Craig Clifford of Stephenville, Texas, is a prolific songwriter who performs regularly with the Accidental Band and occasionally as a solo singer-songwriter. He has recorded two albums with the Accidental Band and, most recently, a solo acoustic album. Currently the band is working on a three-song EP, “The Bull Rider’s Trilogy,” and another full-length CD, “We Ain’t No Lap Dancin’ Band.” Born in Lafayette, Louisiana, Clifford grew up outside of Houston, then honed his musical skills playing in the coffeehouses in Austin, Texas, in the late sixties and early seventies. His song writing reflects both his Louisiana heritage and Texas upbringing, as well as his musical roots in traditional folk music, early Bob Dylan, and the Texas singer-songwriter tradition. Clifford is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Honors Programs at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas
As I recounted a couple of columns ago, I am co-editing a book of essays about what I call the “ruthlessly poetic” singer-songwriters of Texas. Think of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark as the archetypes. But how far do we push this idea? Are these songwriters really poets? Are they writing poetry?
An album featuring other artists covering Van Zandt’s songs is called Poet: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt. Lyle Lovett has remarked that “Guy’s songs are literature.” And Clark tells the story in several interviews about Van Zandt and him judging their lyrics by comparison to Dylan Thomas reading his poetry.
David Rodriguez, another ruthlessly poetic Texas songwriter, asked me a few years ago to help him publish a book of his lyrics. That started me thinking. Essentially, that would mean that we were asking someone to publish these lyrics as poems. I tried for a while, but I finally decided that it didn’t make sense. David might disagree, but here are my thoughts on the subject.
Years ago I bought a book of Bob Dylan’s lyrics. Have I ever sat down and read them as I would read the poems of Yeats? No, I bought the book so that I would have the lyrics when I was learning to play one of Dylan’s songs. Back then, pre-internet and pre-CDs, you had to play a few lines of the LP, pick up the needle, write down those lines, then repeat the process until you had all of the words written down. Many of David Rodriguez’s lyrics are about as poetic as they can be, but I can’t read them without hearing the music in my head. And, although I didn’t actually try this, I’m pretty confident that if you presented them as poems to poetry scholars who had no idea that they were actually song lyrics, they would not see them as accomplished poetry. That’s no slight against David’s lyrics—the same thing would be true of Dylan’s. Well, OK, I should qualify this hypothetical experiment. I’m thinking of traditional poetry scholars. Given the way contemporary postmodern and post-colonial critics like to deconstruct categories, many of them refuse to distinguish between the ingredients list on the back of a breakfast cereal box and Shakespeare. For them everything is poetry, and nothing is poetry.
But even in a postmodern environment, when the Texas legislature named Steve Fromholz, another craftsman of poetic songs, Poet Laureate of the State of Texas in 2007, many of the state’s poets as well as a few English professors were incensed. He’s a songwriter, not a poet, they protested. Were they being snooty? Erecting artificial barriers?
To be sure, songs and poems are intimately related. In many ancient cultures, in fact, they aren’t distinguished. The Homeric rhapsodes are described as “singing” epic poems, and their performances were often accompanied by a lyre. Even in more modern times the oral presentation of poetry is often described as “musical”—take Dylan Thomas’s readings, for example. And, for that matter, great poems are often set to music.
Still, two traditions have developed over the last few centuries. They share many features: meter and rhythm matter in songs and in poems, how the words sound matters in both, and so on. But modern poetry, however musical it might be in some broad metaphorical way, is not music. There’s not a melody. There’s not a chord progression that is crucial to the meaning of the song. And even if the recitation of a poem is accompanied by a musical instrument, that music is a backdrop, not an integral part of the poem. In the ruthlessly poetic songs I’m talking about, the lyrics are front and center, but the music is an indispensable part of the meaning of the song. Take away the music from Van Zandt’s most famous song, “Pancho and Lefty,” and it’s not a song anymore—it’s just that simple. The name “Pancho and Lefty” refers to a unique combination of music and words, not just to a collection of words.
As a side note, the question about the range of possible musical interpretations of a song is a separate, albeit equally important, issue. Great songs yield a wide variety of possible interpretations, and that of course complicates the issue of what identifies a song as that song. At some point an interpretation crosses over into a new creation based on or inspired by the original song. And some interpretations just miss the point of the song.
But back to the topic at hand. One of the pitfalls of overemphasizing the lyrics of these finely crafted songs is that you shortchange the music. The music I’m talking about is basically folk music, so musically it’s usually fairly simple on one level. But for these great songwriters what’s going on musically is just as precise as what is going on lyrically—the melodies, chord structures, finger-picking passing notes, and so on. One key element in what makes these songs great is the perfect marriage of music and lyrics. Or you might say that the music express musically what the lyrics express lyrically. But even that formulation treats the two as separate entities. Perhaps a better way to say it is that the meaning and impact of the song comes from the artistic whole which includes music and words finely crafted. And that’s not something that’s simple to do.“Pancho and Lefty” is a case in point. The melody is simple but haunting—perfect for the song. The chord structure is simple—only four chords—but it conveys so much of the meaning of the song. Van Zandt didn’t invent the use of minor chords to express the darker emotions, but the way he ends every verse and every chorus with a minor chord sets the mood for the entire song. In its totality as a song, however simple it might be on one level, it’s a piece of artistic perfection.
So I guess you’ll have your own opinions about the validity of lyrics as poetry. Here’s my “Drinkin’ Hard in Austin” track I played you last month and now recorded with ‘The Accidental Band’. I’m really proud of the lyrics, but it’s the song in its entirely which, for me, has real meaning as a work of art. Well, I’ll leave you to decide on that for yourselves. Have a listen and get back to me.
Craig Clifford : lead vocals and acoustic guitar
Jim Easterling : drums
Nancy Easterling : bass
Guest artist Kyle Derr : acoustic guitar and harmony