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Words, Words, Words…and Music

ART TIMES January / February 2009

I always like to play some quiet music while dining in the evening to help the mood and digestion. This very evening, I was playing a CD set with 40 selections of love songs from those old Andre Kostelanetz LPs; and by the time we were halfway through “I don’t know why I love you like I do,” that old nagging question arose in my mind, What makes songs like this last so long?

Of course, there were no vocals in these musical settings, but the words to many of them have become so inextricably bound to the melodies that it is impossible to hear the latter without the lyrics (or as much of them as one recalls) flowing right along. It is like trying to hear the last section of the overture to “William Tell” without hearing “Hi-yo, Silver, away!” far in the back of whatever part of the brain stores these things.

I might have mentioned in an earlier article that a childhood friend of mine had a recording of classical music with childish lyrics written for the selections. And to this day, I cannot hear Offenbach’s “Barcarole” without also hearing “When I float my little toy boat.” And this was back in 1945!

Yes, there are surely lyrics that stick in one’s mind as well as the melody to which they are set. Take “Tea for two.” Those three words make little effect alone; but when combined with the rest of the line—“Tea for two and two for tea”—the seven words form a strong DNA-memory link in the synapses of the brain. The line is the next best thing to a palindrome. Another song title that comes close is “When I’m not near the girl I love, I love the girl I’m near” (from “Finian’s Rainbow”). These see-saw sentences are not super-clever but they do stick in the memory. In fact, they do not necessarily have to appear at the start of the song at all. It is enough that they come at the end of a refrain, as does the Finian song.

In the past, I have written essays about the clever lyrics of such artists as Cole Porter, Larry Hart, Noel Coward, and Ira Gershwin. Examples of the clever lyric are all too easy to find, but they do not make the entire number into a memory-lingerer. “I’m bidin’ my time because that’s the kind of guy I’m” (from “Girl Crazy”) certainly calls attention to itself, but again the song is seldom if ever sung out of the context of the show.

In some cases, parallelism has no part of making a fragment of lyric memorable. What about “All alone, by the telephone” (Irving Berlin)? Why the devil does that stick around in the memory? It is followed by “Waiting for a ring, a ting-a-ling,” which follows the same pattern: a phrase, a pause, a rhyming phrase. Is it that little pause that does it? Or the anything but clever rhymes of “alone/telephone” and “ring/ting-a-ling”? Who can account for these things?

Another attention-getter title uses a rhyme, “Rock around the clock” and the 1911 Harry Lauder standard “Roamin’ in the gloamin’” being good examples.

Nothing made Ira Gershwin more angry than some vocalist singing “It’s wonderful” instead of the “’Swonderful” that is in the printed lyrics. After all, Ira knew what he was doing in using an unusual form of a phrase, while the singer obviously did not know or did not care.

This reminds one, of course, of the nonsense songs like “Mairzy Doats” (which is explained later as “mares eat oats”) and “Hut sut song” (which starts with a lot of Swedish expressions, later explained). The former is always fun to sing to a person not in on the joke, while I have yet to meet a person who understands the latter. With “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” we have simply a catchy nonsense line that has its own appeal without any translation needed. An older example of the nonsense phrase is the 1891 British “Ta-ra-ra-boom-der-e,” a song of which everyone knows the title and not a single word of what comes after it!                                                                    

And what about the use of antithesis? “I found a million dollar baby in a Five and Ten Cent Store” gives a neat contrast between lots of money and a few coins and is therefore memorable. “Red roses for a blue lady” is just as good. And “When the idle rich become the idle poor” is an example of a song (again from “Finian’s Rainbow”) that is never sung outside of the context of the show.

Now there are plenty of songs that have even more clever titles or tag lines but never lasted any appreciable time. But those that have just might owe their longevity to the very elements I have touched on in this essay.

If any Reader can think of more examples for each category—or indeed more categories with examples—I would be most grateful. My e-mail is fbehrens@ne.rr.com, and I thank you in advance.

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