So, set ‘em up, Joe,
I’ve got a little story you oughta know.
Among the most skilled of all storytellers are the lyricists. I’m talking about the men (and a few women) who wrote the words to the popular songs of the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s – an array of national treasures that have become known collectively as the Great American Songbook. These thoughts are inspired by the centennial next week (Nov. 18) of one of the greatest, Johnny Mercer.
The lyricists of this era were craftsmen of the first rank, and their work offers techniques to anybody who aspires to write a story that others will want to hear. The words above are the opening to “One for My Baby,” a 31-line masterpiece in which a guy’s guy, a fellow of Don Draper-like stoicism, has a few drinks and lets the bartender in a deserted bar know how tough it is when a love affair ends.
Concision, emotion conveyed through symbolism, understatement – Mercer uses all these touchstones of the craft. What Mercer manages to get across is both the tough-guy façade and the deep emotion underneath. How?
It certainly helps to have Frank Sinatra singing Harold Arlen’s bluesy notes. In fact, nowadays it’s nearly impossible not to think of Sinatra as the protagonist in the bar telling this non-tale. But if you go back in time and strip out Sinatra and the music and look only at the words on the page, it’s all there. A good way to do this is to check out Reading Lyrics edited by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball, a marvelous anthology of Tin Pan Alley’s great lyricists.
In Mercer’s dramatic monologue our drinking guy talks all around his problem without ever actually telling the story he says he wants to tell at the beginning. There’s nothing about the baby he broke up with, nothing about the cause of their falling out, nothing about their last words to each other. Drama is carefully avoided. It’s pure emotion – “I’m feelin’ so bad” spun out in variations. There’s the “dreamy and sad music” he wants on the jukebox, the apologetic way he feels for bending the bartender’s ear, the use of the word “baby” – the only sign of tenderness in the song. And there’s only one thing to be done – have another drink. It’s a magnificently suppressed wallow in sadness.
By contrast, Dan Brown and other best-selling authors of his type like to spell it all out for the reader, with bristling adverbs and adjectives. Here’s a key passage in The Lost Symbol in which the protagonist, known as the initiate, gets initiated into something or other: “For an instant, he thought he felt his lungs growing tight, and his heart began to pound wildly. My God, they know! Then as quickly as it came the feeling passed.” This is melodrama – a hyping of emotion in a way that falsifies it – but fortunately in Dan Brown the feeling passes quickly.
Once there was a style of American literary brusqueness – Ernest Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants” is a great example – in which the unsaid is as important as the words on the page. In the Hemingway mode the narrator’s suppression of feelings certifies the authenticity of the emotion that seeps between the lines. Bogart as café-owner Rick having a drink in that gin joint in Casablanca is the archetype of the Great American Stoic.
(Much thanks to Hoobygroovy, the Flickr photographer who supplied that great shot of the poured whiskey that opens this piece.)