Sunday, April 7, 2013

Better Fiction through Songwriting: John Prine and the Vietnam War

D.R. Howe treats the wounds of Private First Class D. A. Crum

I've been reading a great deal of advice about writing craft lately, and one of the most important points I see over and over again is to make every word matter. Choose specific, powerful words, and make every single one of them work hard for its place on your page. All of the fuzz, anything that isn't serving a deliberate purpose, gets cut out. (Chuck Wendig compares this to a dentist picking away at every particle of accumulated gunk on a set of gleaming chompers.)

It occurred to me that one of the best possible examples of this idea--and of its equally often-repeated cousin, "show don't tell"--can be found in songwriting. When you have a whole book, or a whole story, it can be easy to let yourself get a little lazy; but the brevity and strict rhythmic pattern demanded by a song forces an economy of words that, in the hands of a gifted artist, can create a truly astonishing result.

Bob Dylan is often cited as one of the best songwriters of all time, and rightfully so--but one thing he wasn't always, was concise. Plenty of his songs ramble through a few too many verses. My own personal favorite songwriter is a contemporary of Dylan's, who never achieved the same level of commercial success, but who has a body of work that comprises some of the most beautiful, heartbreaking, insightful songs I've ever heard: John Prine. This is particularly true of the songs, and even a few individual lyrics, in which he references the Vietnam War--plenty of despairing, angry people wrote music about that war, but nobody did it quite like Prine. Especially when combined with his simple melodies and spare guitar chords, the power of those perfectly-chosen words is marvel.

First you have "Donald and Lydia:"

Bunk beds, shaved heads, Saturday night,
A warehouse of strangers with sixty watt lights.
Staring through the ceiling, just wanting to be
Lay one of too many, a young PFC: Donald

There were spaces between Donald and whatever he said

Strangers had forced him to live in his head
He envisioned the details of romantic scenes
After midnight in the stillness of the barracks latrine.

Two short verses, and you have an indictment of the war machine that endlessly and greedily devoured young men; a compelling snapshot of the isolation and displacement of a fairly new recruit (he doesn't say soldier, he says "PFC," emphasizing that Donald is a junior enlisted, most likely drafted); and a deft characterization of a lonely dreamer who was never cut out for Army life in the first place. It's incredibly masterful.

Then the chorus of "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You into HeavenAnymore," with its barbed commentary on brainless knee-jerk jingoism:

But your flag decal won't get you
Into Heaven any more.
They're already overcrowded
From your dirty little war.
Now Jesus don't like killin'
No matter what the reason's for,
And your flag decal won't get you
Into Heaven any more. 

Then, in its entirety, "Sam Stone," which I've been listening to for a good 15 years, and which still gives me chills every time: the anger, the compassion, the grief for all those pointlessly ruined lives, that went into these words.

Sam Stone came home to his wife and family
After serving in the conflict overseas
And the time that he served had shattered all his nerves
And left a little shrapnel in his knee
But the morphine eased the pain
And the grass grew round his brain
And gave him all the confidence he lacked
With a purple heart and a monkey on his back

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

Sam Stone's welcome home didn't last too long
He went to work when he'd spent his last dime
And Sammy took to stealing when he got that empty feeling
For a hundred dollar habit without overtime
And the gold rolled through his veins
Like a thousand railroad trains
And eased his mind in the hours that he chose
While the kids ran around wearin' other peoples' clothes


Sam Stone was alone when he popped his last balloon
Climbing walls while sitting in a chair
Well, he played his last request while the room smelled just like death
With an overdose hovering in the air
But life had lost its fun
And there was nothing to be done
But trade his house that he bought on the G. I. Bill
For a flag draped casket on a local heroes' hill


It's simply one of the best-written songs I've ever heard. Every line is spare, restrained, with a handful of evocative words. But it's the last two lines of the last verse that are the most powerful for me: the deliberate pairing of the G.I. Bill, with its promise of prosperity and stability for veterans, against the image of the flag-draped casket. The brutal bait-and-switch of military life for so many young men of that era. Prine is a master. I've loved him since I was a teenager but now, as I refine my own writing skill, his work is relevant for me in a whole new way--and I'm looking forward to listening again, from that perspective.


  1. I'm humming "Angel From Montgomery" as I read this.

  2. Adore that song. Have you ever heard Susan Tedeschi's cover of it? Incredibly beautiful.