Preparing to Analyze “One Great City!”

John K. Samson performs live at the Burton Cummings Theatre in Winnipeg, 2007. Wikimedia Commons.

As is the case with many songwriters, there is relatively limited existing scholarship on John K. Samson, especially from the perspective of literary criticism. While this critical void can feel daunting, it can also be very freeing, as we can approach our analysis from a wide variety of scholarly angles. Our approach to gathering research has to be a little creative; instead of simply searching for the key word “John K. Samson,” we need to come up with some research parameters of our own. A good way to start doing this is to identify some of the major ideas or themes in the song, and then assemble some scholarship that relates to one or more of these ideas. Given our focus on locality and identity in “One Great City!”, we should gather some academic books and articles on representations of identity (especially as related to locality), Canadian poetry, Winnipeg history, and popular music studies. Identifying our area(s) of adjacent research helps us (and our readers!) situate our arguments in broader scholarly conversations, and also helps reinforce the wider significance of our analysis.

When assembling scholarly texts from a variety of disciplines, it is useful to focus on texts that address two or more of our areas of interest. Even though it does not mention John K. Samson, a scholarly book like John Connell and Chris Gibson’s Sound Tracks: Popular Music, Identity, and Place (2003), for example, could prove invaluable. There are also numerous books and articles on the overlaps between identity politics and Canadian poetry (e.g., North of Empire, by Jody Berland [2009]); popular music and place (e.g., Music, National Identity and the Politics of Location: Between the Global and the Local, edited by Ian Biddle and Vanessa Knights [2013]); and literary approaches to song lyric criticism (e.g., The Poetics of American Song Lyrics, edited by Charlotte Pence [2012]).

Listening to/Reading Songs

Burton Cummings Theatre in 2012. AJ Batac, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr.

While our adjacent research can help us further understand and contextualize the song we are analyzing, it is important to always base our interpretive work in close, careful attention to the music and lyrics. Our question should not only be “what does this song mean?” but also “why and how does it produce meaning? What is the broader significance of this song’s meaning(s)?” Although we can learn many of the necessary skills for close reading song lyrics from Poetry: From Observations to Arguments, song lyrics—even more so than poems—are meant to be listened to, not flattened onto a page. We therefore need to make sure we are adapting our knowledge of prosody, or the study of rhythm and sound in poetry, for a musical context. You don’t need to be a musicologist to conduct this kind of analysis, but only to listen closely, carefully, and critically.

Some key strategies musicians use for guiding listeners’ reactions, and therefore ones that we should consider during our critical listening, are volume and number of various instruments; shifts or changes in key, tempo, melody, chord progression; and the number and relative volume of harmonizing or choral singing voices. If these terms are new to you, you can find excellent explanations of them and more in academic books on popular music, such as Interpreting Popular Music by David Brackett (2000) and Popular Music: The Key Concepts by Roy Shuker (2006).

Research Questions to Consider

  1. Some lines in “One Great City!” seem to refer to specific place names and historical figures in Winnipeg. Which sources might you compile in order to think about the significance of these references? Are these places and figures often referenced in popular culture?
  2. What musical genre (pop, rock, hip-hop, R&B, punk, metal, indie/alternative, etc.) do you think “One Great City!” falls into? If the same lyrics were delivered over a completely different style of music, would it drastically change the meaning(s) of the song?

Works Cited

  • Berland, Jody. North of Empire: Essays on the Cultural Technologies of Space. Durham: Duke UP, 2009. Print.
  • Biddle, Ian, and Vanessa Knights, eds. Music, National Identity and the Politics of Location: Between the Global and the Local. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007. Print.
  • Brackett, David. Interpreting Popular Music. 2nd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 2000. Print.
  • Connell, John, and Chris Gibson. Sound Tracks: Popular Music, Identity and Place. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.
  • Pence, Charlotte, ed. The Poetics of American Song Lyrics. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2012. Print.
  • Shuker, Roy. Popular Music: The Key Concepts. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.