Scanning Blues Lyrics

[A couple of my better-educated pals got into a discussion on this topic and I prepared the following message. As usual, I invite the word of those who know more than I on this topic.]

[[Following my publication of this piece, I got a letter from Kevin FitzPatrick with a few pages of Robert Wallace’s article entitled “Meter In English,” which appears in the book of the same title edited by David Baker and published in 1996 by the University of Arkansas Press. Kevin makes a trenchant argument for interpreting my lyric examples as iambic meter. The Wallace article backs him up. I have appended a note to the end of this article explaining the interpretation Kevin espouses. You’ll have to flip back and forth because I’m too lazy to redo the whole page to include his comments where they rightfully belong..]]

Your discussion with Blind Lemon Meringue about the scansion of blues lyrics piqued my interest. I broke out my well-worn copy of Understanding Poetry, Brooks and Warren (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, NY, 1938, 1950, 1960) and re-acquainted myself with some of the terminology and methods used to make a formal analysis of verse. This volume does not specifically address song verse, but does go into the various types of feet, lines and rhyme devices for poetry.

Among other things, it mentions the caesural pause as a device for finishing an imperfect foot. The cp is the “natural” break in a line of verse. It seems to me you would find a much more liberal use of this device in song lyrics since you have to wait while singing the verse for the musical meter to complete its run. You can’t just jam the words into the music to suit the “poetic” inflection; you have to meld the lyric with the melody and musical form. My point is that it becomes difficult, within the musical context, to make a realistic scan of the lyric unless you rely heavily on the cp or some similar literary device with which I am unacquainted.

Aside from this consideration, you can still treat the lyric as a poem. A foot is defined as one accented and one or more unaccented syllables. This is where Blind Lemon gets his trochee rap (one accented followed by one unaccented syllable, as in only): many blues lyrics begin with an accented syllable for a more forceful vocal entry. [In the following examples, the accented syllables are in boldface type.]

  1. Told me | early | in the | Fall you | didn’t | have no | man at all.
  2. Fare thee | baby,| fare thee | well.
  3. Told me early in the Fall you didn’t have no man at all.
  4. You got | more men | than a two– | ton truck | can haul.

This Joe Calicott tune, Fare Thee Well Blues, is in an eight-bar form:

|E| |E| |E| |B| |E| |E| |E-A-B | |E|

|Ln 1| |Ln 2| |Ln 3| |Line 4 |

Line one as written is a heptameter line consisting of six trochees and one dactyl (man at all). One could alternately scan this as two lines, a tetrameter (ending in the troche Fall you) and a trimeter for the last three feet.

Line two is a tetrameter terminating in an imperfect troche, the imperfection being corrected by a pause in the melody line, a caesura. Or, if Brooks and Warren can call a line that ends with an extra unaccented syllable a “feminine ending,” then surely a 1999 revision of their classic would refer to this accented ending as “masculine.”

Line four reverses the meter of the preceding three lines and supports your argument that blues is an iambic pentameter form, for this is indeed an ip line.

In the few tunes I analyzed, I saw this reversal in the last line commonly used. I also noted the preponderance of four-footed lines and of longer hex- and hep- lines, as well as plenty of di-and trimeter lines.

Reading the back pages of Brooks and Warren, me eyen (that’s Middle English) fell upon a brief discussion of Eliot’s use of something called old native, or strong-stress meter. Here I’ll quote Brooks and Warren:

“This is a pattern derived originally from the Old English four-beat alliterative verse…In the modern survivals of this verse, the alliteration may or may not appear, but the verse is still usually characterized by four heavily accented syllables, and the line is often broken between the second and third accents by an emphatic caesura. For example:

Sing a song of | six pence, || pocketful of | rye

Four and twenty | blackbirds || baked within a | pie

[Two vertical marks: || indicates caesura.] Sounds like a blues verse to me–also rap. To continue B&W:

“Observe that the feet in this line have as many as four syllables and as few as one. Indeed the foot used in this kind of verse has no fixed number of unaccented syllables to the foot. In the line just scanned, the foot pie has not even one unaccented syllable…It must be conceded that some verse that reflects the old native meter can be scanned in terms of iambs and anapaests [two unaccented syllables followed by one accented syllable]…On the whole, it would seem best to abandon the conventions of normal English verse and scan…in terms of a pattern of four strong beats, with feet of a varying number of weak syllables.” (pp. 568-569)

I might add that a different sort of scanning altogether must be used if you consider a lyric to be different from a poetic verse. The use of caesurae seems to be more widely employed in lyrics than it is in poetry. I couldn’t find my copy of Poetry in the Blues or Blues Poetry–maybe this book addresses the issue at hand.One thing is certain: there’s a lot of variation from one tune to another and though there are types of songs , as there are types of poetry, there is no rigid adherence to literary form in blues lyrics, probably because many of the practitioners were illiterate. Rather than argue whether or not blues lyrics are in iambic pentameter or some other meter, let’s just say they’re mostly written in old native or strong-stress meter.


Now here are the notes I derived from Kevin FitzPatrick and Robert Wallace, starting with a copy of the verse as it was printed above:

  1. Told me | early | in the | Fall you | didn’t | have no | man at all.
  2. Fare thee | baby,| fare thee | well.
  3. Told me early in the Fall you didn’t have no man at all.
  4. You got | more men | than a two– | ton truck | can haul.

Here is the scan Kevin proposes:

  1. x Told | me ear | ly in | the Fall | you did | n’t have | no man | at all.
  2. x Fare | thee ba | by, fare | thee well.
  3. x Told | me ear | ly in | the Fall | you did | n’t have | no man | at all.
  4. You got | more men | than a two– | ton truck | can haul.

The leading “x” in lines 1-3 represent what Wallace calls an ‘anacrusis’ (from the Greek, meaning “the striking up of a tune”). He says: “the unstressed syllable at the beginning of a line may be omitted without changing the normative scansion as in

x Fif | ty springs | are lit | tle room

“The first foot here is counted as if it were an iamb rather than an irregular or “lame” foot…”

From this, we see that the lines of Calicott’s verse scan iambically, though not in pentameter.

Regarding the third and fourth feet of lines one and three, Wallace states that “meter measures…speech.” With this in mind, he says that substitutions of trochee, pyrrhic or spondee do not stop the line from scanning iambically. Indeed, when spoken aloud (or sung) this iambic scan seems more acurate than the complicated one I suggested in my article.

My thanks to Kevin for this enlightenment.