Book Review: Life of a Song

I recently had the chance to read Life of a Song: The fascinating stories behind 50 of the worlds best-loved songs. It’s a concise collection of fifty Life of a Song articles from the Financial Times. As I rarely have a reason to visit the FT website, and I only occasionally catch the Life of a Song podcast, the book was a great opportunity to catch up on what I’d missed. Regular readers may find nothing new in the book, but for pop fans and die-hard listeners, the short collection is definitely worth a read.

Life of a Song: The fascinating stories behind 50 of the worlds best-loved songs

The book consists of fifty articles from the regular Life of a Song column collected into book form. Each article takes on a different, well-loved tune from twentieth century popular music. Songs covered include ‘My Way’, ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’, ‘1999’, ‘La Vie en Rose’, and ‘This Land is Your Land’. There are only a few songs in the list that I didn’t know off the top of my head, including ‘Song to the Siren’, and ‘Rocket 88’. The articles usually include some remarks about the songwriter, often quoting them about their creation. Then they cover the journey from composition to hit recording, and usually mention other interpretations that followed the hit.

Each article appears to be less than 1000 words. As you might expect, that’s a lot to cover in that much room. So each article is pretty topical, relating a single anecdote about it, and only touching on the rest. For instance, in the article about ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, the author relates the recording process that shaped the final sound.

On take four of the remake, serendipity strikes. Session guitarist Al Kooper, 21, a friend of the band, walks in holding his guitar, hoping to join in. He is deemed surplus to requirements, but Dylan decides he wants an organ in addition to piano, and Kooper volunteers to fill in. He improvises his part, as he would later recall, ‘like a little kid fumbling in the dark for a light switch’. And suddenly the song turns into the tumbling, cascading version that will become the finished article.

There’s two pieces of information that you need to know about this book in order to enjoy it.

  1. It is a collection of short articles by many contributors.
  2. Those writers are almost entirely arts journalists, rather than trained musicians.

This book was written by a lot of authors. I counted fourteen contributors, each of whom appears to be an English journalist. This can lead to the book feeling somewhat disjointed. Each author is comfortable talking about their own domain of the music industry. Some interpret the lyrics, others relate interviews with creators, others pick up on business maneuvers behind the scenes.

In the introduction, David Chael and Jan Dalley write that the book “is not about singers, or stars, or chart success – although of course they come into the story. It is about the music itself”. If you are a musician, this may leave you expecting musical analysis, lyrical breakdowns, or at least comparisons to similar songs. The book “is about music” in as much as it tells stories about musicians, but it is strictly an outsiders perspective. There’s no illusion that the writers were part of the culture of the song, or involved themselves with the people in the story. A reader shouldn’t expect that in a collection such as this.

My favorite article is the one about ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’. That song has so much soul, that it surprised me to learn that the original title, given to the tune by its white songwriter, was ‘Midnight Plane to Houston’.

The soul singer Cissy Houston… decided to record its first cover version… But the title irked. It wasn’t the collision of Houstons – singer and subject – that bothered her, but one of authenticity. If she was going to sing this song, she had to feel it. And, she later said, ‘My people are originally from Georgia and they didn’t take planes to Houston or anywhere else. They took trains.’

Ultimately, Life of a Song is a great book to read on the way to and from work, or to sit in your book bin next to your favorite chair. It’s a book that can be read in lots of small chunks, and each chunk reveals a little bit more about a song than the recording.

Now if you don’t mind, I need to catch a plane to Houston.