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Frank Sinatra
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Frank Sinatra

Rhythm and rhyme

Music | How well-written songs—and columns—can get under our skin

Issue: "Into thin air," Aug. 23, 2014

Before the British invaded, before Elvis, before Frankie Valli’s Four Seasons, my mother used to put on a Frank Sinatra record in the parlor and dance to it and go to that place she went to in her head.

Last week after I lent my 24-year-old son the car for a long trip, I turned the ignition and there was Ol’ Blue Eyes crooning “I’ve Got the World on a String” on a 1953-1960 Sinatra classics album. All of which made me feel that everything in history that’s happened in between was just a dream.

For kicks I texted my 20-year-old daughter the entire lyrics to “The Lady Is a Tramp,” because it reminded me of her, down to the part about California. She shot back right away: “Hahahahhaah whaaat mom this is amazing!! Whats it from?” Delighted by the unheard-of occasion of a return text within the hour rather than the month, I replied: “Rodgers and Hart 1937. They were a famous song-writing duo back in the day.”

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You could do worse than study your old Sinatra albums on the way to the butcher’s if you aspire to be a writer. At least I believe I owe my position at this venerable magazine to my mother’s early homemaker fantasies. And God. Consider all there is to be learned from cobbling a successful song, which is not so different from an editorial except that you don’t have Tommy Dorsey’s first-class brass backing you.

For starters, you must tell your story fast and get out. That’s three minutes for pop songs and 725 words for columns. I believe this has to do with some intrinsic human hard-wiring, the kind that makes you shift in your seat when the preacher goes five minutes long. If you want to contradict me by citing “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” I would have you know that wasn’t craftsmanship, that was a studio engineering soundcheck error they tried to get away with. The producer admitted in later interviews that he was drinking heavily at the time and provided minimal supervision to the project.

With that time limit restriction, every word has to carry freight. Exhibit A: “I get no kick in a plane. Flying too high with some gal in the sky is my idea of nothing to do.” The internal rhyme of “fly,” “high,” “sky,” and “I” (in “idea”) is one of life’s great thrills, but see also how the writer makes short work of disclosing his whole jaded past and baggage.

Rhythm and rhyme bring ineffable delight, and that’s not just for songs. What is more fun to say than “Your looks are laughable, unphotographable”? Follow the bouncing ball and recite the following line from “I Get a Kick Out of You,” accenting the syllables in caps: “SOME, they may GO for coCAINE. I’M sure that IF I took EVEN one SNIFF it would BORE me terRIFic’lly too.” Wasn’t that a blast? Whenever you read a column, you either stay on the page or feel like turning it, and may never consciously know why. But your sense of perfect Platonic forms does.

Note that though the word “even”  in the song selection above seems to violate the freight-carrying rule, it is necessary for other important reasons. Take it out and the iambic pentameter falls apart; and if that happens, the song falls apart. In the phrase “Mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all,” mere adds nothing contentwise, but how relieved Cole Porter must have been to think of it!

Here’s a favorite: “Do nothing till you hear from me. Pay no attention to what’s said. … Do nothing till you hear from me. At least consider our romance.” There was only one right way for the poor songsmith, wasn’t there? It wasn’t, “Don’t do anything till you hear from me.” (Yuck.) “Don’t pay attention to what people say” wouldn’t have worked either. 

All writing is problem solving. This should be an encouragement. Work on tightening, mind rhythm, and you’ve pretty much got it made. Plus don’t quit your day job. (Getting fired from Rocky’s doesn’t count.)

Hey Sinatra: “I’ve got you under my skin. I’ve got you deep in the heart of me. So deep in my heart, you’re really a part of me.” Thanks for all that, Blue Eyes.

Andrée Seu Peterson
Andrée Seu Peterson

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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