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Friday, January 24, 2014

Country Music and Storytelling: A Fun Advocacy Exercise

Last May, I took two long road trips within a few weeks of each other. I enjoy road trips and always have, whether I travel alone or with family and friends. I get to visit new places, listen to music for hours at a time, and think great thoughts as the miles roll by. These two trips were particularly meaningul to me: the first was to help teach an advanced trial advocacy course with my dear friend Joshua Karton at the Air Force JAG School in Montgomery, Alabama; the second was to attend the annual EATS conference at Stetson. Both of these events helped recharge a badly-depleted set of creative batteries, gave me new ideas for the upcoming academic year, and inspired me to want to be a better advocate and teacher.

To and from each of these destinations (nine hours each way to Montgomery; fifteen each way to Gulfport) I listened to a lot of country music. While it is easy to find country music on the radio in the American South, and difficult, sometimes, to find other musical genres, this was all by choice for me. I created an old-time country music station on Pandora, and that is primarily what I listened to. 

It occurred to me as I was listening that stories are one of the main reasons I enjoy this particular era and genre of music. Who could listen to Johnny Cash sing Folsom Prison Blues and not feel compassion for the imprisoned murderer whose story the song tells? Or not be nearly shattered emotionally by the lines—“And I’d trade all my tomorrows for one single yesterday/ holding Bobby’s body next to mine?”—from Me and Bobby McGee (whether sung by its author, country musician Kris Kristofferson, or by folk singer Janis Joplin, it’s an amazing song).

And on the way back from EATS, something clicked in my mind: a trial advocate could learn a lot about efficient storytelling from a country music song. Somewhere on Interstate 24 between Chattanooga and Nashville, I formulated a storytelling exercise using country music. I tried it in my summer trial advocacy course and again in my trial team "boot camp" a few weeks later. It was everything I hoped for, and more. It unleashed creative energy and enthusiasm in my students like few other exercises I've tried. There was far more in those three-to-four minute songs than they realized before they started deconstructing them in order to bring them to life in another genre.

Here's the exercise as I gave it to them:

Music and Storytelling Exercise


Good storytelling is at the heart of every trial. Every story has a beginning, middle and end. Good stories tap into the universal human experience in a way that unites the storyteller and the audience. In a trial, the advocates tell stories on behalf of their clients. The stories must not only be true and authentic, but also persuasive: based on the stories presented in the courtroom, the jury-audience must make important decisions involving the life, liberty, property and happiness of the characters in the story. This places a tremendous amount of responsibility on the advocate-storyteller.

Some advocates are naturally gifted storytellers. Others must work hard to develop their storytelling abilities. Most of us have to work hard to develop as storytellers.

A story is far more than a simple recitation of what happened. A good storyteller takes the audience directly into the scene and makes them care about the people, the situation and the outcome. A good story changes the lives of the audience members. Before it can change their lives, it must first change the life of the storyteller. This requires empathy, compassion and dedication to the truth.

There are various modes of storytelling: verbal stories, written literature, music, movies and television shows, the theater. As human beings, we love stories. We occupy our free time with stories, whether we are creating them, sharing them, or consuming them.


In preparation for this assignment, read and/or watch the following materials about storytelling. Read them all, and follow any links the materials suggest going to. As you read and watch these materials, keep track of what makes for a good story. Keep a pen and paper handy and take notes about why stories are important, how they affect the human mind, and what their important elements are. We’ll discuss some of your observations in class on Wednesday.

As the culmination of your preparation, I particularly want you to watch the video in the highlighted link.

http://www.triallawyerscollege.com/publications/1798.y.pdf (please start with this one)




http://advocacyteaching.blogspot.com/2013/01/storytelling-again-great-storytelling.html (please end with this one)

Tactics, Techniques and Procedures

As you read the materials and watch the videos, you’ll find a number of important storytelling elements:

1. Authenticity

2. Color through detail

3. Organization. Beginning/middle/end

4. Use of present tense to bring the audience into the moment


Your assignment is to listen to a song that tells a story and then convert the story of that song to a verbal presentation. Your story must go beyond simply telling your audience what happened: you must capture the mood of the story. You must imagine the scene or scenes depicted by the song and share that as a story. Moreover, the assignment is to tell someone else’s story, not your story. For instance, don’t pick the song you listened to right after your first significant relationship came to its bitter and untimely end and tell about your relationship.

This is not to be a legal story. I do not want a cause of action, lawsuit, crime or defense overlaid artificially on top of the story. I just want you to tell the story from the song. It may take five minutes, or it may take ten or fifteen, but your story must be true to the universal truths and the theme, mood and scene evoked by the song.

You can pick any song you like, from any genre or era, provided it tells a story. If you need assistance finding a song, here are a few from some different genres and eras. You can look up the lyrics on the internet and listen to the songs with these links. Please don’t watch music videos of the songs, however; they are someone else’s interpretation of the story told by the song, and I don’t want you to be influenced by a video version of the song.

El Paso (Marty Robbins) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIHRgisdbeY

Creeping Death (Metallica) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXWq3f01e2U

The River (Bruce Springsteen) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nAB4vOkL6cE

She’s Got You (Patsy Cline) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWCUh6tf7PA

Coat of Many Colors (Dolly Parton) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7I_9MMcWvk

Smooth Criminal (Michael Jackson) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZLS8E3kn3w

White Trash Beautiful (Everlast) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nG-6wK_j6E

Papa Don’t Preach (Madonna) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LL0tXgaA2xQ

Dance with the Devil (Immortal Technique) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_R80-1Ej83o

In Class

In class, you will take turns telling your stories. You are not allowed to use notes. We will record these stories for later use. Do not announce the song from which your story was derived until I ask you to do so.


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  2. When I’m looking for the latest country music, I always end up in one spot – 103.1 WIRK. I was even lucky enough to catch up with Keith Van Allen in the streets and got free ‘Rib Round Up’ tickets. Just one of the many events that keep me tuned into www.wirk.com