Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published December 2nd 2021
Singing about writing and getting letters
While looking for songs on recent columns about writing and words, I found quite a number of songs about the writing of letters. Not the alphabet, but letters to someone, missives, epistles, notes, etc. With the advent of electronic communication, letter-writing is becoming a lost art, and I think that is a real shame. There is something special about getting a letter – hand-written or typed – from a loved one that feels somehow a little more personal.
And so, to celebrate this piece of the "olden days", songs about letters.
Unfortunately, nowadays the only letters many of us get are to do with companies - bills, meeting reminders, advertising, whatever. Personal communication happens online. But there is something about taking an old letter and opening it and reading it years later, coming from a loved one, something they have taken the time to write and send. Lovers used to keep bundles of letters written to one another; do today's lovers keep copies of emails? Text messages? There is a sense of romance that is being lost with the disappearance of the letter.
So, here are songs about letters. Some are good news, some are bad news, but they are all letters. Normal rules apply – one song per artist, one version of each song, I need to like the song, and it is a song in my music collection. Let's look at letters!
'I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter' by Fats Waller (1935)
Let's start with a jazz standard from the between-war years, about a guy writing a letter so he can pretend it's from the woman who has left him. There have been many versions of this over the years, but Waller's is the original (I think?) and still the best, with that piano introduction and his gravelly voice.
'Please Mr. Postman' by The Marvelettes (1961)
Maybe better known through the cover versions by The Beatles or The Carpenters, this was the Marvelettes' debut single and their version has something of innocence about it which makes its simplistic lyrics feel like they mean something.
'Return To Sender' by Elvis Presley (1962)
From the hardly memorable film Girls! Girls! Girls!, this is Elvis when he was really into his pleasant pop phase, unobtrusive, not controversial. Of the songs from this part of his career, this is definitely one of the better ones, about a letter that keeps on coming back because his partner no longer wants to communicate with him. Today, we'd call it "ghosting". There is nothing new under the sun.
'The Letter' by The Box Tops (1967)
I have so many versions of this song, from Joe Cocker's blues to Dark Tan's disco, but nothing comes close to the original, with its growled lyrics. The man singing has received the titular letter and is willing to do anything to get back home to her. Such a good song.
'Take A Letter Maria' by R.B. Greaves (1969)
This song is, well, interesting. The singer is getting his secretary to write a break-up letter to his wife after he saw her with another man. And then he professes his love for said secretary. Still, I do like the song, and the music is easy to listen to.
'Rock N'Roll Love Letter' by The Bay City Rollers (1976)
Embarrassingly, I own Dedication, the album this track comes from. As far as mid-70s pop goes, it's not too bad. Not disco, just pop verging on the rock side (as rock as some acts considered pure rock today, if I'm being honest), this song about a music-based letter is actually quite good.
'Letter From Zimbabwe' by Australian Crawl (1982)
Australian pub rock at its finest… even if James Reyne's voice is notoriously hard to decipher. The music is really good, as most Aussie Crawl songs are, but I'm not really sure what the lyrics mean. I think the letter from his "mate" is about someone going to find his fortune in or fight as a mercenary in Africa. Still, cool song.
'Letter From America' by The Proclaimers (1987)
It became something that some people from Scotland did – they left their home and travelled to find their fortunes in America. And often they would write home to tell how they were going, occasionally exaggerating events. This is a song about that, something so pervasive in the Scottish culture that everyone in that country understood what it meant immediately. And it is a fine song, to boot. They did release 2 versions – an acoustic, which was the original, and a full band one, which was released later the same year. I prefer the band version.
'Love Letters' by Alison Moyet (1987)
A song from a 1945 movie, later covered by Elvis Presley, but I really prefer Alison Moyet's version. She was one of the best singers of the 80s, and I know she had some time off, and that before the pandemic she was appearing at European festivals, so she is still there doing her wonderful thing. And that voice! This might not be her best song, but it is a good one and my favourite version of this track.
'Picture Postcards From L.A.' by Joshua Kadison (1993)
Do people still send postcards? I don't think I've received one from someone on holiday this century. Shame. It was always something so good to get. While in this song the postcards are part of an unfulfilled dream, they represent the chance to get away, to escape. Looking at the lyrics, this is a sad song, and so well-written. Great track.
'Please Read The Letter' by Robert Plant & Alison Krauss (2007)
The title track of a great Springsteen album, this song about using a letter to be honest is something that was often utilised in the past. It is easier to give your truths when not looking someone in the eyes. And this song, with its up-tempo beat and strong lyrics, is a definite highlight of what is a great album.
A dozen songs covering the 1930s to 2020s. These columns have become wider and wider in their scope… and maybe in this case it means that letter-writing is something so many people have always looked on with fondness.
Oh, I was close to including 'Stan' by Eminem feat. Dido, but the song is not about a letter so much as being a series of letters that are read out by the writer. It was a tough call, but I went with not including it. Sorry.
So, take the time to write a letter, a real letter, to someone you haven't spoken to in a while, spend the dollar-fifty (or however much it is nowadays) to mail it off, and make someone's day.