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Listening for form in popular music
Listening for form in popular music

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5 Song structure and meaning

Table 4 presents a complete picture of ‘Midnight Special’, showing how the verses and choruses fit together. It also introduces a few new terms for the parts of the song that are distinct from the verses and choruses: the introduction, conclusion and interludes. These will be discussed these later in the course.

Table 4 Complete form of ‘Midnight Special’
Track timing Section
00:00 Instrumental introduction
00:11

Chorus 1

00:21 Verse 1 (‘Yonder come Miss Rosie ...’)
00:40 Chorus 2
00:50

Instrumental interlude

01:01 Verse 2 (‘When you get up in the morning ...’)
01:20 Chorus 3
01:29

Instrumental interlude

01:41 Verse 3 (‘If you ever go to Houston ...’)
01:59 Chorus 4
02:09

Instrumental interlude

02:20 Verse 4 (‘When you get up in the morning ...’)
02:39 Chorus 5
02:49 Instrumental interlude
03:00

Chorus 6

03:10 Verse 5 (‘I was standing at the station ...’)
03:29 Chorus 7
03:39 Instrumental interlude
03:49

Chorus 8

04:00 Instrumental conclusion

The big picture in Table 4 invites reflection on how the form of the song helps to convey its meaning. Given what is known about the train called the Midnight Special, the light mentioned in the chorus might be understood as a metaphor for hope for deliverance, a glimmer appearing at the moment when the prison is at its darkest. This hope is juxtaposed with the images of desperation in the verses: Miss Rosie hoping for the release of her man; prisoners facing the same breakfast each morning (or the same empty plates, depending on the verse); fear of imprisonment for petty crime; a lover left behind at the station.

The meaning of the song then emerges in the course of the alternation between verses and chorus: the verses present glimpses of unhappy lives, while the chorus dreams of deliverance. The song has a kind of accommodating structure, allowing the different stories in the verses to be connected by means of the same general theme. Just such accommodation is evident when comparing early twentieth-century recordings of the song by other singers. The chorus remains much the same from version to version, but the verses can vary considerably. The structure of the song allows singers to add verses of their own, perhaps corresponding to their own experiences of desperate situations, and to connect these to the overarching theme of hope for release.