The Use of Apostrophe in Music

This month has been all about music with the exception of the poem called “Ishmael’s Dream,” which I published, in part, to debut my new blog artwork courtesy of local graphic artist Kelly Finan.  She captured exactly what I had in mind, and I’m very grateful for her time, effort, and revisions.  But that post aside, this month has been about music. And it’s one for the record books. I bought a new guitar, a fine blonde Fender Telecaster, at the conclusion of a beautiful daytrip to Fort Plain, New York. I also played my first solo show along with Frank Fruehan at Kelly’s Creekside Inn located in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania, and I launched the website Frank Hill Music to support my music.  For St. Patrick’s Day, I finally had a chance to see Eric Harvey play at Chet’s, and he taught me some new tricks for my stage performance. My friend, Steve Galbraith, sent a copy of The Clancy Brothers Songbook, and I’m extremely grateful for it seems to be out of print at this point. I also collaborated on some songwriting with my friend John Reynolds, a freelance writer with many years and titles under his belt.  And if that wasn’t enough, I’ve been writing about music, too, and posted several pieces on the blog.

But March is a long, and there’s still time to post at least one more piece focused on music. So before I return to local history, poetry, and the adventures of Henry David Thoreau, I wanted to crank out a piece about the use of apostrophe in songwriting.  Here goes.

Apostrophe has to be my favorite device in songwriting. For those who aren’t familiar with this figure of speech, it’s where the writer speaks to directly to something that isn’t present such as a person, object, or idea.  For many years, the conventional, or maybe I should say stereotypical use of apostrophe, used “O” at the beginning of the poetic line.  One fine example, which many people might know, is Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!”  I teach this poem every year, and it serves as a great example because the captain is Abraham Lincoln, who isn’t even mentioned directly in the poem, but as I explain to my students, when the poem was published everyone knew the poem was about the recently assassinated president.  That inclusion of “O” often makes apostrophe easy to spot, but has become a cliché.  And modern poets don’t often use it anymore, so readers have to be a little more savvy, but fortunately, it’s a poetic device that’s pretty easy for readers, and more importantly to this discussion, for listeners to appreciate.

For the sake of narrowing our topic a little further, I want to discuss my favorite use of apostrophe in songs, and that’s when songwriters use apostrophe to tell stories about place.  The new Chris Stapleton album, Starting Over, has a great example, and when I heard the song “Nashville, TN” at the end of his album, I knew I wanted to spend some time on this topic. Think of this song as our “O Captain! My Captain!” of songwriting, because it’s such a fine example. I’m going to avoid analyzing all the lyrics, but let’s take a look at the first verse.

I met you when I had a dream
Not so long ago, it seems
We closed down a million bars
Yeah, you and me, we’ve come so far
You showed me how to write a song
We wrote some right, we wrote some wrong
I was down and out, you let me in
At times you were my only friend

Chris Stapleton’s apostrophe should be easy to see for almost everyone.  The “you” in these lyrics is Nashville, TN, and he’s discussing his career as songwriter in this city.  But the use of apostrophe, here, makes the connection that the narrator has with the city seem so much more intimate.  No doubt, the lyrics are fantastic.  He has rhyming couplets, and I like that he doesn’t use exact rhyme every time, but chooses to include two slant rhymes with “dream/seems” and “in/friend.” We could have a whole discussion around slant rhyme, which is another one of my favorite devices in songs and poetry, but we’ll have to save that discussion for another time. Sorry, Emily.

But beyond the easy rhythm and rhyme of these lines, I’d argue that the main device that makes this song is apostrophe. Why?  By using apostrophe, Stapleton is able to discuss his connection to Nashville by capturing the right tone.  The song is about leaving something behind that you love, moving on from a relationship, and the use of apostrophe is what allows Stapleton to discuss Nashville almost as if he’s leaving a lover behind. It’s so beautiful. There’s regret and longing and resignation and loss, all these feelings that come with the breakup of a relationship with another person.  But in this case, that other person is the city itself.  Contrasting nicely, Stapleton leads off the album with “Starting Over,” a song about new beginnings, and together with “Nashville, TN” at the end, he creates bookends for this album, which I’d rank just under Stapleton’s Traveller, his debut album from 2015.

So now that we have our model, let’s take a look at a few other songs that stand out to me for their use of apostrophe. One of my earliest favorites, back before I started teaching and discussing the use of apostrophe with students, is Neil Young’s “Alabama” from the 1972 album Harvest. I started listening to this album as a teenager many, many years ago, and an album can’t get much better than this one, which includes the classics “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” and “The Needle and the Damage Done.”  And yes, I’ve learned how to play all those songs. They are pure Neil Young, but it’s “Alabama” that has always stirred me the most from this album. I often find myself listening to that song by itself, which says a lot, because I like albums rather than songs.

So in the song “Alabama” Neil Young uses apostrophe to discuss that state’s racism.  This time, instead of a lover like we get in Chris Stapleton’s song, Young gives us the picture of an almost wayward son, who is being pushed toward doing the right thing. I used to think of Alabama as portrayed as a villain in this song, but there’s something more complicated within the lyrics.  After years of segregation politics through the 1960s, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Selma March, Alabama had become a villain for many Black Americans, the epicenter of segregationist policies endorsed by Governor George Wallace, but this song is almost sympathetic to Alabama. For me, the lyrics that stand out are in the chorus: “Alabama, you got the weight on your shoulders that’s breaking your back.” Here the apostrophe is very plain to see, but the effect is so strong. That “weight” was coming from the rest of the country that was leaving behind segregation, and literally, through the MLK Jr.’s campaign in Alabama all eyes in the United States were on Alabama’s notorious reputation and response to the Civil Rights Movement. But in this song, we get Young, trying to pull Alabama, the wayward son, in the right direction.  He even sings at the end of the song, “You got the rest of the union to help you along. What’s going wrong?” It’s a wonderful use of apostrophe, one that I’ve always understood, without knowing the whole history of race politics in Alabama.  And of course, that song became the impetus for another more famous song, “Sweet Home Alabama,” that doesn’t include apostrophe.

So there’s lots of songs, and other places, we could take this discussion of apostrophe.  I crowdsourced some research on Facebook by way of the people at Stopping By: A Jason Isbell Fan Group. And we came up with some good examples of apostrophe, dividing the discussion into two threads. One that looked at apostrophe of inanimate objects and another that looked at apostrophe of absent people.  The discussion yielded some good examples, for inanimate objects, “Anxiety” we thought that this song was a good example.  Here, Jason Isbell creates a conversation with anxiety, which although it’s painted as his own, I’ve heard him say that it’s his wife, Amanda Shires, that actually suffers from anxiety. Here’s the thing, though; after I really studied the lyrics, I don’t think it’s apostrophe.  The first line sounds like the songwriting will develop using apostrophe: “Anxiety / How do you always get the best of me?”  But as the lyrics continue, anxiety does not really become a character the way Chris Stapleton and Neil Young use it in their songs.  Instead, anxiety remains an inanimate object that Jason sings about.  I was fooled at first, too, until I really looked closely at the lyrics.

However, “Dress Blues,” “Overseas,” and “Only Children” are excellent examples of apostrophe using the absent person.  I don’t want to dig into all three of these, but let’s take a look at “Dress Blues,” where it’s very clear, that this person is absent because it’s a dead soldier.  We definitely have a deliberate use of apostrophe, and “Dress Blues” is especially poignant since Jason Isbell wrote the song with a specific person in mind, Corporal Matthew Conley who was a US Marine from Jason’s hometown  was who killed in Iraq. The lyrics are arguably some of Jason’s finest, and helped to establish him with the Sirens of the Ditch album. I like, especially, the way the chorus develops over the course of the song. The following is the last version:

Nobody here could forget you.
You showed us what we had to lose.
You never planned on the bombs in the sand
Or sleeping in your dress blues.

It’s such a beautiful song containing a subtle critique of war while at the same time staying focused on the personal loss of a soldier. I love the rhyme, too, in the excerpted lines above, because Isbell uses slant rhyme on lines ending with “you,” “lose,” and “blues.”  And then for the third line, he uses internal rhyme with “planned” and “sand,” which I’d argue are exact rhymes, though at first glance, I wouldn’t expect those two words to rhyme. There’s nothing especially unusual about the use of apostrophe, but it certainly makes the song stronger by creating an intimate connection with the soldier where Isbell is having a conversation with him.  As I write this, I’m trying to imagine what this song would be like if it were written in a different way, and I think it would lose much of its power, because we would lose the sense the feeling that there’s a genuine relationship between the singer and the soldier, and that’s in part, what makes this song so strong.  We feel this sense of surprise, that many young people have, when they suffer a setback that shows their humanity.  And that’s the case in this song, because to be a soldier, especially a Marine, you probably push away that idea of being buried in your dress blues in order to fulfill your orders on the battlefield. Certainly, I imagine that most soldiers live with the idea that they will make it through their tour of duty, otherwise their existence would seem bleak and untenable.

Instead of taking apart “Only Children” and “Overseas” to discuss their apostrophe, I’d like to discuss my favorite word for apostrophe.  That word is Carolina.  Not surprisingly, the word is very similar in sound and pronunciation to the word Alabama, which we’ve already discussed, but for me the word Alabama has such political weight.  Carolina, on the other hand, is a more innocent word.  And unlike Alabama, there’s a feminine gender to the word, which also softens the word for me.  When musicians use the word Carolina in their songs I always think of females, but the word Alabama, especially in Neil Young’s song, “Alabama,” feels very masculine to me.  Again, just to remind you, I said I imagined that use of apostrophe as addressing a wayward son. Even with the song “Sweet Home Alabama” I imagine more of a male than a female, which leads to an interesting consideration for a songwriter’s use of apostrophe.  Is there a gender associated with the absent idea that the songwriter is addressing? It’s certainly something for songwriters to consider when writing their lyrics.

Fortunately, there’s lots of songs that use the word Carolina in them, with some making use of apostrophe while others just use the word. One of these, Ryan Adams’s “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” prevails through only the chorus:

Oh, my sweet Carolina
What compels me to go?
Oh, my sweet disposition
May you one day carry me home  

There’s seemingly little to analyze in this short chorus from the song, but notice what Ryan Adams is doing that fits the conventional use of apostrophe.  For instance, he begins the chorus with the “O” that we’ve discussed with Walt Whitman’s use of “O Captain! My Captain!”—a very stereotypical way to signal to the reader that apostrophe is about to be used.  And then he seems to ask a question of Carolina, which is, Why do I want to leave?  Then he gives us another use of apostrophe, as he addresses his internal attitude or “disposition,” again using the “oh” to signal to the reader that we’re in the realm of apostrophe.  My last question, of course, and this is the hardest one with this song is whether the last line of the chorus is addressed to “Carolina” in the first line or his “sweet disposition” in the third line?  For me, it’s always been addressed to Carolina, and maybe perhaps, it’s much easier for me to think of Carolina as a female character that would bring him back home.

Now, there’s so many songs about the Carolinas that I can’t come close to a comprehensive analysis of lyrics and apostrophe.  There are a few more, besides this song by Ryan Adams, that we might include, most notably “Carolina in My Mind” by James Taylor.  That seems to top most of the lists of songs about Carolina that I found online. It’s a great song, but he doesn’t use apostrophe, for Carolina always remains a place rather than becoming a person in the song.  But it’s a great song, nonetheless.

Probably the most recent song I’ve heard that falls into this category is “Goodbye Carolina” by The Marcus King Band from their album Carolina Confessions in 2018 and produced by Dave Cobb,who has also produced Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton. Here, unlike the James Taylor song, Carolina is fully transformed into a woman:

So, Goodbye Carolina, searched my whole life to find you
I hate to leave you but I hope you’ll know
Where I’m going I’ll be seeing you
So hold my hand as I’m leaving
Hoped my pain would be enough reason
I’ll see you on the other side of the Blue Ridge sky
But now I’m going
Hate to tell you goodbye

Marcus King is clearly using apostrophe in these lyrics. Notice especially, the multiple times that he uses “you” as a surrogate for Carolina.  We get the sense, and quite easily, that King is addressing Carolina as a person—our key element, bringing us all the way back to Chris Stapleton’s “Nashville, TN” that served as our representative example.  Interestingly enough, this song by Marcus King is also about leaving a place behind, which makes me think about the common theme we share of developing close connections to the places where we live.  For songwriters, apostrophe helps highlight those bonds people often have for land, whether it’s Nashville or Georgia or Compton, we usually feel deep connections to our hometowns and states. The use of apostrophe shows us that connection by developing a sense of intimacy with a place, which is probably why so many men write about place as if it were a woman. Indeed, the use of apostrophe makes us feel closer to the object being personified, and ultimately, shows us, at least I think so, greater beauty.

So this has been a long discussion, one of the longest posts I’ve made here at The White Whale.  With so much text, I’ve tried to be a good copy editor, but I’m sure I’ve missed a few things.  It’s been fun discussing apostrophe, and especially writing about it’s use in songs.  Usually, my discussions focus around poetry that I’m teaching to my high school classes, but it’s a pleasure to discuss apostrophe in music.  And for most of us, we are probably more likely to encounter apostrophe in a song rather than a poem.  I read a lot of poetry, as a teacher and poet myself, but I listen to far more music.  Nevertheless, we shouldn’t forget that lyrics are really poetry,  using many of the same devices.  That’s why I discussed Walt Whitman’s famous use of apostrophe in “O Captain! My Captain!” at the start of this essay. When we see more and more of the similarities between poetry and songs, we develop deeper understandings that help us appreciate the songwriter’s craftmanship. Perhaps, not everyone wants to dig this deep into the lyrics of a song, but by doing so, we pull back some of the layers to reveal why we often refer to songwriters as poets or artists.  Indeed, there is a reason that Bob Dylan earned a Nobel Prize in literature.

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