LYRICS / Bleeding between the lines: This month the South Bank takes a close and sceptical look at the art of fitting words to music. Kevin Jackson reports

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The Independent Culture
Paul Simon is incompetent. Suzanne Vega is, if anything, worse. Michelle Shocked is not interesting. And as for the maudlin, maundering self- indulgences of that tedious old rambler Leonard Cohen, well, frankly . . . If such scathing dismissals provoke outrage in your breast, then protest not to these pages but to a heretic by the name of Leon Rosselson, to whom these scornful opinions belong. The thing which really gets his goat, though, is the attitude of the British press to the art of song: they just don't treat it with enough respect.

If Leon Rosselson's attitudes seem a shade self-contradictory, then the paradox is only superficial. To take an example from another field, you wouldn't expect an admirer of Geoffrey Hill's Tenebrae to have much time for a collection of, um, poems such as the late Marc Bolan's Warlock of Love. Similarly, musicians such as Rosselson, whose idea of a good songwriter runs along the cosmopolitan lines of George Brassens, Wolf Biermann, Vladimir Vysotsky or even, come to that, Jake Thackray - can tend to be a trifle sniffy about the songsmiths who are popular enough to merit their own dividers in the CD racks.

Over the next two months, the works and lives of this less modish (or unsung) school will be performed, analysed and debated in a festival at the South Bank Centre, co-organised by Rosselson and called More Than Meets The Ear: An Exploration of the Song Lyric. Though it culminates in a weekend of concerts from the likes of Billy Bragg and Tom Robinson it will also act as an introduction to such esoteric areas as the German Liedermacher tradition of political songwriting. Throughout, emphasis will fall more on the words than the tunes and, as a result, many of the discussions will be closer to lit crit than to musicology.

The series opens, for example, with a talk by Simon Frith, who is Professor of English at the University of Strathclyde as well as a rock journalist. Its billing poses the big question that has been raised again and again since the mid-Sixties, when album sleeves were crammed with sprawling cod-surrealist cantos and Robert Zimmerman was the unofficial Laureate of the Western world: 'Do lyrics matter?' - a blunter way of asking 'Can lyrics ever be as subtle, profound, advanced, forthright or significant as proper poetry?'.

Rumours suggest that the answer expected from Professor Frith veers towards the sceptical side; and oddly enough, even the otherwise enthusiastic Rosselson is inclined to feel that poetry and song lyrics have little in common: 'I've just written an article for Poetry Review suggesting that poetry can be a kind of trap for songwriters. A song isn't a text to be read, but something that has to be performed, and that changes every time it's performed. A song shouldn't be a confessional thing, as Leonard Cohen seems to think it is; it's more like drama, it's about the creation of characters and stories.'

Rosselson prefers the theatrical and European school of Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf to the stars of what he dismissively terms 'the marketplace': 'I feel contempt for the American school of song-writing as represented by Suzanne Vega or Paul Simon, just throwing images at a tune and hoping something will come of it. The European tradition is far more literate, far more sophisticated.'

Well, up to a point, but when most people use the words 'sophisticated' and 'literate' in the context of the term 'popular song', they are usually about to invoke the names of Porter, Hart and the Fabulous Gershwin Boys. 'True, they obviously knew how to structure a song, and were very witty, but their content is trivial and also at times dishonest. If you wanted to know what America was really like in the 1930s you wouldn't go to Cole Porter. Apart from pure technique, the important thing in songwriting is to be honest.'

And this particular line explains why, though Rosselson might dislike the fact, most of the lyrics which are being promoted in More Than Meets The Ear would inspire your average punter to use the f- word: whether their exact provenance is cabaret or fringe theatre or rock or even punk, they would generally be filed under Folk.

Not surprisingly, Rosselson hates the word. 'The image of the folk world is the Aran sweater, the beer and the sea shanties - male, mindless and hearty. If this kind of writing were called Guitar Poetry, which is what the Russians used to call the songs their songwriters sang, people might take it more seriously.'

And then again, they might be repelled. At least one performer from the Ear bill, however, is perfectly happy to be thought of as a folk-singer: Peggy Seeger. Her approach to the foggy question of the relationship between poetry and lyrics is bracingly precise and technical. 'When you write a lyric that is intended to be sung, you're adding another physical dimension, and one which imposes disciplines that poetry can generally afford to ignore. For example, in many songs you'll have a long, high note. That has to fall on an open vowel like an o; put it on the consonant at the end of a word and it simply can't be held.

'And when you're working as I do, in the folk tradition, you inherit forms set by the Anglo- North American poetic tradition: a quatrain form, based on couplets and with a pause after every verse. So the lyric has to be very economical with words, providing just the bones of thought.'

It is doubtful whether sentiments like this were being murmured inside the studio as Iggy and the Stooges prepared to commit 'No Fun' to tape: tradition has it that the echt rock lyric is scrawled down on the back of a bourbon-stained cigarette packet 35 seconds before the lead vocalist prepares to shred the remains of his tonsils.

Rock lyricists often suffer more from trying to be clever than from cultivating dumb eloquence. Witness the cheering progress of Peter Gabriel, who has long since learned that a few terse monosyllables like 'Don't talk back / Just drive the car' are worth whole sides of bardic effusions such as 'Undinal songs urge the sailors on' or whatever. More Than Meets the Ear will probably do little to settle the old scrap about whether Bob Dylan is better than Keats, but it should certainly help to initiate a fresher, more interesting and more sensible debate: is George Brassens better than Paul Simon?

Songwriting on the South Bank runs from 20 January to 7 March (Box office: 071- 928 8800).