The emotional content and the poetic techniques found in rock lyrics are examined in this program, which is ideally suited to introduce students to the universality of human values, to such poetic tools as simile, metaphor, hyperbole, symbolism and allegory and to lyric, dramatic and narrative poetic forms. Hit songs from the 1950's through the 1970's are used, and students are encouraged to compare the poetry of rock with more traditional forms. (40 min). DVD is also available for streaming through Contemporary Arts Media
•Warm Up Activities
1. Have the class do an analysis of several songs they have heard on a rock station. Instruct them to classify the lyrical content into groups based upon theme and musical style. Discuss the most common and recurring themes and the possible reasons for their popularity. Decide if any one theme seems to be set to any one particular musical style and discuss the reasons why this may (or may not) be so.
2. Copy the following song lyric excerpt on the blackboard and have the class analyze its rhyme scheme.
Give me a ticket for an airplane
Ain’t got time to take the fastest train.
Lonely days are gone,
I’m a-going’ home—
My baby just wrote me a letter.
I don’t care how much money I got to spend
Got to get back to my baby again.
I’m a-goin’ home—
My baby wrote me a letter.
("The Letter," Wayne Thompson)
Have students discuss the thematic content of the lyric and ask them to compose their own poem based on the theme of the song.
3. Direct your students to write short essays about what they think living in the 1950’s was like. Since most of their perceptions will probably come from TV, movies, and the songs from that time, note what values are stressed most often. After these essays are discussed, have your students read specific selections by Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, and William Carlos Williams and compare the ideas and values reflected in these works with their own essays.
4. Have your students make a list of their favorite popular CDs. Then poll the class to see how many students listed the same records and recording artists. Conduct a class discussion to determine the reasons for a particular record’s popularity. Have the students decide whether the lyrics of the song or the beat of the music was the primary factor in their choices.
5. Ask your students to go to the library to research songs from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, choosing a recurring theme and finding songs from each time period that deal with this them. Have the students analyze the language used in these songs, showing the similarities and differences in the lyrics. Ask them to judge the merit of each lyric as a poem. Discuss the reasons why one poem might be more effective than another.
6. Write a list of figures of speech on the blackboard and give the students a simple definition of each.
7. Have your students copy the lyrics of a favorite rock song and ask them to list any specific figures of speech they can find contained within the lyrics. Then ask them to create various figures of speech of their own dealing with the same subject.
8. Instruct the class to write a poem on a specific them using simile, metaphor, and other figures of speech. Discuss the finished poems in class to examine what the most popular comparisons were. Try to decide if the images used were of a traditional type or more relevant to the youth or pop culture of today.
9. Ask your class to list their favorite rock and traditional poets and categorize some of each of their works into thematic groups. There should be sufficiently similar lists of poets as well as categories on which to base a discussion of different poetic styles (i.e., poetic devices, figures of speech, rhyme, and rhythmic structures). Also discuss any common elements which can be traced from one group of poets to the other.
o Part One: Summary of Content
Rock lyrics and music combine as a contemporary form of poetry communicating values, ideas, and life styles. While this mode is modern, the feelings and concepts expressed are often universal.
Different words and styles can often express the same ideas. For example, both Edgar Allan Poe and the Big Bopper described feelings of love and delight in the language of their day. While the differences of style are apparent, the emotions are the same.
Every age has its primary mode of expression; these modes are a basic reflection of contemporary values, the ways in which people perceive the world around them and the ways in which they communicate their thoughts and emotions.
Since the 1950’s, rock music has been the language of youth—expressing experiences of love, freedom, and self-discovery. Early rock ‘n’ roll emphasized rhythm rather than meaning. The lyrics were simple and direct. Freedom and love seemed relatively uncomplicated; you talked cool, you dressed cool, you were cool. The music mirrored influences of country and western and rhythm and blues styles, both with a repetitive beat.
Unlike ‘50s rock, the lyrics and music of the ‘60s reflected the growing complexity and evolution of values. The concepts of freedom and self-discovery were undergoing changes and rock poetry changed along with them. Bob Dylan brought his personal and unique form of expression to rock. "Like a Rolling Stone" suggests the painful road to self-discovery: "How does it feel/ How does it feel/ To be on your own/ With no direction home/ A complete unknown/ Like a rolling stone?"
Other artists such as Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen, sang about the loneliness and heartache of love. They explored the physical and spiritual sides of relationships in their respective songs, "…Bobby McGee" and "Suzanne." The Beatles used their special blend of humor and seeming childlike simplicity to express themes dealing with the disillusionment in life. An example may be found in the song "When I’m sixty-four." The rich heritage of black American Gospel music is reflected in Paul Simon’s song, "Bridge over Troubled Water." The universal feelings of love are explored in simple and sensitive words.
o Discussion Questions
1. Bob Dylan’s classic "Blowin In The Wind" is poetic reflection of America’s changing values during the early 1960’s. What were some of the important political and historical events of that time? What injustices within the American social structure was Dylan referring to in his song?
2. How do rock stars influence their fans in terms of promoting specific life styles or ideologies? Name the most influential stars of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s in regard to their impact on social values. Discuss some of the obvious changes in fashion and styles as well as the more fundamental and underlying values.
3. Trace the emphasis of adolescent values using songs from the ‘50’s and ‘60s. During which periods are the following themes stressed: a) first love; b) cruising around in a car; c) going to war; d) getting married; e) search for self-identity; f) social pressure. How do the songs reflect the values of the time in which they were written?
4. "The trouble is that so much of the pop and record business is being run by people who don’t have a clue what it is about (Paul McCartney, The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics, edited by Alan Aldridge). Discuss this quote in regard to American business trying to sell us what it thinks the public wants. Do you think the record industry forms our taste or reflects it?
5. What are some of the musical and poetic characteristics of early rock ‘n’ roll songs? Discuss the idea in relation to specific songs of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and the Big Bopper.
6. Leonard Cohen uses a combination of poetic images and figures of speech to create a special mood in his song "Suzanne." Discuss the use of images in this lyric. What emotions does Cohen evoke in his song? Do you find his use of language effective in describing a love relationship?
7. In your opinion, does the American public idealize rock performers? What could be the possible dangers of this? For example, do you feel that a particular pop-hero’s use of drugs would be advocating or condoning this value for his fans? How did the drug-related deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix affect the public at large?
8 What are some of the elements of black Gospel singing found in the songs and styles of such artists as Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and the Righteous Brothers? What characteristics do "soul" music and country and western have in common?
9. Rock poetry is a primary means of communicating ideas and emotions. How would you relate graffiti with rock poetry? What are their common roots and characteristics? Which could be seen as a more radical form of expression? Why?
10 What are some of the female and male stereotypes that often appear in 1950 rock lyrics? Do you feel that with today’s growing consciousness, there has been an appreciable change reflected on rock lyrics?
11. Compare Bob Dylan’s poetic style in "Like a Rolling Stone" to Paul Simon’s in "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Contrast their work in terms of grammar, word usage, and imagery. Discuss the historic influences to be found in their styles.
o Research Questions and Related Activities
1. Throughout history, writers have been concerned with certain universal themes. Though their language and style may be different, the essence of their emotions can be strikingly alike. Study and compare the poems below, particularly the language and imagery used.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love the to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
("Sonnets from the Portuguese," Elizabeth Barrett Browning)
Michelle ma belle
These are words that go together well, my
Michelle ma belle
Sont les mots qui vont tres bien ensemble
Tres bien ensemble.
I love you, I love you, I love you,
That’s all I want to say,
Until I find a way,
I will say the only words I know that
Michelle ma belle,
("Michelle," Paul McCartney)
2. Find some songs which use war as a theme for the lyric, and analyze the content of each song in relation to the mood of the country during the time it was written. Be sure at least one song is an enthusiastic, patriotic treatment of wartime (e.g., "Over There"). Compare the intent and musical style of each song. Then construct a rock poem that reflects your attitude toward war.
3. The meaning and impact of a specific lyric can be greatly changed by the style of music that accompanies it. Using Robert Frost’s "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," select a melody (or make up your own) that you feel is close in feeling to the words of the poem. Compare your work with your classmates. Are the results very different in style and rhythm? Why or why not?
4. The practice of setting words to music dates back many centuries. One of the most prolific groups of lyrical poets was the troubadours of the 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. Research some of the works composed by the troubadours or minnesingers. Are their poetic themes in any way similar to those being written today? If so, what accounts for the continuing popularity of these ideas?
5. Analyze the astrological imagery in the song "Aquarius" from the musical Hair. Be sure you know the precise meanings of the various terms. Research the symbolism of "star" and "starlight" as used in other songs and poems. Compare with regard to intent and meaning.
When the moon is in the seventh house,
And Jupiter aligns with Mars,
Then peace will guide the planets,
And love will steer the stars.
This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius,…
("Aquarius," words by James Rado and Gerome Ragni)
6. Words set to music are not always intended to be appreciated primarily for their verbal meaning. Often, words or parts of words are used to evoke an emotional response based on their sound. Study the use of assonance, alliteration, and onomatopoeia in early rock ‘n’ roll songs and in the works of different poets. Study carefully Edgar Allan Poe’s Bells.
7. Take a well-known melody such as "Home, Home on the Range," "Swanee River," or "I’m A Yankee Doodle Dandy" and compose a rock lyric to it. Compare your work to another’s. Are the results in any way similar? Have you written about the same idea? While working on the lyric, did you have difficulty with the stanza formation or rhyme scheme? Did your familiarity with the melody help or hinder your work?
8. In the 16th century, William Shakespeare wrote his well-known tragedy Romeo and Juliet. West Side Story, a contemporary musical, is a play based on Shakespeare’s story of "star-crossed lovers." Study some of the key scenes in Romeo and Juliet (e.g., the death of Tybalt) and find the musical parallels in West Side Story. Note how the songs often advance the action of the story and directly reflect many of Shakespeare’s passages, characters, and themes.
9. In today’s technological and depersonalized society, the poet often compose lyrics reflecting values of a bygone era; the peace and beauty to be found in nature are often major themes. Imagine yourself twenty five years from now. What do you think society will be like at that time? Do you think values will be very different from those esteemed today? What do you think a primary theme for song lyrics will be? Do you think people twenty five years from now will look back nostalgically to this period?
o Part Two: Summary of Content
Rock and traditional poets aim to communicate ideas and emotions in an imaginative and moving way. While both use figures of speech, allegory, rhyme, rhythm, and specific poetic forms, rock poets seem to use simple, everyday language more often than traditional poets.
Rock poetry has evolved from its earlier days when it emphasized nonsense syllables and rhythm rather than meaning. Today rock poets use figures of speech to convey ideas in a vivid manner.
One figure of speech is a simile, which compares one thing to another by using the work like or as. Shakespeare compares the moon to a silver bow in heaven. Rock poet Leonard Cohen compares the sun pouring down to honey. Donovan also uses simile in his song, "Wear your love like heaven."
Metaphor is a figure of speech which says one thing is another. "I am a rock, I am an island" is a metaphor. Bill Joel’s song "You’re my home" uses metaphor repeatedly.
When writers give human qualities to an idea, object, or animal, they are employing personification, another figure of speech. Emily Dickinson personifies a train in one poem. Paul Simon, in his song, "At the Zoo," personifies different animals.
Hyperbole is a poetic technique of overstatement or exaggeration to emphasize strong feelings. "Love conquers all" is a hyperbole. When modern rock pet Carole Kings sings of love, she also uses hyperbole.
Another figure of speech is a symbol. A symbol is a concrete image used to stand for an abstract idea. This device is useful because it makes an abstraction vivid and specific. For example, the lion may symbolize courage; a rose symbolizes love and beauty.
When many symbols combine to tell a story, an allegory is created. The characters represent abstract ideas and really stand for something else. Don McLean’s song "American Pie" is an example of a complex allegory. The symbols used are obscure and are open to various interpretations.
Both rock and traditional poets often use rhyme and rhythm to add stress to their words. Joni Mitchell’s "Morning, Morgantown" emphasizes the atmosphere of a town just waking up by using a regular rhythm and a simple rhyme scheme.
Bob Dylan in his song "Subterranean Homesick Blues" uses free verse. His lyric have no fixed rhythm or rhyme and there is no fixed length to his lines. This jumpy, irregular pace corresponds to the meaning of his song.
Similar forms or types of poetry appeal to both traditional and rock poets. One form is lyric poetry, used to express the poet’s most personal thoughts and emotions. Judy Collins uses the lyric form in her son "Who Knows Where the Time Goes."
Dramatic poetry is another basic type. This form gives us insight into a specific character, either the poet or another person. "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" by Otis Redding tells of a man who sees his life in the ebb and flow of the tide.
A third basic poetry form is the narrative poem, in which the poem or song recounts a story. There can be many characters and scenes or merely one character and one scene. The Beatles’ "Rocky Raccoon" is a satirical narrative of the Wild West.
The simple words of rock poetry may be deceptive, for they often express complex and profound feelings, which are given more emphasis by the music.
o Discussion Questions
1. What are some of the basic poetic forms used by both traditional and rock poets? Discuss the specific uses of each form and analyze an example of each.
2. In your opinion, does the fact that rock poets rely on many of the same technical devices as the so-called traditional poets justify calling some rock lyrics "great" poetry? What other specific criteria would you consider when judging the worth of a particular poem? How important would relevance, theme, or universality of appeal be to you?
3. Compare the use of the rose in the song "Spanish Harlem" and in the poem "A Red, Red, Rose" by Robert Burns. Do both poets use the rose in a similar way? What figures of speech can be found in these poems? Give specific examples.
4. Discuss the use of similes in "A Decade" by Amy Lowell:
"When you came, you were like red wine and honey,
And the taste of you burnt my mouth with its sweetness.
Now you are like morning bread,
Smooth and pleasant.
I hardly taste you at all for I know your savor,
But I am completely nourished."
5. Using songs from the 1950’s, list some of the most common and stereotyped images employed to describe love, women, and men. Compare these images and figures of speech with those found in contemporary rock lyrics. Is there a significant difference in their content? If so, what current social movements could account for the change?
6. List the following words on the blackboard: fear, courage, beauty, pain, and strength. Then use these words to create various figures of speech of your own. After writing your own symbols, similes, metaphors, refer to works of traditional poets as well as rock lyricists to examine their imagery based on these words.
7. Pop critic Richard Goldstein says: "Rock ‘n’ roll has come a long way from its origins in the bargain basement of America. Once a pariah of the musical world, it has evolved into a full-fledged art form, perhaps the most preened and pampered of our time." Discuss this quote, using examples of pop and rock lyrics from the ‘50’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s to illustrate the change in scope of the lyrics. Explore the role and power of the music critic in establishing the stars, trends, and taste of a pop culture.
8. Study the lyrics of "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" by Otis Redding. As an example of dramatic poetry, this song gives us insight into a particular character. Explore the line, "I am the master of my fate" from "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley in terms of what is happening in the song. Compare the mood and intent of "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" to William Carlos Williams’ "The Term."
9. Parts of the Book of Ecclesiastes (in the Old Testament of the Bible) have been excerpted to provide the lyrics of rock songs. "Turn, Turn, Turn," sung by the Byrds, was a hit in the 1960’s. Discuss the basic poetic form and structure of these lyrics. How does the music add or detract from their basic message? Find other rock lyrics that include either direct quotations from or allusions to the Bible.
10. Discuss the relevance of the following quote in terms of the origin of poetry and contemporary rock lyrics. In your opinion, do you feel this statement is valid for traditional narrative and dramatic forms? "Poetry withers and dies out when it leaves music, or at least imagined music,, too far behind it. Poets who are not interested in music are, or become, bad poets." (Ezra Pound)
o Research Questions and Related Activities
1 .Study the use of personification in the sonnets of William Shakespeare and John Donne. You will notice that Time, Love, and Death are the abstractions most frequently humanized. Now study the lyrics of one of your favorite rock poets. Do you find that similar abstractions are used today, or are there other elements more often given human qualities?
2. Study carefully the following lyric by John Sebastian from "Summer in the City."
Summer in the city.
Back o’ my neck getting dirty and gritty.
Isn’t it a pity’
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city.
People lookin’ half-dead,
Walkin’ on the sidewalk hotter than a matchead.
But at night it’s a different world.
Go out and find a girl.
Come on, come on and dance all night;
Despite the heat, it’ll be all right.
Don’t you know it’s a pity
That the days can’t be like the nights
In the summer in the city.
Evening in the city.
Dressed so fine and lookin’ so pretty.
Analyze the use of rhyme and the unusual rhythmic stress in the first line of each stanza. How do these elements combine to make an effective portrait of summer in a big city?
3. Analyze the use of the narrative form in the Beatles’ "She’s Leaving Home. One of the Beatles is quoted as saying that this song was inspired by a newspaper story. Study a recent newspaper and locate an item that could inspire a narrative rock lyric. Try composing a rock song using the information in the article as the basis for your song.
4. Research the related figures of speech, synecdoche and metonymy. After formulating lists of everyday examples of these devices, find other examples in your favorite rock lyrics.
5. Historic and current events often provide the basis for many poems and songs. Phil Och’s lyric "Crucifixion" is a complex allegory based on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Obtain a copy of the lyric and discuss the symbols used to explore the themes of sacrifice and heroes. Research other allegorical works based on historical events.
6. A ballad is a poem that tells a story—a narrative form of poetry. It is meant to be sung or recited. A primitive ballad makes a simple appeal to both the emotions and imagination of the listener. It often deals with ghosts, murders, and love. A literary ballad is a modern imitation of the simple ballad. In contrast, however, it more consciously uses the devices of plot and characterization for its effect. Study and compare "Edward" (anonymous), a ballad sung by Joan Baez, and "Lucy Gray" by William Wordsworth. Discuss the effectiveness of each.
7. An ode is an extended lyric poem usually characterized by a loftiness in feeling, style, and tone. An elegy is a lyric poem mourning the death of an individual. Research various examples of odes and elegies and compare their styles and use of figurative language. One comparison may be Keat’s "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and T.S. Eliot’s "The Hollow Men."
8. List various technical words regarding the principles of verse structure. This list should include meter, rhythm, and rhyme. While these three principles do not form a complete discussion of prosody, an understanding of their uses and functions will greatly enhance your appreciation of poetry. Research the other principles of versification and apply them to both traditional and rock poems.
9. The main purpose of dramatic poems is to reveal character. This revelation often occurs at a moment of conflict. Study Lord Tennyson’s poem "Ulysses" and determine what you have learned about Ulysses’ character through this dramatic poem. Why is he dissatisfied? Do you feel Ulysses is noble, or is he a selfish individual avoiding his responsibilities?
10. Study "A Day in the Life" by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. What do you learn about the personality of the person in these lyrics? Do you feel this is only an individual statement or could it be reflective of today’s society as well?
Alliteration: the repetition of sounds, usually consonant sounds but sometimes vowel sounds, at the beginnings of words in the same line or in successive lines.
Apostrophe: the direct address to a deceased or absent person as if he were alive and present, or to an animal or thing, or an abstract idea or quality, personification.
Assonance: the repetition of vowel sounds followed by different consonants. These sounds may appear in the same line or in successive lines.
Ballad: a relatively short poem that tells a story. There are two types of ballads, folk ballads and literary ballads. Folk ballads were meant to be sung; literary ballads were meant to be printed and read.
Blank Verse: unrhymed poetry, usually iambic pentameter in which each line has ten syllables. Five of the syllables are stressed—generally the second, fourth, sixth, eighth, and tenth syllables.
Couplet: two successive lines, usually rhymed, which form a single unit of verse.
Dramatic Monologue: a type of poem in which a speaker addresses a listener or listeners who do not answer. The speaker reveals his character by commenting on a crucial problem or conflict in his life.
Dramatic Poetry: poetry in which one or more characters speak to other characters who may or may not answer. The dramatic monologue is one type of dramatic poetry.
Elegy: a poem mourning the death of an individual. It is often also a melancholy meditation on the trials and griefs of life in general. It is one type of lyric poetry.
Figurative Language: language that is not meant to be interpreted on a strict, literal level because it would make no sense or little sense if it were.
Figure of Speech: a word or phrase that describes something in a way that is not literally true but may be meaningful in a deeper sense. The effect of a figure of speech on the reader is generally stronger than that produced by everyday language.
Free Verse: poetry that does not have s strict or fixed rhythmic pattern or equal line lengths, and which does not rhyme.
Image: a word or phrase which brings a picture to the reader’s mind or appeals to his senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, or smell. The collective term for images is imagery.
Lyric: a poem whose sole purpose is the expression of an individual’s emotions or attitudes. It is usually short and musical.
Metaphor: a figure of speech in which one thing is compared indirectly to another essentially dissimilar thing, without the use of like or as.
Meter: an organized rhythmic pattern created by the repetition of the same foot, or group of stressed and unstressed syllables, throughout a poem.
Metonymy: a figure of speech characterized by the use of the name of one thing for that of another associated with or suggested by it.
Narrative Poem: a poem that tells a story, whether briefly as in the ballad or as length as in the epic.
Ode: a lyric poem that is lofty and dignified in subject matter and style.
Onomatopoeia: the use of words whose sounds imitate natural sounds. For example: bang, neigh, cluck.
Personification: a figure of speech in which the writer attributes human qualities to animals, inanimate objects, or ideas.
Rhyme: the repetition of two more words reasonably close to each other in which the last vowel sound and the last consonant sound are the same.
Rhyme Scheme: the pattern in which end rhyme occurs throughout a stanza or an entire poem. Rhyme schemes are usually denoted by italicized letters of the alphabet. For example, if the first and third lines of a four-line stanza rhyme, we say that the rhyme scheme is abac (a represents the rhyming lines, while b and c represent the lines that do not rhyme). If there are two alternating rhymes in a four-line stanza, the rhyme scheme is abab, and if all four lines rhyme, it is aaaa, etc.
Rhythm: in poetry, the recurrence or repetition of stressed and unstressed syllables in a regular pattern or manner. When rhythm in poetry is so strictly patterned that it can be measured in feet, it is called meter.
Simile: a figure of speech in which the comparison between two unlike things is expressed directly, usually by means of like or as.
Sonnet: a lyric poem of fourteen lines usually written in rhymed iambic pentameter. Sonnets usually follow one or two types of rhyme schemes—the Shakespearean or English (ababcdcdefefgg), or the Italian (abbaabbacdedde). However, many variations of these rhyme schemes are possible.
Symbol: in a poem, generally a figure of speech in which an object, person, place, event, or quality is chosen to stand for something other than itself—something which is not directly mentioned or compared in the poem.
Synecdoche: a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole.