Using song lyrics as condiments

When I wrote my first novel, “The Kudzu Kid,” last year, I  began several chapters with snippets of song lyrics. My editor took them all out.

I didn’t complain, because I liked him as an editor, and because I had never written a novel before and wasn’t sure if I hadn’t violated some unwritten rule. But I’m still hooked on using song lyrics in this way, maybe to a fault.

Realistically, these little “samplings” should probably be employed the way we use condiments on food — good for spice, but potentially sickening if overused. I edited a book in which the author used a song lyric sample to start every chapter, and I nicely suggested to him that perhaps that was overkill. If you lock yourself in that way, you can find yourself reaching for questionable tie-ins in some chapters, and why do that?

Here’s what I like about using song lyrics, though.

1. It’s a chance to connect, if only in a small way, with some of your readers. Unless a lyric is just perfect, I try to borrow from artists who are relatively familiar to a mass audience.

2. I think it shows a certain creativity and intelligence on your part that you are willing to stretch out beyond the boundaries of literature and into another creative realm (although quotes from other authors and books can also be very effective).

3. A well-chosen lyric can sometimes summarize the theme of your chapter — or, if used at the beginning, your whole book — far better and more succinctly than you can. It’s what lyricists do.

With “Even Here,” a non-fiction book I wrote several years ago about a series of “outsider” murders in Bedford County, VA, I started with a setup chapter about how the county was rapidly transforming from rural to suburban, and the tension that engendered. To start out, I used this lyric from Don Henley’s song “The End of the Innocence”:

“Who knows how long this will last; now we’ve come so far, so fast; but somewhere back there in the dust; that same small town’s in each of us.”

I loved that, and I now think of that book every time I hear that song.

The Kudzu Kid is about a big city investigative reporter whose career crashes. The only job he can find after being fired is as the editor of a small weekly in Southside Virginia, a place almost as alien to him as West Africa. At first, he struggles with culture shock, but gradually he begins to realize that he has been given complete freedom to do as he likes with “his” newspaper, and the thought energizes him. So I started one chapter with a bit from REM’s “World Leader Pretend” to emphasize that realization:

“This is my world, and I am World Leader Pretend; this is my life, this is my time; I have been given the freedom to do as I see fit; it’s high time I raze these walls that I’ve constructed.”

You get the idea, and I won’t belabor the point. My musical taste runs mostly to rock music (a generational thing) but song lyrics can obviously come from anywhere — country music, hip hop, old 1940s standards, whatever.

To be honest, I’m not certain about the legalities of this. It is my understanding that it’s OK to borrow a line or two of a song if credit is given, but not the whole thing. There is also the issue of whether the artist should be credited or the songwriter, if the two are different.

Anyone have any thoughts?

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Recently retired after 35 years with the News & Advance newspaper in Lynchburg, VA, now re-inventing myself as a novelist/nonfiction writer and writing coach in Lake George, NY.

4 thoughts on “Using song lyrics as condiments”

  1. No, even a line or two of a song or a poem is too much–even with attribution. What you MUST have, is express permission of the rights holder to those lyrics. Because songs are short, even a line is (pun intended) over the line. Now maybe, if the lyric in question is from a songwriter or record company that likes your book or welcomes the free publicity you won’t have a problem. But you can’t afford to chance it if you self-publish and a traditional publisher won’t, as you already found out. So ask. If it costs money to get the permission, then you either find a friendlier/cheaper song or you are out of luck. I too would have loved to have a number of lyrics in a memoir I wrote, but I wanted to get it done and didn’t want the hassle of permissions.


  2. Every book I write has a song track. I often start with lyrics which I use to inform the narrative. Most often, these lyrics aren’t referenced in the work itself, but I know what I wrote and why. Years ago, I wrote a three-volume saga of growing up and out of the Sixties. When I changed songs in a chapter, I actually made a note of what I was listening to. Not that this project is worth resurrecting, but I did lean that I write more freely when the music muse is present.


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