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Song Lyrics: Where Wrong is Right

There are some things that people just don’t say.  Among the least imaginable are, “Why don’t we catch Muddy Waters at the Ash Grove Saturday night?”

“The grammar’s atrocious, but the music is great.”  Or, “I can really get behind that Stones song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” but that double negative makes my skin crawl.”

Some of the most urbane and educated people are capable of appreciating traditional American blues and later musical genres such as rock and roll quite as thoroughly as they do Cole Porter, thank you—but they do not think to comment on the Jekyll and Hyde aspect of the grammar and usage.  And it’s natural they do not.  They don’t even think about it.  It is a question of appropriateness of language in a certain setting.  There is a time and a place for everything–even the most egregious of solecisms.

Upon historical reflection, it is most obvious from whence the gritty and ungrammatical language of authentic Southern Black American blues sprung.  It was written and informally performed by largely uneducated, even illiterate, songwriters and musicians, for the most part to an audience of the same.  However, this is no novel realization; it could hardly be more manifest and well-documented.  What is interesting and fresh, though, can be the recognition of and reasoning attendant regarding the perfect appropriateness and even the de facto “correctness” of the solecistic utterances employed.

The use of the most ungrammatical—to include non-standard words, double negatives, tortured diction, and the like—is not only acceptable in blues, jazz, rock, and other forms of popular music lyrics but is wholly necessary, I would argue, in order most faithfully and forcefully to present the tales and emotions involved.  “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone” far more appropriately conveys the desperation of the situation than could any emendation in the name of fidelity to Dr. Samuel Johnson or Noah Webster.

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