Monday, May 28, 2012

Story Songs: A Boy Named Sue

We all know folks who don't like their names. There's not much they can do about it unless they want to have it legally changed but that often seems like too much trouble. Some simply go by nicknames or stage names to avoid any embarrassment. 

The legendary Johnny Cash sang about a guy getting stuck with a sissy name by a deadbeat dad in Shel Silverstein's hilarious "A Boy Named Sue." It won a Grammy Award for Best Country Male Vocal Performance in 1969.

In the story, the boy suffers taunts and teases while growing up because of his name. When he gets older, he sets out to find his father and seek revenge for the personal injustice.

"Well, he must o' thought that is quite a joke
And it got a lot of laughs from a' lots of folk,
It seems I had to fight my whole life through.
Some gal would giggle and I'd get red
And some guy'd laugh and I'd bust his head,
I tell ya, life ain't easy for a boy named 'Sue."'

He finally finds his father in a bar in Gatlingburg, Tenn., and it turns into a knockdown, dragout fight. And when it's over, the son discovers why his father named him Sue.

"And he said: 'Son, this world is rough
And if a man's gonna make it, he's gotta be tough
And I knew I wouldn't be there to help ya along.
So I give ya that name and I said goodbye
I knew you'd have to get tough or die
And it's the name that helped to make you strong."'

While the son gains some respect for his father in the end, that doesn't mean he likes the name as he proclaims in the last two lines:

"And if I ever have a son, I think I'm gonna name him
Bill or George! Anything but Sue! I still hate that name!"
 For more about Johnny Cash, visit To learn more about Shel Silverstein, a noted children's author, cartoonist, and poet, go to

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Ramblings: Prompt Attention

Ramblings: Prompt Attention: There are times when writers need prompts to get their creative juices flowing again. For some, that...

Prompt Attention

There are times when writers need prompts to get their creative juices flowing again.

For some, that’s when they’ve taken a break from writing for various and sundry reasons and need a spark to get their fingers dancing on the keyboard again.

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I think it’s important to write every day – whether it’s journaling, letters, a work-in-progress – anything that involves putting words into some format.

But, dang it, there are times when our brains seem to freeze when thoughts turn to writing. Burn out. Writer’s block.  Stressed out. Brain dead (metaphorically speaking).  

There are a plethora of websites offering writing prompts such as, OWL,, and creativewriting-prompts. Simply type “writing prompts” in a search engine and you'll find more than you can imagine.

Go to your library and check out the numerous books and magazines that provide advice for breaking through the writing barrier.

Another way is by brainstorming, in critique groups, with other writers, and readers.

And finally, since writers are notorious for offering advice, what prompts would you suggest if asked by a suffering writer? Now, take your own advice and start writing!

Until the next time...

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Ramblings: Story Songs: Taxi

Ramblings: Story Songs: Taxi: Harry Chapin was one of the finest story songwriters, penning such wonderful tunes as "Mr. Tanner," "W*O*L*D," "Cat's in the Cradle," "I Wan...

Story Songs: Taxi

Harry Chapin was one of the finest story songwriters, penning such wonderful tunes as "Mr. Tanner," "W*O*L*D," "Cat's in the Cradle," "I Wanna Learn a Love Song," and many others before his untimely death in a car accident in 1981. He was only 39. 

My favorite was his first big hit, "Taxi," a song that brought him national attention back in 1972. It's a story about the reunion of two lovers and their unfulfilled aspirations. The narrator is a taxi driver and the woman is in an unhappy marriage.

"You see, she was gonna be an actress,
And I was gonna learn to fly.
She took off to find the footlights,
And I took off to find the sky."

They chat briefly about their lives as he drives her to her fancy home in San Francisco. He drops her off, and unashamedly keeps the change from a $20 bill as a tip on a $2.50 fare. And then they go their separate, lonely ways.

"And here, she's acting happy,
Inside her handsome home.
And me, I'm flying in my taxi,
Taking tips, and getting stoned,
I go flying so high, when I'm stoned."

Chapin continued the story in a song called, appropriately, "Sequel."

Monday, May 21, 2012

Ramblings: Stayin' Power

Ramblings: Stayin' Power: With the passing of Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees last weekend, I thought about the group and their im...

Stayin' Power

With the passing of Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees last weekend, I thought about the group and their impact on music -- and me.

I must admit that I wasn’t a big fan of the Bee Gees when they burst on to the music scene back in the 1960s. I purchased “Spicks and Specks” in the mid-‘60s and thought it was a bunch of fluff.

A year or so later they released “Bee Gees’ 1st,” which contained the hits “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” “Holiday,” and “To Love Somebody.” Their sound just didn’t appeal to me with the high-pitched harmonies and an unusual phrasing of lyrics in a few songs. I was more into groups like The Beatles, The Doors, The Moody Blues, The Rolling Stones, Buffalo Springfield, The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Yardbirds, and various blues artists.

The Bee Gees produced a few more hits including “Massachusetts,” “Words,” “I’ve Got to Get a Message to You,” and “I Started a Joke.” I still wasn’t impressed. Too soft for my tastes. I was getting into heavy metal.

When my sister Sheri bought their “Trafalger” album back in 1971, I recall telling her that group’s days were numbered even though they scored more hits with “Lonely Days,” and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.”

And then came disco, and the Bee Gees were back, bigger than ever this time, with songs such as “Stayin’ Alive,” “You Should Be Dancing,” “Jive Talkin’,” and more. You guessed it. I wasn’t much of a disco or dance fan  so I kind of tuned them out. But I have to say they were catchy tunes that even a non-dancer like me could tap his toes to. And still do.

I rediscovered the Bee Gees in the late ‘80s with a song titled “One,” and later, in the early 2000s, with the minor hit “Man in the Middle.” I thought their music had grown and matured and I liked it -- a lot.

A few years ago I rented the DVD “One Night Only,” and I was blown away by their performance.
Another thing about the Bee Gees that impressed me was their songwriting ability that resulted in songs for other performers such as Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton (“Islands in the Stream”), Barbara Streisand (“Guilty”), Dionne Warwick (“Heartbreaker”), Frankie Valli (“Grease”), Samantha Sang (“Emotion”), and Yvonne Elliman (“If I Can’t Have You”). And there are more hits.
The group I didn’t think had staying power more than 40 years ago is now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1997), sold more than 200 million albums, and winners of numerous music awards.

The Brothers Gibb -- Barry, Robin and Maurice (who died in 2003) -- are true rock ‘n’ legends and their music will live on for many years.
Until the next time...

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Ramblings: Story Songs: Ode to Billy Joe

Ramblings: Story Songs: Ode to Billy Joe: One of the first story songs that caught my attention was Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billy Joe" back in summer of 1967. It was unlike anything ...

Story Songs: Ode to Billie Joe

One of the first story songs that caught my attention was Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" back in summer of 1967. It was unlike anything I had ever heard and stood out on the airwaves, being dominated at the time by Motown artists and the second wave of the British Invasion.

The song has a haunting melody and draws on her rural upbringing in Mississippi. The family had been working out the fields and came in for dinner, where at the table, the mother casually mentions that "Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge."


The conversation between the mother, father, son and daughter (the narrator of the story) goes back and forth from the mundane to the young man's mysterious action. There is Gothic suspense to the tale as Gentry weaves in subtle clues as to what happened on the "third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day." 

And near the end of the song she throws in this revelation:

"That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today
"Said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way
"He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge
"And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge."

What a great story and song!

Ode to Billie Joe lyrics

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Ramblings: A Second Opinion and More

Ramblings: A Second Opinion and More: It’s wise for a writer to get a second opinion, especially when the only opinion is that of the writer. For...

A Second Opinion and More

It’s wise for a writer to get a second opinion, especially when the only opinion is that of the writer.

For those with agents and publishers, you’ll get feedback on setting, dialogue, characters and other parts of your work that may be weak and need to be addressed in one way or another.

From my own experience, I’ve had editors who've made suggestions on how to tighten, improve, and fix problems in my manuscripts before publication. I weigh what they say, and generally make the changes unless I feel strongly about what I’m trying to convey in my story. But it’s discussed and mulled over before a final decision.

And that’s generally what I do when I’m asked to read or edit something by a friend. It’s the writer’s decision to make suggested changes. I’ll even suggest for them to get someone else’s opinion.  While it should be a given, I do remind them to run spell check before sending their manuscript to a publisher or editor.

I have several friends who have contracts with big-time publishers/agents and edits aren’t suggested – they are mandated unless the author can provide a valid reason for keeping their words intact.

And if you’re self-published, you can get feedback from critique groups, fellow authors, and beta readers. (A caveat – use those folks who’ll be honest in their assessments and won’t be afraid to hurt your feelings by providing useful criticism.) (A second caveat – don’t be afraid to get your feelings hurt; learn from the experience.)

You might even want to hire a professional editor to read, review and scrutinize your work before publication. While that may be expensive for some writers, it might be the best way to get their manuscripts in shape.  And you may want to get a second opinion – references – on the editor before forking over the fee.

Regardless of how you feel about changes to your precious words, it’s always good to get a second opinion – and more!

Until the next time...

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Story Songs

While driving home from work the other day I was listening to an AM radio station (yes, some folks still do that) and heard Jim Croce’s “Time In a Bottle.”

“If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I’d like to do
Is to save every day
Till eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you...”

What a great song. Croce was one of my favorite singer/songwriters back in the 1970s. It’s a shame he left us so early in that airplane crash in 1973 because I’m sure he would have produced more wonderful songs. He was only 30.

Croce was a splendid story-songwriter. He could weave music and lyrics into funny, sad, and heart-felt stories such as “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim,” “Lover’s Cross,” “Roller Derby Queen,” “Operator,” and “Workin’ in the Car Wash Blues.”

Some of my future blogs are going to be about story songs I’ve admired and enjoyed through the years. I’ll try to have links to the lyrics and performance of the song.

I hope you’ll join me on the trip down memory lane.

Time In a Bottle lyrics

Time in a Bottle performance

Monday, May 14, 2012

Ramblings: Not in the Swing of Things

Ramblings: Not in the Swing of Things: I should have known better when I looked at the box containing a glider swing and read the large words – Easy Assem...

Not in the Swing of Things

I should have known better when I looked at the box containing a glider swing and read the large words – Easy Assembly. That may not be an oxymoron but it's close to it.

I should have recalled those days when my sons were growing up and I put together bicycles, Star Wars toys, and other items for Christmas, birthdays, and other occasions. For me, that was probably the worst part of parenthood!

There were several models of the swing on display, and they didn’t look particularly difficult to put together. And I figured that someone at the store had to assemble the swings, so why couldn’t I?

Easier read than done.

After mowing the lawn, my wife suggested we put the swing together on the back deck. It shouldn’t take more than an hour since there weren’t that many parts. And the swing was for Mother’s Day, so I decided it was time to go ahead and finish the mini-project for her.

The box had two sheets of paper containing the instructions. But after perusing them, I realized they basically listed the parts and that was about it. There were two diagrams that didn’t provide step-by-step directions. But I decided to go ahead and try to piece it together. It didn’t help that some of the nuts and bolts didn’t quite fit.

Three hours later it began to sprinkle. We decided to finish the “easy” assembly the next day. But it rained all day.

I decided to go to the place where I purchased the swing, this time with a small digital camera to take several photos of the models. I hope to finish putting it together this week.

I’m sure it will be easy this time. Not!

Until the next time...

Friday, May 11, 2012

Ramblings: Time Isn't On My Side

Ramblings: Time Isn't On My Side: Most of us have heard the phrase, “So many books, so little time.” It generally refers to the books we want to read, a...

Time Isn't On My Side

Most of us have heard the phrase, “So many books, so little time.” It generally refers to the books we want to read, and realizing that we don’t have time to do it – even if we have a short list.

But on the other end of the spectrum – those who write books – it can mean there are so many books they hope to produce, but know that they probably won’t be able to reach their goal. I know I’ll never write all the books I’d like to see in print.

I would even bet that prolific writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, James Patterson, and Danielle Steel would say they have many more books in them and probably won’t be able to write them in their remaining years.

Books aren’t easy to write. If that were the case, then everyone would be writing them. I’ve heard that everybody has a book in them, but I believe that’s only true in that we all have individual stories to tell. But not everybody can put those stories down in the printed form. That takes discipline and dedication -- and time.

That’s not to say folks can’t orally share their stories, and I believe that’s difficult as well. Some people are gifted storytellers, and they spin wonderful yarns about their observations and adventures, while others sputter and stammer along they way. I‘m in the latter group.

I’m more comfortable putting stories on a page, when I have time to think and reflect on the words that come to mind, and then make changes over time. I admire those oral storytellers who can pull you into their stories with vivid images that can make you laugh, cry, smile, and think.
Until the next time...

Friday, May 4, 2012

Ramblings: In Review

Ramblings: In Review: As much as our ego would love it, mom can't be the final word on reviews about our books. If that were the case, every book ...

In Review

As much as our ego would love it, mom can't be the final word on reviews about our books. If that were the case, every book written would have five stars.
When we send our books out for reviews to newspapers, magazines and other media, or when readers leave comments in, Goodreads, B&NShelfari and other websites, we have to accept what they say about our cherished words -- the good, the bad, and the awful. While the raves of some reviewers are wonderful, the rants by others aren't so easy to accept.
I remember reading the book "Sports Illusion, Sports Reality: A Reporter's View of Sports, Journalism, and Society" by the late sportswriter Leonard Koppett about negative news, and his  position was that while athletic teams welcomed positive coverage by the media and cringed at those bad news stories, the worst thing would be no news at all. At least the negative, within reason, kept the team's name in the public eye. What they didn't want was for the media and the public to lose interest in what they were doing. They needed to be relevant, regardless of the headlines. They didn't want to disappear from the public's eye.
I believe authors should take a similar approach to their books. Most of us have received reviews that didn't sit well with us. It's almost to the point now that a three-star review (out of five) seems negative. But the point is that it is important to keep our name and titles relevant to the public. Some studies have shown, for the most part, that readers don't really recall a lukewarm or bad review but they do recall the title. Unless a book is totally trashed by multiple reviewers, the publicity generated from a review is important for the book's commercial success.
Reviews are truly subjective. Something you write may be adored by some reviewers while others may roll their eyes. And we know reviewers are like books -- some are good and some aren't so good. But I do applaud them because they are bibliophiles and bookworms, many of whom review for little or nothing other than being able to keep the book.
It's just sad that they don't have more of a mother's instinct!

Until the next time...