What do a damaged Vietnam veteran, a heartbroken father, and a motherless child all have in common? All of their stories have been told in song form, and all of them are true. And there are thousands more just like them.
Most people listen to music because it makes them feel good, and I am certainly no exception. We are naturally drawn to music with lyrics that will uplift and encourage us. That’s why we all come back to the grand old hymns and gospel songs about heaven. (What a day that will be! Oh what shouting on that hallelujah morning!)
But sometimes, I need to hear what a groaning creation sounds like. Because it’s the reason Jesus had to die.
How do you respond to a lyric like this, written for the death of a child?
It’s all too easy to take so much for granted
But it’s oh, so hard to find the words to say
Like a castle in the sand the water takes away
Now how can life ever be the same?
Cause my heart is broken in pieces
Since I lost you.
Or this, for the death of a mother?
Some trains, they leave in the morning.
Some leave in the afternoon.
Some trains, they leave here right on time.
Some, they just leave too soon.
One thing is certain—cliches and platitudes will never do.
There’s a lot I could say about both the content and the craft of the songs in this playlist, but I would prefer to save in-depth analyses for some other posts. All are sung by their writers, except for Amy Grant’s cover of the Jimmy Webb tune “If These Walls Could Speak.” Some background might be helpful for a few of them.
“Fortunate Son” (lyrics) was written by Bruce Hornsby after reading the autobiography of Lewis Puller, Jr., a second generation military veteran who was horribly wounded in Vietnam. Puller lost both legs and parts of his hands, and he lived with chronic pain for the rest of his life. On the surface, he appeared to have recovered his emotional stability as he raised a family, ran for Congress, and won a Pulitzer Prize for his memoirs. But privately, he was a very embittered man who struggled with severe depression, alcohol, and addictive pain killers. Eventually, he shot himself. While it goes without saying that Puller is solely responsible for the decision to end his life, Hornsby’s imaginative first-person lyrics are still a devastating gut-punch.
“Ghost Train” was written by Marc Cohn in memory of his mother, who died when he was two years old. He said that he wanted to capture that baffled, intangible sense of loss that a child that young experiences even though he can’t articulate it. The poetic line, “And then the sky broke up, and then the rain came down, and it washed away everything on the ground…” provides especially compelling food for thought this passion week.
I have no specific back-story for the others, but they’re equally powerful songs. As disparate as they are, all of them have a quality, an ache about them that makes me want to listen over and over again. Great songwriting captures something true about the human condition. These songs do that for me. I realize music doesn’t affect everyone in the same way, but I offer them for your consideration.