Folksinger and social activist Pete Seeger in a 1986 photo

Folksinger and social activist Pete Seeger in 1986.

By Chuck Haga

The students file in and suddenly some remember the day’s assignment: Bring in a favorite song lyric, something with magic in the way words work together.

Out come the phones and they search, trying to remember that song that took them by surprise the other night, the one that really spoke to them.

I start the class, news writing for new and traditional media, by putting Pete Seeger up on the screens scattered around my University of North Dakota classroom.

Old Devil Time, I’m gonna fight you now

Old Devil Time, you tried to bring me down

When I’m feelin’ low, my lovers gather round

To help me rise and fight you one more time.

The students clearly have no idea who this old man is, or was. It’s possible — even likely — that they’ve heard some of his iconic and oft-covered anthems, like “We Shall Overcome” and “Turn, Turn, Turn!” But the origins of that music is as remote to them as Seeger’s history of social activism, which led to an indictment for Contempt of Congress in 1961 when he refused to answer questions about his political affiliations. A lengthy prison sentence was dropped on a technicality and Seeger went on to a long career of writing and singing progressive folks songs.

He wrote “Old Devil Time” in 1971. The gobots must have been listening in on class, because the day after Facebook dished up a memory on my news feed of Seeger singing “Forever Young” with a chorus of children at a concert for Amnesty International. He died soon after at age 94.

Old devil fear, you with your icy hands

Old devil fear, you tried to freeze me out.

But when I’m afraid, my lovers gather ‘round

To help me rise and fight you one more time.

Writing that transcends time and platform

For several years now, I’ve devoted time in this class at the University of North Dakota to this exploration of song lyrics, plus favorite lines of poetry and faith verses — anything that might help the students see the potential in metaphor, personification, the use of telling detail or other literary touches that could add a little punch or sparkle to their writing.

I admit to them at the outset that my music playlist bears no resemblance to theirs. If they’re unaware of Gershwin and Porter, indifferent to James Taylor and Judy Collins, I doubt I could identify a single artist in the current Top 10.

This semester’s group responded especially well to the exercise. They kept me busy for a night looking up artists and songs I’d never heard of before.

Abigail offered a line from “Could Have Been Me” by the Struts:

Don’t want to live as an untold story.

She explained: “I believe this lyric means two different things for different ages. For the old, not wanting people to forget them and fear that their life wasn’t a story worth telling. For the young, not wanting to live like a story that isn’t worth telling, to live a forgettable life. It resonates with me, because I myself fear not living a life worth telling, or living a life that is forgettable by those I will come to care for or care for already.”

From Caroline came a few lines from “Happiness is a Butterfly,” by Lana Del Rey:

Happiness is a butterfly

Try to catch it like every night

It escapes from my hands into moonlight.

Malachi gave me a Drake rap titled “Last name ever, First name Greatest.”

Like a sprained ankle, boy, I ain’t nothin’ to play with.

I’m not big on rap music or a lot of the music my students brought in. But I would not say it’s bad. Fifty years ago, my history graduate school advisor, preparing to teach a course on the 1960s, asked me to provide him with some of my music from that time. I gave him Dylan and some others. A few days later, he gave it all back. “Chuck,” he said, “this is crap.”

He was a great teacher, but not too tolerant when it came to pop culture that had passed him by.

The meaning in the message

Alivia, another of my students, suggested I listen to “Burn Burn Burn” by Zach Bryan and “Stacks” by Bon Iver, which includes the line,

Everything that happens is from now on

And this:

The fountain in the front yard is rusted out

All my love was down

In a frozen ground

What does the lyric mean to her? The song “is about living in the present and taking things as they come,” she said. “This is important to me as I am a deep over thinker.”

I’m thinking that’s a problem for me, too.

This example of detail and perspective is from “Things That Matter” by Jameson Rodgers, recited by student Grace:

Things I wanted that I don’t have 

I’ve learned to let ‘em all go  

‘Cause of things that mean the most 

Is waking up with the woman I love 

Talking to the man above  

Sipping coffee from my favorite cup  

Slowing down in the country  

Going hunting with my old man 

Hugging mama while I still can.

Gabrielle offered this image from “Who Am I?” by Bazzi:

I’m so tired of feelin’ paper-thin

Like I could tear at anytime

Trapped inside of the brain I’m in

Please get me out of my mind.

From Max, a few lines from Zach Bryan’s “Birmingham”:

I’ve been working here like a slavin’ mule,

Sucking the Earth of dry crude

Looking for a way out of it all.

Angela quoted Noah Kahan, who in his “Everywhere, Everything,” may have borrowed a line from Ben Franklin:

I wanna love you ‘til we’re food for the worms to eat

‘til our fingers decompose

keep my hand in yours.

And Maria, bless her, cited lines from the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” – but from a striking (and new to me) Grammy-nominated arrangement by Cody Fry:

Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice

In the church where a wedding has been

Lives in a dream

Waits at the window, wearing the face

That she keeps in a jar by the door

Who is it for?

All the lonely people

Where do they all come from?

All the lonely people

Where do they all belong?

Where, indeed? The lines haunted me back when it was first released in 1966, and even more now today.

Universal stories

But let’s end the lesson where it began, with Pete:

No storm, no fire can ever beat us down

No wind that blows but carries us further on

And you who fear, O lovers gather round

And we will rise and sing it one more time.

* * *

Chuck Haga was a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald and Minneapolis Star Tribune. He now teaches part-time at the University of North Dakota and writes a column for the Herald.

Further Reading