Poets of Tin Pan Alley (notes on Furia’s book)

This blog entry is part of the series on book summaries. It is the notes that I made as I read through: Furia, Philip (1990) Poets of Tin Pan Alley: a history of America’s great lyricists, Oxford University Press, New York. It may be that, as they are my personal notes, not everything here will make sense to the general reader. However, I hope it will prove useful, and perhaps encourage you to get the book and work through it. Furia does some brilliant and useful dissections of famous song lyrics, to show why they work so well – a songwriter could learn a lot here! It’s also worth keeping a browser tab open on YouTube, and another on a lyrics website (or Google search), so that you can listen to the songs that Furia refers to, and read song lyrics in their entirety. A songwriter needs to study the masters – reading and listening – and Furia has given us a wonderful way in to do this.

1. Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah Love: Alley Standards
  • 3 People remember the composer, not the lyricist, but lyrics are integral to the success of a song. “A song without words is just a piece of music.” Jule Styne
  • 4 Anthony Burgess – match long vowels and diphthongs to long notes; organise primary and secondary stresses; manage climax [ladder or summit?]
  • 6 Poetry and lyrics are not always easy to differentiate
  • 7 ‘Society verse’ – playful, spontaneous, terse, idiomatic, conversational; frequent rhymes, crisp and sparkling rhythm; emotionally understated; may have striking images
  • 11 Titles or lyrics can dramatically collage or juxtapose ideas
  • 11 Cliché’s and colloqualisms can work well as titles
  • 12 [homophones] ‘But Not For Me’ – ‘no marriage knot for me’ [‘Mean To Me’ – ‘why must you be mean to me’, ‘can’t you see what you mean to me’. Note that in both these songs, the verbal twist is left until the very end.]
  • 14 AABA is one emotional idea. “Gus [Kahn], you gotta learn to say ‘I love you’ in 32 bars.”
  • 15 “no sobs, no sorrows, no sighs” – repetition and alliteration
  • 15 juxtapose the sublime and mundane: “a trip to the moon on gossamer wings – just one of those things”
2. After the Ball: Early Alley
  • 19 “Look at the newspapers for your storyline; acquaint yourself with the style in vogue.” Charles K Harris (writer of ‘After the Ball’)
  • 23 ‘After the Ball’ has melodramatic, self-consciously ‘poetic’ language, padding phrases, grammatical inversions and mismatched accents. Harris: “When the song is rendered, defects are not so apparent.” [I disagree!]
  • 27 Language in mixed tone [not advisable!] made the so-called ‘coon’ songs more genteel for non-black listeners
  • 28 ‘Ragging’ words deliberately reverses accented syllables, to distort them rhythmically
  • 29 Using slang and deliberate verbal casualness
  • 33 Off-rhymes and half-rhymes used in order to make things feel more colloquial [in the contemporary songs of 2000s, this seems to be the norm …]
  • 40 Rag the verbal syntax against the musical syntax e.g. “What bad luck. It’s / coming down in buckets.”
  • 40 Writing the music first forces the lyricist to be inventive and not write verse that is too regular or poetic.
  • 42 integrated songs in musicals rarely become independent hits [but there are exceptions, e.g. ‘Send in the Clowns’, ‘Memories’]
  • 44 Balancing nonchalance and sophistication, slang and elegance
3. Ragged Meter Man: Irving Berlin
  • ‘This Is The Army, Mr Jones’, ‘A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody’, ‘All By Myself’, ‘Say It Isn’t So’, ‘How Deep Is The Ocean’, ‘Cheek To Cheek’, ‘Top Hat, White Tie, And Tails’, ‘White Christmas’, ‘Easter Parade’, ‘God Bless America’, ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’, ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’, ‘Heat Wave’, ‘As Time Goes By’, ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’, ‘Play A Simple Melody’
  • 49 Ragging rhymes with internal rhymes, and ‘jagged syncopated breaks’
  • 51 ‘Play A Simple Melody’: ‘double’ song of two melodies/lyrics in counterpoint, one lyrical, one ragged
  • 51 Mosaic rhyme: ‘fine way to treat a Steinway’ e.g. single words can be rhymed with a word sequence
  • 55 “subtle fragmentation and juxtaposition of words against music”
  • 55 novelty songs, topical songs, ‘sob-ballads’
  • 58 Sheet music sales were first matched, then replaced by record sales
  • 58 Berlin wrote subtle, intricate [intimate?] lyrics possible for a radio listener that wouldn’t have worked for a large space or theatre audience
  • 59 Berlin was unusual for writing words and music – allows for sophisticated integration in the process of creation [though a good collaboration between a lyricist and composer should achieve the same …]
  • 64 ‘Cheek To Cheek’: lyrically clichéd, but musically clever; 72 bar melody, AABCA, major/minor shifts; clever music/lyric combination in C section
  • 64 Fred Astaire’s vocal range was only an octave, but needed rhythmic intricacy, and lyrics had to be both suave and colloquial
  • 66 juxtapose high and low diction [this is ok if it draws attention to the character and context, rather than the songwriter]
  • 66 ‘buried’ rhymes e.g. ‘dance’ and ‘man
  • 68 The show ‘Oklahoma’ (Rogers and Hammerstein) was the first musical to integrate songs into the drama and characters
  • 28 ‘Annie Get Your Gun’: ‘Doin’ What Comes Naturally’, ‘They Say It’s Wonderful’, ‘Anything You Can Do’, ‘I Got The Sun In The Morning’, ‘I Got Lost In Your Arms’, ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’.
  • 69 double-entendre
  • 69 Multiply internal rhymes to build momentum / climax
  • 70 In one character’s songs, recast the same vocabulary and images with different intent in different songs
  • 70 ‘Double’ song: ‘You’re Just In Love’ (sung by Donald O’Connor and Ethel Merman)
4. Ragged and Funny: Lyricists of the 1920s
  • 72 State the title, and keep stating it
  • 76 abbreviated terms, phrases and half-grammatical sentences are more like everyday conversation
  • 76 Rhyme on and off the beat
  • 76 make surprise changes to expected words
  • 76 alliteration
  • 77 alternate alliterations e.g. “If I had Aladdin’s lamp for only a day”
  • 77 rapid internal rhymes emphasise obsession or neuroticism [or gathering intensity]
  • Gus Kahn (1886-1941): ‘Dream A Little Dream Of Me’, ‘It Had To Be You’, ‘Carolina In The Morning’, ‘Yes Sir, That’s My Baby’, ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’, ‘The One I Love Belongs To Somebody Else’, ‘Making Whoopee’, ‘Love Me Or Leave Me’, ‘I’m Through With Love’.
  • 78 Dangle syntax of lyric beyond the regular musical section, so the sense is completed in the next musical section [enjambement in the music as well as the lyric]
  • 79 repetitive musical structures, e.g. oscillating 2 notes, can denote ambivalence or feeling claustraphobic
  • [Furia calls things rhymes that aren’t – but they are allusions to rhymes. What Hammerstein called ‘phonetics’. These are clearly integral to tight lyrics.]
  • 81 shift the meaning of a phrase (even to its opposite) e.g. ‘Making Whoopee’ which sounds like a piece of harmless silliness, is a euphemism for intercourse
  • 89 list songs work only when each successive image tops the previous one. ‘You’re the cream in my coffee’ doesn’t quite manage this, but Porter’s ‘You’re The Top’ does.
  • 90 Using everyday images for intense intent can be very effective
  • 92 movies are more lucrative than writing for the stage [Is that still true now, with the syndicated musicals around the world?]
  • 93 metaphoric innuendo
5. Funny Valentine: Lorenz Hart
  • Songs: ‘Blue Moon’, ‘Little Girl Blue’ [surrender, slender, send a, tender], ‘The Lady Is A Tramp’, ‘Johnny One Note’, ‘My Funny Valentine’, ‘My Buddy’, ‘It Never Entered My Mind’, ‘Bewitched’, ‘Why Do I Love You’, ‘My Blue Heaven’, ‘Manhattan’
  • 96 Rhyme within perfectly colloquial diction
  • 97 Rodgers (with Hart) “sentimental melody with unsentimental lyrics”
  • 100 Hart: “the cleverest writers are seldom big hit writers”
  • 101 eye rhymes and slant rhymes “We’ll have Manahattan, the Bronx and Staten Island too”
  • 101 Manhattan: Hart used musical lines to apparently complete a lyric line, then use musical tailpiece to reverse the lyric’s meaning with a clever flip of language. A rhyme can blur what should be a syntactic break: “While you love your lover, let blue skies be your coverlet.”
  • 104 Anthony Burgess “the rhymes do not really call attention to themselves, even at their most ingenious”
  • 105 rhyme even small particles of words to create intricate internal rhymes
  • 108 Rhymes than on the page seem contrived can seem natural once with music
  • 108 ‘My Heart Stood Still’: ‘A house in Iceland / was my heart’s domain. / I saw your eyes; / now castles rise in Spain.’ Alliteration of s’s; house-Ice; Ice-eyes-I saw; your eyes-rise
  • 110 even songs with gendered verses had unisex choruses so they could be sung and bought by anyone
  • 114 a verb can be applied in multiple meanings for a list of metaphors
  • 114 movies required less wordplay than independent songs
  • 121 ‘You Are So Fair’ uses multiple meanings and puns
  • 122 Rodgers wrote music for Hart to then write words; he wrote music for Hammerstein’s pre-written lyrics
6. ‘S Wonderful: Ira Gershwin
  • Songs: ‘Fascinatin’ Rhythm’, ‘Oh Lady Be Good’, ‘The Man I Love’, ‘Fascination’, ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’, S’ Wonderful’, ‘How Long Has This Been Going On’, ‘I’ve Got A Crush On You’, ‘I Got Rhythm’, ‘Embraceable You’, But Not For Me’, ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’, ‘Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off’, ‘They All Laughed’, ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’, ‘A Foggy Day’, ‘Things Are Looking Up’, ‘Love Walked In’, ‘Love Is Here To Stay’, ‘My Ship’ (Weill), ‘Long Ago And Far Away’ (Kern), ‘The Man That Got Away’ (Arlen)
  • 126 Hart: troubled love, broken-hearted lament; Ira Gershwin, fresh love
  • 128 Ira interested in lyrics as ‘mosaics’
  • 129 contractions (don’t, till) keep a lyric colloquial and intensify musical pace’ dropping words can do the same
  • 130 Colloquial catch-phrases: ‘You’ve got me on the go’, ‘Won’t you take a day off’, ‘Won’t you stop picking on me’
  • 130 ‘Fascinatin’ Rhythm’: 1st time is regular, second time it’s ragged [‘rag’-ular?]
  • 132 Ira deliberately crushes two syllables into one note to ‘rag’ words
  • 132 Hart “songs can be both popular and intelligent”
  • 133 ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’: spondaic split rhyme: ‘man some’, ‘handsome’
  • 134 ‘vest’ is Ira’s word for a ‘lift’ or ‘climb’ [See my blog entry ‘Understanding song structures‘]
  • 134 enliven a word by switching it to another syntactic position, making an unexpectedly new part of speech – “you filled me with AAH”
  • 135 explore a character through their choice of language
  • 135 sometimes not rhyming works better
  • 137 ‘telegraphic phrasing’ [like abbreviated text messages on mobile phones] for a colloquial feel
  • 137 ‘Embraceable You’ – musical play on ‘tipsy’ and ‘gipsy’ conveys their meaning
  • 141 Ira “Many a poetic line can be unsingable … many an ordinary line fitted into a proper musical phrase can read like a million”
  • 141 ‘dummy titles’ used to help the lyricist remember the musical rhythm [McCartney’s ‘Yesterday’, started as ‘Ham and eggs’!]
  • 142 There is self-mockery [of the character? Of the lyricist?] in mixing high and low diction
  • 144 Use cliché, vernacular and catch phrases at musical climaxes
  • 145 dangle syntax, so a verses final sentence is completed by the chorus’s opening line
  • 147 Play with different musical shapes in a lyric [e.g. anapests, iambs, spondees]
  • 148 Use phrases from advertising slogans
  • 151 Torch song [sentimental love song of unrequited or lost love]
  • 151 ‘A man that’ objectifies, while ‘a man who’ personalises a lyric
  • 151 the word ‘and’ can link “logically discontinuous – but emotionally connected – ideas”
  • 152 ‘embedded’ [internal] rhymes [including in irregular positions] – “the man that won you has run you and undone you”
7. The Tinpantithesis of Poetry: Cole Porter
  • Songs: ‘Let’s Do It’, ‘You’re The Top’, ‘Anything Goes’, ‘Night And Day’, ‘You Do Something To Me’, ‘It’s De-Lovely’, ‘I Get A Kick Out Of You’, ‘Just One Of Those Things’, ‘All Through The Night’ (64 bar melody!), ‘Begin The Beguine’ (108 bar melody!!), ‘My Heart Belongs To Daddy’, ‘Don’t Fence Me In’, ‘Kiss Me Kate’, ‘I’ve Come To Wive It’, ‘Where Is The Life That Late I Led?’, ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’, ‘So In Love’, ‘From This Moment On’, ‘I Love Paris’
  • 154 “androgynous lyrics – a genderless ‘I’ cooing to an equally indeterminate ‘you’ – that could be performed by either male or female vocalists, ensuring their widest commercial dissemination”
  • 155 ‘Night And Day’: chromatic; 48 bar chorus
  • 159 Porter’s early years – oscillated between clever, mischievous list songs, and appallingly sentimental doggerel
  • [Porter was a great composer; he was also a very agile lyricist; and he had great facility in marrying words and music. But I have a love-hate relationship with his songs, because it is very difficult to bring them off in performance these days. I believe this is because his references are so specific to his historical times, and the geography of places that only had meaning for him and his listeners at the time. And his romantic songs are over-sentimental, and feel recycled.]
  • ‘Let’s Do It’ – list song underscores erotic intensity of the message, and its sexual vitality
  • 163 Balance between sense, rhyme and tune
  • 163 ‘You Do Something To Me’: ‘so do that voodoo that you do so well’; dramatic repositioning; syntactical shift of ‘that’ so it has two different meanings
  • 169 Hart: masochism and disappointment. Ira: euphoric, innocent, new love. Porter: bemused sophistication, dispossession with passion peaking through
  • 173 Irving Berlin “never hate a song that has sold half a million copies”
8. Conventional Dithers: Oscar Hammerstein

[Note: make sure you read my summary of Hammerstein’s excellent 1949 essay ‘Notes On Lyrics’]

  • Showboat (Kern, 1927), Oklahoma (Rodgers, 1943)
  • Songs: ‘Make Believe’, ‘Why Do I Love You’, ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man’, ‘Bill’, ‘Ol’ Man River’, ‘Oh What A Beautiful Morning’, ‘People Will Say We’re In Love’ (subtle list song), ‘All The Things You Are’ (1939), ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’ (1940)
  • 182 “[Hammerstein] crafted euphonious, singable phrases – rich in long vowels and liquid consonants – instead of dazzling imagery and deft rhymes”
  • 182 Hammerstein wanted to write true sentiments, rather than witty understatements
  • 182 mentored Stephen Sondheim
  • 183 Otto Harbach (Hammerstein’s mentor): elevated lyrics, anchored in scene and character
  • 183 Showboat a mixture of ‘coon’ songs and white flowery sentiment- uneasy moves between colloquial and flowery
  • 185 Deliberately more subtle – uses rhyme sparingly in ‘Ol Man River’, and avoids rhyming the title, otherwise he could not have “commanded the same attention and respect from a listener, nor would a singer be so likely to concentrate on the meaning of the words”
  • 186 ‘Ol’ Man River’: contrasts work and play; participles and commands; gerunds; experiment with different parts of speech
  • 189 Oklahoma: shift to regional drama and character-based songs
  • 188 Hammerstein “phonetics” ie assonance “Wherever there are vocal climaxes and high notes, singers are comfortable only with vowels of an open sound.” [Did he mean vowels with a lower tongue position?]
  • 188 wanted to support musical line, rather than decide it with the lyric
  • 190 Paradigm shift: previously, lyrics written to popular tunes. Now the lyricist wrote first, and the composer wrote suitable music.
  • 191 avoids percussive consonants
  • 191 implies stage directions [like Shakespeare]
  • 193 every song, joke and dance advanced the story
  • 193 the musical becomes theatre, not just a shop window for independent songs unrelated to the narrative
9. Paper Moons: Howard Dietz and Yip Harburg
  • Dietz: ‘Dancing in the Dark’, ‘Alone Together’, ‘I Guess I’ll Have TO Change My Plan’, ‘That’s Entertainment’ (list song)
  • Harburg: ‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime’, ‘Over The Rainbow’, ‘April In Paris’, ‘Autumn In New York’ (Duke), ‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’ (Arlen), ‘When I’m Not Near The Girl I Love’ (Lane), ‘How Are Things in Glocca Morra’ (Lane), ‘Old Devil Moon’
  • 195 Yip Harburg “I doubt that I can ever say ‘I love you’ head on – it’s not the way I think. For me the task is never to say the thing directly, and yet to say it – to think in a curve, so to speak.”
  • 197 Dietz wrote ‘production numbers’; Harburg wrote for ‘story’
  • 198 Dietz used everyday phrases “I overlooked that point completely” “I should have realised”
  • 198 Dietz had masterful understatement, rhyming ‘at’ and ‘that’, to make big impact: “Before I knew where I was at / I found myself ‘ upon the shelf, / and that was that”
  • 200 Dietz liked Berlin “who counts the vowels”
  • 204 Active verbs contrast present participles where time stands still
  • 206 more assonance than rhymes
  • 207 ‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’ – pokes fun at sentimental lyrics
  • 209 Dietz and Arlen – Wizard of Oz – instead of ‘stop-plot’ songs, “I loved the idea of having the freedom that were not just songs, but scenes.”
  • 209 ‘Over The Rainbow’ cut three times before the opening! Publishers thought the opening octave was too hard to sing. Won ‘Best Song’ Oscar in 1939
10. Fine Romance: Dorothy Fields and Leo Robin
  • Fields: ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’, ‘On The Sunny Side Of The Street’, ‘A Fine Romance’, ‘Sweet Charity’, ‘Hey Big Spender’, ‘If My Friends Could See Me Now”
  • Robin: ‘Louise’, ‘Beyond The Blue Horizon’, ‘Love In Bloom’, ‘June In January’ [alliteration & striking overlap of seasons], ‘Thanks For The Memory’, ‘Blue Hawai’, ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’
  • 213 Fields: “I’m not out to write popular hits, though I’ve written songs that have become popular.”
  • 216 risqué, slangy, sensuous, conversational, contracted and abbreviated syntax
  • 221 tie-rhyme “so warm … nothing for me”
  • 221 rag words to make fun of them
  • 222 Fields: “fit a character … express something about him or her … move that storyline forward”
  • 224 ‘Louise’: written to accommodate the trademark hand gestures of Maurice Chevalier
  • 225 write for characters, rather than performers
  • 227 ‘Thanks For The Memory’ – list song; romantic and funny for Bob Hope (won an Oscar)
11. Hip, Hooray, and Ballyhoo: Hollywood Lyricists
  • 232 Movies sold songs, and songs sold movies
  • 233 The Jazz Singer , 1927 – first movie with songs
  • 233 Hollywood studios bought the publishers
  • 234 In early movies, singers sang as performers in the plot
  • 234 A ‘backstager’ was a movie musical about the making of a Broadway musical, like ‘Broadway Melody’ 1929
  • 235 Freed & Brown important partnership for this genre
  • 235 Singin’ In The Rain 1952
  • 236 Kalmar & Ruby
  • 237 Dubin & Goren wrote lyrics for Harry Warren music
  • 238 Dubin & Warren – ‘42nd Street’; ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ used in half a dozen different films; ‘Lullaby’ of Broadway’ 1935 Oscar
  • 240 ‘September In The Rain’ 1937
  • 241 Gordon & Warren: ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ (1941), ‘I’ve Got A Gal In Kalamazoo’ (1942), ‘As Time Goes By’ (1931), ‘You’ll Never Know’ (1943)
12. Swingy Harlem Tunes: Jazz Lyricists
  • 244 Akst & Young ‘Dinah’ (1925)
  • 244 Plug songs to nightclub singers
  • 245 Cotton Club https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotton_Club
  • 245 Instrumental jazz numbers were converted into songs e.g. Star Dust 1929; Fields / McHugh; Koehler / Arlen; Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters
  • 246 Koehler and Arlen both started as singer-pianists
  • 247 Koehler / Arlen: ‘Get Happy’, ‘Between the Devil And The Deep Blue Sea’, ‘Stormy Weather’ (1933), ‘Let’s Fall In Love’ (1933)
  • 250 Koehler / Lane ‘What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life’ (1944)
  • 250 Ann Ronnell ‘Willow Weep For Me’ (1932)
  • 251 Cliché often give n new depth e.g. ‘The Very Thought Of You’ (1934, Ray Noble) turns disdain into a lament
  • 252 ‘You Go To My Head’ Gillespie / Coots (1938)
  • 253 ‘What’s New’ Burke / Haggart (1939) – small talk given depth with a soaring melody
  • 254 ‘One For My Baby’ Mercer / Arlen (1941)
  • 256 Mitchell Parish – set complex jazz instrumentalists to words; skilful, but flowery e.g. Stardust (Carmichael 1929), Deep Purple (deRose 1944), Sophisticated Lady (Ellington)
  • 258-9 ‘Minnie The Moocher’ Mills / Gaskill / Ellington; ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Aint Got That Swing’ Mills / Ellington (1932); ‘In A Sentimental Mood’ Mills / Kurtz / Ellington (1935); ‘Mood Indigo’ Mills / Bigard / Ellington (1931); ‘Love Is A Many Splendoured Thing’ Webster / Ellington (1955); ‘I Got It Bad And That Aint Good’ Webster / Ellington (1941); ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’ Webster / Ellington (1942); ‘Do Nothing Till you Hear From Me’ Russell / Ellington (1943); ‘I’m Beginning To See The Light’ George/ Ellington (1944) [excellent lyric!]; ‘Satin Doll’ Mercer / Ellington
13. Midnight Sun: Johnny Mercer
  • Blues In The Night (Arlen 1942); Moon River (1961); Days of Wine and Roses (1962); Lazybones (1933), Too Marvelous For Words (White 1937), You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby (1933 Warren), Day In Day Out (1939 Bloom), That Old Black Magic (Arlen 1942), Accentuate The Positive (Arlen 1944), In The Cool Cool Cool Of The Evening (Carmichael 1951)
  • 274 Hemingway: ‘iceberg effect’ = making more impact by not telling the whole story
  • 279 New York Music publishers gradually lost dominance; radio stations and film studios (RCA & Columbia) created recording companies; independent recording companies opened up
  • 279 ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) rivalled by BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated)
  • 280 BMI included much black and country music
  • 280 AABA form superceded by old forms of 8 and 16 bars, narrative, more varied subject matter, strophic [AAA] or verse/chorus
Posted in Books, Lyric writing

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.