Song Essay Assignment

WRITING ASSIGNMENT                                                                                       ENGLISH 9

POETRY and SONG ANALYSIS                                                                             Mr. Castellano

     For this assignment, I want you to pick a song whose lyrics you find meaningful.  Your job is to provide a thoughtful commentary on and analysis of the lyrics.  Pick a song you really like; it can be any kind of music.  There are all sorts of great songs in the world: be sure to pick a song whose lyrics you find intriguing, mysterious, challenging, or thought-provoking.  Do not pick a song merely because you like to dance to it.  Those songs are good, too; but for this assignment, I want you to pick a song whose lyrics you can think of as a poem and then provide a thoughtful reading of those words.  (If you’re not sure if you are picking an appropriate song, please show me the lyrics and we can discuss your choice.)  Your analysis should treat the lyrics of the song as if they were poetry (which they are).  

     We certainly can make the argument that a good song is a poem with music added to it; conversely, a poem is a song without the music.  We have said in class how poetry originally was sung.  A good poet uses rhythm, rhyme, sounds, words, structure, etc., to create music.  Having said all that, this assignment is your opportunity to think and write about a favorite song.  Do not feel that you need to have the definitive interpretation: you are providing one way of looking at this song.  I hope our discussion of “John Henry” will serve as a model for you; I have also given you a sample essay.  Do not feel you have to account for every single word, line, or image. 

     You should start with a specific, focused, strong thesis statement (as you do with any essay).  The body of your essay will be the incorporation and explanation of specific details that support and illustrate your thesis.  You should include a copy of the lyrics: the odds are I will not know the song.  You can refer to specific details by writing, “In lines 13-15, the writer states, . . . .”  We will talk about how to quote from the song in class; look at my essay for samples.  I certainly encourage you to quote from the song.  But remember: the focus should be on your ideas and a full exploration of those ideas: don’t quote huge blocks of text and then make a one-line comment on the excerpt.  

     I have written a few sample thesis statements below to serve as a model.  Your essay should be 1-2 pages typed or 4-6 sides handwritten, double-spaced.  The essay is due on WEDNESDAY, 9 DECEMBER.  It is worth 100 points.  Have fun with this assignment.  Do your best.  

SAMPLE THESIS STATMENTS

·        In Suzanne Vega’s song “Tom’s Diner,” the speaker notices and explores the extraordinary events that emerge from a very ordinary day sitting in a diner.

·        In the song “Ripple,” the Grateful Dead point out the evidence in everyday events that shows the presence of something greater and more than meets the eye.

·        In “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” U2 explains how true happiness and fulfillment can be elusive.

·        In the traditional folk song “John Henry,” the speaker celebrates the dignity of one man in his duel with a machine and thus shows the triumph of the human spirit.


     In the traditional folk song “John Henry,” the speaker celebrates the dignity of one man in his duel with a machine and, through the story, affirms the human spirit.  The majority of the song focuses on the legendary John Henry in his battle against a steam drill that threatens his work.  By the end of the song, however, John Henry’s struggle surmounts his own limited experience and becomes an emblem of the dignity of work and the importance of community.  Despite John Henry’s death, his story demonstrates spirit, strength, and hope.

     Stanzas 1 through 6 illustrate John Henry’s battle with the steam drill as they both drive in railroad spikes.  The captain seems to taunt John Henry: “I’m gonna bring that steam drill around.”  Whether the captain is on the side of this machine or this man is unclear; but the captain is certainly interested in the competition.  Perhaps he cares only for the work to be completed as quickly as possible.  John Henry, for his part, quickly understands the nature of the battle; he is fighting for not only his own work but all workers and the dignity of their work.  He tells his captain that “a man ain’t nothing but a man,” affirming his humanity.  He goes on to say that he would rather die trying than allow machines to win: “But before I let that steam drill beat me down, I’m gonna die with a hammer in my hand.”  John Henry seems to understand the importance of this single competition.

     As the song continues, the significance of this battle becomes more apparent and larger.  John Henry could easily stop the competition at any point; even if he loses his job, he would not lose his life.  But he demonstrates a great sense of pride – in himself and his work.  Rather than succumb to the victory of a machine, he says he would rather “hammer my fool self