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Setting a Strong Scene

Setting a Strong Scene

One of the most important elements of a song is setting the scene. The scene can either be a physical place, or a point-in-time, but as a listener, I should be able to describe it in some way.

For example, if a song takes place during a single hour of a day – as the listener, I should be able to recognize that is indeed what is happening.

Some songs transpire over extended periods of time, and because songwriters are told to describe things in great deal, sometimes to the point of the words becoming clunky and giving the lyrics an almost journalistic tone, the song becomes nothing more than a list, and uninteresting.

Eric Andersen’s “Ghosts Upon the Road” is a great example of an extremely long song, but one crafted in a way that keeps your attention, with a lyric that never sounds like someone standing in a room reporting events. He finds ways to describe things that leverage the prosody to set a scene tied to emotion throughout.

Eric Andersen started his career in the company of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, so his songwriting is from an era of change in form. Much like Laura Nyro, he writes to discover something of himself – which is always a good goal to have in mind.


Eric Anderson: Ghosts Upon The Road



The descriptiveness here is eloquent, and reminds me of the poet James Wright and his poem A Winter Daybreak Above Vence.

Andersen, like Wright, never judges what is going on around him, i.e., his history. Both record the images that have survived the memory, and do not taint the real events of living with what they think such events mean.

Form and content are one in the same. A fourteen line love poem strives to be recognized as a sonnet, whether the poet sees it or not. That is the trick – to see what the thing – poem or song – is trying to become. Andersen’s song is long, and entails a large portion of the speaker’s life. It does not rely on the chorus to carry the song down the page: it is the content, the story, that moves the song in a forward direction, and the repetition of the chorus (formal structure) that adds the resonance, or larger meaning, to the everyday events experienced. Form cannot survive without content, and vice versa!

A Winter Daybreak Above Vence
James Wright

The night’s drifts
Pile up below me and behind my back,
Slide down the hill, rise again, and build
Eerie little dunes on the roof of the house.
In the valley below me,
Miles between me and the town of St. Jeannet,
The road lamps glow.
They are so cold, they might as well be dark.
Trucks and cars
Cough and drone down there between the golden
Coffins of greenhouses, the startled squawk
Of a rooster claws heavily across
A grove, and drowns.
The gumming snarl of some grouchy dog sounds,
And a man bitterly shifts his broken gears.
True night still hangs on,
Mist cluttered with a racket of its own.

Now on the mountainside,
A little way downhill among turning rocks,
A square takes form in the side of a dim wall.
I hear a bucket rattle or something, tinny,
No other stirring behind the dim face
Of the goatherd’s house. I imagine
His goats are still sleeping, dreaming
Of the fresh roses
Beyond the wall of the greenhouse below them
And of lettuce leaves opening in Tunisia.

I turn, and somehow
Impossibly hovering in the air over everything,
The Mediterranean, nearer to the moon
Than this mountain is,
Shines. A voice clearly
Tells me to snap out of it. Galway
Mutters out of the house and up the stone stairs
To start the motor. The moon and the stars
Suddenly flicker out, and the whole mountain
Appears, pale as a shell.

Look, the sea has not fallen and broken
Our heads. How can I feel too warm
Here in the dead center of January? I can
Scarcely believe it, and yet I have to, this is
The only life I have. I get up from the stone.
My body mumbles something unseemly
And follows me. Now we are still sitting strangely
On top of the sunlight.

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