Jan 302011

People often ask me about my songs, where they come from. “Which town are you talking about in that song?” “Was that song about one of your past relationships?” “Did you write that song for your wife?”

For me, most narrative songs are like writing short stories or tiny novels. I say “narrative” songs to mean those that tell a story. There are other songs that are more introspective, first-person, more about mental pictures, feelings, or impressions than about a story. A lot of my songs are narrative, just telling a story, like a novelist does.

When I write one of these narrative songs, I don’t try to tell the story of something that happened to me. If I wrote a novel, folks wouldn’t mistake it for an autobiography. A short story usually reads as fiction obviously, and we seldom get confused. But people often assume that songs and poems are truly and literally autobiographical. This assumption comes from the strong confessional emphasis in many poems and songs from the past two or three generations–“songs in the key of me” as the cliche goes.

I wrote a song about a year ago called “Jenny,” and it is on my latest CD, “People Really Live This Way.” “Jenny” is a vivid character and specific image in my mind, though she is pure fiction. Fair skin, straight blond hair, about five-three, petite, round glasses, smart, polite but reserved, wearing green overalls and brown shoes. I really tried to get the green overalls and brown shoes into the song somehow, but I just couldn’t. It would have been good to get the hair in there too, but no big deal. The song really doesn’t describe the characters’ appearances at all except for one thing, Jenny’s glasses.

Here are the lyrics.

Jenny was a college student.
Didn’t know what she was doing
when she came to help out at the food bank downtown.

I was just a guitar loser,
part-time job, full-time ruin.
I was working in the warehouse at the food bank downtown.

When we met she touched her glasses.
“I’m volunteering for one of my classes.
I guess you’ll help me out and show me around.”

Afternoons packing boxes,
sorting cans, moving palettes.
We were working hard till our hands got tired.

A winter’s day, the snow kept falling.
I was working all alone when she walked in.
She made some joke about the roads getting bad.

“Hey, I heard you were some kind of musician.”
“Yeah, I’m writing songs, well at least I’m trying.”
“Maybe you could sing a song for me?”

We sat on some empty boxes.
I sang my song, she said she liked it.
She read a poem she had brought for me.

It was dark, our hands were cold.
We were kissing, we were getting bold.
She took off … her glasses in the dark.

I remember every time it snows.

Weeks passed, she graduated.
She had a future, I was back-dated.
Like a joke, it makes you smile and then it’s gone.

Next summer I got a letter
from some place down in South America.
She was working for the Peace Corps, she said she was doing fine.

She said: You can count me as your friend,
though I doubt you’ll see my face again.
Those were the best damn kisses I ever had.

I remember every time it snows.

Jenny was a college student.
I was just a full-time ruin.
I remember every time it snows.

Here are all the autobiographical connections I can think of. I volunteered in a food bank warehouse once when I moved to Allentown PA in ’94. It was a big warehouse full of food, half organized and half not. Most of the people there were nice and friendly, but one guy there talked to me as if I were an idiot. Some months later I ran the office at a tiny, struggling church there in Allentown. One of the board members at the church arranged for two college students to volunteer with me as part of their social work program. The one student came once and never showed again, which was smart of her. The other kept showing up even though I didn’t have any work for her. She was just following the program, and so I went along too. And no, there was no romance going on during any of this. You could add in the guitar playing and song writing, and that is the entire autobiography behind the song.

So there, all the rest comes from my perverted imagination. Just fiction to entertain myself, and luckily this one also seems to entertain others when I perform it. Next time you here a good story song, try to think of it as a story rather than a true confession by the writer. Maybe it’s fiction, maybe autobiography, but you’ll have to do some sleuthing before you will know which.

You can find this song on Amazon and iTunes to download, just search for “Scott Malyszka” and you’ll find all my stuff. You can also buy the mp3s or CD at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/scottmalyszka3

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