VIDEO: Liven Up Your Picket Line With a Parody Song
A man steps onto a soapbox in Missoula, Montana, in 1916—and breaks into song.
“Are you poor, forlorn, and hungry?”
Curious passers-by stop to listen, confused. The melody is familiar, but the lyrics are new and strange.
“Are there lots of things you lack?”
Curiouser still: the man has painted himself into a musical corner. Line 2 should rhyme with the familiar refrain in line 4, “Take it to the Lord in prayer.” They’re hooked.
“Is your life made up of misery?”
Everyone is waiting for the shoe to drop.
“Dump the bosses off your back!”
Laughter ripples through the crowd while the singer urges them to overthrow the capitalist system.
It’s a scary idea in an old, familiar package. It’s a message you can sing along with. It’s a parody.
The Wobblies were famous for parody songs. Joe Hill, John Brill, Ralph Chaplin, Haywire Mack McClintock: all wrote lyrics that shook the status quo, with tunes from the Old Camp Meeting Hymnal or the Tin Pan Alley Songbook.
Learn from the CIO and the civil rights movement: a singing movement has power. It’s a way to conspire, which means “to breathe together.” And parodies are the quickest, simplest, and most powerful way to create and share songs.
A SONG EVERYONE KNOWS
Almost everybody knows “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” It has no refrain or chorus—it just starts rolling and keeps going, like a train. When young Rae Abileah stood up in the halls of Congress to challenge the prime minister of Israel about Jewish settlements built on Palestinian land, I thought of that old song.
I stood up to Netanyahu
Join me in my song
I stood up to Netanyahu
And I hollered he was wrong
Can’t you hear the people shouting
And regarding all those settlements
They will have to go
They will have to go
They will have to go…
I get people to sing that one on the second time around. Some will sing it on the first pass, even never having heard it before. The form speaks louder than the content. This is the simplest way to write a parody—new words, old tune.
Picking a tune used to be easy, back when everybody in America listened to the same radio shows and any audience would join in on “Goodnight, Irene.” Now we have a fragmented culture sliced up into musical niches. If you know the niche you’re writing for, you have a musical canon to draw on—but usually, you’ll need songs that cross over many niches.
Christmas carols and many Beatles songs do that. There are classic summer camp songs, like “Oh, Susannah,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “This Land is Your Land.”
TURN IT UPSIDE DOWN
Not all parodies are for sing-along. A good parody creates cognitive dissonance—a creative learning space where you take someone’s safe assumptions and turn them upside down.
So if you want to take your parody writing to the next level, it isn’t enough to steal any old tune. You want to satirize the meaning of the original song.
Bob Blue did it when he spoofed that Frank Sinatra toothache, “My Way,” turning it into an assault on academic conformity:
I crammed, they gave me grades, and may I say, not in a fair way
But more, much more than this, I did it their way.
Not only has he copped a great melody, he has used the idea behind “My Way” to give comic power to “Their Way,” and at the same time gets a lift by mocking the Sinatra ego-fest.
Best of all is when the rewrite shadows the original as closely as possible. Borrow heavily from the original lyrics. In some quarters that’s known as plagiarism, but for the parody writer it’s a creative process. Fun, too.
Do you recognize this John Lennon song? My version is about single-payer health care:
You may say that I’m a dreamer
I’m not dreaming by myself
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world can live in health
Like most songs, a parody starts with an idea or a problem. Take drones. These grim airships seem to me to be bad for everybody: bad for the people on the ground, bad for the “pilots” who control them and have a high rate of PTSD.
Find an appropriate song and match it with an appropriate phrase: “Send in the Clowns” becomes “Send in the Drones.”
MAKE TWO COLUMNS
Next, I copy and paste the original lyrics onto a page. I divide the page into two columns and write my parody in column two. I go line by line and see how I can copy or tweak the original.
Isn’t it rich?.........................................Isn’t it strange?
Are we a pair?...................................Aren’t we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground.......One sitting safe on the ground
You in mid-air....................................One in mid-air
Send in the clowns..........................Send in the drones
I pay very close attention to the original meter and rhyme scheme. Every deviation from the original form weakens the force of the parody.
Rhyming dictionaries are very helpful. I prefer the book form to online versions (same with a thesaurus or synonym dictionary). They can get you out of a stuck place—by taking you to a new area of thought you wouldn’t have reached on your own.
I like to take key words and write out lists of possible rhymes. I only use a fraction, but they often inspire fresh approaches to a problem I might just beat to death if left to my own narrow thoughts.
HELP FROM YOUR FRIENDS
Before you begin, research your topic. There are fresh insights waiting that will make for a more interesting song.
I was trying to get inside of the head of a drone pilot. I knew pilots had been told never to give their names or addresses to the public, and I found an old ad marketing self-guided missiles with the slogan, “Fire and forget.”
I wrote out a bunch of “forget” rhymes. One took me to an emotional place—“regret.” Another took me to a poignant note that hung in the air, reflecting but not judging—“yet.” I got this verse from all that:
Don’t give your name
Feel no regret
Ask not for whom the bell tolls
Fire and forget
Only a drone
A deniable drone
No problem – and yet…
When you have a first draft, shows it to a friend. As writers we need hard-hitting criticism if we’re going to get better at our craft. But, hey, if you want a song for tomorrow’s picket line, don’t sweat the small stuff. If the song has lasting value, you can always make it better later.
And if you’d like to hear how “Send in the Drones” turned out, you can go to charlieking.org and click “Lyrics & MP3s.”
Metaphors be with you.
Charlie King, a musical storyteller and satirical songwriter, performs throughout North America with his partner Karen Brandow, both members of Musicians Local 1000. Contact them at www.charlieking.org for concerts, workshops, songbooks, recordings, and labor history performance pieces.