Welcome to McElrath Cabaret–We hope you enjoy our cabaret blog!
Hi! Wednesday is the day of the week when we at McElrath Cabaret post a cabaret question for the consideration of our readers. The questions have something to do with cabaret, in all its many aspects.
We encourage you to send us any cabaret question that you have that you would like us to pose to the group! You can leave a question in the comments section below, or you can email it to us at kjandathenacabaret [at]gmail.com. Just fill in the [at] with the @ symbol—we need to foil the spam bots, don’cha know.
This week’s question is: Whom Do You Consider to Be The Greatest American Lyricist – And Why?
If you’re anything like me, this is not an easy question – and you probably won’t be able to narrow it down to just one.
Notice that today, I’m talking about lyricists, not “songwriters.” Most popular songs from the Great American Songbook are the result of collaborations between those who specialized in lyric writing and composers who penned the melodies, such as George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Harry Warren and Al Dubin, Mack Gordon, et. al., Harold Arlen (et. many al) with Yip Harburg and Johnny Mercer, Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, etc. etc. and so forth. We tend to list the composers first (I do because I am primarily an instrumentalist and arranger, so the actual music appeals to me first), but lets face it – part of what makes the Great American Songbook so great is the way these clever, witty and often suggestive lyrics are so tightly integrated with the melodies. And, as a cabaret performer, your primary focus should be on telling a story through those lyrics.
It is significant that relatively few songwriters have successfully done music as well as lyrics. Cole Porter, of course, is one shining exception. He is, in my opinion, one of the two top lyricists in the annals of American song. The other, for me, is Lorenz Hart, whose career actually got started earlier than Porter’s, and whose innovations influenced an entire generation of lyricists.
But the true godfather of the Great American Songbook wasn’t even an American – he was an Englishman who produced his greatest body of work during the reign of Queen Victoria. Chances are you’ve heard of him, and if you haven’t, you should.
His name was W.S. Gilbert – of “Gilbert and Sullivan” fame.
I recall being asked to audition for a musical many years ago and being shown part of the score, but not being told who wrote it. Scanning the lyrics, my first impression was of Cole Porter. It turned out to be Gilbert & Sullivan’s Princess Ida. No coincidence there, however: Cole Porter, as well as Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin and others studied Gilbert’s lyrics carefully and were strongly influenced by his use of interior rhymes, cultural and political references (which are unfortunately dated), puns and word-play – and even alliteration, which is the oldest form of poetry in the English language. For instance, here’s one of my favorites (and it’s a great warm-up as well):
To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock
In a pestilential prison with a life-long lock
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block.
Compare this to one of my favorite Cole Porter lyrics:
Birds do it, bees to it,
even educated fleas do it
Let’s do it – Let’s Fall in Love.
Cold Cape Cod Clams ‘gainst their wish do it
even lazy jelly fish do it…
By the way, I hope you noticed the interior rhymes (“bees – fleas” and “wish – fish”) in that lyric. But now, let’s take yet another look at the Gilbert lyric (which is from The Mikado, by the way). Notice how much mileage Gilbert gets out of that syllable “ock” – rock, lock, shock and block. And here’s another Porter lyric that takes this to a whole new level:
Let’s write a tune that’s playable,
A ditty swing-and-swayable
Or say whatever’s sayable
About the Tow’r of Ba-abel,
Let’s cheer for the career
Of itty-bitty Betty Gra-abel…
Part of what makes this lyric (from Let’s Not Talk About Love) so utterly delightful is that Porter was not afraid to distort the pronunciation of certain words in order to make them rhyme (turning “Babel” and “Grable” into “Bay-a-ble” and “Gray-a-ble”). This is a very sophisticated technique that must be handled with skill – and really requires a sophisticated audience to appreciate it. (If you are interested in learning more about these devices, check out this earlier post on lyric writing.)
I could write a book (another great Lorenz Hart lyric) on this topic – and I confess that while I place Porter and Hart at the top of my personal pantheon of great lyricists, there are many others who are crowding them. It’s also a matter of personal taste: I simply enjoy clever rhymes, alliteration and puns. (I also enjoy many of the socio-political references, such as “Let’s curse the Old Guard, and Hamilton Fish – forgive me dear if Fish is your Favorite Dish” – but only because I’m a history buff. Unless you know something about D.C. politics in the early 1940s however, chances are that won’t make much sense to you.)
Perhaps there is something else about lyrics that appeals to you. For example, later lyricists such as Paul Francis Webster and Hal David were not so much into word-play and clever rhymes – but they were superb balladeers whose lyrics tell powerful stories and paint vivid pictures with words. Here’s a poignant example from Hal David, who wrote this song with Burt Bacharach:
One less bell to answer,
One less egg to fry -
One less man to clean up after,
No more laughter, no more love
Not much in the way of rhyme there, but it touches anyone who has ever lost someone they loved.
In A Time for Love, Webster presents us with amazing imagery that most of us can relate to (and by the way, you can see that he took some tips from Hart and Porter):
A time for summer skies
For hummingbirds and butterflies
For tender words that harmonize
Incidentally, one of the greatest song lyrics of all time – in terms of sheer poetry – has absolutely nothing in the way of rhyme. Here’s a video of the late, great Frank Sinatra performing it (he also has some interesting things to say about music and musicians in general before he sings):
In conclusion: while I have my two favorite lyricists, I think it is virtually impossible to simply select one or two of them and crown them as the “Greatest.”
You may not agree, however. Whom do you consider to be the greatest lyricists of all time?
I can’t wait to hear what your responses are to today’s question, so let me know down in the comments here.
You can also leave a comment on LinkedIn, Google+, Facebook or Twitter. And you can always feel free to drop us a line, either in the comments below or send us a direct email, and let us know a cabaret question that you would like us to ask, and we’ll do our best to include it in an upcoming Wednesday post.
I truly look forward to your joining the conversation with your comments! We value each of our readers very much, and hope to entertain you and give you a place to come and learn more about cabaret.
We appreciate your support!
Till next time,
ps–The Cabaret Soiree Link Party is still going strong–you can visit anytime to click on the links and see what others have posted, or you can share your own recent cabaret blog or cabaret website link from now through Thursday. Link is below.
Weekly Post Lineup At McElrath Cabaret:
Tuesdays: Cabaret Tip Tuesday
Wednesdays: Ask A Cabaret Question
Thursdays: Featured Cabaret Blog, Website, Performer
Fridays: Cabaret Through Time