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  • Writer's picturekristina jacobsen

Teaching "Sam Stone" in Joberg, South Africa




Last thursday, i facilitated a collaborative songwriting workshop, alongside AusTebza (Setswana, South Africa) and Alex Rose Holiday (Diné, Navajo Nation) at a community studio and workspace in Newtown, Johannesburg as part of the WOMAD South Africa Festival.


I decided to start by talking about what it means to "show" rather than "tell" in songwriting, and, as an example, I played John Prine's "Sam Stone" for a group of 32 emerging artists who had signed up for this workshop. I was nervous about my song choice, as it is, in some ways, so U.S. specific and from a very situated and white male perspective (the Vietnam war, the GI bill, PTSD, and a specific drug addiction). For those that don't know it, it is sung in John Prine's edgy, scruffy voice, which some love and others have difficulty connecting to. But I also think it's a fabulous and powerful song and exemplifies many of the things i personally aspire to as a songwriter, so I decided to take the plunge. We played the song, and provided the lyrics to participants, and then discussed their insights and observations on this song. How did it show instead of tell? What were lines that resonated with them in particular?


The insights offered by the participants--playwrights, poets, rappers, hip hop artists, singers, MCs, deejays--were not only insightful, they were profound. Immediately, they linked the song to their own lived experiences as young South Africans. Participants noted the shift in the song from "Sam Stone" to the diminutive "Sammy," as the way John Prine shows us the protagonist's fall from grace. They also noted the contrast of the "purple heart and a monkey on his back" line, and the effectiveness of the narration in the chorus ("There's a hole in daddy's arm/where all the money goes"), told from the perspective of his young and no-longer-innocent child. Another participant noted the "broken radio" of being perpetually let down by a father figure, and many of the participants noted the very strong implicit political commentary on the futility of war (and organized religion?) that appears in the last verse, in particular. The line, "gave him all the confidence he lacked," allowed participants to reflect on the ways that military service can serve to overcompensate for deeper insecurities that someone might have, and that remain after they come home.


In the end, despite the culturally specific differences, John Prine brought these talented writers into the sensebound world of a wounded Vietnam veteran with a purple heart and an insatiable addiction. His song did the work, and so did they.


Songs do real work in the world, if and when we let them, and this morning spent together, in a workshop facilitated by women who each write in a different language, from very different situated cultural perspectives, reminded me of this beautiful lesson, once more. Art, and songs, don't solve the problems of the world, or the political instabilities, legacies of apartheid, or colonial legacies represented in each of our three nations (U.S., Navajo, South African). But songs can accompany us along the way, and help us get to the other side, psychologically and spiritually whole and intact.


Students then went on to write their own cowrites (collaborative songs, written with another person), based on a freewrite they did about picturing a place they deeply love, written and described through the senses. The songs were in Zulu, in Xhosa, in Ndebele, and in English. They were exquisite, and brave, my only sadness is that we ran out of time to hear all of them (I will save that discussion for a future post).


"Sam Stone"

Sam Stone came home To his wife and family After serving in the conflict overseas And the time that he served Had shattered all his nerves And left a little shrapnel in his knees But the morphine eased the pain And the grass grew round his brain And gave him all the confidence he lacked With a purple heart and a monkey on his back


There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes Jesus Christ died for nothin' I suppose Little pitchers have big ears Don't stop to count the years Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios, mmhmm


Sam Stone's welcome home Didn't last too long He went to work when he'd spent his last dime And Sammy took to stealing When he got that empty feeling For a hundred dollar habit without overtime And the gold rolled through his veins Like a thousand railroad trains And eased his mind in the hours that he chose While the kids ran around wearin' other peoples' clothes


There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes Jesus Christ died for nothin' I suppose Little pitchers have big ears Don't stop to count the years Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios, mmhmm


Sam Stone was alone When he popped his last balloon Climbing walls while sitting in a chair Well, he played his last request While the room smelled just like death With an overdose hovering in the air But life had lost its fun There was nothing to be done But trade his house that he bought on the GI bill For a flag-draped casket on a local hero's hill


There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes Jesus Christ died for nothin' I suppose Little pitchers have big ears Don't stop to count the years Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios, mmhmm





~Thanks to WWOMAD - South Africa for the invitation, VivaNation and Mark Hervé for the great photos and the IG reel, and the band, DDDAT for the invitation to travel to South Africa, together~

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