Cabaret Tip Tuesday At McElrath Cabaret: KJ McElrath Gives Tips For Great Lyric Writing–Join Us!


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Welcome to Cabaret Tip Tuesday at McElrath Cabaret, where we offer cabaret performance tips to help you put together a great performance at your next show!


KJ McElrath, the talented piano-playing, singing, entertaining, chuckle-inducing, song-writing, music arranging and music directing half of McElrath Cabaret, is writing this post today focusing on tips for great lyric writing–enjoy!


There is a question that comes up on music and songwriting forums and discussion groups frequently, which is basically this: does a songwriter prefer to have a melody to work with first, or a finished lyric?


The great Lorenz Hart usually wanted Richard Rodgers to have his music done first. Cole Porter, who did both, had his melodies and lyrics so tightly integrated, I believe he worked them out simultaneously. The Gershwins, being brothers, had perhaps the most intimate kind of collaboration in this respect.


I personally prefer to have lyrics first to which I can fit a melody – though I find myself having to tweak them and revise them frequently.


The reason is that most of the lyricists I’ve worked with either have only the most rudimentary idea of rhyme and meter – they put the emphasis or stress on the wrong syllables (such as per-FECT and lo-VING instead of PER-fect and LO-ving) – and/or they get into the rut of rhyming couplets. You don’t see clever interior rhymes and surprise meters anymore. Porter gives us some excellent examples:


“Let me live ‘neath your spell -
Do do that Voo-doo that You do
So well…”


“I couldn’t care
For those nights in the air
That the fair
Missus Lindbergh goes through -
But I get a kick out of you.”


The master lyricist of the English language was W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame)  - and all the great songwriters of the “Golden Age of American Song” (ca. 1920-1955) studied Gilbert’s works carefully. They also weren’t afraid to try different and innovative things, such as ending a line in the middle of a sentence, or even with the first syllable of a word – then rhyming the next line with that word or first syllable. Or vice-versa. Hart and Porter did this frequently. Case in point:


“We’ll have Manhattan,
The Bronx and Staten
Island too…”


Here’s an example from a lyric I wrote:


“With my heart you’re playin
While it’s turnin’ gray an’
Every cryin’ shade of blue…”


One of my favorites comes from Lorenz Hart’s The Girlfriend:


“Isn’t she cute?
Isn’t she sweet?
She’s gentle
And mental -
Ly nearly complete


And notice again the slick interior rhymes.


Sometimes, a great lyricist will change the pronounciation of a word in order to make it rhyme. Again, from Lorenz Hart:


“The city’s glamour can never spoil
The dreams of a boy and goil


Of course, this sort of thing has to be handled carefully. In this example, Hart could get away with it because “goil” is Brooklynese for “girl.”


All of this takes some extra effort, along with the use of a dictionary and a thesaurus – which most lyricists today don’t bother with.


It’s well worth it, however.


Here is the great Bobby Short with Porter’s “You Do Something To Me”:



Hope these Tuesday cabaret tips help–let us know what other topics you’d like to see us cover here, and we’ll do our best to work through them!


Are you working on writing some song lyrics now? What is your favorite cabaret song lyric?  Leave us a note in the comments below—we always love to hear from our readers!


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:

Mondays:  Cabaret Soiree Cabaret Blog Link Party

Tuesdays:  Cabaret Tip Tuesday

Wednesdays:  Ask A Cabaret Question

Thursdays:  Featured Cabaret Blog, Website, Performer

Fridays:  Cabaret Through Time

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About Athena at McElrath Cabaret

Athena McElrath is an entertainer with a love for theatre and singing. She enjoys delving in the area of historical cabaret, researching the singers and clubs that were in business from before 1920 to the present, in New York and beyond.
This entry was posted in Cabaret music, cabaret songs, Jazz standards, Lyric writing, music, musical theatre, Tin Pan Alley songs, Tip Tuesday and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Cabaret Tip Tuesday At McElrath Cabaret: KJ McElrath Gives Tips For Great Lyric Writing–Join Us!

  1. Jeanne Deau says:

    Those old songwriters were also much more clever. Honestly, what’s more amusing? George Michaels blaring, in-your-face “I WANT YOUR SEX!” or Cole Porter’s suggestive (and dare I say, even seductive?) “Let’s Misbehave” or simply “Let’s Do It”?

    There will never be another Cole…*sigh*