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A math guy's random thoughts.
A math guy's random thoughts.
February 9, 2024 at 11:35am
February 9, 2024 at 11:35am
Amazing Grace and The Stranger

I've been using these blogs to highlight stories I've written and the songs that have inspired them.

As I've looked over my files, I'm surprised to see how often music appears in my stories. Sometimes it's mentioned just to set the mood, or maybe the era, or even hint at character. But more often, as I re-read the story, I remember music playing in my head as I wrote. That's especially true for songs with compelling narratives--songs like "Take on Me" or "Ode to Billie Joe." But in other cases, it's the lyrics, as in "Amazing Grace." In still other cases, it's magic blend of timbre, harmony, and melody. Billy Joel's paene to loneliness and existential angst, "The Stranger," is one of these latter songs.

Pairing Billy Joel and a traditional hymn might seem a strange choice, but both played a role in inspriing one of my stories. The lyrics for Amazing Grace are by an Anglican curate, John Newton, while it was an American Baptist preacher who paired the lyrics with the tradtional tune, "New Britain," creating the version familiar today. Billy Joel has said that he wrote his song without any core themes in mind. Perhaps that's the genius of the song--it's truer than true, as Hemingway might say. In any case, for me it evokes the kind of loneliness and existential angst one finds in authors like Albert Camus and his book with the same title.

In any case, the title for my little story, "Amazing Grace, certainly comes from the famous hymn, and the ending echoes some of the words in that song. The story starts by mentioning a piano playing in a lonely bar and a man slouching nearby, his eyes leaking loneliness. I remember listening to Joel's song, "The Stranger," while writing the story and trying to capture the feeling of the song's opening, where he whistles the haunting melody while playing spare chords on the piano. That was the mood I was shooting for. Later, the piano man in the story sings the song, in a bit of heavy-handed foreshadowing.

I'm not particularly happy with my story. The direct inspiration was a classic short story, "My Object All Sublime," by Poul Anderson. Anderson's story was much better, and I probably should have left well enough alone. I've struggled with several different endings to my story, and found none of them satisfying. Maybe I'll come back to it, as I've done with the various versions of "The Flying Dutchman (version 4). The most recent one of that story, written today, seems best to me. I've not yet given up on "Amazing Grace.

For a link to "Amazing Grace," I chose a scene from the sitcom Cheers. Here, the bar's customers hold a wake for a departed friend, but as the wake proceeds, they remember the many awful things the friend had done. They get so angry, they take an effigy of their friend and plan to burn it. Diane, though, has other ideas, in one of the most effective endings ever to a sitcom. Since my story is set in a bar and ends with hope of redemption, this seemed like an appropriate link.

For "The Stranger," I chose Billy Joel's 1977 performance at Carnegie Hall.

February 9, 2024 at 10:23am
February 9, 2024 at 10:23am

Authors love metaphors and symbols. Crossroads are a powerful example.

Whether it's a Frost poem about the "road less travelled" or Goethe's Faust making his deal with the devil, crossroads are a liminal place where worlds meet, where temptation lurks, and decisions are made. From Greek myths of Hermes and Hecate, to Norse myths about Odin, to the medieval practice of burying criminals at crossroads, they are part of the cultural heritage of our modern world.

Modern songwriters understand this, and build music around the mythos of the crossroad.

Robert Johnson was one such musician. His recording career spanned only seven months between 1936 and 1937, but during that time he produced some of the most influential songs of the twentieth century. In particular, his "Crossroads Blues," arguably the first ever blues song, has influenced an entire generation of rock musicians, including Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, and Eric Clapton. Indeed, Clapton's song "Crossroads" is a direct homage to Johnson's earlier song.

A legend has grown that Johnson's musical talent comes from a deal he made with the devil at a crossroads, and that this is the story behind his song. The existence of such a legend shows both his prowess as a musician and the power of the crossroads metaphor. Of coursre, Johnson must have had formidable native talent, but it's well documented that he honed his skills with long hours of practice and with study under Ike Zimmerman.

In any case, I've not been immune to the lure of the crossroads, and both Clapton's and Johnson's songs have directly inspried some stories I've written. Just to give two examples, "The Flying Dutchman (version 4) occurs at a crossroads and explicitly mentions both Clapton's and Johnson's songs. While the story "At the Crossroads doesn't directly mention the music of either, it's direct inspirations are Johnson's song and the myths of crossroads as liminal places where the real and unreal meet.

The latter story does specifically mention two other songs which I won't discuss here. Doubtless these will appear in a subsequent blog on this topic.

Links to the Johnson and Clapton songs are in the story "The Flying Dutchman (version 4), but I'll include them here, too.

Crossroads Blues, Robert Johnson: https://youtu.be/GsB_cGdgPTo
This is a link to the original recording, not remastered for modern ears. It sounds the way people would have heard it on the radio in the 1930s, which is the setting for part of the story "The Flying Dutchman (version 4).

Crossroads, Eric Clapton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ewFiqngynNk
This is Clapton performing the song in one of his many concerts and the Royal Albert Hall.

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