Lyrics and Literature

In the movie Music and Lyrics, Hugh Grant’s character defends his pop star vocation, saying that rock musicians are “real poets.”  He tells Drew Barrymore’s character, a literature student, that nothing can make you feel happier, faster than, “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day/ When it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May.”  Image

Music is just poetry set to music, so why not use lyrics to teach literature?  For example, Johnny Cash lyrics carry a deeper meaning without being overwhelming.  His most catchy tune, “I Walk the Line” is a good place to start:

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds
Because you’re mine, I walk the line

Why is Cash keeping a “close watch” and his “eyes wide open?”  What is this “tie that binds?”  But then, what is the line he is walking?  What makes this imagery so powerful?  Cash seems to be building a strong contrast between two viewpoints, perhaps to show his own conflicted nature – or to emphasize his devotion.  He clarifies in the next verses, before returning to the first verse at the end:

I find it very, very easy to be true
I find myself alone when each day is through
Yes, I’ll admit that I’m a fool for you
Because you’re mine, I walk the line

As sure as night is dark and day is light
I keep you on my mind both day and night
And happiness I’ve known proves that it’s right
Because you’re mine, I walk the line

You’ve got a way to keep me on your side
You give me cause for love that I can’t hide
For you I know I’d even try to turn the tide
Because you’re mine, I walk the line

 Also interesting is the driving rhythm of the song, the sound of a freight train – also used in Folsom Prison Blues – for which Cash is so famous.  Does this beat support the message of the lyrics or contradict them, adding a new layer to the song? 

You could also find parallels to famous works of poetry.  For example “As sure as night is dark and day is light” sounds to me reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Sonnet #18 “As long as men shall breathe and eyes shall see.”  In general, the imagery of light, dark, day and night is rampant through literature.

Finally, how does this song fit into Cash’s work as a whole, and to his life story?  Does the metaphor of walking a line reflect well his struggles?  Maybe Cash makes references to his past songs in order to recast them in a new light as he was writing this song directly after his marriage to June Carter.


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