Here is a Johnny Cash song called Flesh and Blood covered by one of my favorite bands, Annuals.
Here is the original
Title: Flesh and Blood can imply a lot of the things just from asking questions around the tile. Fortunately, the intro to the song in the video explains how the song came about leaving out the guess work for us. For me, Cash’s little speech is relatable and I could easily see how the song was written around the sentiment of, as Cash said “God, if you will,” for lack of a better word. Basically the interconnectedness of things. Flesh and Blood is sort of a cliche now days, but you can transform cliches into fresh imagery or statements. Cash saved it with adding, “but you’re the one I need.” This adds depth to the cliche and adds a dimension no one else had. For me, since I love the song, the phrase “Flesh and blood needs flesh and blood, but you’re the one I need” is resonating and moving enough that I can easily see it as the hook of the song. Always write around your hook phrase, or title.
Tone: The song definitely has a particular mood and style. First, it has that country swing to it. Then, it has a sort of observatory appreciation of life in it through the setting and a lot of sense focus making it a happy sort of outside feeling song
Hooks: Different things stick out as attention grabbers for different people, but for me the bass holds the song down. It’s hypnotizing. There’s also background vocals in one part, I love BG vocals. The lyrical content here is the main hook for me. Of course the payoff in the chorus repeating.
POV: he could be talking to a lover, or god or whatever. It’s obvious he wrote it through personal experience as stated in the intro.
Verse: This is important. Right out the gate Cash hits you with one of the Five W’s with a “where.” The first line of the song pulls you in through setting. “Beside a singin’ mountain stream, where the willow grew.” Notice how the rest of the verses contain mainly action, description, and details with specifics and each verse adds a scene, or a chapter if you will, to the big picture that is the chorus.
Chorus: Same as the title since it’s pretty much repeated. The addition to the cliche makes the chorus the payoff and gives the detail in the verses purpose and meaning.
Theme: (idea+opinion) He tackled a big one here. God. He broke it down into details and focused on a particular experience he had and built it back up with small pieces. The end result is context anyone can relate to. Nature, Need, and in the bridge a little despair.
Images: It’s everywhere in the song. Images are accomplished through sense detail and are external detail, not abstract like love, happiness, loss, or other things. Look to the verses for things like the leaf detail, cardinal detail, flock of geese, carved a whistle from a reed. Any description can serve as a valid image. This also links to specificity. What kind of geese did he mention? “a northbound flock of geese.” What kind of whistle? one made from reed. What kind of sky? Baby blue. If it’s in the song, it deserves a specific name.
Powerhouse Words: This can change your writing forever and make it more vivid. This song uses PW extensively. notice the action in the song in particular. For any writing, something has the be HAPPENING. Few songs are merely streams of consciousness. Make something happen. Some action words in the song are sparkled, braided, leaned, breathed, carved, sang, thanked, and more.
Sense detail: Notice how he includes sound (cardinal sings), the word feed is in there, but a bulk of sense detail in this song is sight related because it’s centered around an observation. Don’t be afraid to try others though. For instance, don’t say it rained, say how it felt(touch), or how it sounded. Show don’t tell.
Structure: I’ve never been too good at noticing when somethings a chorus versus just the end of a verse(refrain). The main idea is that you recognize the difference between the sections at least, because a refrain serves the same function as a chorus, the payoff. notice the repetition and order of the verses. Not he could have easily made the 2nd verse the 1st, or any number of combinations.
Rhyme: I don’t care. This song is awesome.
Notes: The whole song is a setup. It gives you a strong feeling that nature is at the core of the lyric, but the chorus addition, along with the bridge, change the song focus. That’s the job of a bridge. To provide a fresh perspective after being stuck in the mindset of a song. It’s a fresh step away from the song. Consider the rule of 2’s. It’s the repetition rule. don’t repeat something more than twice before you change it or you risk boring people. ConsiderThe Beatles song girl. The first two lines of vocal melody are the same, but the third is changed. This also works on a grander scale with verse - V, chorus - C, and bridge - B. Consider the song structure examples and see different variations of the 2 rule on a bigger scale.
V V C B C the verse is done twice before the chorus. don’t give us another one, switch to the chorus.
V C V C B V C Here V+C acts as a single unit. so we have (VC) once then (VC) again so change it up with a bridge! then bring us back. It’s the “Vacation Rule” in songwriting
an important part I forgot to mention in the worksheet would be Subjects. Some subjects in the song are of course the “I ” in the song, leaf, cardinal, day, Twigs, honeydew, geese, and more. With a simple list of thoughtfully chosen, or randomly chosen subjects(nouns) verbs, and adjectives (Powerhouse words) you can write a free write and gain an abundance of raw material to mine and sift through.
Try this exercise. choose about 8 action verbs, subjects, and adjectives at random and do a free write on them. You may arrive at something you didn’t even know you had to say.
Thats the gist of it. Hope this is helpful.
Somewhere in my short span of life I realized there was something more to discover about music. Sometimes I feel pretty lucky thinking I found such an outlet to fill the void. Not only did I find it, it lead to several other things like skateboarding, film, art, and encouraged me to learn writing for the past 2 years. I sympathize for the bored person, or the person who has crossed passed with music but missed the importance of it. But I’m convinced that for every person, there is something of an equivalent of what music has given me.
I know there are people out there who argue that breaking things down into a formula ruins it. That it loses its chance to be an authentic expression of yourself if you use craft. The point to walk away with is that there is a craft to everything and craft isn’t a formula. There are universals to every song, whether you realize it or not, and they are probably the reason you are so attracted to them. The main problem is that these types think if they have a good idea or emotion backing the song is magically translated to the listener and they somehow understand it perfectly. I like to think of these types as the hopeless romantics of songwriting. It’s just wishful thinking. You need structure like repetition, contrast, focus, and techniques to make sure the message is remembered. Hack writers are writers who start with craft, therefore all their good subconscious ideas are filtered before they hit the page. Craft can never sub in for heart. You end with craft. The crafting is the form the writing shifts through (whether it be rough draft to revision, or novel to lyric) to be most effective for an audience. Learning the craft just makes it easier for you to maximize the potential of your writing to effect the hearts and minds of the listener. A great analogy is that the song message is the language, but the craft is the fluency you speak it. It makes sure the message is heard. The songs you love aren’t shots in the dark (well at least the finished product isn’t)
Master craft, don’t let it master you. When you hear a good song the craft is invisible. Also, when you hear a bad song, all you hear is craft. The craft keeps them interested. Once they are there, the humanity and message are up to you. Get the raw materials, words and ideas, down first. The clay. Then craft it. Shape it to be utilitarian like a ashtray or a pot or some shit.
Remember, how you write matters more than what you write about. This is why love songs will never go out of style. There are an infinite amount of ways to say things, unique to each person. What you write about, the idea, is only the package the human experience comes in.
If you have something to say, but no song craft…listeners might not hear you.
If you have song craft, but nothing to say…listeners might not care