Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “I Am A Town” is not only the most ambitious, but as a result, turns into the best personification song ever written. The whole song is a town speaking. And what’s most impressive is that it’s speaking the whole time. And you never really notice that you’re getting all emotional from how a town feels. What!?
Needless to say, 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 – mind blowing genius.
And to think of how quickly this could have gone off the rails, it leaves you in awe of how well Mary Chapin Carpenter can write.
Mary Chapin Carpenter “I Am A Town”
Why is this the best personification song ever written? 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 song structure or song form 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.
Service To The Title
She doesn’t just place “furniture” (i.e., nouns, adjectives) in the song. She uses iconic symbols of a town that have a strong connection for listeners.
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”
“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”
Talk about show don’t tell! This is a masterclass in how to create strong imagery in a song and make sure what is being used is more meaningful than a “furniture” addition.
Her use of texture to bring the town to life and connect with the listener is key to making the personification here work.
B Stands For Best Personification Song & B Section
The “B” section of the song gets you to the “me” of the message. What do I mean by that?
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)
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]
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]
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]
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]
VERSESongwriter: Mary Chapin Carpenter
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]