A song is a powerful communicator. Much like poetry, it has the ability to elicit raw emotion through the judicious use of words. In a four-bar chorus, those words can lay bare a soul begging to be forgiven or express a longing beyond compare.
My musical library is full of singer-songwriters, who through verse and chorus paint a picture with their words and music. They use the notes and rhythms as punctuation for their thoughts, telling a story from beginning to end in less than four minutes.
Long the backbone of folk music, these musicians have been gaining momentum in popular music. No single genre can categorize them. The iTunes charts are full of the likes of Ed Sheeran, Eric Church, Ryan Tedder and Alicia Keyes. While their popularity and commercial appeal are varied, the sad irony is that the music industry bestows the majority of its riches on those who can do little more than rhyme (and often badly, at that). How many of the songs topping the current charts will have longevity?
Song has long been a way for people to communicate. It has been used by the enslaved to provide a voice to their otherwise silenced souls and by the rebel to make their discourse heard above the din. Early news and legends were sung by minstrels traveling between kingdoms.
With the passing of Leonard Cohen a few short months ago, one can scarcely turn on the radio without hearing his seminal work “Hallelujah”. The Canadian singer-songwriter enjoyed a career that spanned 50 years and saw him rise to the heights of popularity. He was sought after by the likes of highly respected singer-songwriters Judy Collins, Willie Nelson and James Taylor. Despite his talent, it was rarely recognized. Although, the great Bob Dylan saw his gift. Cohen continually sought the meaning of life in his lyrics and even served a brief sojourn as a monk in that very pursuit. But it was fellow, and perhaps equally obscure, singer-songwriter, Jeff Buckley, who would forever change Cohen’s life and cement his talents in the minds of the collective consciousness. Buckley’s rendition of “Hallelujah” in 1994, nearly 20 years after Cohen penned it, will forever place him in the company of the greatest songs ever written.
It’s a song I can listen to on repeat until my heart breaks. The haunting melody, visceral emotion and unanswered questions are the stuff of true genius. It speaks to me in a way I’m unable to articulate. It would be impossible to count the number of times I’ve listened, yet every time it brings me to tears. That, in itself, is a testament to its power.
Songs have the power to break you, build you back up and inspire you to go on in the face of insurmountable odds. Although I rarely listen to music while I’m writing (I prefer not to have competition for my words), I’m unable to go a day without music. The lyrics of some song are often the first thing my mind wakes to in the morning. Music grounds me and gives me the ability to believe in the power of words.
Consider the times a song has lifted your spirits, transported you to another place or time or calmed your mind. We all have songs that define us. They speak to each of us in a way often personal and profound.