07 September 2013

SleuthSingers? Who Knew?

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Four of the regular bloggers on SleuthSayers are songwriters: Rob Lopresti, Fran Rizer, Jan Grape, and me. (Am I missing anyone?) What are the odds? SleuthSayers was created a couple of years ago as the successor to the highly successful mystery short story blog Criminal Brief. Most of us write mystery short stories, though some of us, including me, also write novels. Our tag line is “Crime writers and crime fighters.” Some of us (not me) share law enforcement and military professional interests and have been known to blog about weapons, explosives, and spycraft. Not surprising. But what about all those songwriters? Is it a coincidence? Or does it make perfect sense?

Fran lives in Nashville and has sold songs to the commercial country market, if I’m not mistaken. Rob has published a mystery about the folk music scene in Greenwich Village in 1963 that took me on a delightful stroll down Memory Lane. Jan has set a series in Austin, TX, another country music town. And I have an album out, Outrageous Older Woman, in a category best described as urban folk; it’s the best of fifty years of singing and writing songs.

I can’t speak for my blog brothers and sisters (though I hope they’ll comment), but when I write a song, I’m telling a story. It horrifies me when someone says, “Oh, I never listen to the lyrics.” To me, much as I love music, the lyrics are the point—one reason I’m so fond of country music, even the New Country, often disparaged by purists. Although I’m a child of the Fifties and Sixties, most rock, with its repetitious or worse, unintelligible lyrics, leaves me cold. I want to engage with a song in the same way I engage with a work of fiction: to delight in the language, fall in love with the characters, and experience a burning desire to know what happens next.

We mystery writers pride ourselves on the fact that in our stories, something happens: crime, investigation, solution in the traditional mystery; unexpected encounter or stumble into danger, impending catastrophe, ticking clock in the classic thriller. While many commercial songs have no more theme than what I’ve heard the great Jimmie Dale Gilmore call “boy girl boy girl,” plenty of them have a narrative structure that resembles that of a short story. They can deal with serious themes, such as ambition, loss, and alcoholism. And there are plenty of songs about murder. My favorite is still “Long Black Veil” (written in the 1950s and covered many times), but I’ve been singing the traditional Appalachian ballads, “Pretty Polly, “Banks of the Ohio,” et al. my whole life. Rob made me chuckle when one of his characters referred to the folk-revival crossover hit “Tom Dooley” (in which the eponymous protagonist is hanged for murder) as “more cheerful” than some of the other high lonesome tunes.

You can listen to several of my songs below. Each one tells a story.
"Outrageous Older Woman" - A woman reflects on a lifetime rich in experience.
"Online Loving" - A woman gets impatient with virtual romance.
"All She Ever Wanted" - A young woman pursues her creative dream.
"The Rain Came Down" - A man and a woman reach a turning point in their separate lives.
"The Mayor of Central Park" - The true life story of a legendary New York character.
"Prayer (Next Year in Jerusalem" - A vision of a better world.


  1. Liz, I LOVE the title of this post, but your "if I'm not mistaken" in reference to me is well grounded. I've never lived in Nashville. Born, raised, and aging here in South Carolina. I do have lots of friends in Nashville and have been on many "pitch trips" there. In the country field, I did place some songs and had a few cuts, but nothing hit big. I've had more success in gospel and bluegrass. As Callie would say, "Buh-leeve me," it's a great thrill to be riding down the road and hear songs I wrote on WNCW.

    My second Callie book, HEY DIDDLE, DIDDLE, THE CORPSE & THE FIDDLE
    (Berkley Prime Crime), takes place at a bluegrass festival on Surcie Island off the coast of SC. A dwarf fiddle player's body tumbles out of a doghouse bass case on stage. The weapons for the two murders in this book are a tuning fork and a bass fiddle string. The Gullah family that have become regulars and Pulley Bone Jones, the water witch, are introduced in CORPSE & THE FIDDLE.

    Good luck with the CD.

  2. Well, now I've got to read the book, Fran. :)

  3. That is amazing that 1/7 of us are songwriters. I enjoyed the online romance song. Hey all you SleuthSingers, do you play instruments as well? I play autoharp.

    If anyone wants to hear some of my songs go to http://tinyurl.com/robtplb or tinyurl/robwomn

  4. Shouldn't do math on Saturday morning. TWO sevenths of us.

  5. I'm in awe of the 2/7 of us (you) who write songs. I play the guitar and the piano, a lot, but you probably do NOT want to hear my music. (I suspect that the folks who take walks in our neighborhood detour onto a side street when our windows are open.)

    Liz, I loved your songs--every one of them. You are a lady of many talents.

  6. Thanks so much, John. Rob, I play guitar but the brilliant guitar work you can hear on my album is four exponentially better guitarists. Great backup is such a treat!!

  7. I'm just now tuning in… Is that a steel guitar on track 2?


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