Tag Archives: songs

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

Poem: ‘What Lasts?’

Munch’s Scream fades, and the Taliban
blow up the grandest statues that they can.
Safer are spoken treasures of the mind:
poems and songs outlast objects that rust,
or bust, or slowly crumble into dust.
Until from cave or dig comes some strange find…
but when Lascaux and Willendorf were young,
what was recited, or what songs were sung?

As regards “immortal” works of art… anything that is still respected in a hundred years is pretty good, anything still talked about after a couple of thousand years is doing very well… Songs and poems can manage that length of time, especially if connected a religion or other social ritual; but there is very little oral survival beyond that, and the survival of physical artifacts from tens of thousands of years ago is of the luckiest, perhaps of the lost or the most overlooked, not necessarily the best.

How wonderful if in the future we can recapture sounds from the Stone Age! At present there is no way to see how it could ever be done. But at least we have a few cave paintings and small carvings…

This poem was just published a short while ago in The Asses of Parnassus. Thanks, Brooke Clark!

“Austria. Wien Naturhistorisches museum Venus von Willendorf. Die Venus von Willendorf ist eine Venusfigurine aus der jüngeren Altsteinzeit (Jungpaläolithikum), dem Gravettien, und ist als Österreichs bekanntestes Fundstück heute im Naturhistorischen Museum” by Morton1905 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Odd poem: King Canute’s spontaneous song

Merie sungen the Muneches binnen Ely,
Tha Cnut ching reu ther by.
Roweth, cnites, noer the land,
and here we thes Muneches saeng.

King Canute, on a journey by water to Ely, heard the chanting of monks and at once–according to the 12th century Liber Eliensis, but translated out of the original Latin and Old English–“With his own mouth expressing the joy he felt in his heart, he composed a song in English, in these words, which begins thus:

Merrily sang the monks of Ely
As Canute the king rowed there by.
Row, knights, nearer the land,
And hear we these monks’ song,

and the rest that follows, which to this day is sung at dances among the people and remembered in popular sayings.”

After a rocky beginning, the Danish-born Canute (or Cnut) became a well-loved King of England. Canute’s father Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, had invaded England twice. The first time was in 1003 to avenge the death of his sister Gunhilde in the St. Brice’s Day general massacre of Danes ordered by the Wessex King Æthelred the Unready (the massacre itself being in response to years of slaughter and pillage by raiding Danes). The second time was in 1013, when he overthrew Æthelred. Sweyn died in 1014, and Æthelred resumed his rule. Sweyn’s son Canute invaded in 1015, Æthelred died in 1016, and Canute the Great ruled England (and Denmark, and latterly Norway) until 1035.

First misconception: Æthelred the Unready doesn’t mean he was ill-prepared. The “red” or “rede” in both his name and his nickname means “advice”, and his pun of a nickname makes him “King Well-Advised the Ill-Advised”.

Second misconception: King Canute wasn’t being foolish in the story of his ordering the incoming tide to stop. He did it to shut up the flattering courtiers who told him he was all-powerful and could do anything. He had his chair set up on the beach and ordered the tide to go back; when the sea soaked him and his courtiers, he made it clear that he wanted truth and not flattery from his advisers.

Canute married King Æthelred the Unready’s widow Emma, perhaps for political reasons and as a way for Emma to protect her sons; it seems that the marriage grew to be very affectionate. Canute was very happy in England, and increasingly relied on the Anglo-Saxon nobility rather than on imported Danes for his control, taxation and administration of the country. Two of his sons followed him as kings of England, and for a while it looked like England might become a permanent part of Scandinavia. And personally, as an Anglo-Dane, I regret this didn’t happen.

Picture: “The Wisdom of Knut” by spratmackrel is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Teaching ESL with Songs and Poems

Babies learn by play and imitation. Children learn by play and imitation. There is no reason this isn’t the easiest way for adults to learn, as well (and I speak as someone who has made a successful career of using board games to teach business finance rapidly and enjoyably).

The imitation of language, with a baby learning to speak, is enhanced by repetition–not just simple sentences and phrases used again and again, but also lullabyes and nursery rhymes. The advantages to songs and poems are that they are engaging to the ear (even if the words are not understood); that they are repeated virtually identically each time the same person sings or recites them; that the repetition and music, the rhythm and rhyme, make it easy to learn; learning then moves from passive (understanding) vocabulary to active (speaking) vocabulary; and the word-for-word learning teaches the structure of the language, the syntax, the grammar, as well as basic vocabulary and playful other words.

The principles are no different for someone learning a second language, whether as a child or an adult. To make the process engaging, to develop active use of the language with a confident vocabulary and grammar, there is nothing better for the beginner than songs and poems. Recorded music is fine–then the repetition will always be exact, and learning to sing simple songs (The Beatles’ ‘Hello Goodbye’ comes to mind) will contribute to developing a native speaker’s accent. With ESL–English as a Second Language–you may need to decide if you want the Queen’s English, or Liverpool, or Nashville, or what.

But singing isn’t always a practical solution. In that case, look at the resources developed for ESL teachers. Here is a webpage developed by the British Council and the BBC. And here for teens and adults is an excellent website with ‘Popular Poems to Teach‘. Note that most of the poems (though not all) whether British or American are using rhyme and metre. And this, again, is because those factors make it easier to learn things by heart–and that is what songs and poems will achieve: learning not just words and rules, but rather entire sentences with their grammar and vocabulary, learnt by singing or reciting, far more enjoyably than by studying lists and charts.

And the advantage is universal. Songs and poetry are part of the human experience, whether you come from China, India, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria or Brazil. Learning to sing or recite in English is not to start again from scratch, but to enjoyably refresh a childhood experience, a skill that has already been mastered.

Photo: “Wittenberg International Student Party” by Matt Cline is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Poetry Resources: A.Word.A.Day

One of the greatest resources for any lover of words is the (free) email subscription to A.Word.A.Day from wordsmith.org, founded by Anu Garg in 1994. Of course, you may well be getting this already as one of the 400,000 subscribers in 170 countries, enjoying the definition, pronunciation, etymology, usage and visual illustration of a not-quite-random word five days a week. Added bonuses include a quotation from a writer on their birthday, and limericks, anagrams and puns in the readers’ comments on the weekend.

This week’s theme is words used by singer-songwriter Roy Zimmerman, and is the trigger for my posting about A.Word.A.Day. Roy Zimmerman, as guest editor for A.Word.A.Day, writes:

“When my wife Melanie and I write a song, the Idea is out in front. People often ask which comes first, the melody or the lyrics. We say the Idea, with a capital I. The Idea takes shape as a hook — a little snatch of lyrics and melody — and the hook gives birth to a tune, a meter scheme, and a rhyme scheme.

We both love words. We’re both aware that words do real work in the world, especially words that rhyme and meter well. That’s what we’re trying to do with these songs — provide context, history, laughter, and encouragement for the work of social justice.

The description of the sequence for songwriting is virtually identical to that for writing poetry – and although poetry doesn’t necessarily have a tune, poetry definitely has a tone, a mood, that forms in the same place. Songs and poetry are very close siblings. Sometimes songs are forgiven weak lyrics because of a strong melody; sometimes poems are forgiven their lack of rhythm and rhyme because of their strongly expressed ideas and images. But at their most memorable they fuse as catchy songs that can also be fully enjoyed as poems without the music.

In either case, they are completely dependent on words. And to prod your word awareness, there is nothing simpler than the daily email from Anu Garg.