Saturday, February 19, 2005

My Name is Jaime and I'm a Rhymeaholic

I concluded long ago that the defining question about your tastes in song lyrics is this: in "Blowin' in the Wind," do you think "man" rhymes with "banned?"

I remember I once tried to explain to a classmate that it didn't. He foolishly asked why, leaving the door open for me to explain all the rules of proper rhyming, which, basically, are:

1. The vowel sounds must be the same.
2. All consonants and vowels following the rhyming vowel must be exactly the same
3. The consonants before the vowel must be different.

The first of those rules is followed in almost all rhyming, at least in songs (in poetry, of course, there are all kinds of almost-rhymes involving different vowel sounds but similar consonants, e.g. Wilfred Owen rhyming "killed" with "cold"). But the last two rules have pretty much gone out the window since the rise of rock n' roll, fake folk songs, and other such things.

So, to return to "man" and "banned," that's not a rhyme, from a purist's point of view, because the consonants don't match; that extra "d" kills the rhyme. Similarly, "lady" and "baby" fit rules 1 and 3, but the mismatch of "b" and "d" means it fails the # 2 test ("Lady he rhymes with baby! No wonder he's dead!" -- The Sunshine Boys).

If you're a totally uncompromising rhyme purist, as I am, you'll even reject rhymes that fit rules # 1 and # 2 but not # 3. These are not strictly rhymes but "identities," matches of exactly identical sounds, like "belief" and "relief" or "low" and "hello." Now, does anybody really care about the difference between a rhyme and an identity, except the rhyme fundamentalists like me? Probably not. But rules are rules.

The people who are most bothered by impure rhymes are usually professionals. Noel Coward hated the nursery rhyme "Little Tommy Tucker" for rhyming "Tucker" with "supper" with "butter," and expressed his displeasure through Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit ("I hate that, because it doesn't rhyme at all"). Carolyn Leigh lecturing on lyric writing, was adamant that "home and alone don't rhyme, time and mine don't rhyme, and friend and again rhyme only in the area bounded by Nashville and God knows what." (But then, even Leigh, one of the greatest rhymers of all time, once tried to rhyme "belief" with "relief." Even Homer nods.) Stephen Sondheim reportedly objected to Randy Newman rhyming "girl" with "world." Richard Rodgers decided against working with Lionel Bart, in part because of Bart's sloppy rhyming. And so on.

Well, they're professionals; of course they're going to be sticklers for the rules. What's my excuse for being so rhyme-conscious? Well, I just love rhymes. Love them. I think making rhymes is one of the great pleasures of using the English language. And because English, like German, is a relatively rhyme-poor language (look at how few rhymes there are for "love" or "liebe" compared to all the rhymes for "amour" or "amore"), rhyming is difficult; it's a challenge to say something coherent and interesting while also making the words fit music and come up with rhymes all the time. Part of the fun of listening to an English song lyric, then, is the sense of the writer overcoming a challenge. Anything that the writer does to make his or her task easier -- using cliche'd rhymes, sacrificing syntax for the sake of rhyme, or just breaking the rules of what makes a true rhyme -- lessens the feeling of overcoming a challenge; where's the fun in listening to the rhymes, if rhymes are easy to come by?

The great rhymers in lyric writing, people like Leigh, Sondheim, Larry Hart, Ira Gershwin and Yip Harburg, are like escape artists: when it comes to rhyme schemes and choice of words to rhyme, they're always setting challenges for themselves that seem hard to get out of. When Carolyn Leigh writes "I'll be up like a rosebud / High on the vine," she's set herself a big challenge: she has to find two rhymes in relatively short lines, including a rhyme for a word that doesn't have anything listed in the rhyming dictionary ("rosebud"), all the while making sense and being funny. And when she comes back a moment later with "Don't thumb your nose, bud / Take a tip from mine," she's pulled another brilliant escape trick.

Also, a real rhyme just sounds more satisfying than an almost-rhyme. When a rhyme doesn't follow the three basic rules, it might be a sort-of-rhyme, close enough for government work, but it just doesn't have the feeling of an absolutely perfect match of sound and sense; it doesn't solidify the music and the meaning the way a real rhyme does. Ira Gershwin wrote about a recording where the singer changed some words, turning a real rhyme (store/more) to an impure one (endure/more). He wrote: "It changes tense and sense, and suddenly rhyme doesn't chime." It's that "chime," the sense that the words balance each other, that I miss in an impure rhyme. Now, I think there's an argument to be made that rock n' roll songs don't need the solidity of pure rhymes, because they depend on the beat (beat, beat) to provide that underlying solidity and unify the song. But still, to a rhymeaholic, there's a pleasure in a pure rhyme -- "man" and "ban" -- that can never be found in an almost-rhyme like "man" and "banned." That one lowercase "d" makes all the capital-d difference.

On a less anal note, I'll be back pretty soon with a post on some of my favorite rhymes and rhyme schemes in songs.


Anonymous said...

Why doesn't silver have a rhyming word ? Why do sliver,quiver,river,giver... qualify

Anonymous said...

Pardon me. Why don't those words qualify ?