The Power of Lyrics

I love poetry. I write poetry. I read poetry. But poetry put to music (known as lyrics) resonates to the marrow of the soul more often than poetry with no music. It’s hard to memorize a poem. But memorizing lyrics comes easier because the melodies and harmonies, the singer’s voice, make them come alive yet further. We listen to them over and over, and we sing them in the shower, in the car, with our friends, or alone in our rooms. Lyrics to songs in our past bring us back to those seasons of life. Some are painful, some are joyous, some are just plain cool. A funny thing about me is that the chorus is usually is the part that sticks in my memory. If I am actually listening to a song I know, the words come to me.

I remember the first record I ever had. It was a 45. The Purple People Eater. My sister and I thought we were so cool to have a rock and roll record. Rock and roll it was not, but it felt like it at the time.

It was a one-eyed, one-horned, flyin’ purple people eater
(One-eyed, one-horned, flyin’ purple people eater)
A one-eyed, one-horned, flyin’ purple people eater
Sure looks strange to me (one eye?)

We were just little kids. Our parents later got us a Petula Clark record, Pet Clark Sign of the Times, and Beatles VI. I was in awe of Petula Clark. She was beautiful to look at and I loved her voice and passion. Her lyrics and tunes were so catchy. Many written by other songwriters. My sister Chris and I would stand on the hearth on Saturday mornings while our parents slept in, and play the records and sing. My sister always got to be John and Paul, me George and Ringo because Chris was a year older and the boss. We had a 45 of Yesterday ad that was Chris’s signature cover. We used a number of items to be our instruments. Brooms, badminton rackets, vacuum hoses, batons, pencils, silverware. We took turns being Petula. We also listened to my parents’ Frank and Nancy Sinatra album. All I can remember of it was These Boots Are Made for Walking, and particularly Saying Something Stupid Like I Love You.

I know I stand in line until you think you have the time
To spend an evening with me
And if we go someplace to dance, I know that there’s a chance
You won’t be leaving with me
And afterwards we drop into a quiet little place and have a drink or two
And then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like “I love you”

I can’t stand the melody of the song or the way Frank and Nancy sang it, but for some reason, it’s still in my memory. Probably because I heard it and sang it with my sister so many times. The Supremes song, Stop in the Name of Love takes me back to a day I was at my aunt’s house and my older cousin Nancy played it over and over. She taught me some dance moves and I practiced them in front of her large oval mirror. My childhood was spent listening to KJR and KVI with top 40 hits. Yep, remember them all and they all bring back good memories.

In 1967 we moved from Tacoma Washington to San Gabriel California (Los Angles county). The culture shock was profound and I had trouble adjusting. That year I got Sgt Pepper and the Magical Mystery tour. I’m sure you all had Sgt Pepper. I found endless amusement with the Magical Mystery Tour. It was so darn bizarre. It came with a booklet of pictures and lyrics. It was kind of like a primitive rock opera. I’m sure I Am the Walrus was written while on acid. But dang, it was catchy.

I am he as you are he as you are me
And we are all together
See how they run like pigs from a gun
See how they fly
I’m crying Sitting on a corn flake
Waiting for the van to come
Corporation T-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday
Man you’ve been a naughty boy
You let your face grow longI am the egg man
They are the egg men
I am the walrus
Goo goo g’joob

Goo goo g’joob, very profound.

Mr. Goo goo g’joob, John Lennon, went on to write these beautiful lyrics, poetry if ever there was, probably the most beautiful in his career.

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup
They slither wildly as they slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my opened mind

Images of broken light
Which dance before me like a million eyes
They call me on and on across the universe
Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box
They tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe

The melody makes these lyrics all the more memorable. You can have stunning lyrics, but put it to bad music and you miss it. It goes the other way too. The melody of Imagine is absolutely lovely but the philosophy behind the lyrics are against all I believe in, so I don’t honor the song.

The following year, we moved a short way to a tiny town called Sierra Madre. One main street full of cool shops, a pool hall (we were forbidden to go through), a movie theater where Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet ran for a year and we saw it again and again, and a park overrun by hippies. The nearby foothills were inhabited by hippies. I started Jr. High that year. It was another transition too quickly made to adjust to. It’s hard enough to come of age, but those years were extremely painful. Experimentation with sex and drugs flooded our school (which was in Pasadena, several miles away). Because of the hippie culture right in our face, drugs were easy to get. The hippies were a great influence on us younger ones. I was 12 years old, just a kid and it all terrified me. I never did the drugs or have a drink. I had a friend named Susan who lived at the end of our driveway. My sister and I hung out with her a lot and she became very wild. Drugs and boys seduced her quickly, not to mention stealing and smoking. I felt extremely pressured by her and judged for not keeping up with her. She had boyfriends all over the place, I had none. I didn’t want one except to satisfy her. I was in a size A bra, she was a B, and if you listened to her, she was Dolly Parton and I was Twiggy. I felt alone and terribly pathetic. I fell into my first clinical depression and it was bad with a capital B. Back then, people didn’t know about mental health so my parents were very concerned but at a loss how to help me. A school counselor helped me through it. I wrote the entire story on Hubpages which you can find here. When I hear songs from that time of my life, even if it’s a happy or innocuous song, they bring me to tears or deep sadness.

Fortunately, some songs from that era lift me. All of them Beatles songs. Let’s face it, in the 60s and early 70s the Beatles were king in pop culture and music. I had a friend, Elizabeth. She was a hilarious character, goofy, mischievous, and a prankster. She liked smoking, but boys and drugs weren’t on her radar as I recall. She was the only friend I had who didn’t demand that I conform to the culture of sex and drugs. She just liked to have a good time through humor and antics. Elizabeth was a Godsend. We would hang out in her bedroom and listen to the Beatles Rubber Soul, the White Album, Abbey Road and Let it Be. I’m sure we listened to other bands, but these stick out in my mind because, well, they’re the Beatles. But also because I was with her when I listened to them, so they have a positive vibe in my soul. Of course, they were immensely popular on the radio, but listening to them with her made the lyrics stick all the more.

At home in my room, I still listened to Sgt. Pepper constantly. I didn’t have but maybe three records. I bought a psychedelic poster for my room from a head shop of the Beatles and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds written on it, the LS and D highlighted. Susan was green with envy and that tickled me. Even though I was anti-drugs, I felt cool having that poster. Mom and Dad didn’t know about LSD so mom would come in and say how cool the poster was. There has been debate whether it was aboout LSD, but that was the rumor. So I know all the lyrics to the Beatles last several albums. That’s not special because most people who came of age in the 60s know them too. I’m just saying the events in my life then helped cement the lyrics into my head. I eventually got my own copy of the Let It Be album. Probably of all Beatles album, that’s the one that stuck in my head the most. Abbey Road a close second. When I hear one of the songs, I am at Elizabeth’s or my room, or my friend Margaret’s ( best friend in high school a few years later).

If you were to ask me or anyone else what Beatles song meant the most to you or was most memorable, you’d probably take several minutes going through a mental catalog of their songs. How does one choose one or two? It depends on where you were at the time the song came out; what was happening in the culture, the nation, the world, your family, circumstances. All I can do is choose the ones that made me feel the lyrics. Yesterday, Let it Be, The Long and Winding Road, A Day in a Life always gave a mood for me. I guess Paul’s lyrics reached me more. No one ever says Yellow Submarine or Maxwell’s Silver Hammer is a favorite, but when you hear the titles you perk up and remember the lyrics. They wrote dozens of songs with silly quirky words and tunes and sound effects. I think Lennon and McCartney had the most creative minds in modern history when it came to lyrics and themes. Of course the music was brilliant as well.

One song that makes me cry from that time in Jr High is Time of the Season by the Zombies. I know it by heart and my heart breaks when I hear it. The lyrics aren’t sad, but it takes me back to that time of pain. Maybe if I pondered it longer I’d find the emotional connection, but I have no desire to go fishing. When I hear it, I picture a certain friend’s house, Caroline, a wild cohort of Susan’s (an expert at shoplifting clothes). I have no idea why that image comes up or why I hurt when I hear it but it is what it is. Gary Puckett and the Union Gap’s songs Woman, Young Girl, and Over You are also bittersweet. I can’t tell you why.

We moved to Anaheim when I began 9th grade. My parents wanted to get us away from Susan. High School began in the 10th grade. My moods cycled constantly and I was so fearful all the time. I spent days in my room listening to music, or hours at Maggie’s house. Maggie had Elton John’s first album and we listened over and over to Your Song and Daniel. I had tons of records by then. When life was too much, I went to my room where I felt protected and found solace, or I would listen to sad music to feed my sadness (a tendency I still have when I’m down). I had every Neil Diamond record from the 70s. His fast beat songs like Sweet Caroline and Cracklin’ Rosie, were catchy but it was the soulful ballads where I wallowed. One in particular from his Moods album (how appropriately titled) spoke to my heart. Cante Libre (which means “sing freely” by the way). Some of it was in Spanish but I had enough knowledge to follow those lyrics because they were simple words and I was learning the language in school. But the English parts are where my heart was stirred.

I got music runnin’ in my head,
Makes me feel like a young bird flyin’,
‘Cross my mind and layin’ in my bed,
Keeps me away from the thought of dyin’.

photo by Jessie Eastland, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I just teared up writing that, because that was why I was in my room on my bed listening to music. It’s funny, Neil Diamond had a gazillion popular songs that everyone knew, and this obscure ballad is the one that reached me in a deep place. Neil Diamond was a charismatic performer, but I think his songwriting is his greater gift. He once said, “I have a love-hate relationship with songwriting. I love it because it’s so satisfying…when it works. I hate it because it forces you to dig inside yourself. It is without question the most difficult thing I do.” As writers, we can relate to that, can’t we.

I have a love-hate relationship with songwriting. I love it because it’s so satisfying…when it works. I hate it because it forces you to dig inside of yourself. It is without question the most difficult thing I do.

Neil Diamond

The Who’s Tommy rock opera album also resonated with me.

See me, feel me, touch me, heal me

I don’t think all the lyrics spoke to me, but that line did, because it was expressing my heart. I was in agony and felt like a piece of crap and wanted to be seen, heard, and healed. And Roger Daltry’s voice in the line was so desperate.

Lyrics still capture me as they do us all. Sometimes I am more inspired by a cover from another artist and their interpretation. Go on YouTube and find KD Lang’s version of Hallelujah. Beyond description amazing. I hate the lyrics to the song, but I remember them since I heard her sing it. Susan Boyle is one of them. Listen to her rendition of Wild Horses by the Rolling Stones, or her Over the Rainbow. Stunning and very unique. I never learned or appreciated the lyrics until she sang them. Recently I heard her sing Always On My Mind, one of Willie Nelson’s signature songs. It never touched me when Willie sang it. The lyrics went in one ear and out the other. When Susan sang it while I was driving I started weeping. I love and know the lyrics now. They are cemented in my heart.

Maybe I didn’t love you
Quite as often as I could have
And maybe I didn’t treat you
Quite as good as I should have
If I made you feel second best
Girl I’m sorry I was blind You were always on my mind
You were always on my mind And maybe I didn’t hold you
All those lonely, lonely times
I guess I never told you
I am so happy that you’re mine
Little things I should have said and done
I just never took the time
You were always on my mind
You were always on my mind Tell me
Tell me that your sweet love hasn’t died
And give me
Give me one more chance to keep you satisfied
I’ll keep you satisfied Little things I should have said and done
I just never took the time
You were always on my mind
You were always on my mind You were always on my mind
You were always on my mind

Nothing more stirs my heart than gospel music, whether it’s hymns or southern gospel. There are a lot of contemporary songs also.

The lyrics to the hymn, It is Well With My Soul was written by Horatio G. Spafford. Knowing the story behind a song, the context, can make it more meaningful. This song is more powerful knowing the circumstances. Dear Horatio Spafford had deep sorrows in his life. In the same year, Spafford, a successful businessman, he lost almost everything in the Chicago fire and his 4 year old son died from an illness. Later on, Horatio sent his wife and 4 daughters on a ship to England where he would join them later for a long needed vacation. He had to stay behind for some critical business. Tragedy struck and the ship collided with another and sank. His daughters were all lost. His wife survived. She sent him a telegram “Saved alone, what shall I do?” What a heartbreaking message to receive. He boarded a ship and set sail to see his wife. As the ship sailed over the spot where his beloved daughters had died, the Lord touched his heart and he wrote these lyrics:

When peace like a river attendeth my soul

And sorrows like sea billows roll

Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say

It is well, it is well with my soul.

To hear the story in more detail look here. When you’re standing in church singing this song, your heart goes to the times of despair and sorrow in your life, or the life of someone dear. A big knot forms in your throat and your eyes tear up. If you know the story of Horatio Spafford, the tears are more profuse. God can bring comfort in times of great pain.

With all this said, I occasionally write a poem that I wish like anything I could put to music because, without it, I feel like it isn’t as powerful or poignant. I’m not a musician or a good singer. I have many musician friends and several friends with good voices, but putting someone else’s lyrics to music is hard. A few people have tried but it just hasn’t worked out. I wonder if I learned to play an instrument if I could put a poem into a song. Knowing how to play an instrument does not necessarily mean one is gifted in songwriting. Oh well, I do what I can do and that’s all there is.

Music and lyrics are a gift from God. All of the arts are of course. God is the master of all creation. He made his people to be creators as well. Not as God, but as His people.

Please share with me the song lyrics that have touched your life and why.

3 thoughts on “The Power of Lyrics

  1. Lori, thanks for writing my musical history – oh, excuse me, your musical history. I remember so much of the songs you mentioned. And I get where you’re coming from. I grew up on Simon and Garfunkel and loved their harmonies. Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer” was played at my wedding and I loved his “Face the Fire”, maybe because it was written about Three-Mile Island about an hour and a half from where I lived. Of course, Billy Joel’s “Allentown” was also written about a town nearby. It didn’t take long to get into Kansas and “Carry On Wayward Son” and I learned to play “Dust in the Wind” on guitar. I think one of the things I liked about Kansas, although they were not Christians, was they used deep, religious searching lyrics. That helped me in my own search for truth. Hey, the list goes on, right? Thanks for the history review.


  2. That was a fun trip back in time. I had the biggest crush on Pet Clark! Shh, don’t tell Bev.

    The Beatles were the kings. I saw them in concert. Saw Neil Diamond that same year. I probably had most of the records you mentioned. I know for sure I had all of the Beatles’ albums. And weird, I can remember specific events which happened while certain songs were on the airwaves. Such is the power of music.

    Anyway, time for chores. Thanks for the trip. I greatly enjoyed it.


  3. Too often the story tellers on past times become real snoozers. You took us back in great form. So many great songs and a look at how we were back then. We were a little more backwater and got some of these years later than most.
    Thanks for sharing this story.


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