Category Archives: Song lyrics

Songs as poems: Lennon-McCartney, ‘Eleanor Rigby’

Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been,
Lives in a dream.
Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door,
Who is it for?

All the lonely people,
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people,
Where do they all belong?

Father McKenzie writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear,
No one comes near.
Look at him working, darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there,
What does he care?

All the lonely people, (etc)

Ah, look at all the lonely people!
Ah, look at all the lonely people!

Eleanor Rigby, died in the church and was buried along with her name,
Nobody came.
Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave,
No one was saved.

All the lonely people, (etc)

Written and released in 1966 on the Revolver lp and also as a double-A-side single with Yellow Submarine, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ was part of the Beatles’ dramatic move away from simple pop love songs into a vastly larger realm of portraits and social concerns and musical experimentation. Here, in a few lines, we have the protagonist’s lonely day-to-day life and unattended funeral, weaving back and forth with the empty church and its equally lonely priest. If Paul Simon’s ‘I Know What I Know’ is like a condensed Alice Munro short story, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ could be a full-length novel by Knut Hamsun or Kazuo Ishiguro… reduced to three 4-line verses and a refrain or two. The ideas are expressed as simple visual events, without speech. The words are straightforward, the rhymes uncomplicated–and some are slant rhymes, almost unnoticeable in song: been/dream, from/belong, grave/saved. But the impact is very powerful.

So who is the poet behind the song? Its article in Wikiwand states:

McCartney wrote the first verse by himself, and the Beatles finished the song in the music room of John Lennon’s home at Kenwood. John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Lennon’s childhood friend Pete Shotton all listened to McCartney play his song through and contributed ideas. Harrison came up with the “Ah, look at all the lonely people” hook. Starr contributed the line “writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear” and suggested making “Father McCartney” darn his socks, which McCartney liked. It was then that Shotton suggested that McCartney change the name of the priest, in case listeners mistook the fictional character in the song for McCartney’s own father.

McCartney could not decide how to end the song, and Shotton finally suggested that the two lonely people come together too late as Father McKenzie conducts Eleanor Rigby’s funeral. At the time, Lennon rejected the idea out of hand, but McCartney said nothing and used the idea to finish off the song, later acknowledging Shotton’s help.

Lennon was quoted in 1971 as having said that he “wrote a good half of the lyrics or more” and in 1980 claimed that he wrote all but the first verse, but Shotton remembered Lennon’s contribution as being “absolutely nil”. McCartney said that “John helped me on a few words but I’d put it down 80–20 to me, something like that.” Historiographer Erin Torkelson Weber has studied all available historical treatments of the issue and has concluded that McCartney was the principal author of the song, while speculating that Lennon’s assertions to the contrary were the result of lingering unresolved anger and the influence of manager Allen Klein.

John Lennon may have the stronger reputation as a poet, but this gem appears to be Macca’s. (Sorry; Sir Paul’s.)

Wikiwand credit: CC BY-SA 4.0 license

Songs as poems: Paul Simon, ‘I Know What I Know’

She looked me over and I guess she thought I was all right–
All right in a sort of a limited way for an off-night–
She said, “Don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party?”
I said, “Who am I to blow against the wind?”

I know what I know
I’ll sing what I said
We come and we go
That’s a thing that I keep in the back of my head

She said, “There’s something about you that really reminds me of money,”
She is the kind of girl who could say things that weren’t that funny
I said, “What does that mean I really remind you of money?”
She said, “Who am I to blow against the wind?”

I know what I know, etc

She moved so easily all I could think of was sunlight
I said, “Aren’t you the woman who was recently given a Fulbright?”
She said, “Don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party?”
I said, “Who am I to blow against the wind?”

I know what I know, etc

Paul Simon’s 1986 ‘Graceland‘ album is packed full of these little character sketches and snippets of conversation – and all done with rhythm, part-rhyme, and structured repetition in both verse and chorus. The song gives him the right to a repetitive chorus (as well as memorable tune), but he moves away from a traditional song’s full narrative into fragmented images that give a complete impression – here, an upscale event with two people assessing each other’s social and economic status and relationship possibility, as they talk of Fulbright Scholarships and a previous “cinematographer’s party”. It all sounds very New York.

It is a very extensive picture in a few words, leaving the sort of impression you get from an Alice Munro short story. And it is backed by the chorus that appears to verify that the conversation was real, as well as to state Simon’s recognition of how his mind and creativity work. So the song’s structure allows him to enrich the verses’ pictured conversation by stepping back to be more reflective and philosophical in the chorus.

And as it’s a song, he is carried by melody and instrumentation and can be a little free with metre without it being in any way jarring.

I view songs as a branch of formal verse. But in many ways, as shown here, song can easily flex into areas that are less natural for pure verse.

Photo by Luise Gub