Songs in F&SF

As most of my readers know, at least in some of my books, people actually sing… and the lyrics almost always have sections that rhyme. For some writers, apparently, this can be a problem. I was recently asked to offer favorable comments on a novel in which song and its singers were absolutely essential elements… and I never found a single rhyming line in any of the lyrics, and no discernible meter, either. Needless to say, I did not comment on the songs, and it was a pretty good book otherwise… but it still bothered me, because I expect more of professional writers – their songs should have meter and rhyme. There are some writers who are actually singers of one sort and another, ranging from classically trained opera singers to bar-room balladeers, and so far, at least, I haven’t seen any of them just toss out phrases and claim that they’re songs.

Heaven knows, the song lyrics in a book don’t have to be great, because the lyrics in most popular songs in most cultures aren’t great, and the folk songs tend to be comparatively straight-forward tales with couplet endings and common rhymes… and most have at least a chorus or refrain.

Some writers have copped out by saying, in effect, “they’re speaking another language, and the song rhymes in their language but not in ours.” Oh? Does that mean the author might not be “translating” the other things they’re saying accurately? If you can’t write proper lyrics… don’t. Just have the characters talk about “another folk song with the same old clichés” about whatever is a cliché in that culture. Or say that the singer’s accent or diction was so bad that the character has no idea what the song’s about. And if you really need a song to make sense, find an old folksong or something that isn’t copyrighted and then change the words to convey what you want in a way that preserves the meter and has a different rhyme.

The other thing about song and culture is that, generally speaking, the less technological the society is, the greater the role of participatory song and music in the life of the average person. Passive listening to song and music is a luxury reserved for the rich or well-off until cultures reach the industrializing level. That’s also why folk tunes have rhyme and meter – because when you’re relying on memory to learn songs, rhyme and meter make it far, far easier.

The same is also largely true of music as an organized form of propaganda. While the American colonists used satiric songs as a motivating tool against the British, and Sam Adams used them in rallies, organized and wide-spread use of music was limited by the lack of technology to amplify the music to reach larger numbers and create motivating spectacles. It’s not an accident that the Third Reich was the first government to choreograph public spectacle and music.

Music is always there in human societies, but how and where it is used, and for what, is greatly influenced by affluence and technology.

Just a few thoughts…

12 thoughts on “Songs in F&SF”

  1. Chris says:

    Great point! Thus the bar songs from the past. It better rhyme because it sure won’t be sung by pretty voices (or sober ones).

  2. Sam says:

    It’s funny. I remember reading one of Mr Modesitt’s books recently and finding it strange that a song rhymed.

    At the time I was thinking that it was unlikely a song translated from another language would rhyme in english and wondering if the language that Mr Modesitt’s characters spoke actually was english.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      Song lyrics and poetry are translated; it can done, but it’s very difficult indeed to preserve most of the meaning and intent with a translation that has the same meter and rhyming structure.

      Some song lyrics in books aren’t bad; I recall the title song of Dickson’s “Soldier, Ask Not”, and I actually wrote a melody for it (that I’d heard bits of in my head ever since reading the lyrics), although I combined pairs of verses (reducing four to two) so it would be long enough to be interesting. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough music theory to pick out the chords and arrange it, although I can almost hear what I want them to be.

      1. R. Hamilton says:

        I’m certainly no expert on such matters, but one translation of hymn lyrics that I find very well done is the following

        German original:

        English translation (first version shown):

        Not perfectly literal of course, but IMO it preserves meaning, and perhaps even improves on the elegance of the original. There are more literal translations, but I don’t think they beat that one in balance.

        Such translations have one advantage: the lyrics have an already translated source (Psalms, in this case); perhaps even one where the general character if not meter of the poetry in the original language has been considered in translation. So there’s a basis of scholarship into which to delve when attempting to translate the derived lyrics.

  3. Nick says:

    I’ll take it a step further, and say that frequently songs in less technological societies are also used as aids to work. This is particularly seen with shanties, where the rhythm of the song is used to co-ordinate the effort of multiple workers for heavy tasks. Even where the co-ordination of effort isn’t required, a good rhythmic song certianly helps the work go easier, particularly if the task is a repetitive one (I speak from experience here).
    I certianly agree with Mr Modesett’s advice to go look at traditional folksongs if you are planning to write a song into your story.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      Good point. The melody identified as “Crusader’s Hymn” (“Fairest Lord Jesus”) strikes me as quite suitable for setting the starting pace for a long march. I have very little natural sense of rhythm, but I could find myself walking to that easily enough.

  4. JakeB says:

    Of course the classic rhythms and meters keep appearing . . . I occasionally amuse myself by singing Tolkien’s Lay of Gil-galad to the tune of “Ring of Fire”.

    There’s a couple really neat recordings of post office workers in Ghana playing complicated rhythms via working — i.e. making the rhythm out of hand-cancelling stamps.

  5. Ryan Jackson says:

    I’ll take it a step further and suggest that such lazy behavior actually turns away those who are musically inclined. Even when it’s well written, if you hand me lyrics or poetry and I can’t find something to sing it to I’m almost guaranteed to skip it in reading and re-reads. Even if it’s not bad.

    Hence why I can and do randomly find myself singing anything Creslin sung to various celtic themes that seemed to fit but I still randomly forget parts of the book of the second Cyadoran emperor if it’s not the pears and praise bit or the bit about Cyador itself. Since the first is brought up multiple times and the second closes the book.

    If I’m glitching out or auto-pilot skipping good poetry by someone who knows what they’re doing, what do we imagine my response is to random words strung together?

  6. Wayne Kernochan says:

    I am wondering if the “rhyme” part is always honored in “folk” music. For example, here’s a south England example, with refrain: “There was a tailor had a mouse/hi diddle unkum feedle/He kept it with him in his house/Hi diddle unkum feedle/ (refrain) Hi diddle unkum, tarum tantum/Through the town of Ramsay/Hi diddle unkum over the lea/Hi diddle unkum feedle.”

    An interesting Gaelic (Appalachian) folk song actually manages to use old Latin as the refrain/nonsense words, and Jack Langstaff performs it superbly. “Carrion crow, sitting on an oak/With a ling dong dilly dol kiro me/Called for the tailor to make him a coat/With a ling dong dilly dol kiro me/ (refrain) Hi falero, gin con a gero/Hi falero, gin con a gay/Up jumped Johnny a ringing of his bell/With a ling dong dilly dol kiro me.”

    Then there are the ones we think are nonsense, but which were actually political satires in their time: Mother Goose is full of them. “A Frog He Would a Wooing Go” is about the Duke of Alencon trying to woo Queen Elizabeth, complete with references to the leader of Parliament (Anthony Rowley). “Georgie Porgie” was, I think, about the Prince Regent in the Napoleonic Wars, while “The Noble Duke of York” was (I believe) about the beginning of those wars, when the Duke of York was sent to the Low Countries, was unable to get his army organized to fight, and finally had to be recalled.

  7. D Archerd says:

    And of course let’s not forget “Ring Around the Rosie” and its comment on the futility of attempting to avoid contagion by the Plague with the sweet scent of “a pocket full of posies” but whose victims are nevertheless “ashes, ashes” and “all fall down”.

    But back to the subject of songs in fiction, I appreciate LEM’s use of songs in his works. They help with the world-building by providing cultural “connective tissue” that is a realistic part of pre-technological societies, has he notes. Most of LEM’s poetry for those songs is not exactly deathless verse and is far from being in the same league as that of J.R.R. Tolkien’s, but he’s correct that most popular or folk songs sound fairly insipid if their lyrics are read aloud (though there are some notable exceptions – the lyrics of Paul Simon or Joni Mitchell songs still work well as spoken poetry).

    And Nick’s comment about the use of songs as an aid to work is dead-on. I was taught by my backpacking parents to “breathe a tune” while hiking and it definitely helped; that same lesson was brought home in spades when I underwent military basic training and discovered just how easily the miles flew by when you had a good, loud singer “counting cadence” while marching.

  8. KevinT says:

    I’m currently about halfway through The Soprano Sorceress.

    I keep expecting Anna to sing Wagerian opera on the field of battle.

    Even though I’ve visited four of Mad King Ludwig II’s Bavarian castles, aspects of which were inspired by his love of Wagner, I don’t remember many of Wagner’s actual lyrics. And so I keep going back to my ingrained childhood introduction to classical music, courtesy of Warner Brothers cartoons: what keeps going through my head is “Kill the Wabbit. Kill the WABBIT!”

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