Best Line Ever

Most people can quote a line or two from a movie, novel, speech, advertisement, or other source that for some reason stuck in their head. For this article, we’ll look at some great lines from poems and songs. And to make sure we include Shakespeare’s plays, we’ll allow his blank verse since technically that’s poetry.

So what characteristics does a line need to be a candidate for a best line ever? After looking at a lot of great quotes, these things come to mind:

  • Memorable. If you can’t remember how the line goes, then it may not be all that great and you’ll probably soon forget about it no matter how witty or profound it is.
  • Relatively short. This is probably connected to the line’s memorability, but also forces it to be about only one thing.
  • More than just a phrase. So Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” doesn’t qualify, although the full line “To be, or not to be: that is the question” probably does.
  • Standalone. The line doesn’t require a setup or explanation.
  • Surprising, wry, or funny. The line functions almost like a short joke, with a punchline (or punch) at the end.

Let’s look at some example lines and see whether they meet these requirements.

“I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.”

This is from Shakespeare’s rom-com Much Ado About Nothing and is a line delivered by Beatrice at Benedick during their insult match. As in a modern rom-com, insults like this might be a hint that the two characters are secretly crazy about each other. One problem with this line is that it’s prose, not poetry, so technically it’s ineligible. Romeo and Juliet speak blank verse to each other, but in this play the lovers speak prose.

“Men were deceivers ever, / One foot in sea and one on shore, / To one thing constant never”

This is also from Much Ado, part of the song “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more” that presumably was sung in the earliest productions, although we no longer have the tune if so. It’s a little long, but memorable because of two things: the linking through rhyme of “ever” and “never,” which are opposite in meaning, and the image that the middle line summons of figures standing half in water, half on land, surely a perfect metaphor for indecisiveness. It reminds me of the lines in the old folk song, “House of the Rising Sun”: “Well it’s one foot on the platform / And the other foot on the train.”


“Now you’re telling me / You’re not nostalgic / Then give me another word for it”

This is from Joan Baez’s song “Diamonds and Rust.” That’s a terrific zinger at the end, but by itself that line probably isn’t enough and including the setup makes it a little clunky. But this song is just full of great lines, so maybe something else would work.


“Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe / And to love you”

This is from the song “The Air That I Breathe” by the Hollies, who probably couldn’t be accused of having a poetic bone in their body during their 60s heyday, and yet still found this early-70s gem, which really pings the best line meter. Note how it’s realistically conditional: sometimes, not always or forever. For those struggling to write about love in a song, this is how you do it. Just don’t spend almost two minutes getting to the chorus the way the Hollies do, risking a nomination for the E.B. Browning enumeration award.


So much for lines about relationships. How about some great lines about what Bob Dylan calls “life, and life only”?

“[Life] is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”

This is from the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech in Macbeth. Is it odd that Shakespeare the actor and playwright has Macbeth, who has nothing to do with the stage, describe life as a play? It reminds me of the engineer narrator and his dentist in Günter Grass’s 1969 novel, Local Anaesthetic, who view the world in terms of their respective occupations. William Faulkner took the title of his 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury from these lines, as well as inspiration for the point of view of the novel’s first section, which is narrated by a mentally disabled man.

“Hope is the thing with feathers”

After the bleakness of Macbeth’s speech, this line from Emily Dickinson’s well-known poem sounds quite cheerful. Hope as a bird that survives even the storms of life feels like a fairly ordinary metaphor, but where Dickinson shines is how she describes ordinary things with such originality. Instead of beginning with “Hope is like a bird” or “Hope sings its little song,” as a lesser poet might, she starts out telling us that hope has feathers.

“I read the news today, oh boy”

This line that John Lennon sings in the Beatles’ song “A Day In The Life” is a good example of how they mixed plain-looking lyrics with sophisticated music, thus ensuring that this avant-garde song remained accessible to their fans.


And finally, some lines about the self.

“I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

That’s from the final part 52 of Walt Whitman’s long poem “Song of Myself.” This is typical of Whitman’s embrace of himself as rugged individual. Incidentally, “yawp” had been around in English for centuries, yet his use of it is fresh, perfectly suggesting the sound he wants us to hear.

“I grow old … I grow old … / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

That’s from T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In contrast to Whitman’s point of view, Eliot’s lines sound very 20th century, the speaker anxious, maybe depressed, even if the rhyme makes you smile. Eliot was only a college student when he wrote the first draft of this poem, but his speaker sounds so much older.


© 10 Franks 2022

Can You Say Melisma?

An earlier article mentioned how stress is the primary way of emphasizing syllables in English poetry and forms the basis of poetic meter. And how music has other ways of bringing emphasis to parts of the lyrics, tools that are not available to the poet.

By the standards of poetry, song lyrics can look a little flat on the page, and sometimes they include clichéd phrases or unoriginal observations. But that’s because the lyrics weren’t written to be read like poetry, but to be sung.

For example, look at the first line of the chorus that supplies the title of Dolly Parton’s famous song:

      And I will always love you

You might not be very impressed by this as poetry. But banality of the words aside, when you hear it sung, the line is transformed into something almost profound. Here’s Whitney Houston singing “I Will Always Love You”:

Houston uses throughout this song a technique called “melisma,” where she changes the pitch of her voice on a single syllable, giving the quoted line an impact it would otherwise never have. You could also argue that in this case complicating the line lyrically would only detract from its sound when sung; here a simpler lyric is better.

Melisma has been around for a long time and it’s hard to find a song that doesn’t use this technique at all. That’s because it also serves as a way of lengthening the line to fit a musical phrase, providing flexibility both to the lyricist and the singer.

Here’s an example of a song without much melisma, something closer to a pure “syllabic” technique where each syllable gets its own pitch. This is the band Brass Against doing a cover of Alanis Morissette’s song, “Uninvited”:

Poetic stress often involves an increase in pitch on stressed syllables. With a poem in meter, the rise and fall of pitch is determined by where the “accents” fall within each word and the position of each syllable in the meter. It’s interesting to hear singing against the natural meter of the words, the way Sophia Urista does in this song, particularly with words like “unfortunate,” where the pitch increases with each syllable, which is not how the word would be sounded out in spoken English.

If you’re looking for an example of a song that mixes these various vocal techniques, listen to Led Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop”:

Another thing to listen to is how the singing and instruments interact. Are the lyrics sung over the instrumental parts, or do the instruments pause or drop in volume when the singing begins? And what happens during pauses between sung phrases, does the music swell in volume there or change in some other way?

A good example of this interaction is the 60s song “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)” by the Electric Prunes. As an exemplar of “psychedelic” music, this song features several odd sounds not often heard in pop music. For example, just before the first chorus, you’ll hear an oboe-like sound after each phrase. That this sound doesn’t appear until about the 45-second mark makes me think it was saved for emphasis because of the effect it creates, almost like an echo of or a comment on the phrase it follows:

Returning to the example of Led Zep’s “Misty Mountain Hop” from above, one of the most distinctive aspects of this song is its grinding, relentless guitars repeating the same few notes over and over. And yet the guitars usually fade into the background with the singing, either to keep the song from becoming monotonous or maybe so the lyrics remain intelligible. In either case this grind-sing-grind-sing-grind interplay creates a drama of its own, independent of the lyrics.

Each of us has a unique speaking voice, a combination of sounds and rhythms that usually reflect how and where we learned to speak, but can also be full of random things that don’t fit a predictable pattern.

Just as a speaking voice is the result of numerous influences, so too is a singing voice, sometimes even changing from song to song, perhaps to better fit the mood or music of a song or to imitate (or differentiate from) another singer who did the song.

Earlier articles cited example songs sung by Bob Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty. To my ear, Dylan and Fogerty do not have singing voices that I would characterize as typical of where they grew up (northern Minnesota with Dylan and the San Francisco Bay Area with Fogerty). That suggests they altered their voices in some way, perhaps more than once. In both cases they seem to have created a voice that sounds like it’s from “someplace else.”

By that I mean they have incorporated bits of how various Americans sound. For example, contrast any of the Dylan songs cited in previous articles with his cover of the old American folk song, “House of the Rising Sun,” from his first album. Is he imitating his early idol, Woody Guthrie (from Oklahoma), or some old-time singer, or is he just a young singer still searching for his voice?


© 10 Franks 2022

Beyond Mondegreens

Pop song lyrics can provide good opportunities for improving your English, but they can also be confusing and hard to decipher. Part of that is because the language of a pop song is more like spoken English and recited poetry, fast and fleeting, than it is the English of essays and literature, designed to be studied at your own speed. In addition to mondegreens, here are some other things to look out for.

Borrowings from other languages

Like a magpie’s nest, English is full of things purloined from other languages, often changing the spelling or even the meaning over the years.

For example, even though English is a Germanic language, it has a lot of French in it. This witty song by the band Wet Leg says it all in the title: “Chaise Longue.” This term means the same, but isn’t pronounced the same, as “chaise lounge,” which is how most Americans would probably say it. Once you’ve heard this song, you won’t forget the more French-sounding pronunciation:


References

In an earlier article, Creedence’s “Fortunate Son” was cited as an example of a two-minute classic, but its lyrics also contain references that might be puzzling to non-Americans:

  • “red, white and blue” — the colors of the U.S. flag
  • “Hail to the Chief” — the song traditionally played when the U.S. President appears
  • “silver spoon in hand” — this likely refers to the expression “born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” meaning someone born into wealth and privilege, which leads perfectly into the song’s next line, “Lord, don’t they help themselves,” with its suggestion of greedy feeding
  • “star spangled eyes” — a reference to the U.S. national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner”

Idioms

Creedence Clearwater Revival also did a cover of the Motown classic, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” first made famous in versions by Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye. So what does the title mean? Well, the song makes that pretty clear, but where did the expression come from? Perhaps the resemblance of 19th century telegraph wires to a grapevine or maybe to the strings used to train grapevines.

Here’s Creedence performing this song:


“Nonstandard” pronunciation or grammar

It’s long been common in folk and country music to employ pronunciation or grammar that could be considered “nonstandard” in written English or more formal contexts. There’s probably a variety of reasons for this practice. For spoken forms of English, it might be considered more natural or folksy. Or maybe it just sounds better to the ear, particularly when sung, and allows an easier transition between syllables.

As an example, here’s a line from Bob Dylan’s song “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”:

      It ain’t no use in turnin’ on your light, babe

In written English, you might word it like this:

      There isn’t any use in turning on your light, babe

Even if you’re unfamiliar with Dylan’s song, you can hear that something has been lost in the rewritten line. The hard opening vowel of “ain’t” creates a punchy, emphatic effect that the other forms it substitutes for don’t have. Same with the double negative: just in case you might have missed it the first time, here it is again: no. And dropping the trailing “g” in “turning” allows that word to be pronounced slightly faster.

Technically, Dylan’s line could be considered iambic pentameter with a feminine ending. The rewritten line is still iambic, but now it’s longer and starts to lose energy by the end.

Later in the same song we find this line:

      I’m a-thinkin’ and a-wond’rin’ all the way down the road

In addition to the dropped “g” from “thinking” and “wondering,” there’s also a dropped syllable in the latter word. And then there’s the matter of the “a-” prefix added to the beginning of both verbs.

Again, this prefix is a fairly common spoken form, which serves to alter the meaning of verbs slightly. In this case, it suggests that the singer is spending some serious time pondering why he’s leaving. If you’re familiar with the musical Oklahoma! then you’ve already encountered examples of “a-verbing.”

Here’s Dylan singing this song:


Vagueness

Dylan is certainly not the only songwriter who can be vague and cryptic, but let’s use his lyrics as an example anyway. In his song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” we find these lines:

      When Ruthie says come see her
      In her honky-tonk lagoon
      Where I can watch her waltz for free
      ’Neath her Panamanian moon

What exactly is a “honky-tonk lagoon”? If you’re a native English speaker, when you hear “honky-tonk” you almost instinctively expect it to be followed by “saloon,” the full phrase meaning a cheap bar where music and dancing can be found. But instead the line ends in “lagoon.” Since this is a song that contains wordplay and humor, perhaps the substitution is just more of that, intended to throw the listener slightly off-balance.

Similarly, you wouldn’t associate the kind of dancing found in a honky-tonk with “waltz.” Again, is this just to upend the listener’s expectation?

And what’s a “Panamanian moon” if you’re not in Panama? Well, in this case the phrase sounds great on its own, with its alliterative m’s and n’s, and the third syllable of “Panamanian” almost rhymes with “moon.” Inside a bar, you wouldn’t be able to see the moon. So is the moon simply a stage-light, like for a singer or dancer? Or does it just go with the image of a lagoon, maybe one that’s languid and tropical?

Here’s Dylan singing this song:


© 10 Franks 2022

Two-Minute Classics

How do two-minute songs resemble sonnets and how are they different? Let me count the ways.

The main similarity is how short both are. Brevity and compression, that’s what you notice about both a short song and a sonnet. They can still tell a story, but it had better be a fairly short narrative, without a lot of extraneous details.

A traditional English or Shakespearean sonnet consists of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. Typically that works out to around 115 words, give or take, something that can be recited in less than a minute. There’s only so much you can say in that number of words. Similarly, in a very short song, there’s only so many verses you can sing in two minutes.

An English sonnet is divided into three four-line sections or quatrains and a final two-line couplet. Each section is rhymed. Perhaps you can think of the three quatrains as three verses in a song.

One of the most famous sonnets in English is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. Here’s the opening quatrain:

      Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
      Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
      Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
      And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;

Note how lines 1 and 3 are rhymed and lines 2 and 4 are rhymed (or rather, they were; we no longer pronounce “temperate” and “date” as Shakespeare did more than four centuries ago).

Here’s the first verse of Bob Dylan’s version of the old English folk song, “Pretty Saro”:

      Down in some lone valley
      In a sad lonesome place
      Where the wild birds do all
      Their notes to increase

Note how short these lines are compared to the sonnet lines, with no more than six syllables per line versus the sonnet’s ten. That allows the song’s six verses to be sung in just over two minutes.

Here’s Bob Dylan singing “Pretty Saro”:

The distinctive feature of a sonnet that sets it apart from other poetic and song forms is its turn. This is the place where the poem changes direction or takes a different line of thought. Often this occurs at line 9, but the turn can also be delayed until the final couplet. In Shakespeare’s sonnets, the turn usually comes at the couplet, but in Sonnet 18 it seems to me that something is changing already in line 9:

      But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

The introductory “But” tells us that there’s more to the poem than just praise for the beloved who’s being addressed. And of course in the couplet we find out what that more is:

      So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
      So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

(If you find Shakespeare intimidating, a fun exercise is to summarize one of his sonnets in a single sentence as a way of coming to grips with it. Here’s my take on Sonnet 18: Your summer hotness won’t last, but this poem will. Quite a boast, eh?)

It’s certainly possible for any poem or song to have a turn, but that isn’t the norm. If the poem or song has a narrative, things generally move in a linear fashion from beginning to end. Or else the poem or song establishes a tone at the start that’s reinforced through repetition or example.

In “Pretty Saro,” “lone,” “sad” and “lonesome” in the first two lines hint at the song’s theme and nothing much disturbs this first impression, that the song will be kind of a lament. The last two lines of the song confirm that the singer and his love are separated by distance:

      But I dream of pretty Saro
      Wherever I go

Another example is “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Three verses and four choruses in barely two minutes. Each verse poetically describes how some people are more fortunate than others. But there’s no “Yes, but” moment in the song; its point is established in the first verse. That doesn’t make the rest of the song any less enjoyable, but it does illustrate how different a sonnet is from most poems and songs:

Sonnets don’t include refrains or really any kind of repetition. The shift required at the turn would make this difficult, plus there’s not much room for those things. But even a short song will usually have a chorus. In “Fortunate Son” the chorus is the most memorable thing about the song and you hear a variation of these lines four times:

      It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son, son
      It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no

Short songs even find room for brief instrumental stretches. “Fortunate Son” has a little guitar interlude after the second verse. And Dylan’s three-verse “All Along the Watchtower” features four short harmonica solos, yet still comes in at only two and half minutes (although without a chorus):

You could argue that Dylan’s song is short only because it stops just as it gets going. But that might be what many like about it: a thumbnail sketch of the world of an imaginary epic.

When Jimi Hendrix famously did this song, he added a long guitar solo, lengthening it to four minutes:

Perhaps we can think of guitar solos as equivalent to Whitmanesque poetry: open-ended, seemingly unstructured and improvised. Walt Whitman also wrote some great short poems, but when he turned his back on traditional meter and rhyme, he left the sonnet behind as well. For someone inclined to windiness, the sonnet must have seemed too constricting a form. The same with great guitarists: maybe they have more to say than two minutes would allow.


© 10 Franks 2022

Which Came First, the Verse or the Chorus?

A common song structure is to repeat the chorus after each verse. This used to be a fairly common practice in poetry too, although in poetry the verses are usually called stanzas and the chorus is called a refrain. Typically the verses tell the story of the song and the chorus summarizes or comments on that story. While each verse is different, the chorus usually stays the same, or is only minimally altered with each singing.

Often the chorus is the most memorable part of a song, what you remember long after you’ve forgotten the words or tune of the verses. So it seems sensible to wonder why the chorus doesn’t come first in some songs. And indeed, there are songs where it does.

An example of this alternate structure is Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which appeared on an album of his in 1965. However, a band called the Byrds released their version of the song shortly before Dylan’s version.

Perhaps one marker of a good song is if someone else can do a version that’s more memorable than the author’s. This song might serve as an example of that. In many people’s minds, the version of Dylan’s song that they think of first is the one by the Byrds.

Here’s a video of the Byrds performing their version. The chorus that opens the song begins with the famous line:

      Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me

Dylan’s version consists of five choruses and four verses, making it over five minutes long. Perhaps one of the reasons why we like the Byrds’ version is that they only sing two choruses and a single verse, in under three minutes. (Two to three minutes is kind of the sweet spot for pop song length.)

One of this video’s delights is the young woman dancing Zelig-like next to the stage, drifting in and out of frame, a reminder that Dylan reportedly liked the Byrds’ version because he realized you could dance to it, unlike his version, which is sung in a traditional folk style. Here he is at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival in what is probably one of his earliest performances of the song. No electric instruments or other musicians in this version, just acoustic guitar and harmonica:

What do the lines of this song mean and what is the song even about? Don’t feel bad if you find the lyrics to be kind of cryptic, that’s a common reaction to many of Dylan’s songs.

Here’s another example of a song where the chorus comes first, “Somebody Help Me,” written by the Jamaican reggae singer Jackie Edwards for the Spencer Davis Group, a British band of the 60s. The opening chorus consists mostly of repeating the song’s title, then we get the first verse:

      When I was just a little boy of seventeen,
      I had a girl, she was my queen.
      She didn’t love me like I loved her, now I know.
      Now I’m so lonesome on my own.

Technically, this could be considered the start of a poem in meter, with alternating lines of iambic hexameter and iambic tetrameter. Song lyrics often don’t exhibit this kind of metric regularity, primarily because they’re intended to be sung, not recited or read silently, and singing has additional ways of emphasizing syllables than just the stress that’s the basis of English poetic meter.

Here’s a video of the Spencer Davis Group performing this song in 1966 on the German TV show “Beat-Club.”

There’s a lot to like about this video. It’s hard not to smile at how young Steve Winwood looks while singing lyrics that are almost nostalgic. And at how informally the musicians are dressed compared to the relative formality of the Byrds’ 60s getup, and how some of the guys in both videos’ audiences are wearing ties.

This song is also a good candidate for a list of two-minute classics (get in, get out, in two minutes or thereabout). And unlike so much of the music performed on TV shows back then, this is a live performance, not a lip-synched simulation:

Are there poems where the refrain comes first? Yes, of course. An example that you might already be familiar with, “Lord Randall,” is an anonymous border ballad from the 17th century or earlier. This ballad can be either recited or sung, reflecting the historical closeness of poetry and song.

The first verse gives the form of each verse that follows, with lines one and two functioning as a kind of refrain. The last phrase of line three also repeats, along with line four in all but the last verse. In fact, this ballad is mostly repetition:

      “Oh where ha’e ye been, Lord Randall my son?
      O where ha’e ye been, my handsome young man?”
      “I ha’e been to the wild wood: mother, make my bed soon,
      For I’m weary wi’ hunting, and fain wald lie down.”

The last verse reveals that Lord Randall is dying. This ballad is also worth knowing because Dylan adopted its form for his 1963 song, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” But in Dylan’s song, instead of a tragic revelation, we get an apocalyptic vision of the world. Each verse begins with a variation of the ballad’s question (and the only rhymed lines in otherwise unrhymed lyrics, something very rare with Dylan):

      Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
      Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?

And like “Lord Randall,” Dylan’s verses also repeat at the end:

      And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
      And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Here’s Dylan performing his song in 1975:


© 10 Franks 2022