Over the past, oh, six months or so, there have been three songs that get stuck in my head/that I will start singing to myself if nothing else is going on. One is Nina Simone’s “Be My Husband” as covered by Ed Sheeran, which has been on my eternal playlist since about January:
The more recent additions came from listening to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack on repeat, and its associated Pandora station. One is “Go to Sleep You Little Baby”:
And the last is “Bold Riley,” specifically as performed by Kate Rusby:
Someone who’s better at musical classification than me would probably be able to tell you exactly what genres each of those songs fits into (blues, bluegrass, and sea chantey, I think? I feel good about “Bold Riley” as a chantey, anyway). Whatever classification they might fall into, though, they all have a certain level of structural similarity that fascinates me. They’re incredibly simple songs, each with different repeating elements.
Take “Be My Husband” for a start. Each verse consists of a lines A (“If you want me to I’ll cook and sew”) repeated three times, then a rhyming line B (“Outside you there’s no place to go”), then the chorus. That’s all there is to it. AAAB, “Whoa daddy now love me good” x 4.
“Go to Sleep” is similar: a line A (“You’re a sweet little baby”) repeated twice, a different line B with an internal rhyme (“Honey in the rock and the sugar don’t stop”), and a variation on line A (“Don’t need no other lovin’ baby”). AABA′. No chorus in this one, though.
Finally there’s “Bold Riley.” Line A (“Oh the rain it rains all day long”) rhymes with line B (“And the Northern wind it blows so strong”), alternating with the Bold Riley lines (“Bold Riley-o, Bold Riley,” “Bold Riley-o has gone away”), followed by the chorus. The chorus is structured the same way (A: “Goodbye my sweetheart, goodbye my dear-o,” B: “Goodbye my darling, goodbye my dear-o”). AbrBbr, “Goodbye my sweetheart.”
What these songs are, in essence, is modular.
I’m gonna come at this from the perspective of sea chanteys specifically, because I’ve spent a little more time around them recently and learned a little more about their history, thanks to attending the Northwest Seaport’s monthly chantey sing. (I keep trying to get people to come with me; mostly I either get odd looks or, on at least one occasion, outright hilarity at the idea.) The modularity and repetitiveness of chanteys is specifically related to their purpose as work songs. The song-leader sings a verse, or a line, and the crew responds with the chorus or a line. Different songs have different structures to facilitate different types of work, but they all come down to that basic formula. The repetitiveness makes them easy to learn; the modularity means that you could easily make up your own verses. That’s a particularly popular pastime with songs like “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor,” where everybody knows all the standards, like “Put him in a bed with the captain’s daughter,” and it’s easy to come up with new lines. (“Draw on his face with a felt-tip marker, draw on his face with a felt-tip marker . . .”)
The lyrics in these songs are so simple, and yet so powerful. They are atomic, elemental: they build molecules that build castles and worlds. They are primary colors: they blend to make spectrums and rainbows and paintings and A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.
John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats wrote about this kind of rhetorical/lyrical simplicity and power recently, as regards gospel music:
I got where I got to lyrically by listening to songs whose lyrics were as rhetorically seamless as this one, and playing them for myself in the privacy of my room, and writing and rewriting the lyrics in notebooks to look at the phrases and see how they worked (and writing hopelessly pretentious little essays in the same notebooks where I described what I saw in the workings of the phrases) and then asking myself whether it were possible to tell more personal, less cosmically-absolute stories in similar terms. To tell stories of no consequence at all in comparably vast, comparable hermit terms.
If you listen to the Louvin Brothers song he posts there, you’ll hear one of my other favorite things about these songs, which is how much room they leave for musical expression. They tend to have very simple chord progressions (that I’d need a piano to figure out) and musical phrases that repeat as the music repeats. Listen to how much fun Sheeran has riffing on “Be My Husband,” or the tight harmonies Harris, Welch, and Krauss build on “Go to Sleep,” or the overlapping voices of the Louvins. These kinds of songs are especially great when there are multiple people singing and everyone is using the structure like a jungle gym for their voice. (This can arguably backfire if nobody commits to the melody, like when Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan sing “Careless Love” and they’re both trying to harmonize and do little musical accents and it gets awkward and ridiculous and they both sound like they’re about to crack up and actually I’m pretty sure that’s not a backfire at all. Were they drunk when they recorded this? What a couple of dorks.)
It’s not a coincidence that all these forms of music we’re talking about — Simone’s blues, Welch and co.’s field holler, Rusby’s chantey, the Louvins’ gospel — have deep roots in either work songs or large group gatherings, or both. This is what we talk about when we talk about “folk.” Humans like to sing, and we like to sing together. Music syncs us up with the other people singing — which makes work easier. Makes dealing with life easier, too.
Next time on jungle gym structures (maybe): fairy tales.