Swans Commentary » swans.com January 3, 2005  



Let's Hear It for the Lyricists


by Philip Greenspan






(Swans - January 3, 2005)  I was fortunate to grow up during some Golden Ages -- the Golden Age of radio and the Golden Age of talking movies.

Back then radio and talking movies were in their infancy. Most of the people who created the programs and films had a genuine love for their baby. While they were desirous of making money, that was not their primary goal as it has now become. Art overrode commerce. They explored and experimented with all sorts of programming.

Radio became the medium of sound, and the movies had now progressed from the visual to include sound as well. The human voice could become an avenue to success. Those who heard Robert Trout on radio and Ronald Colman in films know what I mean.

But what better sound could be offered than music? Both radio and films used music extensively to fill in dead air time, as backgrounds and in performances. That era, coincidentally, was the heyday of the big name bands. To fill the demands, Tin Pan Alley produced gobs of popular songs from an array of talented composers and lyricists. With the two major media spewing out the current favorites and record companies capitalizing on their popularity, everyone was bound to become a fan.

Over the years, I have favored the music of the thirties, forties, and fifties. My wife and I are friendly with many old jazz musicians whose performances we attend regularly, and we listen to our CDs almost every day. No linguistic description can convey the captivating sounds that emanate from the well-written and performed music. The words and music occupy two dimensions that exist in their own unique world. Since I can't adequately describe the musical sounds, I decided to write about the equally important other half of what made those great tunes of the golden era, the lyrics.

Lyricists never were given the recognition that they deserved, and Frank Loesser was extremely angry and sensitive about that fact. One day while listening to his car radio he exploded when an announcer said, "That was another Carmichael hit." Heck, he knew that songs would lie in a composer's pocket for years until a lyricist could put the right words to them.

Eventually, Loesser got the recognition he craved and deserved, but he had to become a composer as well. He was one of the few rare birds who wrote both words and music. His accomplishments rank him with the best. He wrote the songs for such top shows as "Where's Charley," "Guys and Dolls," "How to Succeed in Business" and "The Most Happy Fella."

There is no doubt that lyricists had a great talent to blend the words into a melody to express appropriate thoughts with the rhythm of syllables and rhyme of words. Two other exceptional composers who did the lyrics as well were Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. Irving Berlin had no equal. When asked where he would place him in American music Harold Arlen replied, "Irving Berlin has no place in American music -- he is American music."

I have been intrigued by one of Berlin's early hits, a song titled "How Deep Is the Ocean?" that he wrote back in 1932. Berlin wrote simple, every day words whose intent was right on the money. We often joke about someone who answers a question with a question. Well, this song goes much further. He asks four basic questions and answers them with six more. The song consists of eleven lines -- one declaratory sentence and ten questions. Just take a look:

How much do I love you?
I'll tell you no lies.
How deep is the ocean?
How high is the sky?
How many times a day do I think of you?
How many roses are sprinkled with dew?
How far would I travel to be where you are?
How far is a journey from here to a star?
And if I ever lost you how much would I cry?
How deep is the ocean?
How high is the sky?

Isn't that fantastic!

Another great who wrote both words and music was Cole Porter. His lyrics were much more sophisticated and clever. One of the things that so many were able to do was create internal rhymes -- rhymes not only on the ends of lines but within a line itself.

Cole wrote a song back in 1929 whose internal rhymes knock me out every time I think of them. Most of the popular songs that were written during that golden era were structured in an AABA pattern. One musical phrase represented by the As that was repeated three times and one B that was known as the release or bridge. The B bridge that Cole wrote for "You Do Something to Me" is:

Let me live 'neath your spell
Do do that voodoo that you do so well.

You'll note that the bold phrase consists of seven words of eight syllables and six of them rhyme. Whew!

A 1941 play titled "Let's Face It" included a number "Let's Not Talk About Love" that's another internal rhyming masterpiece. Danny Kaye, the virtuoso articulator, was the ideal performer for the number. The film version had another great auditory wizard, Betty Hutton, to blast it out. Just take a gander at these internal rhymes:

Astrology, mythology, geology, philology, pathology, psychology, electro-physiology, spermology, phrenology, I owe you an apology

But let's not talk about love.

Timidity, stupidity, solidity, frigidity, avidity, turbidity, Manhattan and viscidity, fatality, morality, legality, finality, neutrality, reality, or Southern hospitality, pomposity, verbosity, you're losing your velocity

But let's not talk about love.

Just imagining Kaye or Hutton singing those words leaves me breathless and exhausted.

All I can think of to end this essay is Porky Pig's classical phrase, "Tha-that's all folks!" (close with a rollicking musical flourish).

· · · · · ·


Internal Resources

Art & Culture on Swans


About the Author

Philip Greenspan on Swans (with bio).



Please, feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, please DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Philip Greenspan 2005. All rights reserved.


Have your say

Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number (the city, state/country where you reside is paramount information). When/if we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.


· · · · · ·


This Edition's Internal Links

Things Evolve, But We Do Not "Change," Sorry... - by Gilles d'Aymery

2005 Predictions - by SWANS

Three Short 2005 Vignettes - by Milo Clark

Twenty News Stories To Appear In 2005 - by Manuel García, Jr.

Livin' The American Dream - by Jan Baughman

Boycotting the Hegemony -- Part One: Halliburton - by Gerard Donnelly Smith

Morality, Reason and Reichs - by Milo Clark

Philosopher, Heal Thyself - Book Review by Charles Marowitz

A Parisian Con Game - Short Story by Joe Davison

Blips #9 - From the Editor's desk

Letters to the Editor

· · · · · ·


[About]-[Past Issues]-[Archives]-[Resources]-[Copyright]



URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/pgreen56.html
Published January 3, 2005