Posted On March 3, 2017 by Print This Post

Using Song Lyrics to Show Character and Relationships in your Romance Novel by Bliss Bennet

Please welcome author BLISS BENNET in her debut visit to Romance University!

During the Regency era (1795 to 1837), the period in which I set my historical romance novels, there were no televisions, no radios, no MP3 players, and certainly no smartphones. How did people entertain themselves in the age before technology?

One of the most popular ways was by singing, of course. Or by listening to others sing. Live and in person, rather than through recordings, as we most often do today. Which is why I like to include snippets of song lyrics in all my historical romances, and why you might want to do so, too. Including the words from songs can help you give readers a flavor of the manners and mores of the time setting of your historical romance. But song lyrics can also do something even more important: they can help you show rather than tell readers about your characters’ personalities and relationships.

 

For instance, in my latest book, A Lady without a Lord, my heroine, Harriot (Harry) Atherton, listens to the sheep shearers on the estate where her father is the steward while they sing this song to the shepherd’s wife at the end of the workday:

 

Our sheep-shear is over and supper is past,

Here’s a health to our Mistress all in a full glass.

For she is a good woman and provides us good cheer

Here’s a health to our Mistress, so drink up your beer.

 

[Listen to “Sheepshearing” as recorded by The Watersons here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILp5hGsFlhM]

 

 

Listening to the shearers sing their praise to Mrs. Dawber, Harry thinks, “How satisfied she must feel, to be recognized for her hard work and be valued for it.” Harry is a character who feels happiest when she is helping others, something I convey not by telling my readers so, but instead by showing her reaction to the shearer’s song.

 

Song lyrics can convey character, but they can also signal the state of the relationship between your story’s characters. For example, a few chapters into my novel, my hero, Theo Pennington, Viscount Saybrook, overhears Harry singing a familiar folk “Lavender’s Blue”:

 

Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly,

Lavender’s green

When you are King, dilly dilly

I shall be Queen

 

[You can hear “Lavender’s Blue,” sung by Laura Wright, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BxkipcAcLXs&list=PLFC287BDE4D1EB15B ]

 

Harry has retreated to the Saybrook home farm hayloft after she’s had an argument with her father, and sings this song to the cat and kittens that are nesting there, to comfort both them and herself. So the song gives us a hint of her state of mind. But when he overhears this song, my story’s hero, Theo, is reminded of his own childhood, when he and Harry grew up on the estate together. By showing Harry singing this song, and by having Theo later join in and sing with her, I signal to the reader that a closer connection is beginning to be forged between two people who started off the story as opponents.

 

“Lavender’s Blue” is an old English folk song which dates back to the 17th century. In the early 1800s it was known as a lullaby or nursery rhyme for children, but it originated as a fairly bawdy song for grownups. [You can hear the bawdy version of “Lavender’s Blue,” sung by the City Waites here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=51Z6qOaYWwY]

 

Theo might not have been aware of the ribald roots of “Lavender Blue,” but he likely would have enjoyed that version of the song just as much as he does the children’s one. For singing bawdy songs is a favorite pastime of his. At several points in the story, Theo breaks into song himself, singing lyrics that indicate his rakish, pleasure-seeking personality.

For example, early in the novel, Harriot comes across Theo digging up roses bushes alongside a bevy of under gardeners on his estate, joining them in singing “Riding Down to Portsmouth,” the tale of a chance liaison between a sailor “at the height of his glory” and a “fair pretty maid” who is a bit less “fair” than he originally thought:

 

And when that he awoke all in the morn, and found his love was missing,

These words unto himself he then did say, “I have paid for my kissing.

She has robbed me of my gold watch and purse;

She has given to me something ten times worse.

Don’t you think that I’ve a reason for to curse,

A-riding down to Portsmouth?”

 

[Riding Down to Portsmouth, sung by John Roberts and Tony Barrand:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpgR4OWRuyk]

 

Theo has the reputation of a rake and a ne’er-do-well, which this song conveys quite well. And Harriot is taken aback by the lewd lyrics. But at the same time she can’t help but admire Theo’s zest for life as he sings them, a sign of just what it is about Theo that will lead Harry to fall, and fall hard, for him.

 

Song also leads to a conflict between Theo and Harry late in the novel, after Theo has gone a long way towards taking responsibility for the estate he once ignored. But Harry, overhearing him singing this drinking song amidst a crowd of villagers at the local village fair, assumes he’s gone back to his dissolute ways:

 

Bacchus must his power resign,

I am the only god of wine.

It is not fit the wretch should be

In competition with me,

Who can drink ten times more than he.

 

Make a new world, ye powers divine,

Stock it with nothing else but wine

 

(I haven’t been able to find a recorded version of this song, alas!)

I enjoy scouring web sites and period songbooks to find the perfect songs to fit my characters and their relationships. Since my story is set in Lincolnshire, I found the web site “Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music”  (https://mainlynorfolk.info/folk/) a helpful source. Another rich source, this one in book form, is the 2011 four-volume Pickering and Chatto reprint collection, Bawdy Songbooks of the Romantic Period. Writers setting their historicals in other periods will likely develop their own list of favorite song sources.

 

But using song lyrics in your romance isn’t something only historical writers can do; many contemporary romances include characters’ favorite singers or bands, or their favorite (or hated) songs, to convey their characters’ personality, likes and dislikes, and suitability for one another. My favorite is the YA romance Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan; even though they disagree about the merits of the Beatles, Norah and Nick are in all other ways each other’s “musical soulmates.”

 

Of course, unlike songs popular during the Regency period, contemporary songs are subject to copyright restrictions. How do you go about finding out if you need permission in order to include lines from a song? And if you will have to pay a fee for that permission?

 

If you want to use only a song title, you don’t need to get permission at all; under U.S. law, titles of songs cannot be copyrighted. But if you want to use lyrics, you’ll have to do a little research.

 

First, find out the publication date of your song. Any song published before January 1, 1923 is no longer subject to copyright protection, and you may use it without paying a fee.

 

If your song was published in 1978 or later, you can go to the web site www.copyright.gov, which lists all American copyright records after 1978. Search for the song you want to use and find out who owns its copyright.

 

It’s a little more difficult for songs published between 1923 and 1978. You can contact the U.S. Copyright office directly, and pay to have the records checked for you. Or you can try searching on one of several online databases of organizations that handle the licensing of performance art, such as The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP, https://www.ascap.com/); Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI, https://www.bmi.com/), or The Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC, https://www.sesac.com/ ). Or you can try the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC, http://www.copyright.com/). If your song is listed in one of these databases, the database should provide information on who holds its copyright, and how to contact that person or group.

 

After you’ve found the copyright owner, the next step is to send a permissions request. Many publishers allow you to do this online, but others will require a snail mail letter. Before granting permission, and assessing a fee, publishers will likely want to know the following:

 

  • The name of your book
  • The book’s publisher
  • The book’s date of publication
  • The exact lyrics you wish to reproduce
  • The distribution territory of your book
  • The price of your book
  • The number of copies you or your publisher plan to print

 

It can take anywhere from two weeks to two months to hear back from a publisher, so make sure you request your permissions long before your publication date. And you might want to have a backup song ready, just in case the fee for the song you’re requesting is too high for your budget, or your permission request is denied.

 

Or you could always just fall back on a song in the public domain…

 

***

Have you used song titles or lyrics in your writing?

***

Bio:

Bliss Bennet writes smart, edgy novels for readers who love history as much as they love romance. Despite being born and bred in New England, Bliss finds herself fascinated by the history of that country across the pond, particularly the politically-volatile period known as the English Regency. Though she’s visited Britain several times, Bliss continues to make her home in New England, along with her husband, daughter, and two monstrously fluffy black cats.

 

Bliss’s mild-mannered alter ego, Jackie Horne, writes about the intersection of gender and genre at the Romance Novels for Feminists blog.

 

Author web site: www.blissbennet.com

Author Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/blissbennetauthor

Author twitter: @BlissBennet

 

 

A Lady without a Lord

A viscount convinced he’s a failure

For years, Theophilius Pennington has tried to forget his myriad shortcomings by indulging in wine, women, and witty bonhomie. But now that he’s inherited the title of Viscount Saybrook, it’s time to stop ignoring his responsibilities. Finding the perfect husband for his headstrong younger sister seems a good first step. Until, that is, his sister’s dowry goes missing . . .

A lady determined she’ll succeed

Harriot Atherton has a secret: it is she, not her steward father, who maintains the Saybrook account books. But Harry’s precarious balancing act begins to totter when the irresponsible new viscount unexpectedly returns to Lincolnshire, the painfully awkward boy of her childhood now a charming yet vulnerable man. Unfortunately, Theo is also claiming financial malfeasance. Can her father’s wandering wits be responsible for the lost funds? Or is she?

As unlikely attraction flairs between dutiful Harry and playful Theo, each learns there is far more to the other than devoted daughter and happy-go-lucky lord. But if Harry succeeds at protecting her father and discovering the missing money, will she be in danger of failing at something equally important—finding love?

Harriot Atherton is trying to keep a secret: it is she, not her steward father, who maintains the Saybrook account books. But Harry’s precarious balancing act begins to totter when the irresponsible new viscount unexpectedly returns to Lincolnshire, the painfully awkward boy of her childhood now a charming yet vulnerable man. Unfortunately, Theo is also claiming financial malfeasance. Can her father’s wandering wits be responsible for the lost funds? Or is she?

As unlikely attraction flairs between dutiful Harry and playful Theo, each learns there is far more to the other than devoted daughter and happy-go-lucky lord. But if Harry succeeds at protecting her father, discovering the missing money, and keeping all her secrets, will she be in danger of failing at something equally important—finding love?

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7 Responses to “Using Song Lyrics to Show Character and Relationships in your Romance Novel by Bliss Bennet”

  1. I don’t use lyrics in my work because I don’t want to deal with all the problems you listed. I do, however, mention song titles. If the reader is interested and doesn’t know the work, they’ll have to look for the tracks online on their own. (But I tend to reference well-known songs, so I doubt it’s an issue.)

    Another option is to create completely a fictional band, song title, and lyrics, which is something I’m considering for a future work.

    How fortuitous for you that your work is set in an era where many of the lyrics are no longer copyrighted. Let’s not forget exceptions to the rule, though. We’ve all heard that “Happy Birthday” is still protected. There are probably others, too.

    Great post. The links you included are so helpful.

    Posted by Staci Troilo | March 3, 2017, 8:00 am
  2. Thanks for a fascinating post, Bliss. My mom used to sing “Lavender’s Blue” to us as a lullaby – I bet she had no idea it started as a bawdy song!

    I used song lyrics in my first story, before it occurred to me that I’d need to worry about copyrights.

    In fact, copyright issues are not straightforward and can be VERY confusing. Here are a couple examples:

    http://fairuse.stanford.edu/2003/09/09/copyright_protection_for_short/

    https://janefriedman.com/the-fair-use-doctrine/

    Thanks so much for joining us today!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | March 3, 2017, 9:35 am
  3. From all I’ve read about using modern lyrics in fiction, my advice is don’t.

    The song industry has an inflated sense of value about even the tiniest snippet of a lyric. Some of the authors who have talked about this say that they are expected to pay more for a line of a song than what they’ll make in profit, long term, for the life of the book.

    If the songwriter organizations somehow find that you have quoted a lyric, fair use won’t save you from a lawsuit that they have the money to win, and even a major publisher does not.

    It isn’t worth the hassle and the risk.

    Posted by Marilynn Byerly | March 3, 2017, 12:09 pm
  4. Good point, Marilynn. I’d say it’s worth thinking long and hard before including modern lyrics because songwriter unions and organizations do seem pretty litigious.

    This is especially important if you’re self-published. I think a big publishing house would advise authors to change or cut the lyrics just to avoid the possibility of a lawsuit.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | March 3, 2017, 2:06 pm
  5. On the other hand, vintage songs like the ones Bliss uses are another story, especially if you double-check that they aren’t currently covered by copyright protection.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | March 3, 2017, 2:08 pm
  6. Some good information

    Posted by Barbara | March 3, 2017, 10:30 pm
  7. Thanks, all, for the comments, and the cautions about using contemporary song lyrics. You definitely need to investigate copyright issues. Some copyright holders will be glad to grant permission for a nominal fee, while others (owners of hugely popular songs, especially) will want exorbitant amounts for even the use of a snippet.

    FYI, the Happy Birthday copyright claim has recently been overturned, and the song declared in the public domain:
    http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-34332853

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happy_Birthday_to_You

    Posted by Bliss Bennet | March 6, 2017, 9:06 am

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