How To Make The Whole World Sing: “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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Paul Simon’s “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard” offers a multitude of educational opportunities for the aspiring songwriter. The song functions so well on so many levels that it is difficult to pick just one on which to focus. It has great melody, humor, intrigue, whistling… and the word “pajama.” Who could ask for anything more?

Recently, while viewing Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” for the 367th time, one particular aspect of “Julio” jumped out at me. The song is used for the triumphant scene in which Royal takes his grandsons out for a day of garbage truck riding, dog fighting and shoplifting, and I was struck by how much energy it lent the scene. Then I realized that its instrumental track is, basically, nothing more than a couple of loose acoustic guitars, sparse bass and light percussion. Yet the song had more mischievous, rollicking impact than the last three Fall Out Boy singles combined.

So what’s the secret? As I already mentioned, there are a lot of great things happening at once, but for the purpose of this humble missive we’ll focus on lyrical cadence. Lyrical cadence is a concept that we often don’t take into consideration when writing songs, but it is damn important. It is the rhythm in which the words of a song are delivered, the internal propulsion that is generated only by the lyric. You can have some smart words and a gorgeous melody that sits nicely with some well-considered chords but, without a good rhythmical framework, they are nothing more than a flurry of pretty notes. The right lyrical cadence gives them impact.

Check out the lyrics in the first verse of “Julio:”

The mama pajama rolled out of bed
And she ran to the police station
When the papa found out he began to shout
And he started the investigation
It’s against the law
It was against the law
What the mama saw
It was against the law

Now, there are probably 50 different ways to fit those words into a song, but Simon chooses to arrange them into a cadence that mirrors a horn part. It stutters and flutters, occasionally counterpointing against the rhythm of the guitar and sometimes staccatoing right along with it. For example, the “ma,” “ja” and “ro” syllables in the first line fall in a triplet pattern that injects a little New Orleans into the proceedings. This is answered in the third line by a straighter, choppier rhythm (featuring the internal rhyme of the words “out” and “shout”) that gives a more severe character to “the papa’s” actions and immediately suggests a few different possible outcomes for the rest of the song.

The second verse continues in a similarly tricky and infectious cadence that finally releases into a more open chorus:

Well I’m on my way
I don’t know where I’m going
I’m on my way
I’m taking my time but I don’t know where
Goodbye Rosie, the Queen of Corona
See you, me and Julio down by the schoolyard
See you, me and Julio down by the schoolyard

Just in time, Simon gives us a little breathing room. The longer notes he uses for the words “going” and “Rosie” set us up perfectly for the tag line of the song, in which he stuffs seven syllables (“see you, me and Julio”) into a nifty little phrase that could have come from the middle of a Charlie Parker solo.

Truthfully, lyrical cadence is much more easily felt than taught, more intuitive than analytical. It is one of the most difficult aspects of songwriting to master, but is also easier than you might think; you just have to be listening for it. Interesting rhythms for communication are, literally, all around us. Listen to a friend’s particular conversational style, or try to count four against the bird chirping in your backyard. If you want to stick to purely musical influence, get familiar with great rappers, many of whom are amazingly adept at picking up the nuances of different rhythmic patterns and then laying them against a straight beat. Jazz vocalists and instrumental soloists are also uncannily good at mixing up even the most tired melodies with fresh ideas.

Your inspiration for good lyrical cadence is out there. Go find it and make it your own.

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