My Baby, She Wrote Me a Letter
Updated: Dec 19, 2020
There are a bunch of great songs that use phone calls as a framing device; Jim Croce’s “Operator”, ELO’s “Telephone Line”, Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me” to name just a few. Surprisingly, there are far fewer examples of epistolary songwriting (that is, songs written in the style of a letter), and even fewer if you discount songs like “Dear Prudence” which may start off as a letter would, but is otherwise a pretty standard lyric (of the “To His Coy Mistress” variety). Here then are three of my favorite song-written letters along with a few honorable mentions (if I’ve missed any of your fav examples, please let me know in the comments):
“Letter to the Team After Another Disappointing Season” by Tellison:
This song is pretty much the reason for this entire blog post. There is so much songwriting excellence on display here. This song is exactly as it bills itself; a team’s captain informs his compatriots of his decision to step down due to their rotten performance on the field. What makes this song unlike any other on this list, is that you could write out this lyric and it could actually pass as a legitimate letter. “Dear Henry, Peter, Andrew, Richard, Matthew, Benjamin, as members and past members of this ignominious team, I write to you to apologize for the mess we’re in…” I can’t imagine a less likely inspiration for a song, and yet, unlike the downtrodden team it addresses, this song is endlessly winning. Musically, “Letter to the Team” is equally interesting/entertaining, built around this extended pedal-tone guitar passage, and building to the glorious (if short-lived) chorus where the author allows himself a moment to bask in the afterglow of past “pyrrhic victories”.
“Like Keanu Reeves says,
Chicks dig scars,
Glory lasts forever.”
My absolutely favorite moment of the song comes as this epigram gets repeated, except the “chicks dig scars” line is tweaked just a bit to “girls like scars” (the melody is similarly tweaked). With this small change, it feels like the mask of bravado/humor/irony falls away and we catch a glimpse of the sincere emotions underlying the song. Great stuff!
Memo to My Son by Randy Newman:
A father wanting to impart wisdom to his son has been the basis for a number of great songs including classics like “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens and my personal fav, “Still Fighting It” by Ben Folds. As you might imagine, Randy Newman takes a more dyspeptic approach to the subject. His “Dad” is a busy guy – no time for gushy letters – hence this short “memo” (clocking in at under 2 minutes). After first chastising the boy for making a mess, it becomes pretty clear that the dad can’t wait for his child to grow up so that he can: a) make sure the kid understands how smart his old man is, and b) finally be able to leave the kid unsupervised. The punchline, of course, is the great wisdom he imparts is this: “A winner never quits. A quitter never wins. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” If Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle” ever bums you out, this song makes a fine antidote.
P.S. I Love You by Gordon Jenkins and Johnny Mercer:
Unlike the Beatles song of the same title, this song is filled with the sort of quotidian details you might find in an actual letter written to a traveling loved one. “Yesterday we had some rain...the folks are fine…” – that sort of thing. The love expressed might sound like an afterthought, being a postscript and all, but reading in between the lines, it becomes clear that the loved one’s absence is so deeply felt, it’s infused every detail of the writer’s life. It’s remarkable how much yearning is expressed here while sounding so superficially mild. This song has been recorded effectively by many great artists, but my favorite is the one appearing on Frank Sinatra’s 1957 album “Close to You” arranged by the great Nelson Riddle. The understated string quartet, along with the bone dry (little to no reverb) flute and celeste, perfectly capture the contemplative mood. You can really feel the dusty train car where the letter is finally opened and read.
Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah by Allan Sherman
Dear G-d by XTC