Sing me a story

Joe Henry is a singer, songwriter, recording artist and Grammy-winning producer. His most recent CD, "Civilians," was released last September.

During the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, singer-songwriter Joe Henry participated in a panel on the connection between music and the written word. For our summer reading issue, we asked Henry to elaborate on this question and to write about how literature has helped shape his songs.


I WAS taken with music at a very young age. Not like a prodigy picking out Debussy at the piano, but dumbstruck, at age 7, by the power of disembodied voices fighting static over the radio. Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Louis Armstrong and Dusty Springfield were actors all, and I heard every song as a movie. By the time I was 13, I was completely obsessed with songs, and heavily invested in Bob Dylan’s constructed mythology. He’d been posing from the beginning, of course, and while I was never seduced into hearing his Rimbaud-meets-Cassius-Clay narration as personal biography, I somehow understood that it not only suited his songs but seemed to propel them.

Around this time, my older brother Dave slipped me a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five.” And when he did, the electrical circuit was finally closed. The light came on.


I had always been word-obsessed as a listener, but before Vonnegut, I’d never read any prose I could connect to the music I heard, that played on both words and form with such deliberate and irreverent purpose. Yet right there in the first chapter, Vonnegut reveals the beginning and end of his tale and gives nothing away. He places the past, present and future all in the same room and defeats time as a reliable voice of reason and judgment. He identifies himself, The Writer, as a marginal character in the story, thereby removing himself from it completely. He is the singer, not the song, and the tune is singing him. He is free.

And somehow I was liberated as well. Vonnegut allowed me to see consciously what the songs had been saying to me obliquely: that I could say “I” and mean another; that I was free to adopt another’s point of view; that I could construct a narrative without occupying the center of it. I needn’t worry about blurring the distinction between the real and imagined since no song is ever made more meaningful simply by virtue of being true. Emotional resonance gives a song its “truth,” and it has nothing to do with literal honesty, since all art is at its core an articulation of a single impulse: to affirm life’s timeless and fractured beauty in the face of mortality.

I dug in. The first things I wrote of my own were fragments. I called them poems because they occupied so little of the page when I typed them up, and I spaced them in imitation of William Carlos Williams, but I always believed that what I was doing was courting songs. If these images weren’t yet musical in tone, the impetus behind them certainly was. I wasn’t looking to impose a sonic form onto these early sketches as much as I was waiting for one of my characters to one day just . . . sing. Fellini had said, “I create a character and then find out what he has to tell me,” and that seemed a religious idea to me, one that acknowledged something inherently mysterious at the heart of the process.

Songs began to appear, I noticed, when I resisted the vanity (I am speaking only for myself) of personal revelation as a starting point. Writing for me has little to do with self-expression and everything to do with discovery: I write to find out what I’m writing about. (Or, better: “How do I know what I think till I see what I say?” -- E.M. Forster).


I’ve learned that if I place a hat on a character, he will eventually take it off, work his hands nervously over the brim and then . . . confess everything. I don’t have a clue what, when I begin, and don’t care. I once wrote a song about a hitchhiking serial killer, though I didn’t start out to do so: I merely placed a man at the side of a road, thumb out, and he took heinous advantage of the opportunity. I was delighted.

When I was first starting out, it was almost a mark against you to claim literature as an influence on your songwriting, as if an intellectual awareness of what you were doing was antithetical to its authenticity. The rock era fostered the notion that the innovators, the true greats, were innocent savants (truck drivers just dropping in to record a little something for their mothers); and many of the songwriters I most admired in my formative years, though brilliant, had themselves been working as primitives. Woody Guthrie seemed to run on pure instinct as a writer, and his expressive prose work never offered much insight into his songwriting process. That “process,” it seems, involved putting himself atop the rumbling freight train of humanity and sucking down the thick, oily smoke that trailed behind. He would have had you believe that his iconic songs were just the inevitable cough that followed.

And yet, even though I was only ever interested in writing songs, I came to understand how they could work more from novelists, filmmakers, poets, painters, photographers and -- especially -- short-story writers than I did from other songwriters. Trying to learn to write songs by studying only other songs is, at a point, like trying to divine the shape of a vast lake while floating in the middle of it. Writers and other artists collectively offered me an aerial view of that lake, as if from a swooping airplane.

I literally look at my beginning years as a songwriter in terms of pre- and post- “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” so deeply did that novel, which I read at 22, alter my view of what was possible. The dreamlike imagery that Tom Waits sometimes metered out suggested a dark yard momentarily lighted by flashes of lightning, whereas Gabriel Garcia Marquez sustained that hallucination for many bright days at a time. I steeped myself in the sound of his words and knew that the physical language had its own musicality, which had a meaning independent of the literal text.

Flannery O’Connor was as important to me as Randy Newman (ditto Nathanael West and Eudora Welty). O’Connor saw the complex humanity in simple mortal characters struggling between magnetic north and true north, morally speaking. And while it’s no mean feat to balance judgment and compassion, it’s something that O’Connor’s work shared with the sharpest and most stark country blues I was hearing. (She and Skip James could have passed a very pleasant summer’s evening together feeding the peacocks from her front porch in Georgia, I imagine.) I learned from both Raymond Car- ver and Alice Munro the lesson that I still most consciously incorporate in my own songwriting, that of revealing great drama with a decidedly flat and dispassionate voice.

Ezra Pound described literature as “news that stays news” and said that poetry lost its essential vitality when it was divorced from SONG (emphasis his). When a song really works, the words and music become inseparable, the intersection seamless, the halves equal -- no matter the actual division of labor. It’s as if the song has been pulled whole from the dirt like an onion and may prove to be as sustaining as one. (See: “Many Rivers to Cross” by Jimmy Cliff, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” by Cole Porter or “Tupelo Honey” by Van Morrison.) Words alone are powerful; but a transporting melody allows them to shift their shape and slip beneath the door of one’s defenses as subversively as smoke. Sometimes with similarly deadly consequences.

Even though I’ve spent much of my life obsessing over the process of songwriting, I can still be seduced by a song to the point where I become completely (and thankfully) blind to the mechanics. A song is only a song when it’s in the air, after all; and when it is, a good one can be as impervious to examination as the moving wings of a hummingbird. But what proximity doesn’t always allow me to see is there just the same, operating just beneath the surface of the line. If it engages the heart and mind, it stops time for a moment. But only so it can remind us that time’s beauty is in its terrible and swift forward motion. *