Some Thoughts on Lyrics on Several Occasions

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Some Thoughts on Lyrics on Several Occasions

Ira Gershwin, a City College dropout, was a great lover of words.  The lyricist who is best-remembered for penning songs such as Embraceable You, I got Rhythm, and Someone to Watch Over Me with his prodigiously talented younger brother George displays much wit and erudition in Lyrics on Several Occasions (1959), which is part memoir, part songbook (minus the music), part dissertation on his craft, and part meditation on language.

Gershwin discusses various philological topics which range in complexity from the correct pronunciation of the word “Caribbean” and the use of “like” as a conjunction (77), to Sidney Lanier on the “laws governing music and verse” (301) and “erudite Isaac D’Isreali (father of brilliant ‘Dizzy’)” on the origins of rhyme (321-322).

Gershwin demonstrates his impressive breadth of knowledge in both poetry and linguistics describing how he makes what might seem to be a rather mundane word choice:

In “Crush on You” I used “sweetie pie,” which I felt wasn’t too diabetic a term. And I have gone for “sweet” as a noun of endearment several times. But the parent of the last two, “sweetheart” (which goes back about eight centuries to “swete heorte”), I have somehow always given a wide berth (95).

Other times Gershwin’s explanations for his word choices are more prosaic. Here is how he came up with a particular rhyme in the preamble for Looking for a Boy (‘Bout five foot six or seven):

…about the only rhymes I could use for “Heaven” were “seven” and “eleven”; hence her preoccupation with height. (“Devon” was geographically out-of-bounds; Laborite E. Bevins was probably already married; and what could one do with “replevin”?) (9).

Words enter a writer’s brain from various directions, and then via some mysterious alchemy, words come out. I will offer an example from my own writing simply because I’m the writer I know the best (and I’m not presuming in any way that anything I have written is on a par with Mr. Gershwin’s work.) When I read the complete works of Wilfred Owen a few years back I thought, “Wow, this slant rhyme is pretty cool!” I naturally assumed that after a brief interval my brain would begin to sprout forth slanty rhymes. Still waiting.

And when the words do come, sometimes a writer has to drop everything and tend to inspiration which might not return:

Working incommunicado, trying to solve the riddle of a lyric for a tune, I sometimes didn’t get to bed until after sunrise. Even then the tune could be so persistent that it could keep running on through sleep, and was still with me at breakfast. And later in the day when I was about to tackle some other problem, it was capable of capricious intrusion with the threat of “Write me up! Work on me now or you’ll never get through!” However, after some years of tussling with any number of tunes, I found that the newer ones gradually became less tenacious and more tractable (136).

Two Brief Funny Stories

When I was on jury service in New York many years ago there was a case found for the defendant. Afterwards, in the corridor, I saw the lawyer for the plaintiff approaching and thought I was going to be lectured. But no. Greetings over, all he wanted to know was whether the words or the music came first (41).

And on how Gershwin made use of the phrase Nice work if you can get it, which he came across in a book of cartoons rejected by British humor magazines:


One, submitted to Punch, I think, was–I’m pretty sure–by George Belcher, whose crayon specialized in delineating London’s lowly. In this one, two char-women are discussing the daughter of a third, and the first says she’s heard that the disscussee ‘as become a ‘ore. Whereat the second observes it’s nice work if you can get it
(97).

Morality and Popular Music

In comparison to today’s popular music, it’s hard to imagine people who would find Ira Gershwin’s lyrics offensive, although “Stairway to Paradise” pokes fun at people who are too pious for dancing and “Fascinating Rhythm” is obviously about a couple whose amorous activity is too loud for the neighbors. In Gershwin’s time, however, one musicologist referred to Gershwin Brothers hit Do, Do, Do as “smart smut,” (261) and in Philadelphia “one of the town’s top critics” objected to an “obscene phrase” in the song “‘Swonderful”:

I don’t know what he would think about these Freedom-of-Four-Letter-Speech days, but at the time he felt that “feeling amorous” was something better scrawled in chalk than sung from a stage (253).

In the Winter, 1955 edition of ETC., noted semanticist and future California United States Senator S.I. Hayakawa proffered the absurd notion that Ira Gershwin and his colleagues were causing an epidemic of helplessly lovelorn youth. He labeled the phenomenon it “IFD disease (Idealization; Frustration; Demoralization).” Mr. Gershwin’s hilarious response is on page 113.


The Most Interesting Thing I Learned from Reading Lyrics on Several Occasions

Ira Gershwin continued to work with several composers for decades after his brother’s unfortunate and untimely passing. He wrote The Man that Got Away with Harold Arlen, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1954. This portion of the haunting song contains two classic two-syllable Ira Gershwin rhymes.

The man that won you
Has gone off and undone you
That great beginning
Has seen the final inning.
Don’t know what happened. It’s all a crazy game!

by Richard W. Bray

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3 Responses to “Some Thoughts on Lyrics on Several Occasions”

  1. In Praise of Clever « Laughter hope sock in the eye's Blog Says:

    […] hope you enjoy these witty rhymes from Lyrics on Several Occasions. Ira Gershwin was very clever and that is good enough for […]

  2. An Effective Title-Writing Strategy for Academic Papers « Laughter hope sock in the eye's Blog Says:

    […] Some Thoughts on Lyrics on Several Occasions Some Thoughts on Where I Was From […]

  3. An Interview on Writing Lyrics and Verse with Richard W. Bray Conducted by Richard W. Bray | Laughter hope sock in the eye's Blog Says:

    […] can’t be a songwriter because I don’t know anything about music. Besides, I’ve only ever read one book about songwriting, and no one has ever set any of my words to music. So I’m just a frustrated would-be lyricist […]

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