Soapbox: Deck the Lyricist

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soapboxI seem to be back in a bah-humbug mood this year over seasonal songs. After last year’s metaphorical extravaganza, I find myself getting curmudgeonly over some of the lyrics bestowed upon us by the Victorian reinvention of Christmas. It’s not so much the clichés that exercise me this year (though I’m only restraining myself becauseI’ve said all that before), as the general poetic ineptitude.

First, for a mild example: Carol of the Bells. This is a Ukrainian carol, furnished with English words by Peter J Wilhousky. The basic message works okay with the music – the narrative of the winter air alive with merrily-jingling bells chimes with the obsessive motivic repetition in the music.

But there are persistent bumps in the prosody. Take this verse for instance:

Ding ding-a-dong
that is their song
with joyful ring
all carolling

The first word of every line is brought into emphasis by the melody. But for the 2nd and 3rd lines it makes no sense. To emphasise ‘that’ suggests the line is asserting an alternative to some other song: ‘No, not this song, that song.’ Likewise, in speech ‘with’ would be lightened, while ‘joyful’ would form the focus of the statement, rather than being thrown away on the quick and unaccented notes.

Still, these niggles fade into the background when compared with the sins against lyric-writing committed by whoever supplied the modern words to the old Welsh tune that we now know as ‘Deck the Halls’.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly (Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la)
'Tis the season to be jolly (Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la)
Don we now our gay apparel (Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la)
Troll the ancient Yule-tide carol (Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la)

So, right at the start we have an example of this same emphasis issue: to be jolly. A deeper problem is the lack of assonance. There’s the holly-jolly end rhyme, but the melodic parallelisms from phrase to phrase are just begging for echoes of vowel sounds within the lines as well. The four strong beats in the first two lines fall on four different vowels: Deck-boughs-Tis-to. It just sounds random. Even replacing ‘boughs’ with ‘wreathes’ would get a little more sense of consistency. (In fact, this is what I had been singing for years before I actually looked at the words to arrange the song).

We get a moment of respite with ‘Don we all’ – isn’t it nice to be able to reuse a mouth shape every so often? But then there’s the matter of ‘gay apparel’. You can just hear the cogs whirring:

Now let me see, I want to end the next line with ‘carol’. What rhymes with ‘carol’? Barrel? Daryl? Viral?....Ah! Apparel! So, what do we do with apparel? We put it on…Put we on our (something) apparel…nearly there…need a one-syllable adjective for clothes…wool (not festive enough)…red (we’re not all playing Santa)…gay…that will do till I think of something better…

And so on. Clearly at no point was the question, ‘But does that sound like natural language, or does it sound contrived?’ part of the working method.

Then the last line:

Troll the ancient yuletide carol

Now kudos to the songwriter for getting the assonance between ‘gay’ and the first syllable of ‘ancient’. Other than that, this line is about the most unwieldy set of syllables to sing imaginable. Not only are the vowel shapes are all over the place, but it’s full of peculiar words.

‘Yuletide’ is something of a mannered word – it flounces into the line making a point of being not just Christmassy, but ostentatiously traditional. It comes with built-in inverted commas. Which is fine, but you don’t need any trolls to start muscling their way in on the act at the same time, with their noun/verb ambiguities and piles of word sounds to wade through before you get to the vowel. Surprising words slow you up cognitively as they draw attention to themselves, so you don’t need more than one at a time, especially in a fast tempo. Even ‘ancient’ is not exactly a bog-standard adjective – easier to sing than ‘troll’ or ‘yuletide’, but it’s carrying quite a baggage of connotations.

And that’s just the first verse. It will come as no surprise, then, that the version I have arranged for Magenta’s Christmas performances has found a way to avoid singing all the subsequent verses. If you’re in Birmingham this weekend or next, come and hear how we’ve managed this - it's actually turned out pretty cool. But it would have been nice to have some decent lyrics to sing even if the work-arounds have turned out to be creative.

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