Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

The Pen is Mightier…

(Lately, as I have clicked on the “Publish” button that commits my words “permanently” to this space, the screen has been filled with several ideas for my next great blog article topic. The fine folks here at WordPress are basically offering up writing prompts, possibly not unlike the kind of essay-question starter kits one might find in the midst of a standardized Language Arts test. So this is my response to one of their more interesting prompts, namely:)

Who writes the best song lyrics?

I’m going to presume we’re limiting ourselves to songs, which is to say we’re leaving out whole vast regions of musical output, including opera, cantatas etc. It’s hard to argue with “Gloria in excelsis deo” and other justly famous texts. And for the moment I’m going to leave out the world of Romantic-era art song (although one of my favorite items is “Der Erlkonig”, a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, which was most famously set to music by Franz Schubert). And I’m going to leave a discussion of the lyrics of Randy Newman, who could be considered an American art-song composer, for another time.

But for sheer mastery of the English language as utilized as a means of creative expression simultaneously musical and poetic? I know exactly who my number-one person is, without hesitation, without having to consult an Internet List of Famous Composers and Lyricists. Without question, there is one gentleman who (for me) stands head-and-shoulders above jut about anyone else in American music (and there are some giants out there).

Ira Gershwin.

He didn’t write exclusively with his brother George, but the vast majority of his well-known work is as a result of that partnership in the 1920s and 1930s.

He was a master at creating song lyrics that could make listeners chuckle, or could make their eyes well up with tears. He often rhymed not merely words but whole phrases; he possessed an unmatched knack for internal rhyme schemes; his lyrics could shift gears from the sublime to the ridiculous. And Ira Gershwin could do all of these things within a single song … or even within a single couplet.


Anything For You”

Just tell me what to do / I’ll more than see it through

Dear, I’ll do anything for you

I’ll buy insurance from your brother / I’ll even learn to like your mother


But Not For Me”

They’re writing songs of love / but not for me

A lucky star’s above / but not for me

With love to lead the way, I’ve found more clouds of gray

Than any Russian play could guarantee


How Long Has This Been Going On?”

Oh, I feel that I could melt / Into heaven I’m hurled

I know how Columbus felt / Finding another world


I Can’t Get Started”

I’ve flown around the world in a plane / I’ve settled revolutions in Spain

The North Pole I have charted / But I can’t get started with you

  Around the golf course I’m under par / And all the movies want me to star

  I’ve got a house, a show place / But I can’t get no place with you

You’re so supreme; lyrics I write of you / Scheme, just for a sight of you

Dream, both day and night of you / And what good does it do?

  In 1929 I sold short / In England I’m presented at court

  But you’ve got me downhearted / ‘Cause I can’t get started with you


Isn’t It a Pity?”

Imagine all the lonely years you wasted / Fishing for salmon, losing at backgammon

What joys un-tasted! / My nights were sour spent with Schopenhauer


Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off”

Things have come to a pretty pass / Our romance is growing flat

For you like this and the other / While I go for this and that


My Cousin in Milwaukee”

When she sings hot, you can’t be solemn

It sends the shivers up and down your spinal column


Nice Work If You Can Get It”

The only work that really brings enjoyment

Is the kind that is for girl and boy meant

Fall in love and you won’t regret it

That’s the best work of all, if you can get it


Our Love Is Here To Stay”

The more I read the papers, the less I comprehend / The world and all its capers and how it all will end

Nothing seems to be lasting, but that isn’t our affair / We’ve got something permanent – I mean in the way we care.


In time the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble

They’re only made of clay / But our love is here to stay


Someone to Watch Over Me”

Although he may not be the man some

Girls think of as handsome

To my heart he carries the key


They All Laughed”

The odds were a hundred to one against me

The world thought the heights were too high to climb

But people from Missouri never incensed me

Oh, I wasn’t a bit concerned / For from history I had learned

How many, many times the worm had turned


They Can’t Take That Away From Me

The way your smile just beams / The way you sing off key

The way you haunt my dreams / No they can’t take that away from me


Who Cares?”

Let it rain and thunder, let a million firms go under

I am not concerned with stocks and bonds that I’ve been burned with


Now, I do not wish to be known as a stick-in-the-mud. I hope I never hear myself rail against songs written after the rock ‘n’ roll era started, in a voice like Homer Simpson’s father. You kids get off my lawn! And take your devil music with ya! They don’t write ’em like they used to!, grumble grumble illiterate heathen grumble grumble…

Of course there are fine lyrics being written even as we speak. But only in rare instances at any time in history have they been written with the fine ear for the English language that Ira Gershwin regularly wielded; and certainly not with Gershwin’s consistency – in dozens and dozens of songs, throughout many years of writing, there are very, very few “weak” lyrics to be found in his catalog (they’re in there, but you have to work to find them). Oscar Hammerstein approaches to this standard; a number of Lerner & Loewe songs do qualify; and I’m sure that comments will come my way advocating for a number of other writers for the American musical stage. And yes, the pop and rock scene has produced some creative lyricists and inspired turns of phrase in its time (Paul Simon, Lennon & McCartney, and the aforementioned Randy Newman leap immediately to mind).

But as it happens, recently I had occasion to sit at a local college football stadium, an hour or so before kickoff. I watched the teams warm up; I watched the people wearing Event Staff jackets wait in the 45-degree weather to direct any fans that might also decide to show up absurdly early; I watched some clouds take varying shapes as they were whisked across the sky by the steady 15 mph breeze … and I took note of the rap music pounding out of the public address system speakers in the south end zone.


This is why, this is why / This is why I’m hot

I’m hot cause I’m fly / You ain’t cause you’re not


Not to dump on the lyricist, on the sentiment or passion behind the lyrics, or on the catchy rhythmic content; but the thought sprang to mind, unbidden:

It ain’t exactly Gershwin.”


November 24, 2011 - Posted by | blogging, entertainment, music, writing | , , , ,

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