Tag Archives: Songwriting


Like timeless novels, there’s classic storytelling through song lyrics. Simon & Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence is a perfect example of timeless lyrics. They remain in peoples’ brains because the message universally resonates, no matter who sings them. And every artist has their own delivery — their unique voice — just as novel writers do. Here are the lyrics to Sound of Silence. Follow along as five outstanding — and totally different — renditions of Sound of Silence are performed.

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Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

In restless dreams, I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

Fools, said I, you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence

And the people bowed and prayed To the neon god they made

And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sound of silence

This is as good as songwriting gets. Put on your headphones or earbuds and listen to how these amazing artists break the sound of silence.

*   *   *

Simon & Garfunkel Original Cut – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zLfCnGVeL4

Jayden Raylee Cover – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CWtvP6FeDJI

Nouela Cover https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4oInT79CUk

Disturbed Cover – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bk7RVw3I8eg

Simon & Garfunkel Reunion https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-JQ1q-13Ek


AB6Johnny Cash was a brilliant musician. Singer. Performer. And masterful songwriter. Johnny Cash condensed high concept ideas into short, resonating stories – ripping people’s hearts in four or five stanzas – that stayed in millions of ears and memories. Big River was his best-told story. And he played it when inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

A writer friend recently ranted about working with a Grammar Nazi. Wait – How the hell does that relate to the man in black? And why are these opening paragraphs so disjointed? Stick with me.

“Jesus Christ! My editor’s gagging my friggin’ voice.” Frustration in her email zinged through me.

“Know it.” I keyed back.

AB5“Who says we can’t start a sentence with ‘And’?” She pounded. “We’re crime-thriller writers, for God’s sakes. Not tryin’ for a Pulitzer Prize in English Lit.”

I nodded. “Remember what King says – ‘Grammar don’t wear no coat ‘n tie’.” (Stephen King’s advice in On Writing).

‘Yep. Holding m’ground.” She breathed out. “It’s my story and I’m stickin’ to tellin’ it my way.”

“Good for you!” I pecked, thinking So much of what makes a great story is the way it’s told. Take songwriting. There’s not a lick of good grammar in most songs and some songs are timeless stories. Like Big River. I bet novelists can learn a lot from songwriters. 

That night I kicked back with (a) glass of wine, headphones on, rockin’ to The Highwaymen – Live at Nassau Coliseum (1985). Their encore was Big River

AB4The Highwaymen: Willie Nelson. Waylon Jennings. Kris Kristopherson. And Johnny Cash. All great musicians. Singers. Performers. And masterful songwriters. 

But Johnny Cash was a one-of-a-kind musical figure, quintessentially American; able to identify with the outlaw, and vice-versa – craggy, with a voice unlike anyone’s. Waylon & Willie worshiped him. Kris Kristofferson wrote “He’s a poet, he’s a picker, he’s a prophet, he’s a pusher, he’s a pilgrim, and he’s a preacher.”

Johnny Cash’s masterpiece, Big River, was cut in 1958 and topped the charts. It has everything in one story.

Now I taught the weeping willow how to cry, cry, cry
And I showed the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky
And the tears that I cried for that woman are gonna flood you Big River
Then I’m gonna sit right here until I die

I met her accidentally in St. Paul, Minnesota
And it tore me up every time I heard her drawl, southern drawl
Then I heard my dream was back downstream cavortin’ in Davenport
And I followed you Big River when you called

Then you took me to St. Louis later on down the river
A freighter said she’s been here but she’s gone, boy, she’s gone
I found her trail in Memphis but she just walked up the bluff
She raised a few eyebrows and then she went on down alone

Now, won’t you batter down by Baton Rouge, River Queen, roll it on
Take that woman on down to New Orleans, New Orleans
Go on, I’ve had enough, dump my blues down in the gulf
She loves you, Big River, more than me

Now I taught the weeping willow how to cry, cry, cry
And I showed the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky
And the tears that I cried for that woman are gonna flood you Big River
Then I’m gonna sit right here until I die

AB16Re-reading the lyrics – even when I thought I understood the words – “then I heard my dream was back downstream cavortin’ in Davenport ” got me. Like, how good is that? 

Big River is a study in storytelling. High concept in a timeless, global theme of lost love. Slots into a romance genre – the largest commercial fiction market. Opens with an emotional prologue. Sharp hook in beginning act; builds tension in middle; ends in the third act by answering the central story question.

AB15Big River introduces protagonist and antagonist in the opening line of the first scene. There’s desire and conflict; hope and despair.  Stays in first person point-of-view. Past tense. Every word – Every line – Every paragraph advances the story, following a forlorn search from the Mississippi’s top to its bottom – in the heart of American country music.

Big River has implied dialogue. Adjectives that work. Not a useless, stinky-little adverb in sight. Beats become scenes; scenes sequence acts. There’s subplot and subtext. Every word counts. Setting is vivid… but time frame is everywhere in the past two hundred years. And characters aren’t named – but they’re strongly identifiable – because they could be you and me.

There’s not a lick of good grammar in Big River. Punctuation’s the shits!! There’s run-ons and cut-offs and pretty much everything a Grammar Nazi could hate.

AB8But the voice? So clear. So large. So unique. So Johnny Cash. His theme is timeless. His story universal.  Big River is told in 281 words.

Novelists can learn a lot from songwriters. 

Pour yourself a glass of wine, yes (a) glass of wine. Put your headphones on, girl, yes put your head phones on. Watch and listen to these videos, these timeless storytelling videos, and sit right there until you die.

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Johnny Cash at the Grand Ole Opry in 1962  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_21p14TAXM

Highwaymen Live at Nassau Coliseum in 1985  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hy6_b7sQuY

Johnny Cash’s induction into Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 (Jamming with rocks’s best, like John Fogerty and Keith Richards) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIWBEggDFa0


AB1Great writing is not just found in novels, poetry, and screenwriting. It’s in all forms of communication like speeches and blog posts. Great writing is about getting your message vividly across – telling a story by painting a memorable picture in words. It’s captivating your audience so they expand that message in their mind and it sticks in like Macky’s knife.

Great writers use many devices. Descriptors. Metaphors and similes. Dialogue – sometimes with patois. Suggestion and innuendo. Beats. Pacing. Rhythm. Foreshadowing, shock, and tension building.

AB2I don’t know squat about songwriting, let alone music composition. I can barely play the radio, never mind making something intelligent come out of an instrument.

But I’m okay at writing and I can recognize great writing.

Last night I started humming the tune from Mack The Knife. I’m not sure what started it, but the dammed thing wouldn’t go away and I realized I knew few of the words. I had a limited understanding of the song – just that it was about some bad-ass with a blade and a good tune. I thought Frank Sinatra originally did it and was recently copied by Michael Buble.

AB4So I Googled it and, yes, both Sinatra and Buble sang it and so did Bobby Darin. A lot of other great singers did, too. Louis Armstrong. Bing Crosby. Ella Fizgerald and Peggy Lee. Of course Tony Bennett. And Liberace. Did you know Bill Haley & The Comets cut it? Roger Daltry and The Doors? Sting blew it away.

Simon Cowell was quoted calling it “The greatest song ever written“.

What’s so great about it? Who wrote this masterpiece? Here’s what Wikepedia says:

“Mack the Knife” or “The Ballad of Mack the Knife”, originally “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer”, is a song composed by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht for their music drama Die Dreigroschenoper, or, as it is known in English, The Threepenny Opera. It premiered in Berlin in 1928 at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. The song has become a popular standard recorded by many artists, including a US number one hit for Bobby Darin.

AB3I played Bobby Darin’s version about ten times and followed the words, trying to analyze the greatness in this writing – in this story. It’s there. It’s there in every word. Every line. Every paragraph. Descriptors. Metaphors and similes. Dialogue – sometimes with patois. Suggestion and innuendo. Beats. Pacing. Rhythm. Foreshadowing, shock, and tension building.

By God, this is great writing.

Copy this link  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEllHMWkXEU and paste it in another window to listen to Bobby Darin’s crooning while following the lyrics. Put on your headphones and enjoy a read/listen to some great storytelling.

Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear
And it shows them pearly white
Just a jackknife has old MacHeath, babe?
And he keeps it out of sight

You know when that shark bites with his teeth, babe
Scarlet billows start to spread
Fancy gloves, though wears old MacHeath, babe
So there’s never, never a trace ‘a red

Now on a sidewalk, on a Sunday mornin’ 
Lies a body just oozin’ life
Some, someone’s sneakin’ ’round a corner
Could that someone be Mack the Knife?

There’s a tugboat down by the river, don’t you know?
Where a cement bag, just a’drooppin’ on down
Oh, that cement is just its there for the weight, dear
Five’ll get you ten Old Macky’s back in town

D’ja hear ’bout Louie Miller? He disappeared, babe
After drawin’ out all his hard earned cash
And now MacHeath spend just like a sailor
Could it be our boy’s done somethin’ rash?

Jenny Diver, yeah, yeah, Sukey Tawdry
Hello Miss Lotte Lenya and Lucy Brown
Oh that line forms, on the right, babe
Now, that Macky’s back in town

I said, Jenny Diver, whoa Sukey Tawdry
Look out Miss Lotte Lenya and Old Lucy Brown
Yes that line forms on the right, babe
Now, that Macky’s back in town
Look out, Old Macky is back

Mack The Knife is not just a great song.

It’s great writing telling a great story.

Listen to Bobby Darin’s Mack The Knife here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEllHMWkXEU