Writing someone’s life story into a song, while keeping it compelling, visually rich and moving along – is difficult. Many times you can get bogged down in a bunch of, what I like to call, “Joe Friday Facts.” Boring, lifeless details.
But, a first person song from the point of view of a stranger is a great exercise to help you:
- Develop a strong ability to get into the head of a main character
- Re-imagine someone’s story and tell it so you reveal something deeply personal about them without just recanting facts
One of the best songs I’ve run across that does it well is Ian Tyson’s “Bob Fudge” and Colter Wall’s delivery makes it that much more haunting. Colter Wall is not only a great songwriter in his own rite, but exceptional at delivering on the legendary songs of his heroes.
“Bob Fudge” has been around for a while, and is a cowboy poetry event staple, but Colter Wall gives is a texture like no other can, and breathes life into this cowboy ballad.
Let’s take a look at how Tyson turns a story of a guy from Texas who drives cattle into a great saga song!
Colter Wall “Bob Fudge” (written by Ian Tyson)
Time: 4:56 | BPM: 55 (Ballad)
What Makes It Work?
The book the song is based on (Bob Fudge Texas Trail Driver, Montana-Wyoming Cowboy, 1862-1933) is 135 pages. Imagine if Ian Tyson had tried to get all of that into a song!
Thankfully, he’s a master songwriter who’s able to find the emotional components in the story that will draw you to its main character.
The strong structure is made up of three distinct “sections” – Section A, which makes up the main verses, Section B, which acts like a chorus – sort of – except that it doesn’t repeat. Hence, a “section”.
But, it does sound different melodically, lifting the song’s storyline into dramatic changes. The “B Section” becomes the transitional moments of the song.
To create some additional dynamics within the song, Tyson uses a vocal break of “oooohhs”. This gives a lamentation vibe to the ballad and helps give the listener a break to catch up to the story.
Because of the melody line and the A/B sections, it sounds like you have a chorus. It just breaks the rule of “you have to have a repeating chorus that launches” but it breaks the rule well, because it melodically changes to sound like it’s “launching” and creates that same dynamic!
Perhaps the most amazing element of the song is that there’s no repetitive rhyme pattern. And I’m a huge rhyme pattern fan – but didn’t miss it in this one!
Why? Because Tyson uses sounds and repetition to connect the sections and lines.
By creating more rhymes at the beginning of the song with internal and end rhyme words like county, Comanche, family, and me, you think you’re hearing a rhyming song. Then slowly back off, using internal vowel sounds or “-ing” endings and word repetition – “Lampasas” shows up again, to keep you in the song, but moving through it.
The entire lack of end rhyme keeps the pace of the song up – which is great, because it’s a ballad. By not using end rhyme, you don’t stop. So the fact that the song is 5 minutes isn’t apparent. It sort of slides by and feels like a 3 minute song. Pretty slick!
To check it out in detail, go to the full lyrics and “sound breakdown” on the “Bob Fudge” Lyrics page.
I aggregated the lyrics back into paragraphs/story form to give you a better idea of just how long the lines of the songs become if written more in short story form. Let’s take a look at how Ian Tyson is able to get great visuals and context into the song.
Bob Fudge – The Lyrics In Story Form
My name is Bob Fudge. I was born in Texas. Lampasas County, back during the war. Small Pox and Comanches took most of my family. Left my poor mother, my brothers and me.
[He’s already introduced death, the Civil War, disease and war parties]
So I headed North to ride for the Blockers. They were contractin’ herds for the Montana range. In the Spring of the year ’82 we left ol’ Lampasas with two thousand steers for the Little Big Horn.
[The Little Big Horn – that doesn’t sound good!]
Crossing our trails, there were many great rivers. All to be crossed. Not a bridge would we find. In the cold rolling waters, and the wild plunging cattle, there was many a young man took leave of his life.
[What great imagery – “great rivers” – “in the cold rolling waters” – “wild plunging cattle” – you know exactly what’s happening and the devastating end for some on the trail]
Well we crossed at Doan’s Store into the Indian nation. Saw the blood on the rocks where those cowboys had died. Then it’s on Fort Dodge on the Arkansas River, where gamblers and the whores all welcomed us there.
[No question that they’re in dangerous territory now – but make it to the Fort where you immediately jump to an old western movie in your head. Pretty slick.]
And the great snow capped peaks are on our left side now, for many miles in the great silent land. When I first saw Montana, I knew I would love her. I would ride her great ranges ’til the end of my days.
[And there you have it – it’s a love story.]
But she’s all cut-and-dry now and the trails are all gone. I’ve been to Yellowstone Park in an automobile. But I can still see ’em swimming. Boys, I can still hear ’em running. I came off of the trails when cowboys was king.
[And of course, time moves forward and the world changes, but memory persists.]
My name is Bob Fudge. I died in Montana.
© 2002 Ian Tyson
See how this song compares to others in terms of word count, reading level, and song lyric stats.[ Lyrics & Song Stats ]