Frank and Jesse James

It always pissed me off.

I’d hear people who knew next to nothing about music saying that “every song should tell a story” and then sit back with a smug expression on their face as though they had said something they understood. Really? (I would think.) So you’re saying that if a song doesn’t start with some variation of “Once upon a time” and end with some variation of “And that’s the end of that chapter…” then it’s not a real song? Bullshit. Get out. Idiot.

Of course years later I realised that the only idiot was me. They didn’t mean a song had to literally tell a story – they were being much more abstract. They meant that a song should go somewhere, should start on one emotional plane and take you to another, should breathe. In other words, it should be interesting.

Once I cottoned onto what these people actually meant, I had no choice but to agree. A song should do all those things. And so over the years I relaxed into just writing songs without feeling like I had to explicitly string some sort of narrative together. My songs were about stuff, but I can’t say they particularly went anywhere.

Over time, though, listening to people like Lou Reed, and Warren Zevon, I became ever more interested in songs that actually do tell a story – they’re narratives set to music. Bored with the drivel I was coming up with, needing a new direction to make things interesting for me again, I thought this would fit me like a glove. And every time I tried to make a move in that direction, I fell flat on my face.

What’s a girl to do? Well, I waited far too long, but I eventually started stabbing my favourite songs and ripping them apart at the seams and trying to figure out just what tricks my heroes had employed to write these brilliant song/stories.

I’m sharing with you my analysis of the first song off Warren Zevon’s first album, Frank and Jesse James. If you want to listen along, here is the track:

Verse 1 – The Beginning Hook

On a small Missouri farm, back when the West was young,
Two boys learned to rope and ride and be handy with a gun.
War broke out between the states and they joined up with Quantrill,
And it was over in Clay County that Frank and Jesse finally learned to kill.

The first verse of Frank and Jesse James is the “beginning hook.” Its job is to give us a reason to keep listening. How does Zevon do that?

First, like any good Dickensian, omniscient, God-like narrator, he sets the scene. The first two lines give us a place, a time-period, an image of our leading characters growing up to be cowboys, and of course, the threat of impending violence. I’m reminded of Anton Chekhov’s famous writing advice: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

The scene is set, but nothing much has happened yet. Until the third line, when the US Civil War breaks out. BAM! An inciting incident.

And to wrap up this first verse, and get us hooked, Zevon lets the gun go off, establishing Frank and Jesse as killers. We’re off to a great start, and most importantly, we’re wondering “how is this going to turn out?”

Chorus 1 – Future Tense

Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, Frank and Jesse James,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, ’til you clear your names,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, ‘cross the rivers and the rains,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, Frank and Jesse James.

The choruses of this song are interesting for two reasons. Firstly, the point of view. Zevon switches from his previous role as an omniscient narrator – just telling us the story – to being a kind of cheerleader for our heroes. This is important, because Frank and Jesse are at no point in this song particularly sympathetic characters – they’re cold, cruel killers – and yet this makes us root for them nonetheless as the moral centre of the story.

The second interesting thing is that each chorus is from a different time perspective. This first one is in the future tense – they haven’t actually become outlaws yet, but now we’re anticipating it.

Verse 2 – The Middle Build

After Appomatox, they was on the losin’ side,
So no amnesty was granted, and as outlaws they did ride.
They rode against the railroad and they rode against the banks
And they rode against the governor, never did they ask for a word of thanks.

The second verse is the middle build. In the first two lines, Zevon gives us a sense of the dire straits they find themselves in – Appomattox was where General Robert E Lee surrendered, and one of the last battles of the Civil War. Things aren’t looking good for Frank and Jesse. They face a crisis choice: go to jail or be outlaws? That ain’t no choice…

In the third and fourth line, Zevon builds the tension even more by telling us just who they’re running from – three of the most powerful institutions of the day.

Now we’re really wondering how it’s going to turn out.

Chorus 2 – Present Tense

Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin, Frank and Jesse James,
Keep on ridin’, ridin, ridin’, ’til you clear your names,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin, ‘cross the prairies and the plains,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin, Frank and Jesse James.

This chorus is in the present tense – they’re on the run now.

Verse 3 – The Ending Payoff

Robert Ford, a gunman, in exchange for his parole
Took the life of James the outlaw, which he snuck upon and stole
No-one knows just where they came to be misunderstood,
But the poor Missouri farmers knew that Frank and Jesse’d do the best they could.

We knew this tale was probably not going to end happily. Zevon doesn’t waste any time letting us know how right we were. He sets up the villain in the first line, and has him “steal” one of the brother’s lives in the second line. Note the disdainful way in which Zevon describes Robert Ford – without using the word “coward”, he paints a picture that couldn’t mean anything else.

And then in the last two lines – the resolution, if you will – Zevon ties up this tragedy by playing to our sympathetic nature. Sure, Frank and Jesse were outlaws and killers, but they were also human beings – poor, humble folk, misunderstood by everybody except the salt of the Earth fellas they grew up with. Their own kind.

Chorus 3 – Past Tense

Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, Frank and Jesse James,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, ’til you clear your names,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, ‘cross the rivers and the rains,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, Frank and Jesse James.

The third chorus is in the past tense. They’re not riding any more – one of them is dead – but Zevon still cheers them on, keeping their memory alive, showing that even death couldn’t stop Frank and Jesse James.

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