A Journey Across Syllables

July 5, 2015
I Rode My Ten Speed to Pomona to Buy this Single

I Rode My Ten Speed to Pomona to Buy this Single

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio,
Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

When songwriter Paul Simon wrote the above lines in his song “Mrs. Robinson” he was grasping after the illusion that the 1950s had been a simpler time than the turbulent 1960s. (But there are no simple times.)

Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio were Yankee teammates and unfriendly rivals. Years after writing Mrs Robinson, Paul Simon met Mickle Mantle. Simon gushed on and on about how Mantle had been his boyhood hero. When Mantle asked Simon why he had chosen to glorify DiMaggio rather than Mantle, Simon replied

“It was syllables, Mickey, the syllables were all wrong.”

A song, like any other type of poem, is a journey across syllables, and syllables are made of sounds. Linguists call these sounds phonemes. Linguists are people who study words. In England linguists are called philologists, which is a wonderful-sounding word. My favorite philologist is Henry Higgins from “My Fair Lady.” (Yes, I know he’s not a real person. So what?)

Linguists name and catalogue the sounds that make up languages. (That’s a lot of work.) They give these sounds really cool-sounding names like “fricatives” and “diphthongs.” Years ago I had to memorize the names of all the English language phonemes and a whole bunch of other stuff for a midterm in my Structure of Language class with Dr. Hilles. It was a tough test. (I got a 96%, thank you very much. But the student who spent her lectures reading fashion magazines got an 18%.)

Anyhow, those hardworking linguists tell us that the total number of phonemes employed in earthling human languages ranges from 11 to 112. The English language provides us with about forty-four phonemes to work with. That’s plenty of sounds for your gifted lyricist.

When Barry Manilow was writing the song that would make him famous, he had a phoneme problem. See if you can spot it.

Well you came and you gave without taking
But I sent you away, oh Brandy
Well you kissed me and stopped me from shaking
And I need you today, oh Brandy

The “b’” sound at the beginning of the word “Brandy” is called a voiced bilabial stop: voiced because it involves the vocal cords; bilabial because it utilizes both lips; and stop because it provides a halt between sounds. (Compare the voiced bilabial stop of the “b” sound with the voiceless bilabial stop of the “p” sound.)

The “br” sound at the beginning of the name “Brandy” was a jarring jolt which interrupted the flow of sounds. When Manilow switched out the name Brandy with the name Mandy, the sounds smoothly melted together, and the rest, as they say, is history. (The “m” sound is called a bilabial nasal)

Now consider the following stanza from Bob Dylan’s song “Shelter from the Storm.

In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation and she gave me a lethal dose
I offered up my innocence I got repaid with scorn
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

I lied. We’re not going to consider the whole stanza, with all its wit, humor, irony, imagery, and biblical references. We are only going to talk about the first half of the first line.

Say “in a little hilltop village” to yourself aloud. Now say it again, this time thinking about what your tongue, lips, and teeth are doing. Notice how all the action is happening at the front of your mouth.

And as for those poor benighted souls who don’t think song lyrics are poetry. Well, read the first comment on this blog post. It’s by somebody named Richard W. Bray.

by Richard W. Bray

Willie Wystan Widdershins

June 28, 2015


Willie Wystan Widdershins
Craves a crooked course
A crazy road is best for him
But not his baffled horse

Willie Wystan Widdershins
Goes East to journey West
And to his wife’s chagrin he
Makes three rights to take a left

Willie Wystan Widdershins
Often ends where he begins
Going round in circles
Like a fish without fin

Willie Wystan Widdershins
Is guided from within
He wears a happy grin
Always going where he’s been

by Richard W. Bray

Not Worth My Time

June 20, 2015

You’re nasty, unnerving, disgusting, and icky
Revolting, repellent, distasteful and vile
You’re ghastly and grody, repulsive and sickly
You’re someone that I must live to revile

You’re not worth my time and better forgotten
You’re rancid, repugnant, rude, and morose
You’re hellish and horrid and morally rotten
You’re loathsome, disturbing, horrific and gross

You do not agree with all my presumptions
You’re heinous and beastly, obnoxious and wrong
I roundly renounce your detestable gumption
A mental asylum is where you belong

by Richard W. Bray

Politicians Begging Scraps off a Rich Man’s Table

June 6, 2015

AAAAAAAAAAAAorgan grinder

I’ll sing you a story
That ain’t no fable
Politicians begging scraps
Off a rich man’s table

They sing for their supper
They dance for dessert
American people
Get the left in the dirt

Stealing from the poor
And giving to the rich
Leaving everyone else
Stuck in a ditch

So easy to buy
A congressional flunky
Like an organ grinder
With a cute little monkey

by Richard W. Bray

What the Fizzle Dizzle

June 2, 2015

What the fizzle dizzle
Did I ever do
To deserve the aggravation
That I get from you?

Always stopping by
When we’re cooking food
Before we clear the table
You’re the disappearing dude

Ain’t got nothing nice to say
About anything I do
Nothing ever satisfies
A malcontent like you

You invite yourself along
On a Saturday night
Bringing trouble to the table
You start a bunch of fights

You’re a walking heap of hardship
A dispatcher of dread
What the fizzle dizzle
Goes on inside your head

by Richard W. Bray

I guess I must be a thing

May 24, 2015

People holler when I dance
Women faint when I sing
I guess I must be a thing

I tried to run for mayor
I got elected King
I guess I must be a thing

Ladies send me flowers
And cover me with bling
I guess I must be a thing

The world is a yoyo
At the end of my string
I guess I must be a thing

People say my presence
Is like eternal spring
I guess I must be a thing

As soon as I enter
The party starts to swing
I guess I must be a thing

Two billion followers
Underneath my wing
I guess I must be a thing

by Richard W. Bray

Whole Lotta Hungry

May 21, 2015


Fry me some baloney
Pile my plate with peas
Make me macaroni
With some gooey gooey cheese

Whip me up an omelet
Broil me some chops
Rustle up some grits
I’m gonna eat until I pop

I worked all day long
And I didn’t get a break
Got a whole lotta hungry
Keeping me awake

Mash me some taters
Bake me up some beans
I could eat a gator
And a mess of collard greens

Sauté me some catfish
Steep me up some stew
I’ll devour every dish
From here to Timbuktu

I worked all day long
And I didn’t get a break
Got a whole lotta hungry
Keeping me awake

by Richard W. Bray

Money Seeks Money

May 7, 2015

Money don’t live
And Money don’t die
Money don’t love
And Money don’t cry

Money and power
Money and fame
Money trumps Hearts
Money wins game

Money seeks money
Money gotta grow
Money burns hot
From down below

God hates money
I know it’s true
Look at the people
He gives it to

The Bank of Resentment

May 2, 2015

I walked barefoot to Alaska
Hoping I could please you
And with every single step
Resentment grew and grew

Gave up everything in life
Just to make you happy
So it’s totally your fault
That I feel so crappy

I’m a walking sacrifice
I carry my own cross
There’s masochistic gain
In every single loss

Existing just for others
Is how I seek contentment
I keep a full account
At the bank of resentment

by Richard W. Bray

You Can’t Collect Abstractions

April 26, 2015

You can’t send a box of sunshine
You can’t buy a pound of poise
You can’t purchase piles of pleasure
For deserving girls and boys

You can’t load a truck with love
You can’t take a piece of peace
You can’t give a ton of trust
To your nephew or your niece

You can’t hold a heap of hope
You can’t grab a jar of joy
You can’t harness all the happy
That your family might enjoy

You can’t find a font of freedom
You can’t choose a can of cheer
You can’t collect abstractions
But they exist when they are here

by Richard W. Bray


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