Tell it slant

Talking about (and reading Joel Lindsey on) Dan Fogelberg reminded of that famous line of his, “my life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man,” from “Leader of the Band,” about the influence of Fogelberg’s father on his life and music.

The psychological and emotional density of the line is fairly self-evident, but at the nuts and bolts level I’ve always liked that echoing of an internal rhyme with “attempt” and “imitate” … not so much a traditional rhymed pair as a rhyming of consonance reinforced by sibilant Ts. In prosody, it’s what called a half or slant rhyme (in case you forgot from your reading of Emily Dickinson in high school or college … Dickinson being the naughty mistress of half rhyming … “tell all truth,” she says, “but tell it slant”).

Which got me to thinking about other smart slant rhymes, which got me to thinking about (what else) gospel music, and so, to “He Loved me with a Cross” and the line:

I could not imagine what
Loving me would cost

What’s so clever about this line is the way the writer, or in this case, the writers (Lindsey, as it happens, and Sue C. Smith) tinker with the rhythmic structure of the lines to come up with that neat little internal slant rhyme on “not” and “what.”

Metrical conventions would typically have led a writer to render the line:

And I could not imagine
What loving me would cost

The iambs line up more naturally that way. But switch it up so that “what” falls at the end of the first line, and you get a much more lyrically rich expression of the same sentiment, reinforced by the slant rhyme and intensified by the pregnancy of the idea left dangling for just a beat between the two phrases: could not imagine what …?

This is the kind of thing – moving one word in such a simple way – that achieves more in a few keystrokes than hours of rewrite and revision. But of course because it’s so counterintuitive to the conventions of songwriting and the seasoned musical mind, it’s also the kind of thing you have to wait to strike you in the middle of the night, or mid-sentence, or stooping over to tie your shoe.

Aha. Brilliant.

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  1. Revpaul wrote:

    Now ya see, that’s what I’m talkin’ about. That’s why I love this blog. Even if I completely understood what you said, I couldn’t have said it better. Brilliant indeed.

  2. Bob wrote:

    I enjoyed reading this post.

    Often times the discussion about SG music is whether it is entertainment vs ministry. I wish we could have more discussion about artistry vs performance.

    How many of us are actually SG artists vs SG performers? Last year a new baritone singer joined our group after the prior one resigned. During his solo lines I thought it was great how this new singer thoughtfully sang the same songs but made them fresh by way of phrasing, accenting certain words, etc. I think this really reflected his artistry.

    On the other hand, I’m sure there were those who were annoyed when he didn’t sing the songs exactly the same way the prior singer did, and the way the song was recorded. They wanted him to be a performer, not an artist.

    Maintaining a balance between these two is often just as difficult as the balance between ministry and entertainment…

  3. Songwriter Sue wrote:

    I just had to give credit where it is due. Joel discovered the “not/what” rhyme in what we had written as he was working on the melody. It was a lovely accident, and it still gives me reason to smile every time I hear that line.

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