On Whether Rhymes Still Matter, and, if so, Why?
“History does not repeat, but it does rhyme.” – Mark Twain
“You know, it’s a game, but it gives you a thrill to rhyme something that’s never been rhymed before.” – Bob Dylan
Why rhyme? Do songs have to rhyme? Well, actually, no. There are some famous songs — including “America” by Paul Simon, “Moonlight in Vermont” by Blackburn & Suessdorf, and “I’ll Be Your Man” by The Black Keys — without any rhymes.
But these are exceptions. Generally in songs, be they rock, rap, folk, blues, funk, or hip-hop, rhymes are integral to the solidity of the lyric. Rhyme adds a solid completion to a line that nothing else can replace. They not only complete a line sonically by matching sounds, they also link words in terms of associative meaning. One can play forever with the distance between the sound of rhymed words, and their meaning.
In our modern times, most poetry is in free verse, and rhyme is considered an artifact of a long-ago time. But in songs they matter more than ever. And as songwriters know – those who write songs in English – our language doesn’t always make rhyming easy. As opposed to the word ‘amor’ in Spanish or ‘amour’ in French, which can be easily rhymed, in English there are few options with which to rhyme ‘love’, including: of, dove, above, and glove. Not many others. So our choices in English are often quite limited, which requires songwriters to approach rhymes from various angles, often choosing titles that lend themselves to a rhyme.
Our current cover story is an interview with James Taylor, conducted before the release of his new album, American Standard, a collection of classic songs from the fabled Great American Songbook.
The album triggered a deep discussion of traditional craft elements of songs, which distinguished that era of songwriting; the use of rhyme was unparalleled, as great lyricists such as Johnny Mercer, Lorenz Hart, Yip Harburg, Cole Porter and others revelled in the splendor of perfect rhymes linked to timeless melody.
As James is an especially thoughtful guy, and one who does not shy away from hard questions, we asked him why rhymes matter so much. After all, it’s not random that songs from every era and genre share a reliance on the power of rhyme.
“Maybe it’s just a sort of a cultural artifact that we’ve inherited, this love of rhyme,” he said. “But there is something satisfying about it, whether it’s innate, or whether it’s something we’ve arrived at culturally over time. It’s still very satisfying to have things rhyme.”
“It can be surprising, too,” he continued. “You can choose a rhyme that you didn’t expect. It’s part of the word game that’s satisfying. It’s got a symmetry.“
It’s that symmetry, James suggests, which is integral to the song’s ability to make near perfect order out of our chaotic world, which might be the most potent aspect of rhyme. As he explains:
“Our human consciousness is looking to recognize things. It’s looking for a repetition. It’s looking to put things in context and analyze them and understand their truth, the implications of what we see…
“Rhyme is satisfying in that it gives us a real taste for symmetry. The fact that we have a line that goes from the top of our head right down through the center of our pelvis and up our back means we’re bilaterally symmetrical along that line, which is how we form as creatures, as do all animals. So there’s a symmetry that seems like home to us.
“That symmetry,” said James, “is reiterated or recapitulated by a rhyming scheme. Symmetry is beautiful when you make it, and it’s beautiful when you break it. It has energy when you interrupt it as well. It’s a really interesting dynamic.”
Interesting, sure. Even fun. But necessary? How important are rhymes, and do they have to be perfect?
To clarify, a perfect – or “hard rhyme,” as Rodney Crowell and others call them – is a rhyme which matches two words completely, such as ‘corn’ and ‘born.’ Both the vowel sound and the final consonants match.
A false, or “soft rhyme,” is one which nearly does this, but not perfectly. Often, these rhyme the vowel sound but not the final consonant, such as ‘corn’ with ‘storm.’ It is close, but not perfect.
Yet there are a multitude of soft rhymes in song, even in many famous songs. Usually these are done so well, as in almost every song by the great Warren Zevon, that one never notices that the rhyme is false.
So if we do use rhymes, must we always use perfect ones?
This subject – the necessity of perfect rhymes, or use of any rhymes at all – is one that has two separate schools of thought, each well articulated by great songwriters whose lives are immersed in such considerations.
There are those, such as Rodney Crowell and Van Dyke Parks, who are committed to the understanding that use of perfect rhymes, and the pursuit of them while writing, can often bring one to effective choices that would never have been discovered, if not for the pursuit of that perfect rhyme.
It’s that dynamic, even more than the perfection of the rhyme itself, which Crowell articulated. To him, it is not a rule as much as an aspiration that elevates the process. He admitted he’s used soft rhymes even in some famous songs. But that pursuit while in process matters: “The fact that you have to struggle for that hard rhyme,” he said, “can bring something unexpected that’s right to the song.”
In previous generations, such as the era of the Great American Songbook, songwriters were expected to always utilize immaculate rhymes. All craft elements, many of which are rarely considered nowadays, such as matching the true syllabic stress of words with a melody, were then the exclusive province of professional songwriters. Any reliance on false rhymes was the sign of an amateur.
The late Sammy Cahn, one of the great lyricists of his generation (although he preferred the term ‘lyrist’), so loved rhymes that he wrote his own rhyming dictionary, and often boasted of his great proclivity for perfect rhyming. Yet he was also savvy about the process, which was about more than the rhymes themselves; it was about creating a structure which enabled perfect rhyming.
An example is the song he and composer Jimmy Van Heusen wrote about Chicago for Sinatra to record. Knowing that the word ‘Chicago’ isn’t easy to rhyme, he instead used the title “My Kind of Town,” so as to rhyme ‘town’ instead of Chicago.
My kind of town, Chicago is
My kind of town, Chicago is
My kind of people, too
People who smile at you
And each time I roam, Chicago is
Calling me home, Chicago is
Why I just grin like a clown
It’s my kind of town
From “My Kind of Town” by Sammy Cahn & Jimmy Van Heusen.
Ironically, though Sammy and his peers often boasted of using perfect rhymes, often they’d play around with words to make them rhyme, even when they actually didn’t. As Sammy said, “It’s not that I can’t rhyme ‘Chicago,’ I can. I know all the rhymes for Chicago; there’s embargo, Wells Fargo… but they don’t make it.”
But the truth is, unless one was raised in Brooklyn or nearby, the words ’embargo’ and `Wells Fargo’ don’t really rhyme with ‘Chicago’ at all! In his voice, he pronounced them as “em-bah-go” and “Wells Fah-go.” Which is cheating of sorts. But as Sammy’s entire world of professional songwriting was then situated in New York City, that concern didn’t register.
But his allegiance to the pursuit and usage of perfect rhymes is one which he held onto his whole life, even mocking his old-fashioned need for them. At the time of our conversation in 1988, the Number One song in America was “Wind Beneath My Wings,” recorded by Bette Midler and written by Jeff Silbar and Larry Henley.
“Whatever the number one song is at this moment,” Sammy said, “I wish I had my name on. Because it’s special. I love the song ‘Wind Beneath My Wings.’ It’s a song beyond… I wish I’d written it. But the point is, if I had that song, I probably would have neatened it up to make the rhymes perfect. Which would maybe spoil it. But it’s a beyond incredible song.”
“Did you ever know that you’re my hero
And everything I would like to be?
I can fly higher than an eagle
For you are the wind beneath my wings.”
From “Wind Beneath My Wings”
By Larry Henley and Jeff Silbar
Sammy’s love of rhyme did carry over into the next generation of great songwriters, many of whom held deep reverence for what came before. When I asked Harry Nilsson about the greatest songwriters ever, expecting he might point to his old pal John Lennon, he said Johnny Mercer. The reason given? Mercer’s brilliance with rhymes.
“Anyone who can rhyme ‘aurora borealis’ with ‘red and ruby challice’ is not bad,” said Harry.
Harry’s good friend Van Dyke Parks, another legendary songwriter, admitted to his great love of rhyming, and enthusiasm for somewhat arcane, intricate rhyme schemes that have both inner and outer rhymes. Yet he also recognized that few people share this love in modern times.
“I love internal rhymes,” he said, “and a highly crafted lyric, what some people think of as highly pretentious or overly managed words. At one point in our songwriting history, this was a prerequsite for a good song. Those things are now thought of as elaborate and somehow out of step… “
“I’m comforted by such craft,” he said. “I love it. But there is a time when instinct is the higher teacher. It’s like you get to a point of what they say in New Orleans is ‘obzakee‘ – too many spices in one dish. It gets to be too much.”
Jackson Browne, when asked about this issue, said he has evolved to the point where he now feels soft rhymes are acceptable. It’s the content of the line, he said, that matters more than the perfection of the craft.
“You can only rhyme ‘world’ and ‘unfurled’ so many times,” he said. “Now I don’t think it’s important to rhyme perfectly. I used to be pretty obsessed with it. I wouldn’t even rhyme a singular with a plural so it would be perfect. I would go to great lengths to change the line so that it would be ‘time’ instead of ‘times’. But I’d say that most great songwriting is fine without that kind of obsessive detail. I tried to get beyond it.”
He suggested that a reliance on rhymes can be somewhat of a creative crutch for songwriters, something to lean on to create a form, even when the content itself remains unformed.
“A song will sound fine if it rhymes,” he said, “even if it doesn’t say a thing. That’s the thing about songs. There’s a lot of forgiveness in the medium because people are used to hearing things that don’t mean anything, or make any sense.”
“Sometimes,” he continued, “when I’m writing a song and aware that I don’t know what the hell I am writing about, I tend to rhyme too much. Sort of like a stepping stone, going from rhyme to rhyme trying to get something going. And it seems to me that if you had something to say, you wouldn’t need all that.”
End of Part One.
Part II, which is devoted primarily to Bob Dylan’s use of rhyme and his thoughts on the art and craft of rhyming, will be published tomorrow, March 8, 2020.