In The Service Of The Story: Poetics, Songwriting & Robert Service

Yeah; I put the obvious joke in the title. It’s out of the way now. Stay with me. We’re going somewhere cool.

I like to think that a lot of people go into the arts not for the paycheque (meager) or the notoriety (fleeting) but for the sakes of the stories. They simply don’t get the satisfaction of telling stories, from start to finish, in any other possible career they may come across. All of our modern modes of art and culture come back, more or less, to that one need: to serve the story, and I’ve found the heavy hitters of each mode or method of creating art—because the tendency can be channeled in many different ways, crossing facts, films, fiction and poetry—tend to all be obsessed with the concept of story.

Here, watch this:

Justin Rutledge is, depending on who you ask, either a rising star or an entrenched institution within Toronto’s art community. I’ve heard ‘Heart of a River’ easily a few hundred times; I’ve had it on my solo set list since the winter began, and have been using his slightly unorthodox chord technique as a teaching aide when my students inquire about choice and style when approaching the instrument. (Guitar nerds, pay attention to his grip for C, with the G note on the base, and to how, instead of using the cowboy chord D, he slides that shape up, ringing against the open strings. If you don’t duplicate those techniques, and try to play the song, it’ll sound different. And not in a good way.)

But the point is that the story I heard at the beginning of that video totally changed how I heard the song immediately following. The two approaches served, juxtaposed in that way, to inform each other and to help the audience get more than either could give on its own.

Storytelling is an intrinsic part of songwriting, same as it’s an intrinsic part of writing a poem or an article or a piece of advertising copy. Take the audience somewhere, and they’ll follow you as much farther as you want them to go. But I’m definitely feeling, as I go back and listen to my own work amongst other songwriters, that it’s an easy part to forget when you’re simultaneously trying to write hooks, think singles and avoid plagiarism—because, as we all know, the best lines, the best chord progressions, are all taken. Which is to say, the easy ones.

(and yes, I know the riff to this next song is, like, thisclose to ‘Here Comes The Sun.’ I don’t care.)

This is, for me, what good songwriting sounds like. We’ve got the story; we’ve got that phenomenal, huge chorus. We’ve got the natural flow of the song, up and down, easy, easy as can be. But think about it. Do we need to know where and when the singer and the person he’s singing to met? No. Do we know where they are? No.

Do we know their names?

No. Because you don’t need the whole story. Audiences can fill in their own details. Take Robert Service, easily one of the most popular Canadian poets of the last 100 years. Or, Scottish poets. Whatever you call it, he was made famous by the Klondike. If you read either of his most famous poems, ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ and ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’ you get what amounts to scenes—beginning a few days before McGee’s death, and a few minutes before McGrew’s. The rest of the stories are filled in by the audience.

Well, alright, then. If it’s so easy and important to work stories into your songs, your poetry, your what-have-you, why do you feel it’s a skill that’s ignored for the most part by so many, Adam?

It’s because it’s easy to write a song about vague things. “Oh, baby, why’d you have to treat me that way? Why can’t you come back and stay?” is so much easier a line to write than “You say that you’re leavin’ / That comes as no surprise / Still, I kinda like this feeling of bein’ left behind.” The first could be said by a million different couples breaking up; the second immediately conjures the image of the singer sitting at the kitchen table, forcing himself to remain seated while his former partner loads things into the car, later watching it tear away down the street. You have to live that second line to write it, but anyone who’s been in that situation can empathize and bond with the song.

There’s a spareness to a good song, like a good poem; the artist doesn’t belabor the point. Each line is loaded enough to speak for itself, without needing to be unpacked anywhere other than inside the audience. And I think that’s what makes it so hard for people to do it well; songwriting, like poetry, is hard friggin’ work, and sometimes, it’s hard to tell which line belongs, and which needs to be rephrased, or said backwards, to obscure the meaning. I’ve been reading Service’s selective edits to the beginnings of ‘McGee’ and ‘McGrew’ and I feel like I’ve learned a lot in the last few weeks about what’s important to a story. Look at the last lines of the first stanza of Service’s ‘Cremation’ poem.

…He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell; / Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”

The narrator is an intimate of McGee, but we obviously don’t ever find out exactly how, or when, they met. We instantly feel the situation, both the desperation and sickness that keeps one panning for gold in the Klondike as well as the long hours spent conversing with a perfect stranger, endless times going over small talk until it’s worn smooth and familiar.

But what sort of truth is there to that account? Did that happen? Service’s first book of poems was written before he was even more than vaguely settled in the area near the Klondike, nevermind actually setting foot in the river.

As Pierre Berton relates about Service in “Prisoners of the North,” upon conceiving the opening line to ‘Dan McGrew,’ Service snuck into his place of work—the local branch of the Canadian Bank of Commerce—to write it down. What he forgot about was the ledger-keeper, who was keeping guard on the place, and who, assuming Service was a burglar, fired on him! Only… well, not really. Apparently, Berton confronted him about it, and Service’s only excuse to the out and out fabrication was the equivalent of a shrug and a rueful grin.

But do either of those circumstances—the falsified tale of the conception of the lines as well as Service’s absence from the true gold rush in the Klondike—change the emotional resonance of a poem like ‘McGrew?’

Let’s go back to JR. He freely admitted that the story he told didn’t happen.

So what? Just because it’s not true doesn’t make it any less poignant. The resonance from a story, and a song, like that comes not from recognition of facts, but from a deeper spot, which basically grants a storyteller a little bit of leeway. A good storyteller, a good songwriter, a good artist, need not live every situation to draw from it; instead, watching, imagining and being aware of life around them seems to be enough for the truly talented to come to the fore and say something into the microphone.

I’ll leave you with this: Sam McGee, by Robert Service, as read by the unparalleled Johnny Cash.

Think about it. The story is the most important part of any good piece, whatever it is. But it’s the little touches that are always the most difficult to do properly.

You got sick of the pattern / And I got lost in the song.


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