Tag Archives: Emblem

Beyond The Pop-rizon: Folk Structure

Joni Mitchell and Axl Rose’s bony lovechild.

“Just before our love got lost you said
I am as constant as a northern star
And I said, constantly in the darkness?
Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar”

A Case Of You – Joni Mitchell

It’s the most played song on my iPod: it had to come out at some point or another. Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You is the epitome of songwriting at its best. The beautiful, ambiguous emblem of ‘A Case Of You’, the pure value-per-line of the lyrics, and a performance of arresting sincerity. It’s cracking. At some point I’ll talk about the long-uncredited awesomeness of this song, but for now I want to use it as an example of a classic Folk Structure.

What I mean by a Structure is what people refer to as the Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus formula by which pop songs are (in the vast majority) constructed. It’s the formula by which the song repeats certain melodies and chord sequences.

Each genre has a formula that it swears by. The Folk Structure, instead of Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus, goes for Superverse-Superverse-Superverse. Each ‘Superverse’ may contain several different chord patterns and melodies within it, but really follows the same structure and often ends on an emblem; e.g. “I could drink a case of you”.

I’m not expecting any 50’s housewife reactions here, but the distinction is important because it allows the songwriter more lyricism and freedom. This repetition of melody allows you to rigidly structure your lyrics as if they were a poem, and really simplifies the songwriting process.

The Folk Structure also allows for a more natural build-up of instruments, adding them in slowly in each verse. The Pop Structure, by having to quickly ramp it up for each chorus, often forces you to slam everything in at once.

Plus, the three repetitions gives you a beautiful structural arc upon which to build your story. Remember your Year 9 teacher drumming ‘Beginning, Middle, and End?’ into you? She/He wasn’t lying. Three repetitions is just long enough for you to build up a Setting/Conflict/Resolution-type scenario without waffling.

So give it a go. It’s actually a fair whack easier than having to produce separate arrangements for Verses, Choruses, and Middle 8’s. Just make one little progression and repeat it three times. No wonder all those catheter-wielding octogenarian Folkies still cling to it.

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Tangled Up In Metaphor: How to Structure a Theme into Songwriting

Dylan circa 1975, sporting a Leo Sayer barnet.

“She was married when we first met, soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess, but I used a little too much force
We drove that car as far as we could, abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night, both agreeing it was best
She turned around to look at me as I was walkin’ away
I heard her say over my shoulder, ‘We’ll meet again someday on the avenue’
Tangled up in blue”

Tangled Up In Blue – Bob Dylan

Yes, oh yes, we’re on Bob Dylan again. Broken record, anyone? Yes, I know.

But what a writer. In his epic love story Tangled Up In Blue, which he said took ‘2 years to write and 10 years to live’, the main character travels all across America with the memory of a girl he once knew holed up in his heart. You could write a dissertation on Dylan’s use of pronouns, on the song’s intentionally ambiguous imagery, on Blood On The Tracks’ complete and utter awesomeness; but I want to focus on Dylan’s use of emblem, and why it is useful in songwriting.

At the end of each verse, Dylan refers back to his central image: “Tangled Up In Blue”. On first listening, it’s not quite apparent what he means (Who is this “Blue”? How can one be “Tangled Up” in her?), but as each verse unfolds, the phrase magically acquires new meaning through repetition.

The initially ambiguous phrase “Tangled Up In Blue” now embodies the main character’s longing for his estranged lover. It becomes the emblem of the song, both as a summary of the song’s feeling and as a handy way to refer back to the title.

This idea of emblem is particularly interesting when we consider how Dylan might have written the song. What came first, the emblem or the verses? My (utterly unworthy) guess is that Dylan heard the phrase ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ and thought (imagine the voice) ‘Yeah, man, uh… I could use that, man…’ and began to create a song around this central metaphor.

This becomes a highly effective way to structure new songs. Not only is it useful in folk songwriting, but it is absolutely central to pop songwriting. If you can combine a hooky melody with a poetic emblem, then you are half-way towards a hit. Consider Lady Gaga’s (incredible, by the way) singles catalogue. Alejandro, Bad Romance, Just Dance, Telephone: all built around this combination.

Songs built around emblems are far more tightly focused and simply better. The scattergun approach works sometimes: Dylan’s (yes, him again) Subterranean Homesick Blues, for instance. But for those who need a tighter focus in their songwriting, this’ll work wonders for you.

But don’t take my word for it! Have a go! Next time a little phrase comes into your head that gives you a creative jolt, jot it down and build a song around it, and post the lyrics on the comments section. It’ll be fun. 🙂

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