Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Singing Long with the Beatles

Posted by Neal on April 7, 2009

As I was driving to the SALT conference last weekend, a song by the Beatles came up on my iPod. It was “I’ll Follow the Sun,” and as always, I found it disconcerting how Paul McCartney tries to sing gone to rhyme with sun in the line:

One day, you’ll look and find I’ve gone.
But tomorrow may rain so I’ll follow the sun.

He doesn’t sing it as [gɔn] (i.e. “gawn”) and forget about trying to rhyme it. Nor does he sing it as [gʌn] (“gun”) to rhyme with sun and forget about trying to be faithful to its pronunciation. He sings it somewhere in between, with a vowel that doesn’t sound quite like English. That disconcertion (disconcertation? disconcert?) is quickly pushed aside by the one that follows in For tomorrow may rain. “Tomorrow may rain”? Can you do that? The only subject I can have with rain is the dummy subject it, unless you’re saying something like “I’ll rain destruction on you!” Checking the CoCA, I see that occasionally the precipitation itself is the subject, as in “I don’t got enough problems dealing with the day-to-day shit that rains from the sky in Manhattan.” Usually it’s precipitation other than rainwater; the examples I saw also included blood and mirror shards. But no tomorrow will rain, yesterday rained or today’s raining. So when I hear the song, I keep trying to hear a very short it squeezed in there that maybe I just didn’t hear all the other times. This time, though, I just didn’t feeling up to doing that, so I jumped to the next song.

What do you know? It was another one by the Beatles. This time it was “From Me to You.” If you haven’t heard it (and even if you have, of course), it goes like this:

Whenever I hear this song, I think about the line

I’ve got arms that long to hold you, and keep you by my side.

They're longing to hold you!They're THAT long!Is that arms which have a need to hold you, like on the left? Or is it arms that are that long in order to hold you, like on the right? Maybe I can find a better illustration…

An army man

Luckily, there’s the next line to give us a hint. It goes:

I’ve got lips that long to kiss you, and keep you satisfied.

If Lennon and McCartney were aiming for parallel structures here, then we’re clearly talking about arms and lips that long to hold you and kiss you, respectively. And keep you by my side and satisfied, respectively. Unless….

Long lips
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16 Responses to “Singing Long with the Beatles”

  1. The Ridger said

    McCartney was (is, perhaps) a supremely gifted writer of melodies, but he really didn’t care to work hard at the lyrics. There are a lot of problems with them, ranging from the infamous “world in which we live in”, through syntactic oddities such as you mention, to flat-out horribly incompatible meanings, like the obtrusive and mean “So I hope you see that I would love to love you, and that she will cry when she learns we are two” in “If I fell (in love with you)”. I always feel blindsided by that line, it’s so mean – and hardly an enticement to fall in love with him.

    • Neal said

      Ridger: Hey, you’re right about the clunky lyrics. And the line from “If I Fell” reminds me of “We Can Work It Out”, which sounds like a heartfelt attempt to make peace, until you listen to the actual words: “Try to see it my way. Only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong. While you see it your way, there’s a chance that we might fall apart before too long.” And so on in the other verses: If you see it my way, maybe we can get through this. If you see it your way, we’ll probably break up because of your obstinacy. (Hat tip to my mom, who made this observation to me when I was a kid.)

  2. The Ridger said

    That song reminds me of the Pope’s announcement, after he baptized an apostate Muslim Italian (Italian Muslim?): “Thus faith is a force for peace and reconciliation in the world: distances between people are overcome, in the Lord we have become close.”

    In other words, if we all become Catholic, we can all get along.

  3. The Ridger said

    Dang, I forgot again to mention: the guy with the long arms is on top of one of the tree diagrams.

  4. Do you dare challenge the sanctity of Beatles lyrics?

    …Apparently so. But anyway.

    I never interpreted “gone” and “sun” as an attempt to rhyme, so I never saw any problem with that, but I can certainly concede to you the odd point about “tomorrow may rain”.

    However, I also never interpreted the “that” in “From Me to You” as an indication of degree, and I think it’s silly to do so. It’s obviously a love song, so why wouldn’t Paul’s arms and lips have a longing to come in contact with his lover.

    As for “Live and Let Die”, which The Ridger mentions, I only recently realized that Paul says “the world in which we live in” because I’d been too busy enjoying the song. When I went to look it up, I found some blog entry somewhere (could it be here?) that attempted to explain it away as “the world in which we’re livin’”, which may have merit.

    In reference to your attempt to inject an “it” into “tomorrow may rain” reminded me of what I do for “In My Life”: “But of all these friends and lovers, there is no one [who] compares with you.” In my case, though, there’s plenty of space between the words to fit it—indicating that, in my case, it might have actually be a recording problem that left “who” out in the first place. Who knows? Maybe the digitally-remastered tracks will give us more info, come September!

  5. Oh, and I also forgot to mention that “If I Fell” was a John song (as was “In My Life”), not a Paul song.

  6. Neal said

    Ridger: Good point about the Pope, and thanks for the tip on the picture. I hope it’s fixed now.
    Gordon: Sure, my parse is silly, and sure, the reading in which the arms and lips have a longing is more apt. But I still think about the silly parses.
    I think the blog entry on “Live and Let Die” that you’re thinking about is this one from Language Log, where it comes up in the comments.
    As for “In My Life”, yes, you’re right; I’d forgotten about that one. It’s definitely “there is no one compares with you”, but by the time I heard that song I’d already been long since introduced to the missing subject relative pronoun in “Bingo” (“There was a farmer had a dog, and Bingo was his name-o!”).
    Thanks for the fact-check on “If I Fell”.
    All this talk about Beatles syntax reminds me of some funny Beatles semantics. In “No Reply”, the bridge goes: “If I were you, I’d realize that I / loved you more than any other guy.” There’s probably something to say there about conditionals and deictics and maximally similar possible worlds, but I don’t know quite what. It’s like the line in “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” from My Fair Lady: “Would I run off and never tell me where I’m going?”

  7. Actually, I think it was this one from Language Log, but my browser history also tells me I viewed these two pages: 1, 2.

    Funnily enough, I always sing it “There was a farm who had a dog”.

    And I wonder if those “No Reply” lyrics actually deserved to be in this blog post. It seems like it’s some sort of (legitimate) linguistic conflict with “I’d”/”I”/”loved”. Interesting….

  8. Actually, I take that back. I just listened to it again, and I hear “I’d realize that I love you more”. Not “loved”.

  9. Kyle said

    You use CoCA? That’s fantastic. I actually work for Mark Davies; I’m helping him compile a historical corpus.

    It’s nice to know people actually use this stuff….

    • Neal said

      Kyle: Yeah, I’ve used it enough that I now have to log in every time. I’m aware of the historical corpus in progress and I look forward to using it when it’s available.
      To you and Fn. D. B.: Alas, I was afraid this would happen. My posts are always so darn funny that when I engage in some April Foolery (as Ellen K. puts it), it’s hard to tell. As for the two hyphens, I find that I have to put a space before and after — like this — for it to turn out right.

  10. Ben Zimmer said

    About those arms that long to hold you… Fun Beatles fact: the working title of the movie “Help!” was “Eight Arms to Hold You.”

  11. Ellen K. said

    What’s CoCA?

    • Neal said

      CoCA would be (and indeed is) the Corpus of Contemporary American (English), which you can click to from the Resources list on the right, under the blogroll.

  12. You must find “What’s the New Mary Jane” *very* disconcerting then. ;)

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