"Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth” - Pablo Picasso
i read this a couple days ago and it has me thinking - especially about how it relates to songwriting. “lies” might be too strong a word but as writers we do construct/fabricate these little worlds with words buoyed up and carried along by music. these “worlds” are edited, weighted, and biased in the service of this “truth” we are trying to communicate - the emotions and realizations we are trying to elicit.
i thought of john prine and songs like “paradise”, “sam stone”, and “donald and lydia”.
re “sam stone”:
There’s no one person who was the basis for Sam Stone, more like three or four people; like a couple of my buddies who came back from Vietnam and some of the guys I served with in the army. At that time, all the other Vietnam songs were basic protest songs, made up to slap each other on the back like “Yeah, this is the right cause.” I don’t remember any other songs that talked about the soldiers at all.
I came up with the chorus first and decided I really liked the part about the “hole in daddy’s arm.” I had this picture in my mind of a little girl, like Little Orphan Annie, shaking her head back and forth while a rainbow of money goes into her dad’s arm. I think I invented the character of Sam Stone as a story line just to get around to that chorus.
re “donald and lydia”:
I had a book with names for babies. I actually called out names from the book, like you call the kids to dinner, trying to picture the person in my mind. I had Donald quick; Lydia was the tough one.
i guess it’s just well-crafted fiction in some sense.
i also thought of songs of reportage with minimal editorializing like bruce cockburn’s “dust and diesel” or bob dylan’s “the lonesome death of hattie carroll” and “hurricane”. i guess the dylan songs are mainly carefully chosen details with lines here and there like “for something that he never done” and:
In Paterson that’s just the way things go If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street ’Less you wanna draw the heat