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Monday, December 27, 2010

Thinking About Songs


Song-writing is often referred to as a craft, not an art. That makes sense to me. There are rules that you can apply to constructing a song, and a good song is usually a brief collection of words, carefully chosen. Songs have verses and choruses. They often have two contrasting sections, the theme and the bridge. They have "hooks" that repeat and grab the listener's attention. All these components can be studied and, with effort, mastered. I have also heard that there are many more sad songs than happy songs - sadness generally contains more drama and conflict than happiness, and thus provides greater opportunities to grab and hold the listener's interest.

If you sit down and read song lyrics, they often are not terribly impressive. The rhymes can be obvious and a bit banal, the thematic material can be weak. Most song lyrics don't qualify as great poetry. But if those lyrics are combined with a well written melody and a talented singer, a magical transformation can occur.

Since this is the holiday season, we have been hearing for the past several weeks, over and over, some incredibly banal lyrics - Christmas songs! OK, some songs get a pass due to their long history and connection to the Christmas story ("Oh Come All Ye Faithful," "We Three Kings," et al) but others are incredibly bad ("Jingle Bells," "Frosty the Snowman," and the horrific "Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer!"). But even in this wasteland of terrible lyrics and simplistic tunes, there are some gems. In 1944, Judy Garland sang "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in the film version of "Meet me in St. Louis." Here is a video of that performance. This is a GREAT song - this version contains the original melancholy line "until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." "Merry Little Christmas" struck a chord with the Greatest Generation - they were fighting in WWII when this version of the song came out; it articulated the longing for home and hope for a more peaceful future.

Hugh Martin wrote the lyrics for "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." His original version was even more downbeat than the version that Judy Garland recorded. Here is the alleged original draft:

Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas, it may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas, pop that champagne cork
Next year we will all be living in New York
No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us will be near to us no more
But at lease we all will be together, if the Fates allow
Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow
And have yourself a Merry Little Christmas now

So this song contains all the components of greatness - intense lyrics, relevent to the time and the audience, yet universally appealing to anyone who has been separated from looved ones during the holiday season. Great craft is at work here - notice the internal rhymes in the two-line bridge ("olden days...golden days," "dear to us...near to us"). And the melody is both memorable and beautiful - it contains slow arpeggios and artful modulations that take it outside the "Jingle Bell" zone of stupidity.

Hugh Martin is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. It is easy to understand why.

1 comment:

David B. said...

Mr. G.

Agree with you. Another song which when taken in the context of the time written which is special is "I'll Be Home for Christmas". Written by Ram, Gannon & Kent. It was written in a time when troops were overseas and longing to be home. If you listen to the lyrics in that context it is very poignant.