Song lyrics then and now

I have been copying my treasured Billie Holiday LPs and 45s (remember LPs and 45s?) into my iPod Lady Dayvia iTunes on my computer, as part of my battle against terminal boredom as I pound the treadmill and pedal furiously on the stationary exercise bike at my local gym.  To do this I have been using a miraculous machine, a birthday present from my imaginative offspring, which converts the sweet old records into mp3 files.  At about the same time the Guardian has been issuing with the newspaper booklets of (mostly contemporary) song lyrics in its series "Great lyricists" [sic].  One of these, a collection of lyrics by Bob Dylan, has prompted a pungent attack by everyone's favourite Aussie Sheila, Germaine Greer, who quotes a few lines of a Dylan lyric and comments:

It's not verse, not even doggerel. Nor is it prose, because it doesn't make sense. Its combination of pretentiousness and illiteracy isn't surprising, which would be something; it's just annoying. God knows why the texts put to 20th-century music began to be called lyrics rather than words.

Dr Greer goes on to compare Dylan's words with the best-known poem by William Blake (O rose, thou art sick), not necessarily to Mr Dylan's advantage.   This has earned her a magisterial rebuke, very Guardian, from Michael Horovitz (identified as a jazz troubadour, Poetry Olympics tochbearer and editor-publisher of New Departures, described in Wikipedia as "often considered … to be one of the last living links to the Beat poets and their milieu") under the wonderfully predictable heading: Bob Dylan does not deserve this snobbery and pedantry.

I don't always agree with Dr Greer — who does? — but I'm bound to say that I think she has a point, even though I enjoy some of the Bob Dylan classics.  One of the many glorious songs sung by Lady Day and now securely housed in my iPod is that great standard, These Foolish Things, written by Eric Maschwitz and others.   Here are a sample verse and chorus:

The smile of Garbo and the scent of roses,
The waiters whistling as the last bar closes,
The song that Crosby sings
These foolish things
Remind me of you.

How strange, how sweet to find you still!
These things are dear to me
That seem to bring you so near to me!
The scent of smould´ring leaves, the wail of steamers,
Two lovers on the street who walk like dreamers,
Oh, how the ghost of you clings —
These foolish things

Remind me of you. 

One of the Guardian Great Lyricists, with a booklet to himself, is Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys.  In his Foreword the poet, playwright and novelist Simon Armitage writes that —

[O]f all those writing lyrics today, Turner is among the most poetic.  His use of internal rhyme exists to be admired and envied.

Here's a sample, chosen more or less at random, of Mr Turner's poetic lyrics; it's from a song called Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured:

You see her with the green dress?
She talked to me at the bar
How come it's already two pound fifty?
We've only gone about a yard
Didn't you see she were gorgeous
She were beyond belief
But this lad at the side drinking a Smirnoff Ice
Came and paid for her Tropical Reef

But I'm sitting going backwards
And I didn't want to leave
I said it's High Green mate
Via Hillsborough please

[Original punctuation]

You don't need to compare that with Blake.  Eric Maschwitz will do.  "Snobbery and pedantry"?  Who, me?  I never said a word! 

I rest my case.


4 Responses

  1. Andrew Milner says:

    Put aside any lingering feelings of nationalism and patriotism you may have and think internationally, even if you can’t live internationally. Just over a year ago the Telegraph published one of my “Enoch was right (with embelishments)” rants. Now everyone has got in on the act. Couple of weeks back the Times published the following:
    “We remember back in time, the year of ’69
    You ‘leashed your dogs of war onto our streets
    We could not stand idly by and let our families die
    We fought you back and joined the IRA”
    Wasn’t going to push my luck with the next verse.

    But there’s a whole load of great songs from that period, from both sides. Witness:
    “So Auf Wiedersehen to Crossmaglen, farewell to Carrickmore;
    I’ve seen enough of Ireland boys and I won’t be back for more…
    He told me of the German girls; the discos every night?
    But the only crack in South Armagh comes from an Armalite!”

    Have to say my all-time favourite includes the line,
    “Watch out for one-shot Paddy or his friend called Eammon Wright.”
    So bad it’s almost good. But no contributions from the Iraq conflict yet. Not even “Juba the Baghdad Sniper”. Have I missed my calling? We all end up doing what we are second best at.
    So how long before the fighters on both sides of a conflict join forces against the evil politicians? Not ready for that I suspect.
    The alternative media means the Imperialist neo-Colonist warmongers (that would be you guys, right) have to be conscious of public opinion. Even the United States of America, or the United States of Torture as it is increasingly frequently referred to, has to sub-contract out most of its torture operations. Have a bit of pride, guys. Put that water boarding on national television. And have you noticed how once battle is joined, rightness of cause goes straight out the window? And the basic question, “What the hell are you going invading and occupying somebody else’s country” is never asked. It all, “Our boys, over there, making the ultimate sacrifice”. Good thing you have a death cult religion (aka Christianity) to square the circle, although you’ll never get close to the deal Islam offers. So what’s the answer besides growing a moustache, wearing a black hat and sucking it up? Well try emigrating. Political refugee has a certain romantic ring to it. Certainly worthy of top-ten ranking on your “Emigrate, Reasons to” list. Not like there are any good guys to join; more like bad guys and worse guys. The world has most decidedly taken a turn for the surreal. Nice neutral Buddhist country, anyone?

  2. Peter Harvey says:

    Someone once asked Bob Dylan what his songs were about. The answer was, 'They're mostly about three minutes.'

    Brian writes:  Splendid! 

  3. matt says:

    Maschwitz – maybe, I tend to think that Cole Porter was the best of his generation.

    As for lyrics with a poetical bent, I've always rather liked this.

    Brian writes:  I quoted Maschwitz rather than Cole Porter (who is indeed the grand master of them all) only because I happened to have been listening to These Foolish Things and thought once again what a great lyric it is.  I too like the lyric in your link, even if it's not quite up to Cole Porter standards:  but then what else is?

  1. 27 October, 2008

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