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Personification In A Song: “I Am A Town”

Personification In A Song: “I Am A Town”

Personification in a song is hard to do well.

Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “I Am A Town” is not only the most ambitious, with the highest potential for a disastrous lyric, but the best example of how to do personification in a song exceptionally well!

I love this song (OK I love quite a few, but I really love this one right behind Wichita Lineman).

Not only is the repetition crafted into the song well, but the idea of a town telling it’s own story is – well – great.

And to think of how quickly this could have gone off the rails, it leaves you in awe of how well written the lyric is.

 

Mary Chapin Carpenter “I Am A Town”

 

There’s not a single “comic” moment in it: no strained attempts to squeeze something implausible into it and make some quirky connection back to the idea of the town talking. Not a single flaw.

 

 

So how does the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee do it?

  • Clear, concise imagery that never goes too far from telling what is a literal scene
  • She doesn’t try to turn the town into a person
  • In essence it’s a list song – and being written that way helps to avoid common pitfalls of personification.

 

So let’s take a closer look at what makes it work so well.

The Form Helps

It’s AABAA and uses a refrain of sorts that ties to a repeated phrase in the the verse lines. “I am” becomes the recurring statement used in each of the lines to make it clear someone/something is talking.

It’s also uses an effective chord progression to leave the listener unsatisfied after the first verse, essentially anticipating more to come until it’s resolved with “I am a town.” The chord structure places an emphasis on the key phrase.

 

Shows, Doesn't Tell, With Imagery Symbolic Of A Town

You’re never guessing what is being talked about, so the connection to “a town” is easy for the listener. And – they’re images we’ve all seen, so we’re not having to go find some obscure memory in order to create the scenes that are within the song.

This focus allows the listener to (1) follow the imagery, (2) believe the town is describing itself, and (3) not have a Scooby “Roh-Roh” moment complete with head tilt when the “me” is introduced in the B Section.

Let’s look at a few of the images used and think “driving through a town” – do they align?

“blur from the driver’s side”

“last gas for an hour”

“Texaco”

“dust you leave behind”

“corn from a roadside stall”

“where the boys have left their beer cans”

“church beside the highway”

“billboards in the fields”

“an old truck up on cinder blocks”

“Pabst Blue Ribbon”

“Southern Serves The South”

“Jaycees sign”

“rural route”

 

DANG!!!

Talk about show don’t tell!

 

B Section Gets You To The 'Me' Of The Message

 

The role of a metaphor is to have a connection for the reader/listener and tie to a larger message. The metaphor of a town representing a person’s dreams and aspirations is masterfully captured by the eloquent lines of Carpenter’s refrain or B section.

“My sleep is filled with dreams, I can never can fulfill them” summarizes the idea of the metaphor, and subsequently the song. Unlike a poem, in a song, you should probably try and spell it out succinctly – after all, it’s flying by in 4 minutes or less!

The B section here acts as a chorus and a bridge by summarizing or completing the big idea like a chorus, but also creating a contrasting moment like a bridge.

How does it do that?

The song is in the key of A and is a basic I  IV  V ( A – D – E) form with the B section going to the VI (F#m) and the IV (D), creating a vivid contrast and emphasis on the refrain.

 

Rhyme Pattern Keeps It Moving

 

Notice the rhyme pattern and the use of internal rhyme in the second verse. It shifts to C|C|D|D from the original four rhymed lines begun in the first verse. However, it uses quite a bit of internal rhyme to not only sound more rhymed, but connect to other parts of the song.

The rhyme pattern also leverages the “I am a town” the song starts with to tie to later verses, moving the song forward, like a drive through a town.

While the “I am a town” is sort of hanging out in the B section, it connects to the last verse in the last line (repeating the form/placement of the statement the refrain used), and then becomes the end rhyme for the last verse.

Pretty brilliant writing.

 

“I Am A Town” Lyrics

I’ve highlighted internal rhyme (yellow) and end rhymes (blue)

 

VERSE
I’m a town in Carolina, I’m a detour on a  ride        [A]
For a phone call and a soda, I’m a blur from the driver’s  side .     [A]
I’m the last gas for an hour if you’re going twenty-  five .     [A]
I am Texaco and tobacco, I am dust you leave  behind .     [A]

 

VERSE
I am peaches in September, and corn from a roadside  stall .     [B]
I’m the language of the  natives , I’m a  cadence  and a  drawl .     [B]
I’m the pines behind the  graveyard , and the cool  beneath  their  shade  –     [C]
Where the boys have left their beer cans – I am  weeds  between the  graves .     [C]

 

REFRAIN
My porches sag and  lean  with old black men and  children      [D]
My sleep is filled with dreams, I never can fulfill  them      [D]
I am a  town .     [E]

 

VERSE

I am a church beside the highway where the ditches never  drain      [C]
I’m a Baptist like my daddy, and Jesus knows my  name      [C]
I am memory and stillness, I am lonely in old  age      [C]
I am not your destination, I am clinging to my  ways      [C]
I am a town .     [E]

 

VERSE
I’m a town in Carolina, I am billboards in the  fields      [F]
I’m an old truck up on cinder blocks, missing all my  wheels      [F]
I am Pabst Blue Ribbon, American, and “Southern Serves the  South ”     [E]
I am tucked behind a Jaycees sign, on the rural  route      [E]
I am a  town      [E]
I am a  town      [E]
I am a  town      [E]
 Southbound .     [E]

 

 Songwriter: Mary Chapin Carpenter




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