Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and while trying to make an important point resorted to the use of song lyrics to drive home your message? "Well you know it's like that line from that old song… or it's like that song says…"or "it's like ol' Blue Eyes used to sing." Well, you get the picture. We've probably all have been guilty from time to time of tossing out lyrics in our dialogues with friends, family, and others. When an intellectual argument won't suffice and an emotional connection is needed, song lyrics work quite nicely. Now I'm not saying we should reduce our verbal interactions with one another down to lyrics. Our society has already been dumbed down enough. I can imagine a bad SNL skit consisting of songwriters speaking to each other only with lyrics they have written. But lyrics have a musical connotation, and let's face it – music conjures up all kinds of emotional baggage. It tugs and pulls at our heartstrings like nothing else. Certain songs and their accompanying lyrics stay in our heads and our hearts for a lifetime. Below is a list of songs and their memorable lyrics that have left a lasting impression upon me down through the years.
song: Me and Bobby McGee
Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose
Nothing don't mean nothing if it ain't free
And feeling good was easy, when Bobby sang the blues
You know feeling good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and Bobby McGee
definitive version: Janis Joplin
A travelogue of two lovers, a hippie anthem, and a song for a generation. Recorded shortly before her death, Joplin drives the lyrics home with her bluesy rendition. Though the well known lyrics have risked becoming a clichÃ© down through the years, Kristofferson hasn't sold out. I'm sure Nike, Apple, and gasp…Victoria's Secret would all jump at the chance to use this song in one of their commercials.
song: Sunday Morning Coming Down
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
definitive version: Kris Kristofferson
A down on his luck, hung-over songwriter tackling loneliness and existential angst. Many singers have covered this song, but Kristofferson's cracked, weathered voice lends authenticity which others have lacked.
song: Good Ole Boys Like Me
writer: Bob McDill
When I was in school I ran with a kid down the street.
And I watched him burn himself up on bourbon and
speed. But I was smarter than most and I could
choose. I leaned to talk like the man on the six o'clock
definitive version: Don Williams
One of my all time favorite songs. A southern gothic tale of ultimate survival. Anyone from the south can identify with these lyrics interspersed with images of Stonewall Jackson, Uncle Remus, Hank Williams, Tennessee Williams, and Thomas Wolfe. Don Williams' steady and smooth baritone works its magic with these superb lyrics by McDill.
song: I Believe In You
I don't believe in superstars
organic food and foreign cars
I don't believe the price of gold
the certainty of growing old
definitive version: Don Williams
I do believe in organic food and foreign cars but I love this song. The singer (again Williams) becomes disillusioned with a number of things except the love of his life.
song: Sam Stone
writer: John Prine
There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money
goes, Jesus Christ died for nothin' I suppose.
Little pitchers have big ears,
Don't stop to count the years, Sweet songs never
last too long on broken radios. Mmm…
definitive version: John Prine
A heartbreaking tale about a drug addicted Vietnam vet. Prine's lyrics propel Sam Stone toward a tragic ending.
song: Atlantic City
writer: Bruce Springsteen
Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night
now they blew up his house too
Down on the boardwalk they're getting' ready for a
fight gonna see what them racket boys can do
definitive version: Bruce Springsteen
This is the gritty underside of Atlantic City that you won't find in the tour guides. The song is the antithesis of the Drifters Under The Boardwalk.
song: It Was A Very Good Year
writer: Ervin Drake
It was a very good year for blue-blooded girls
of independent means, we'd ride in limousines
There chauffeurs would drive, when I was thirty-five
definitive version: Frank Sinatra
A recounting of romances at different points of a man's life. Legend has it that Sinatra heard a folk version of this song on radio and just had to record it. This song captures Sinatra at his most reflective.
song: Mack The Knife
writer: Weill/Brecht/Blitzstein (from the Threepenny Opera)
oh, the shark, babe has such teeth, dear
And it shows them pearly white
Just a jackknife has old MacHeath, babe
And he keeps it…ah…out of sight.
definitive version: Bobby Darin
As a child this was one of the first songs I ever remember hearing. That shark always got me. I like Satchmo's version but Bobby Darin strikes the right balance between chilling and charming. Mackey is indeed back in town.
song: I'm Not Ready Yet
writer: Tom T. Hall
I've always said someday I was gonna leave you. Some April when all the land is wet.
Some spring, summer, fall or maybe winter
I'll leave someday but I'm not ready yet.
definitive version: George Jones
Many country music aficionados claim that Jones' He Stopped Loving Her Today is the greatest country song of all time and that's hard to argue with. But I like this song better. Who among us hasn't contemplated the end of a relationship only to step back from the abyss and uttered the words "I'm not ready yet".
song: You Asked Me To
writer: Billy Joe Shaver
Long ago and far away in my old common labor shoes
I turned the world all which-a-way
Just because you asked me too
definitive version: Billy Joe Shaver
Billy Joe Shaver has written many gems in his career. Willie Nelson calls him the greatest songwriter alive. Bob Dylan name checks him on his latest recording. This is perhaps my favorite Shaver song. It conjures up images of a simple working man trying to keep a handle on a romantic relationship. Shaver has the ability just like John Prine to say a lot with a few words. Less is indeed more in this case. As Shaver has said himself, "simplicity don't need to be greased". Elvis was so enamored of this song that he cut his own version.
writer: Billy Yates
I was tempted at an early age
I found I liked drinking
Lord I never turned one down
There were loved ones
But I turned them all away and now I'm
Living and dying with the choices I made.
definitive version: Bettye LaVette
If you've never heard soul songstress Bettye LaVette, you're in for a real treat. LaVette has got to be one of the most underrated performers alive today. While Sinatra sang about having regrets"… but too few to mention" in My Way, LaVette counters with having too many and living with the consequences.
song: Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone)
writer: David Allan Coe
Would you lay with me in a field of stone?
If my needs were strong, would you lay with me?
definitive version: David Allan Coe
A song about gauging a lover's commitment.
song: That's Life
That's life, that's what the people say
You're riding high in April, shot down in May
But I know I'm gonna change that tune
When I'm back on top in June
definitive version: Van Morrison
This may have been one of Sinatra's signature songs but Morrison has
covered this song for years and made it his own. The lyrics are definitely ones I can identify with.
song: Idiot Wind
writer: Bob Dylan
They say I shot a man named Gray
and took his wife to Italy
She inherited a million bucks and when she died
It came to me, I can't help it if I'm lucky
definitive version: Bob Dylan
Who says Dylan doesn't have a sense of humor? The above lyrics soften us up for what is otherwise a serious and weighty song. The wit here is razor sharp.
song: Tower of Song
writer: Leonard Cohen
I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn't answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the tower of song
definitive version: Leonard Cohen
Performers and songwriters have chosen a profession from which there is no escape – not even in death according to Cohen. We are blessed but also cursed with this gift.
song: Amarillo By Morning
They took my saddle in Houston
broke my leg in Santa Fe, lost my wife and a
girlfriend somewhere along the way
definitive version: George Straight
A down on his luck cowboy refuses to give up in the face of extreme
adversity. Amarillo represents a new start.
song: If You Could Read My Mind
writer: Gordon Lightfoot
I'd walk away like a movie star
who gets burned in a three way script.
Enter number two: A movie queen to play the scene
Of bringing all the good things out in me
definitive version: Gordon Lightfoot
Lightfoot utilizes the imagery of film and paperback novels to express
the breakdown/failure of a relationship.
song: Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)
writer: Mickey Newbury
I woke up this morning the sun was shining in
found my broken mind in a brown paper bag but then
Tripped on a cloud I fell eight miles high
Tore my mind on a jagged sky
Just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in
definitive version: Mickey Newbury
It's a shame that Newbury is best known for a song he didn't write (an arrangement of traditional songs – An American Trilogy) than for beautifully crafted songs he did write. Just Dropped In is one such song. Supposedly a song about a bad LSD trip, the lyrics also suggest a man taking stock of himself and being disgusted by what he has become. Although Kenny Rogers had a huge hit with this song; I much prefer Newbury's sparser, spookier arrangement.
song: Won't Get Fooled Again
writer: Pete Townshend
I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
definitive version: The Who
We put our hope in political parties and personalities only to be disappointed once they assume power. We get fooled once again.
song: Kern River
writer: Merle Haggard
I'll never swim Kern River again
It was there that I met her
It was there that I lost my best friend
And now I live in the mountains
I drifted up here with the wind
And I may drown in still water
But I'll never swim Kern River again
definitive version: Merle Haggard
Vintage Haggard, the song revolves around his boyhood home and the haunting loss of a friend.
Lyrics and impressions through the years.