10 songs for lovers of great writing

Mark Underwood continues his irregular feature on music by great songwriters with great lyrics.

Kris Kristofferson – Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down
The song Johnny Cash took to the top of the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart and which “opened up a whole lot of doors for me” according to Kris Kristofferson. Having left the army in 1965, Kristofferson was employed as a janitor sweeping the floors at Columbia Records’ offices in Nashville. This enabled him to befriend June Carter Cash who passed tapes of songs to Johnny, although they went unheard. In probably the best attempt yet to grab someone’s attention, Kristofferson landed a helicopter in Cash’s front yard to personally deliver his music, which Cash eventually went on to record. The song’s opening lines: “Well I woke up Sunday morning / With no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt / And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad / So I had one more for dessert” are iconic and widely known. Although superficially a sad tale of alcoholism and self-delusion, what’s so good about the lyrics is how they speak to the loneliness of the protagonist, and this is further amplified by the power of memory – no better conjured up than by the sense of smell – and how the odour of “fryin’ chicken” takes him “back to something that I’d lost somehow somewhere along the way”.

Jim White – Handcuffed to a fence in Mississippi
I’m handcuffed to a fence in Mississippi / My girlfriend blows a boozy, goodbye kiss”. Not your average break up song, and all the better for it. And in spite of the protagonist’s misfortune he can still see the upside – “things is always better than they seem”. ‘No Such Place’ is an album that grabbed my attention in 2001 and even 19 years later Jim White’s performance at Dingwalls in Camden lives long in the memory. Where for Kris Kristofferson “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” for Jim White “You know freedom’s just a stupid superstition, ‘cause life’s a highway that you travel blind”.

Gretchen Peters – Arguing with Ghosts
“The years go by like days / Sometimes the days go by like years / And I don’t know which one I hate the most / At this same old kitchen table / In this same old busted chair / I’m drinking coffee and arguing with ghosts”.
There’s a reason why Gretchen Peters has been conducting songwriting workshops for so long – she writes brilliant songs. She also probably understands better than any songwriter in the modern era that only through the specific do you get to the universal: the holy grail for all songwriting. This is a moving and sad treatise on ageing, loneliness and mortality.

Al Stewart – Soho (Needless to Say)
Al Stewart’s ode to Soho where he lived in the mid 1960s includes some of the best use of alliteration in modern songwriting, the words to the song almost becoming its rhythm: “Rainstorm, brainstorm, faces in the maelstrom /
Huddle by the puddles in the shadows where the drains run”. Inspired during a period when he was reading a lot of W.H. Auden, Al Stewart refers to it as his Alzheimer’s song because of the mind boggling number of words he has to remember – maybe its modern day equivalent is ‘KAYMAGYOYO’ by Hayes Carll.

Bob Dylan – The Man in the Long Black Coat
“Crickets are chirping the water is high / There’s a soft cotton dress on the line hanging dry / Window wide open African trees / Bent over backwards from a hurricane breeze” – brilliant poetic lyricism but the hurricane breeze is a portent of worse to come:
“She never said nothing there was nothing she wrote / She gone with the man in the long black coat”. One explanation is that the man in the long black coat is the devil, with this being Dylan’s reinterpretation of The Daemon Lover, an old Scottish ballad about the devil enticing a young woman to abandon her husband and child so she can sail off with him to sea.

John Murry – Little Colored Balloons
If this ten minute long epic feels like the equivalent of stepping inside the confessional booth with John Murry, then the whole album ‘The Graceless Age’ is something of an emotional exorcism. Brutal, excoriating and soul baring, Murry recounts how he barely survived a near fatal heroin overdose in San Francisco: “I took an ambulance ride / They said I should’ve died / Right there on 16th and Mission”.
More a dedication to his then wife, Lori, than about his drug use  – this is a song about loving her from a distance. So good that it led music promoter and writer, Oliver Gray, to say of it: “In 71 years of listening to music, I’ve never heard a greater song than this”.

Chuck Berry – Promised Land
Songwriting as cartography. In just two minutes and 23 seconds, Chuck Berry establishes a vision of the American dream, charting a musical map as the poor boy of this song leaves his home in Norfolk, Virginia and takes buses, trains and jets to Los Angeles to (hopefully) make it in the music business, briefly referencing the struggle for black equality and civil rights along the way: “Right away, I bought me a through train ticket / Ridin’ cross Mississippi clean / And I was on that midnight flier out of Birmingham / Smoking into New Orleans”.

Lucinda Williams – Overtime
“I guess out of the blue / You won’t cross my mind / And I’ll get over you / Overtime / Your pale skin, your sexy crooked teeth / The trouble you’d get in / In 
your clumsy way / I guess one afternoon / You won’t cross my mind.” From her nakedly autobiographical album, ‘World Without Tears’ Lucinda Williams not only manages to narrate how time is the only real cure for a broken heart, but it’s also in her almost poetic economy of words that she’s so impressive. Williams learned her facility for concision of words from her father, poet Miller Williams: “Dad stressed the importance of the economics of writing,” she said. “Clean it up, edit, edit, revise!”

Peter Bruntnell – By the Time My Head Gets to Phoenix
The best ever song about cryogenic freezing. Ok, maybe the only song about cryogenic freezing. Said to be inspired by a news bulletin about a group of people who wanted to send their bodies to Phoenix, Arizona for cryopreservation after they died, only to find that for reasons of economy they could only afford to send their heads instead. From one of the UK’s consistently best songwriters, Peter Bruntnell manages to place himself at the heart of the song and makes it something of a paean to lost time, kids growing up too fast – oh, and the end of the world: “By the time my head gets to Phoenix / You’ll be on your way to school / By the time my earlobe freezes / You’ll be acting like the fool / And if our world explodes / We’d never know the truth / Floating ‘round this empty silver tube”.

Richard Thompson – Woods of Darney
“I found your picture in a corporal’s pocket / His cold fingers still pressed it to his chest / Sniper’s bullet took his eyes and his breath away / Now he lies out in the forest with the rest”.
A complete novel written in the form of a 5 minute and 43 second long song. A soldier in the First World War finds the picture of a fallen corporal’s beloved, lives to meet up and break the news to her, and in the process becomes her lover. But the surviving soldier is haunted by whether he can ever truly measure up to his dead comrade. However, they are both united in one thing: “And it’s many a soldier who goes into battle / Your corporal and I, we just hear and obey / Perhaps we’ll lie in the darkness together / With your love to bind us, in the woods of Darney”.

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No John Prine?!?!??! Who are you people?


Promised land by Johnny Allen is one of my all time favourite tracks though the rest of that particular album is a bit of a let down. Musically I think it is the better version of the two but its a great lyric