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Using “Girl In the War” as a Teaching Tool

11 Sep


If you have read this blog somewhat consistently over the last few years, you may know these two facts: 1.) I am a High School English teacher and 2.) I greatly appreciate all things Josh Ritter. Thus, it is always a pleasure to combine these two elements into a lesson plan, and next week I will utilize Ritter’s “Girl in the War” in a lesson reviewing figurative language. Students will not only identify the plethora of writing devices Ritter uses in his 2006 anti-war classic, but also they will assess how Ritter’s use of these devices ultimately made his song more effective. Through it all, I’ll make sure to have “Girl in the War” blast over the sound system in my room – perhaps a few times.

I’ve used Josh Ritter before in my classroom. Last year, students explored “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe and “Another New World” by Josh Ritter. It was rewarding to see students unravel the similarities between Ritter’s tribute to Poe’s classic about a “love that was more than love.”Since Ritter’s lyrics are so cogent, intellectual, and literary, the transition from iTunes playlist to classroom is quite simple.

I’m eager to hear the 16-year-old’s take on “Girl in the War” next week. The song contains several allusions, including the biblically-inspired conversation between apostles Peter and Paul. It also utilizes such clever metaphors as “talkin’ to God is Laurel beggin’ Hardy for a gun,” which I anticipate going over the heads of my students; a little clarification will certainly need to be in order. Ritter’s plea, eloquently sang through the lens of Peter and Paul, should be evident for students, as the “girl in the war” is repeated throughout and Ritter uses words like “yell” and “hell” – a sagacious rhyme in an otherwise “holy” song – when Peter begs to the angels that are “locked inside the kingdom.”

I hope students catch that Peter has the “girl in the war.” Peter is also the individual in charge of the pearly gates, with say of who gets to enter heaven. However, Peter has no say about his “girl in the war,” whose collective fate is out of his holy hands and is left, ultimately, to tears falling on Earth as the song ends.

Suzanne in Montreal – Safe Voyage

18 Aug


In the 19th century the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel in Montreal’s Old Port became a mecca for sailors who would make offerings for “good help” for sea voyages. It still functions as an active cathedral in Old Montreal and come this upcoming weekend I hope to make my own pilgrimage to it. My girlfriend and I will be traveling to Montreal and Quebec City for a calm end-of-summer sojourn. Before I leave, though, I must highlight my favorite song related to Montreal – “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen.

Cohen, a Montreal native, has accomplished a rare feat in his career – awards in both songwriting and literature. The daedal wordsmith has been crafting poetry and music since the late 1950s. He is the Da Vinci of Folk music – a renaissance man who rivals Bob Dylan and Paul Simon in talent and inventiveness.

“Suzanne,” a poem/song inspired by a friendship with Suzanne Verdal, is one of my favorite Cohen songs. It’s subdued potency echoes with Cohen’s soft acoustic guitar. The lyric rises with strings and angelic harmony. Clearly, as a Cohen song, the lyric is the absolute strength. The song memorializes Cohen and Verdal’s peregrinations to Old Montreal, past the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel. Despite its documentation of a platonic relationship, the song possesses a sweet intimacy – something warm that captures the listener. The song concludes with this passage:

Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind.

I bolded the particular section that always gets me. The imagery portrayed by the opening line of the bolded section is perhaps the strongest in the song, a line that balances personification and metaphor. One almost feels that Cohen, like the heroes and children, will lean out for love forever. The song ends with the motif of travel represented in the repeated closing verse segments, and, as the verse before this suggests, Suzanne maintains a Jesus-like power of trust and perfection – platonic or not, this song rings with passion and love.

Lyric of the Day? Colin Hay Can See a Very Long Way

24 Jan

Colin Hay

Colin Hay has come a long way since co-forming and providing lead vocals for the men down under Men at Work in the 1980s. But you know what they say (okay, I don’t think anyone says this), a good vocalist is always appreciated in the music community. That is not so much an aphorism, but rather a fact that I hope to be true. For Hay, it is very true.

Hay has Zach Braff (who played J.D. in the popular medical comedy “Scrubs”) for a career revitalization. Braff is one of those guys who appreciates a good vocalist. He started using Hay’s solo material – which is a delicate blend of acoustic rhythm, deeply emotion lyric, and somber vocal splendor, in his work. Since a lot of young folk like Braff (and a lot of people in general loved “Scrubs”), Hay’s music suddenly found a new, younger group of listeners, like myself. I knew of Men at Work, but, I did not know of Colin Hay until I heard “Overkill” on “Scrubs.”

I was hooked. I did have in mind far loftier goals for a post today, but I have been quite busy. This, though, will certainly do. While I have not published a Lyric of the Day in what seems like forever, I think that some lines from “Waiting for My Real Life to Begin,” one of my favorite songs by Hay, would be appreciated by the masses. I am going to see Colin Hay at Town Hall in NYC in April, by the way, and I am PSYCHED!

This song was in “Scrubs” in case you were going, “where have I heard this song before.” My favorite lyrical part of this song is the beginning.

“Any minute now, my ship is coming in
I’ll keep checking the horizon
I’ll stand on the bow, feel the waves come crashing
Come crashing down, down, down, on me

And you say, be still my love
Open up your heart
Let the light shine in
But don’t you understand
I already have a plan
I’m waiting for my real life to begin”

Just listen to the song and let the waves crash down on you. The song touches on a hint of a grand existential wait. It does seem that our protagonist will forever be by the shore waiting for his ship to come in, but, perhaps there is some peace in this situation – some beauty in the monotony. Or, perhaps, I have been reading too much Camus. Any which way, please enjoy this song!

Lyric of the Day: “Dancing Partner” by Joe Pisaspia

7 Dec

We embark on a journey back in time. A sojourn in the bright-eyed days of 2009. Oh, the nostalgia is killing me. The Music Court has not clicked the category option of lyric of the day for way too long. And, this in unacceptable. Every category should get love. So, for today’s post, we concentrate on a lyric that can set your night right. And, we rhyme. Because, that’s what we do here. Rhymes and old times with musical chimes. Shut up and get to the song. Okay!

Joe Pisapia is often referred to as “that balding guy from Guster,” but he is certainly much more than that. This multi-instrumentalist is a talented singer-songwriter that has been an essential part of Guster since he jumped on-board 7 years ago. Recently, after completing Guster’s new album Easy Wonderful, he left the band to explore a project with musician, k.d. lang.

A solo release in 2002 by Pisapia is often looked over by fans of Guster. But, if you want a good listen and you are a fan of Guster, definitely check out Pisapia’s work on Daydreams.

Here is my favorite lyric from my favorite song, “Dancing Partner”

To set the scene, Pisapia’s character goes to visit his grandmother (I think) in a nursing home and they discuss how it has been 27 years ago since her husband passed away and how she refuses to dance with anyone now because her dancing partner is away.

It is a sad song. Pisapia’s smooth, innocent voice is a perfect compliment to the piano rhythm that is jumpy and bubbly. But, as the song hits the chorus the piano draws out and we are left with extended vocal and piano notes that help the song. Here is the lyric

“Driving home so late that night
My mind still recollecting
All the many things we talked about
Like living with and then without

I wondered to myself if I would
Ever love someone that way
And in the echoes of that night
I still can see her as she’s saying,

When they play that music
I turn the other way
Since my dancing partner’s away”

That last segment is repeated throughout the song and it just works so well. I like the story above everything. It is personal and allows the listener to explore one single scene/conversation of dealing with loss. Just well done.

Top 100 Lyricist #67: Robert Smith (The Cure)

12 Aug

Did you know that Robert Smith of the Cure can play guitar, bass, flute, trumpet and violin? Yes, the 51-year-old rocker is not just a pioneer of New Wave rock, but, he is also an accomplished multi-instrumentalist. I think many overlook Robert Smith’s ability. A constant member of the The Cure since their start in 1976, Smith ensconced into the lead vocals and principal song writing role a long time ago and has shown consistent success. His melancholic, somewhat depressing, style of song writing compared with his stage dress has been looked at as an early style of “Goth,” everything. But, don’t tell that to Smith.

“It’s so pitiful when ‘goth’ is still tagged onto the name The Cure,” he said about the relationship.

The Cure’s modus operandi may seem quite “Goth,” but, like most predecessors of style, it does not mean that they are actually what they created. Smith is actually an incredibly talented musician whose gloomy, punk performance style is infectious. He is also a particularly cogent lyricist. Hence, his spot as #67 on our lengthy top 100 lyricist list.

The above video is of The Cure’s “Killing An Arab,” a frenetic punk allusion. Smith, a sucker for good literature (well, I mean who isn’t), displays his ode to “The Stranger,” the existential classic by Albert Camus, in this song. Here are some lyrics to abate your insatiable lyric appetite.

“Standing on a beach
With a gun in my hand
Staring at the sea
Staring at the sand
Staring down the barrel
At the arab on the ground
See his open mouth
But hear no sound

I’m alive
I’m dead
I’m the stranger
Killing an arab”

Here, Smith places us on the beach with Meursault, the protagonist of “The Stranger,” after he has killed the Arab. Do you want a reason for why he did it? Well, I am sorry that I can’t provide you with one. Still, an excellent read and a true existential masterpiece. English major 101. Give me an e-mail and we can discuss the contents. I have only written two essays on Camus’ novel. Well, we are not supposed to be talking about literature here. This is just supposed to be the poetry of song writing. It is a great lyric in that it portrays the utter crisis that Meursault finds himself in, unknowing and rather uncaring.

On to the next lyric…one of my favorite Smith lyric.

“The most perfect of songs, few words, little music.” Smith said this about “Accuracy” and he is absolutely right. It is short and, well, not so sweet. But, its surrealist lyric is most definitely a thing of beauty.

“We sit in the same room
Side by side
I give you the wrong lines
Feed you

Look into my eyes
We both smile
I could kill you
Without trying

That’s accuracy
Practice all day for accuracy

Mirror mirror on the wall…”

This is the entire lyric. Could it be a lyric exploring a concupiscent attraction? A, sort of, surreal look into fatal longing and pin-point seduction. The odd archery of love. It is brief, but, it invokes numerous questions, and, good lyrics do that. For that, Smith has worked himself 33 spots in on our descending list.

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