SAC 2016 Songwriting Challenge Week 2

Okay, we’re into week 2 and the Challenge has been issued by Northern Pikes member Bryan Potvin to write a song that tells a story.  He says that in addition to a compelling storyline it “should be a song with memorable melody, chord structure and rhythm that speaks to the ideas within the story.”  Make the story drive the lyric and the music, he says.

He includes some great sample tracks as points of reference, including “Cats in the Cradle” (Harry Chapin) and “She Ain’t Pretty” (Northern Pikes).  Of course there are many others, including Gordon Lightfoot’s epic “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and Towne Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.”

It’s a difficult challenge on several levels, not the least of which is to grapple with the question “what exactly qualifies as a story, anyway?”

Merriam Webster has a few ways to define it but I like “an account of incidents or events” or “the intrigue or plot of a narrative or dramatic work.”

In its essence, however, a story has characters, a setting, and some kind of action unfolding in time.  I suppose this can be contrasted with a lyric that is either impressionistic (“Where the Streets Have No Name“) or one that expresses a set of emotional statements in relation to a chorus (“Walking on Sunshine“).


The Process

Fortunately I had a story idea for a song that had been sitting idle for some time.  The challenge gave me a good excuse to develop it.

I assume the characters and the dramatic element of the story will be obvious to listeners but the timeline is a bit different because it works backward from the recent past to the distant past through the three verses.

This is what I wrote on my worksheet when planning out the song structure:

Verse 1: minutes before
Verse 2: hours before
Verse 3: years before

I’m not sure it’s a narrative as much as the singer recollecting a set of related moments in second-person POV.  Does that count as a story?  If we accept the first of Meriam Webster’s definitions I noted above (“an account of incidents or events”) then it does.

I really like singing the melody in the chorus and feel it ties the elements together with compelling hook but that is ultimately for listeners to decide.

The performance and recording could both be improved but I’ve decided that we’re all friends here and so I’m not going to overwork the demo this week.


The Result

Can’t Take it Back

An empty bottle beside the bed-
the darkness clings to the things you said
Like shattered glass on a broken mirror-
These lines of force are now crystal clear

The fever broke about 2am-
You were sick from drinking, soaked in sin
You raised your voice then you raised your hand-
out came that demon you could never understand

You can’t take it back now-
You can’t take it back
You can’t take it back now-
You can’t take it back

A set of keys beside the door-
she pleaded so many times before
trying to save you from yourself-
a gesture of love that you ignored

You slammed the door when you left that night-
at the sight of tears in the fury of another fight
And you knew where the road was gonna lead-
with those warning signs you never chose to heed

You can’t take it back now-
You can’t take it back
You can’t take it back now-
You can’t take it back

Time ticks away-
time ticks away
time ticks away-
then it’s gone

A lover’s note inside your coat-
twenty years ago it gave you hope
she said “I do” when you took her hand-
but you burned it to ash-
in the flames of a foolish man

You can’t take it back now-
You can’t take it back
You can’t take it back now-
You can’t take it back

Copyright 2016 Gordon Gow
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