Lyrics can be a kid’s key to poetry, to interpretation, even to learning that literature can be an emotional experience as well as a mental exercise. Whenever I teach literary interpretation, I start with lyrics. (Then, I slowly reveal to the students that they’ve been hoodwinked into studying poetry… by the time they realize it, they’re too hooked to resist.) For me, music is life. In fact, I’m fairly certain that my love of literature began at age 4 when I started incessantly asking my parents “What is this song about?” Every time a new track popped up on the radio or CD player, I wanted to be clued in to the secret. Sometimes the explanation was easy, other times my parents would talk circles around themselves, exploring possibilities while I pondered them. I try to bring this lifelong love into the classroom whenever possible, whether it’s comparing The Bravery‘s “Believe” to Odysseus’ point of view in Homer’s Odyssey or decoding Miller’s Death of a Salesman with the help of “New Low” by Middle Class Rut. It’s really cool to take what’s on the radio and say, “Hey, it’s practically like this song was written as part of the soundtrack for this unit!” But sometimes, especially if one wants to teach the mysterious art of literary analysis, it’s neccessary to find a fresh song. And teachers, I’ve got just the guy to help you out.
American folksinger David Wilcox is a singer/songwriter who sang/songwrote his way deep into my heart back in those days when I was first figuring out that songs could be “about” something. Wilcox albums were always on repeat in the house–my dad was already his biggest fan back in the 90’s. I grew up with Wilcox’s warm, wise voice echoing around me, and I still look to his music when I’m seeking solace, philosophy, or some key to my own emotions. One of many awesome things about David Wilcox’s music is that his lyrics are masterfully crafted. He creates songs that always contain some element of mystery, irony, or prophecy. This makes his work especially rewarding to people who view themselves as thinkers, questioners, and poetic souls. Luckily for me and my career, his music is also the ultimate literary analysis canvas. Because the lyrics are so multilayered, they offer a world of possibilities to curious students who are learning the satisfaction of peeling back layers, making sense of smudges, and defending an interpretation of a literary work. Listening to the music in class has always been very successful for me as well–it’s so different from the mainstream that students just sort of stop and cock their heads, truly listening.
If you’re looking to dive into some potentially analysis-ready Wilcox lyrics, I strongly suggest starting with a trio of early albums: Big Horizon, How Did You Find Me Here, and Home Again. While you’ll likely find your own perfect piece, I can recommend “Jamie’s Secret” (from How Did You Find Me Here) as a track that my students have really responded to, on visceral as well as intellectual levels. If you like what you hear, or you’re just curious about more recent work, I recommend progressing to Turning Point, Underneath, and Vista. You can listen to tracks, find lyrics, and even read blog posts on David Wilcox’s website.
Having seen him in concert, I can attest to the fact that this troubadour has a very gentle, smart, and thoughtful presence. Try letting his presence into your classroom through music and lyrics–you might be surprised at your students’ reactions. With Wilcox’s spell, literary analysis warms into something cozy, enigmatic, and profound.