Since My Baby Left Me

Elvis Presley

Rock and roll musician Elvis Presley performing on the Elvis comeback TV special on June 27, 1968. NBC/Getty [From Rolling Stone, August 16, 2017].

Since my baby left me, I’ve found a place to dwell, at the end of Lonely Street in Heartbreak Hotel. I get so lonely, baby. I get so lonely. I get so lonely I could die.

Elvis sang those words and I can understand them. They’re etched in my head. Julie London: “Cry Me a River”; Tony Bennett: “I Left My Heart In San Francisco”; Frank Sinatra: “Fly Me To the Moon”; Bobby Darin: “Mack the Knife”; Peggy Lee: “Fever”; Bobbie Gentry: “Ode to Billie Joe”; Simon and Garfunkel: “Bridge Over Troubled Water”; (Name any artist): “Stardust,” “Summertime,” “Night and Day,” “My Buddy,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” etc. The words come across in the recordings I’ve heard. My mother, a superb alto, taught my sister and me a lot of these old songs from our toddlerhood. The music predated us. We harmonized as a trio.

I’m not troubled or indignant over how the lyrics in many modern songs get swamped by the wall of sound or stranded in the singer’s pharynx, in contrast to earlier styles. I’m simply bemused in a good way at how a certain evolution has occurred in popular music from Tin Pan Alley times to modern times. Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, Vincent Youmans, Ira Gershwin and their sort wrote lyrics that received musical accompaniment. In the music of many modern performers and bands, lyrics seem to recede from the
foreground and be absorbed into, not to say overcome by, the instrumentation. It coincides with advances in studio production technology, I surmise, and with the increasingly robust amplification machinery that’s available for large audience venues. Loud is good and louder’s better, it goes. Bring it.

The music’s the thing. It’s about melodies and intervals and chords and rhythms. I’m led to wonder in certain instances: Why bother with lyrics at all? Given that the voice is functioning as another instrument in such cases, why not just sing sonorous nonsense syllables instead of words. Or something along the lines of the solfege warmups of a cappella Sacred Harp choirs. For most American audiences the lyrics of many classic operas are nonsense; it’s the singing and spectacle that captivate aficionados. Then again, though, why bother not to bother? If the lyrics of certain songs are incomprehensible, they’re already functioning as nonsense syllables! Might as well belt out “ripped up like a douche and did a no no in the night” or whatever. I’ve cornered myself into a speculative irrelevancy of botheringsomeness. I salute you if you’ve persisted to the end of it.

(c) 2018 JMN.

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day, and watch Netflix and Prime Video for entertainment. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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2 Responses to Since My Baby Left Me

  1. Eric Wayne says:

    I heard a snippet of an interview with Mars Volta yesterday. They are an experimental, hard-rock, prog band. One of their techniques is to sing gibberish lyrics and then assign words later. They will also sing in more than one language. One of the members even suggested he might prefer keeping the gibberish, somewhat similar to what you suggested. This song is in Spanish, I think. I don’t know what the hey they are singing about, but really enjoy the music. You might be able to interpret it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JphZtpafdKY

    Also, while I think you are absolutely right that earlier music for-fronted lyrics and made them clear, while more modern music, especially rock, doesn’t make such an effort to do so, rap and hip-hop are centered around the spoken word, and often “singing” is minimal. When there is singing in pop music these days, it’s quite likely altered digitally with auto-tune because the singers can’t really hit the notes. This tells you how little value is currently placed on actual singing ability.

    Several years ago I watched a music awards program, and what really stood out to me, in contrast to a similar type of offering a decade prior, is that the majority of musicians did more dancing than singing, and the musicians were in the background. Musicianship has died. Now it’s about appearance, and bodacious booty might be a better selling point than a beautiful voice.

    • JMN says:

      You hit a lot of right notes here for me. I listened to the Mars Volta. I can pick up Spanish phrases, but not enough to construct a thread. They sing in English in the middle, then back to Spanish. Also alternate between strenuous loud movements and softer, more contemplative movements. The visuals are like being inside a kaleidoscope. I confess somewhat guiltily to not caring much for music videos. I simply can’t invest in experiencing music that way. It may have to do with what you say about the primacy of dancing now. It’s as if the video industry has concluded that if the viewer isn’t being bombarded by multiple stimuli and constant movement he or she will get bored and tune out. It may be a self-fulfilling syndrome. You’re right about rap putting language back up front and chanting as much as singing. I should be more attuned to it than I am, but I think one problem is that the pace of recitation often outstrips my mental processing speed. I do have a hip-hop playlist. In grad school I was a fan of Joan Manuel Serrat. He had some good results in putting poetry of Antonio Machado to music. I know next to nothing about music production, didn’t know about auto-tune. Does make a sad statement about devalued singing ability. That and the bootiliciousness! I would like to hear some of the stripped-down cuts on the new release of Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” to have a taste of simpler modes.

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