Some songs have a hell of a grip; they stick with me. I hear them once, and I can’t forget them. The Ballad of Larry by Jonathan Bird is one. Short List, by Christopher Smith, that’s another. I heard those songs, and they struck me dumb.
Then there’s Goodbye, by Steve Earle. I heard Peter Mulvey perform Goodbye at Johnny D’s in Davis Sq about twenty years ago. Johnny D’s is gone now but, that song is still hanging on. (Peter’s doing well too). Goodbye does that miraculous thing where the language and the chords are dead simple, but they haunt you like a hungry cat. It’s also a study in the push and pull of stability and instability, something a songwriter can put to use.
It uses the Axis of Awesome chords in the key of G but flips the Left Neighbor of G, the D chord, around a bit. It’s a D7/F#. Voicing the chord that way creates a lot of instability in the progression, which comes across as sadness and regret.
Now you may tell me there’s no way Steve Earle was thinking about all that stuff writing Goodbye. You’re right. Or I’m pretty sure you’re right because I haven’t had the chance to ask Steve. What I think happened is that he listened to, played, and wrote many songs in his day. Because of his experience, the lyrics more or less arrived in a shape that fit the chord progression.
That explanation could sound like bad news if you haven’t written many songs. There’s good news, though. You don’t have to write songs from scratch. You can go ahead and borrow other songwriters’ progressions and melodies, write your own lyrics to them, and prosper from their experience. You could start with this very song.
*Steve capos the fifth fret and plays G forms, so I explain the song in G.
The Musical Idea:
Here’s a downloadable pdf of the worksheet above: