Popular Music Perspectives: Ideas, Themes, and Patterns in Contemporary Lyrics

By B. Lee Cooper | Go to book overview

Chapter Seven

Death

"The Late Great Johnny Ace" was an especially thought-provoking song on Paul Simon's 1983 Hearts And Bones album. This tune, reminiscent of the classic death songs "American Pie" and "Abraham, Martin, and John," offers an individual's reflections on the frailty of human life. These three songs are more than just historical eulogies. They assess the psychological impact of death on an entire generation. This sounds extremely serious—hardly common fare for popular lyrics. Yet Paul Simon, Don McLean, and Dion DiMucci, along with a variety of other contemporary singers and songwriters, have succeeded in delivering informed and informative visions of human mortality.

The death theme is omnipresent in contemporary lyrics. Several scholars who have investigated this topic have elected to focus on the relatively narrow topic of teenage coffin songs. These studies, which emphasize narrative ballads that explore youthful experiences with either suicide or accidental death, usually examine recordings such as Mark Dinning's "Teen Angel," Jody Reynolds' "Endless Sleep," Ray Peterson's "Tell Laura I Love Her," The Shangri-Las' "Leader Of The Pack," and Dickey Lee's "Patches." Sociologist R. Serge Denisoff, a particularly perceptive popular music analyst, noted in 1983 that the short‐ lived popularity of love-lost-through-death songs was due to rapid cultural and political change during the mid-sixties. Specifically, Denisoff observed:

Several death songs in the latter half of the 1960s—"Ode To Billy Joe" and "Honey"— sold quite well. Still, the Teenage Coffin Song did not return after 1965. The demise of the Coffin Song correlates with the introduction of overt statements of social dissent as found in Barry McGuire's "Eve Of Destruction" and Glen Campbell's version of "Universal Soldier." Conversely, the "He's A Rebel," "Tell Laura I Love Her," "Patches" oriented songs were passe with the advent of the counterculture and its disavowal of the social ethic of the 1950s...." (p. 121)

The notion of courtly love diminished during the early '60s, to be replaced by direct commentaries about overt physical attraction, spoken sexual desires, and frequent tales of non-marital liasons in the '70s and '80s. Similarly, the death theme became more visible and more broadly explored in popular lyrics after 1965. But many songs of death and dying were not simply teenage laments. These tunes explored more than drownings or accidental auto tragedies; they examined premediated homicides, spur-of-the-moment killings, and suicides. Even the gentle Beatles produced the delightfully sinister "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," a tune that rivals any Alfred Hitchcock thriller for murderous psychotic impact. What is even more interesting, though, is the fact that the death theme

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Popular Music Perspectives: Ideas, Themes, and Patterns in Contemporary Lyrics
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Popular Music Perspectives - Ideas, Themes, and Patterns in Contemporary Lyrics *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgments 1
  • Introduction 4
  • Ideas *
  • Chapter One - Education (i) 9
  • Chapter Two - Railroads 25
  • Chapter Three - Rebels and Outsiders 37
  • Chapter Four - Education (ii) 48
  • Themes *
  • Chapter Five - Automobiles 59
  • Chapter Six - Christmas 68
  • Chapter Seven - Death 82
  • Chapter Eight - Food and Drink 94
  • Chapter Nine - Telephones 111
  • Patterns *
  • Chapter Ten - Answer Songs and Sequel Recordings 121
  • Chapter Eleven - Cover Records and Song Revivals 140
  • Chapter Twelve - Nursery Rhymes and Fairy Tales 155
  • Chapter Thirteen - Social Trends and Audio Chronology 172
  • Selected Bibliography 193
  • Index 210
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