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