known mainstream magazine in which you find your favorite writers is possible. Other industries don’t really do that in the same way. You don’t start a band and start competing with The Rolling Stones for gigs.” That said, says Daphne, “When I am submitting to journals for publication, in my mind, I am competing with basically The Rolling Stones every time. That’s why I’m picky and careful and slow and humble.”
One more thing: which songs work and which don’t? Well, none of them really work, because your poets will be starting and stopping at different times and singing in different keys and sometimes not singing at all, for which reason the songs you pick shouldn’t be too good. They shouldn’t be too long or contain too many hard-to-pronounce words. So no Leonard Cohen. No Joni Mitchell, and (almost) no Bob Dylan: okay, maybe “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” but definitely not “Tangled Up in Blue.” Nothing too syrupy: forget Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind,” Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust.” All things being equal, short and fast takes the prize every time—try Fats Domino’s “Sick and Tired” and you’ll see what I mean.
Inspirational anthems like Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me” work well on the first day. After that, you can’t go wrong with just about anything from the Great American Songbook, those early-20th-century jazz standards and show tunes. Think Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Fats Waller, Irving Berlin. Think the Andrews Sisters singing “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” (“And now the company jumps when he plays reveille”) and “Mr. Sandman,” with its tour de force rhyming of “Pagliacci” and “Liberace,” as well as its seasonal counterpart, “Señor Santa.” When the weather changes, I always have my kids sing Helen Kane’s “Button Up Your Overcoat” with its full range of seasonal health tips.
Country songs work like gangbusters. Try John Connolly’s “Common Man.” Try Wanda Jackson’s “Hard-Headed Woman.” Definitely air any tune by Loretta Lynn, from “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” and her hymn of praise to reproductive rights “The Pill,” though you should preview that one with a brief intro to Lorettaspeak (“pill” is pronounced “pee-yul”).
Oh, dear. Did sex just rear its scaly head? Hey, I said it would! Straight-up love songs don’t work, but cheesy ones do, and here I’m thinking of Love Affair’s “Everlasting Love,” Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes,” Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” For heaven’s sake, avoid anything too romantic, including Exile’s “Kiss You All Over” and the DeCastro Sisters’ “Teach Me Tonight,” which has a creepy professor in it (“One thing isn’t very clear, my love / Should the teacher stand so near, my love”). Remember, you’re going for a fun-filled classroom experience here, not a trip to the Dean’s office.
Anything by Chuck Berry.
Finally, don’t telegraph your punches. Don’t rehearse: sooner or later, a student will ask you to send the class an audio the day before so they can learn the song and do a decent job on it, but you don’t want that. You want to ambush your students. Sometimes you’ll want to start or end a class with a song or have it pop up in the middle, and certainly you’ll want to skip a day or a week of singing, maybe even two in a row. Michelangelo liked to leave some roughness on a finished statue to show that a great work required no additional polish.
This is poetry, people. The road to perfection is never smooth.
Many of the anecdotes in sections 1, 2, and 10 are from two of the best books ever about popular music, Ann Powers’ Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music and Bob Stanley’s Let’s Do It: The Birth of Pop Music: A History. More about the lives of the three meistersingers mentioned in section 7 can be found in Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul by Mark Ribowsky, Peter Guralnick’s Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, and my own book on Little Richard.