First Lines, Songs

Well the first days are the hardest days don’t you worry anymore
‘Cause when life looks like easy street there is danger at your door.
Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter (1970).

This first line from Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band”, always makes me sing with a smile. It settles me. Hearing the unmistakeable intro melody is like seeing an old friend get off a plane. This is an essential for my anti-depressant playlist. No wonder it appears in my blog more than once Playing To the Tide, Life Without a Soundtrack.

Great first lyrics in songs, like first lines in literature, provide the hook that grabs you. In song, musical notes join with words to evoke a smile, a nod, a sway, a dance, a whoop–even tears or to quote Count Basie when asked what his music was about: “Taps your foot.” They hook you and you can’t help but sing along–even if it is the first time you’ve heard it, you fake it and hum or sometimes…sometimes you just know from the gut, the heart, what the next words will be. It isn’t words alone, it is the whole language of music, the chosen instruments along with the human voice as instrument, notes, melody, cadence, pacing all of it together performed as intended to be heard with breadth and depth and pathos and humor.

Ani DiFranco is terrific with first lines so I’ll not even try to capture her “best”…here is one that never fails to make me grin and nod:

I know this bar,
With a jukebox full of medicine

An age-old hook: the beginning of a story or maybe a joke: “I know this bar…” Ani begins and you want to hear what she has to share about this bar. She continues with an image any music lover relates to: “With a jukebox full of medicine”. This always makes me smile and nod. Then she introduces Grace and a particular song with “one really killer line”, she doesn’t remember the title but she knows it’s: “#5403”.

Put this song on for me won’t ya,
Make Gracie think of me.

Sometimes the first lyric is spoken, not sung, giving a sense of sharing a confidence:

Slid out of my dreams like a baby out of the nurse’s hands
Onto the hard floor of day

This classic Bruce Cockburn opening reads a little like a line from a hard-boiled detective novel (Hard-boiled First Lines Part 1). There is an intimacy, inviting you to hear the story he has to tell in “When You Give It Away”.

Jackson Browne has this ability to speak to me in all my moods at any age. There is such humanity to his work. I hear the beginning of just about any of his songs and my reaction is “Oh! This is my favorite Jackson Browne song.”

The papers lie there helplessly
In a pile outside the door

This is how he opens “Something Fine”…he continues:

I’ve tried and tried, but I just can’t remember what they’re for
The world outside is tugging like a beggar at my sleeve
Oh, that’s much too old a story to believe

I spoke of songs evoking a sway even a dance. When David Bowie’s unmistakeable voice declares:

Let’s dance!

I want to leap up and with decisive foot tap begin a dance. Later he croons in a soft whiskey voice with a sandpaper finish:

Put on your red shoes and dance the blues

Later this refrain is repeated in a sine-wave delivery with his clear bright semi-echo voice (how do you describe the incredible unique voice of Bowie?).

Another song that features dance albeit in a different vein:

They’re pickin’ up the prisoners and puttin’ ’em in a pen
And all she wants to do is dance, dance

This theme carries on:

Crazy people walkin’ ’round with blood in their eyes
And all she wants to do is dance, dance
Wild-eyed pistol wavers who ain’t afraid to die
And all she wants to do is, all she wants to do is dance

When I hear Don Henley sing this Danny Kortchmar song, dance IS all I want to do and I wonder if the world might not be a more peaceful place if more people just wanted to dance.

Marc Cohn with “Dance Back From the Grave” introduces dance of a whole different kind pulling us in by speaking the beginning of a personal story,

I used to wake up every morning saying I must be getting away with something here
Every day was like parole before the levees overflowed; I refuse to think it could all just disappear (I refuse to think)
How long before the street car rattles down St. Charles Avenue and beads swing from two hundred year old trees

Sometimes the best humor has a sad and serious passion…

He was the black sheep of the family,
How did momma’s pride and joy
Go from such a precious baby
To the devil’s poster boy?

Eliza Gilkyson, “Dark Side of Town” on Land of Milk and Honey, 2003.

Anyone growing up during the Vietnam war or who experienced ‘Nam can relate to these opening lines from Steve Earle’s “Ellis Unit One”:

I was fresh out of the service
It was back in ’82
I raised some Cain when I come back to town
I left to be all I could be
Come home without a clue

How many young men went off and returned with “the thousand yard stare”?

Signature notes of snaky bass man, David Hood provide the perfect intro to the horns’ “baaah bah!” Together they roll out the carpet for that inimitable voice of Mavis Staples promising us:

I know a place, ain’t nobody worried
Ain’t nobody cryin’ ain’t nobody worried
Ain’t no smilin’ faces
Lyin’ to the races

In her refrain she and all The Staple Singers affirm the title “I’ll Take You There”. This song will never wear out its welcome, always makes me dance and it too holds a place on my anti-depressant playlist. Stax Records, February 1972. No surprise that this song is on the Rolling Stone list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and is in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

My brain makes drugs to keep me slow,
A hilarious joke for some dead pharaoh.

I love this opening line from “Night still Comes”. Neko Case, has a voice that at once belongs both to the prairies and open range of the U.S.A. and Australia of the cowpoke past and stands solidly in the present. It sits well in the city corner coffee shop and flows well through the earbuds. Her clear voice, a voice that feels like a lovely echo on tall mountain peaks heard in the wide open spaces of Montana or Alice Springs.

I could never pick a favorite from Ani DiFranco but what about
“Going Down”?

you can’t get through it
you can’t get over it
you can’t get around
like bein’ in a dream
you open your mouth to scream
and you won’t make a sound

I read these words and hear the percussion laying down the backdrop for Ani’s voice that seems to be coming from a dark and hallow space.

Big brass strut intro then:

Folks here’s a story about Minnie the Moocher
She was a low down hoochie coocher
She was the roughest toughest frail
But Minnie had a heart as big as a whale

1931 or today, Cabell “Cab” Calloway III hooks us with the promise of a story. The bonus is the pacing and Cab’s scat singing. I particularly love the live versions with his inclusion of an audience as he leads them into call-and-response with scat…

Well when you’re sitting there in your silk upholstered chair
Talkin’ to some rich folk that you know
Well I hope you won’t see me in my ragged company
Well, you know I could never be alone

Rolling Stones “Dead Flowers” released in April of 1973. Written by Jagger and Richards. Such a good first lyric and great song that the legendary Townes Van Zandt did a cover which was used in The Big Lebowski.

Love songs from Ani DiFranco? Why not? Not everyone may agree that “As Is” is a love song, but what better sign of love:

you can’t hide
behind social graces
so don’t try
to be all touchy feely
cuz you lie
in my face of all places
but i’ve got no
problem with that really

The follow up

when I said I’ll take it
I meant ‘as is’

My nomination for the world’s best love song ever begins:

Hush now, don’t explain
Just say you’ll remain
I’m glad you’re back
Don’t explain

Lady Day delivers this in her smokey syncopated instrument voice and you know it is genuine, love acts as a laminate to sorrow and pain. The next line:

Quiet, don’t explain
What is there to gain
Skip that lipstick
Don’t explain

And I love her delivery:

Skip that….
Don’t explain.

All of these lines stand up on the page and read well, but layered atop the music and given just the right vocal treatment and pacing they come alive with more humanity, we hear humor or patience. There is a sharing, a storytelling that brings us in. The gentle musical hook.


  • Hunter, Robert and Garcia, Jerry. “Uncle John’s Band”. The Grateful Dead. Workingman’s Dead. Warner Bros. June 14, 1970.
  • DiFranco, Ani. “I Know This Bar”. To the Teeth. Righteous Babe. November 16, 1999.
  • Cockburn, Bruce. “When You Give It Away”. Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu. Rykodisc. September 14, 1999.
  • Browne, Jackson. “Something Fine”. Jackson Browne. Asylum Records. January 1972.
  • Bowie, David. “Let’s Dance”. Let’s Dance. EMI. 14 April 1983.
  • Kortchmar, Danny. “All She Wants To Do Is Dance”. Don Henley. Building the Perfect Beast. Geffen. February 1985.
  • Cohn, Marc & Bragg, Rick. “Dance Back From the Grave”. Join the Parade. Decca Records. October 9, 2007.
  • Gilkyson, Eliza & Nancy. “Dark Side of Town”. Land of Milk and Honey. Red House Records. March 23, 1984.
  • Earle, Steve. “Ellis Unit One”. Dead Man Walking. Columbia. 1996.
  • Bell, Al. “I’ll Take You There”. The Staple Singers. Be Altitude: Respect Yourself. Stax. 1972.
  • Case, Neko. “Night Still Comes”. The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder InFight, The More I Love You. Anti Records. September 3, 2013.
  • DiFranco, Ani. “Going Down”. Dilate. Righteous Babe. May 21, 1996.
  • Calloway, Cab & Mills, Irving. “Minnie the Moocher”. Cab Calloway. Single: Brunswick. 1931.
  • Jagger, Mick/Richards, Keith. “Dead Flowers”. The Rolling Stones. Sticky Fingers. Rolling Stones/Virgin. 23 April 1971.
  • DiFranco. “As Is”. Little Plastic Castle. Righteous Babe. February 17, 1998.
  • Holiday, Billie & Herzog Jr., Arthur. “Don’t Explain”. Billie Holiday. Single. Decca. 1946.

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