Monday, May 4, 2009

It's All (Almost) In A Name

I'm a sucker for a compelling song title; "Moon River", "Peel Me A Grape", "Jesus, The Missing Years", "Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine", "Into The Mystic"-- these titles and countless more just begged me to drop the needle or push play when I was studying how to be a writer. It always seemed to me that an indelible song title was like the smell of one of my grandmother's Sunday afternoon dinners cooking in the kitchen. It was a portent of good things to come. I remember being disappointed when one of my favorite artists released a new record and I went excitedly to the store to scan that glossy, sealed LP and there were no interesting song titles on the back. It struck me as a missed opportunity. Sure, I sometimes bought the record anyway, but something always made me wary when the songs were called "In The Night", "With You", "Now And Then"... I was pretty sure those songs just weren't gonna kill me, and they rarely did.

I think a song title should catch my eye and stir up some curiosity. That's what the artwork on the LP/CD was all about, too. Except for some of the Indy stuff, lately CD artwork consists mostly of airbrushed photos of the stars. Who cares? Song titles and artwork play similar roles-- they add a physical dimension to the music, like handles on a dream. You can argue all you want about how many great songs there are with banal titles like "Yesterday", "I Need You" and "I Will Always Love You", and for pure emotional connection maybe it's hard to top those songs (I like 'em too). But in this era when no one has time to listen to everything, and when song titles sit on the computer screen like so many innocuous text messages, wouldn't it be wise to consider the intrinsic value of a song title?

A song title makes an impression, as does any name. Actors used to choose theirs very carefully, and with good reason. It was part of the image and mystique. A song is an entity with a life and a mystique all it's own. These days especially, the title can and does affect the song's life whether we think it's fair or not. I admit, a little guiltily, when I scan a track list at itunes or Amazon I click first on the most unlikely song title I can find. Why? I figure if the artist can pull that one off I might like what they do with an ordinary title, too.

If I write a 500 page book called "Headache", will you want to read it? That's how I feel when I see a song called "Love" (see the latest Sugarland CD). On the same CD we find "Keep You" and another called "Very Last Country Song". Glancing at the latest Rascal Flatts CD I see the first two cuts are “Take Me There” and “Here”. My first thought is why weren’t they able to find a song called “Everywhere” to round out a trilogy? And on the same disk there's a song that exemplifies what passes for a clever/cool song idea today “Bob That Head”. I would have at least put that one on the CD as “Bob, That Head”. Whether you think those songs are good or not really isn't my point. My point is, there's a song called "Tornado Time In Texas"** and you have to go cut the yard before it rains. Which song do you want to hear?

And what about the sheer fun of some song titles-- remember singing along with "Jumping Jack Flash it's a gas, gas, gas" at the top of your lungs? Somehow I just can't get the same thrill singing along with "Get My Drink On".

Let's agree on one thing: the charts (not just country) for the most part look pretty boring these days whether they sound boring or not. "White Horse" stands out as a striking image in a song title, and not surprisingly, it's a pretty good song, too.

I'm not being cynical here-- I'd still only write an idea I believed in and connected with from the heart, but some words and phrases are just more alluring than others, aren't they? When it comes to evoking the mysterious, the romantic, the playful, the profound, it's all (almost) in a name.

**"Tornado Time In Texas" by Guy Clark

copyright 2009 craig bickhardt


Tim McMullen said...

Craig—Finding the right title is, indeed, an art unto itself. Don’t you think that most often writers simply use the hook because, like the hook, they want the title to be memorable, so they just repeat the hook or the clincher in the title as one more chance to get it into your head? Some of the great titles—maybe most—may, indeed, come from great hooks, but there are several other approaches. Dylan, in his obscurantist phase, gave us Positively 4th Street, Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, Subterranean Homesick Blues.

Cheryl Wheeler, one of my favorite singer/songwriter/performers, doesn’t always go for the hook; rather, she offers simple titles like “Arrow,” “Piper,” “Addicted,” “Summer Fly,” “Aces,” “Unworthy,” “Alice,“ “Estate Sale,” “One Love”—one- or two-word titles that are not particularly catchy in and of themselves, yet they capture the heart of the song. By the way, as unassuming as the titles are, these are great songs (even the funny ones). She could have called “Arrow” by the opening line: “I wish I could fall in love”; instead, she chose a single word from the middle of the third verse:

Wish I could feel my heartbeat rise
And gaze into some gentle, warm excited eyes
And give myself as truly as an “arrow” flies
In windless skies

Or a single word from the chorus of “Aces”:
Now you're ready to walk out, you're ready to run
Talk to me, can't you see
I would never want to do what it seems I've done
You can't deal me the “aces” and think I wouldn't play
Don't let this be the reason you would walk away

I guess, my point is that, in some ways, especially on the jukebox that is the iTunes world, the title is simply a form of marketing, and calling attention to the cleverness or catchiness of a title will help sell it, but in many poems and many great stories, the title doesn’t give away the punchline or the hook, nor does it necessarily intitially intrigue, but it can work in conjunction with the rest of the song or story to focus attention on a key to the work.

Sometimes, in fact, the title, especially with ironic works, reveals the point, but only after the piece is done, like the great short story by Eudora Welty in which a “campfire girl” visits an “old ladies’ home” merely to earn points; the title, “A Visit of Charity,” hammers the irony home, but only once you have gotten through the piece and reflected on its meaning.

Personally, I like to have fun with titles—my bizarre high school reunion song is called “Booth Bluffing Blues,” which is a title only and never appears in the song; my best wedding song is titled “A Child’s Wisdom” which is, like Ms. Wheeler’s examples, taken from a single line in the second verse (“I have a child’s share of wisdom/A thing that many people lose/I know that life is like a prism/A single light has many hues”); “Somewhere in Between” is from the last line of the chorus of my tragic prom song (which begins “She was born in the middle of her seventeenth year…it was nineteen sixty-five)” and the chorus is:
“If she’d have known at 27 what she knew at 17,
At 35 she might have still been alive instead of somewhere in between
But it was there in the back of her closet
Like it was always in the back of her mind
Her dreams she knew might never come true
But the truth seemed so unkind…”

The title can have multiple purposes—it can be an attention-getter; it can be the hook to your listener’s memory; it can be an integral part of the literary experience; or it can just be a place-holder because you have to name it something. I prefer any of the first three, but there are certainly lots of the latter to go around.

By the way, I love the new CD! "Life With the Sound Turned Down"—now there's a song title for you!

Thanks for the perpetual inspiration,

Michael Shield said...

Thanks again for towing the line Craig. At some point, the hope is the pendelum will swing back and the title, the lyric, the artwork, the music, will all be appreciated again, as the cumulative work of an inspired artist; an artist who values the richness of all of the above, such as yourself.

Anonymous said...

By Hook or by Crook?

Interesting view point...I have never thought of a song title like that. I have always thought more about the "hook" or that most repeated phrase - that sought of thinking. I suppose you could call my way of thinking/methodology "crook".

I have just looked through some of my song titles, and I'm thinking I'm guilty as charged. The most "interesting" title I have is "I Love Peter Cundall" which is, for a heterosexual male, an unusual position.

Though none of my songs are recorded, I can see the point of your blog.

I've just back form presenting two hours of radio and at random I've pulled out a John Gorka compilation CD (iTunes) from the carry case and these are the song title: Unblinfold the Referee, Snow Don't Fall (a Townes Van Zant song), Writing in the Margins, The Gypsy Life, Lay Me Down, Scraping Dixie, Love is Our Cross to Bear, I Saw a Stranger With Your Hair. That last one really gets me! I take it these are the ilk of your point?

So I suppose the key is to continue writing so that one day the perfect lyric will lend itself to that great song title?

Yep, sounds like a good idea.


I've been meaning to thank you for your last CD 'Brother to the Wind' which gets a well deserved rotation. And thanks for the "D major!" tutoring.

chromehead said...

There are all sorts of ways a title can enhance the artistic value of a song. Tim's point is well taken, although I'd say that several of Cheryl's titles are intriguing ("Arrow", "Piper", Summer Fly" and "Estate Sale" beg to be listened to because they evoke my curiosity or spur my imagination).

In Nashville, many writers actually begin with a title-- this can either fail or succeed depending on how talented the writer, and how inspiring the idea. I always try to arrive at something in the lyric that has the "ring" of a good title. It may be a hook, or it may just be a line that focuses the listener on a key concept as Tim suggests.

Often my titles will contain a metaphor, as in "Dance With Father Time", which grew out of the sudden realization that my young daughter was getting too big to swing around by the arms as we used to do every night after dinner (dancing to Van Morrison). In that epiphany came not only the sting of reality (life's sweet sadness) but the romance of allowing time to run it's course, of dancing with time.

Dylan (and Guthrie before him) taught us that the song title is an important component of the song, not just a label for filing purposes.

Miss Leslie said...

Do you mind if I ask some advice? I have songs I've recorded that I'm putting on the new CD and have been trying to decide if the title should be the entire hook - or just part. My initial thought was to use the shortened version so that the song title wouldn't be too long.

I try to understand what the name of the song actually IS, but sometimes that is hard for me to tell.

Is it "I Need Me" or is it "I Need Me a Whole Lot More Than I Need You"? Is it "I Can't Love Without You" or "I Can't Live With You, But I Can't Love Without You"?

And I wonder if song titles are going to become more important as the digital age moves us even more to singles and viewing songs more than CDs?

On artwork - the same guy's done all 3 covers for me. He's a hippie that was in California in the 70s. He hung out at the Palomino Club and was friends with Tommy Collins. He's all about the music.

So I give him the music to listen to before he does the artwork. And he creates the mood of the artwork to fit the CD.

I like CDs. I hope they don't go away. I like artistic projects, concepts and themes.

Anyway - I've been out of touch for awhile. Glad I dropped by. Good blog.

Tim McMullen said...

It's funny that you mentioned "Dance With Father Time." I was going to include it in my list, but I sequed into the new LP, so I let it slide. I have been meaning to e-mail you this anecdote, but I think I'll add it here. It's relevant to song titles and to your song in particular.

For my Great Aunt Pearl's 100th birthday (she passed away two years ago at 102), I put together a 35-minute video slideshow of her life. I broke it into various sections accompanied by song: early family was a keyboard instrumental by my oldest friend and songwriter, Tim Clott (he co-wrote a song with Paul Brady on Paul's last album); "Sisters" by Rosemary and Betty Clooney; "Pearl, Pearl, Pearl" by Flatt and Scruggs (hilariously appropriate: Aunt Pearl had 5 husbands); "Friendship" sung by Ethel Merman and Bert Lahr; "Whistle While You Work (45 years with Van De Kamp's Bakeries). Then, when it came to the long extended family, I used Thom Schuyler's "Family Tree" and "Long Line of Love" both of which fit perfectly. Needless to say, there was not a dry eye in the house (including mine...and I'd seen it a hundred times!)

So this year, friends who have been a part of our extended family for nearly ever asked me to create a slide show for their 60th wedding anniversary. The photos of their kids was easy, Mark Cohn's "The Things We've Handed Down"; a whole sequence about their outdoor escapades to Steve Gillette's "The Old Trail"; their wedding and the wedding of their kids accompanied by my own song, "Wouldn't That Be Something"; and the final sequence, "Surfer Girl" sung by Dave Alvin, a childhood friend of their kids when they lived in Downey, CA (Phil Alvin, Dave's brother, and member of The Blasters) attended the party.

I had all the sequences worked out except the one for their siblings and family—pictures from their youth right up to today, 75 to 80 years later—and I just couldn't think of anything to fit. I was really stymied for an hour or so as I looked through CD after CD (I have over a thousand singer/songwriters sitting on the shelves). Suddenly, I thought of your album. It wasn't on the shelf because I had been playing it in the car. The instant I put on "Dance With Father Time," it fell into place perfectly and became the centerpiece of the video. It is such a beautiful song; "Father Time searches in the teardrops for the grain of sand" hit on the picture of the little cousins playing in a sandbox...etc, etc. Great title, great lyrics, great melody, great performance: it was the perfect piece, and I thank you for it. Without it, I would probably still be looking for the right song!
Thanks, Tim

Tim Wheeler said...

I popped over here to read the comments and suddenly realized that a great source for titles may be the google word verifications for posting on this page. For this post, for instance, the word verification was "Scones". There's an interesting title, no? Maybe I'm just hungry...

I'm always amazed and humbled when I realize we are not so much creators as practiced assembler's of puzzles. All these words, phrases, subjects, tones, and conversations flashing before our eyes or buzzing by our ears. Quips we say without thinking, having been infused into our daily vocabulary by years of repetition and/or laziness, only to one day stick out like a sore thumb, longing to be comforted and appreciated. Like a word you've written for years only to one day look so strange lying there on the page. "Is that really the way we spell that?"

But, oh! The glory when those pieces fall into place, or even more compelling, when we force them in, causing the little tabs to distort and bulge while we push them firmly home.

chromehead said...

Thanks for that story Tim M., made my day!

Tim W., that reminds me of the concept of "found poems". I wonder if anyone has written "found songs"? You are indeed the man to write "Scones".

Leslie: I try to juggle longer titles to see if I can break up the phrase in an interesting way. For my latest CD there was a song called "Watching Life With The Sound Turned Down" but it didn't fit onto the back of the CD jacket in the particular font I wanted to use. After trying "Watching Life" (boring), I settled on "Life With The Sound Turned Down", which fit perfectly and was in some ways more interesting.

But I also like long titles. Dylan's "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry" has always been a favorite. I have a long one for my next CD, but I won't give it away here.

There are a few practical considerations for long titles these days, such as how much space is allowed by itunes and other sites for titles in their players. Look for the most compelling phrase, that's my best advice.

But first, write a great song!

Steve Robinson said...

G'day Craig!
I've been kinda out of it lately and just noticed on myspace that you wrote a new blog here.

I always enjoy your writings and lessons, wit and wisdom..

I write a lot and I'm rather wordy on many songs. Sometimes, the title is obvious but often not. You make some very good points here and I will think a little differently now : )

I have three new cd's that are just about done and a friend is doing some of the work...Nothing fancy, the cd's are mostly for friends and fam..But I need to come up with titles for the cd's and art work/pictures/credits, etc...I usually don't take much time with this...Today I will : )

Peace and blessings to you,

Kip de Moll said...

fascinating to come across your work through the recommendation of my sister Meg. We seem to have much in common, but your insight and expertise is immense. Thanks for sharing on this blog and I look forward to reading more.

Now, I'll go look at all my titles.

Betsy Thorpe said...

Craig I would like to offer an example of how an interesting title can attract an audience. Tonight I visited "Ninety Mile Wind" planning to browse through your archives when the title of a blog on your blog roll captured my attention. "A River Runs North" is one of 18 blogs currently listed on your roll and the title has me so intrigued that after I leave this comment I plan to go there to see what "A River Runs North" is all about.

The Willamette River runs through my hometown of Eugene Oregon and as you know Nashville ( my adopted home town) was founded on the banks of the Cumberland River. Both rivers flow north and to my knowledge the are two largest rivers in North America to do so. I have always felt that fact created some kind of special cosmic connection between me and the two north flowing rivers, so I am looking forward to visiting "A River Runs North".

Anonymous said...

Here's a song title for you..."Rascal Flatts Sucks, Really, Really, Really Sucks, You Know, Sucks"


El Guapo