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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Simple perfection 1 - Moon River

Perfect little songs. I thought I'd share a couple of ideas about some little songs that I think are perfect in their construction. Why do some songs wear so well, and others are forgotten so quickly? Is it length? Words? Music? I ask myself that every year at Christmas. Why are some Christmas songs "immortal," and others so ephemeral? Is it even possible to write another "Silent Night" or "Joy to the World" or "Adeste Fideles"?
That's a question I'll have to look at another time. I think of taking songs like "Silent Night," "Amazing Grace", and "On Eagle's Wings" and try to figure out some of the reasons they are so beloved. But for today, I'll just look at one of my favorite modern popular songs and give some reasons I think it's so perfect.

Moon River by Henry Mancini, lyrics by Johnny Mercer

I think this song is a marvel of musical and lyrical construction. Consider the lyric itself. There is just one stanza or chorus. No verses. And nothing more is needed: 

Moon river, wider than a mile,
I'm crossing you in style someday.

Old dreammaker, you heart-breaker,

Wherever you're going, I'm going your way.

Two drifters off to see the world,

There's such a lot of world to see.

We're after the same rainbow's end,

waiting 'round the bend

My huckleberry friend,
Moon River and me.

People of a certain age know that is song is the Oscar-winning movie theme from Breakfast at Tiffany's. Holly Golightly appears to sing it in the movie just with a simple classical guitar strumming. But you don't need to see Audrey Hepburn, or hear her wistful voice, to know the longing, memory, and ache for a different future "waitin' 'round the bend" that is all carried in the words and music of the song.

Musically, there's a uniqueness about "Moon River" in that there's no repetition or imitation of musical ideas between any of the lines or phrases. The melody of every two-line phrase is unique, logically following from what precedes it, but not imitating it in any obvious way. There is, however, some inner repetition. The notes of the phrase "wider than a mile" are repeated in "crossing you in style,"
Johnny Mercer's Savannah home was on the bank
of the Back River, now known as Moon River
heightening the inrhyme. Same with dream maker/heart breaker, and later "waiting 'round the bend/my huckleberry friend." The difference between this and the quasi-rondo or sonata form that is the standard form for much popular music is analogous to the difference between end-rhyme and inrhyme. The device here is compacted, allowing for a much shorter musical whole. Even in other short classics, there is long-line  imitation, as we shall see. This amazing tune does so much in just 9 or 10 lines!

But aside from the wonder of the tune-crafting, look at the lyric. Look how many words invite us into pondering the scene the singer is imagining. Just the first two words, the title of the song, invite us into a world of reverie: "Moon river". It's as though two great metaphors of poetry, myth, and song have been grafted here, and we can barely get out of the starting gate! We're slowly drifting on that river with the singer, dreaming, longing for a new start. Then Johnny Mercer pours another classic metaphor into the mix: the rainbow's end, and we're eddying again in a whirlpool of reverie. My favorite is "my huckleberry friend," conjuring Mark Twain's great adventure hero, his raft, and the Mississippi to be alongside us here in the boat.

(This might be a good place to think about the metaphor in Psalm 91 that became the central metaphor in "On Eagle's Wings." In that refrain, we are stunned by, even as we sing, the ancient words of the psalmist, "He will raise you up on eagle's wings, bear you on the breath of dawn." In the span of a single sentence, two metaphors of indeterminate depth sweep us into the mystery of God's beauty and strength. The role of metaphor in song lyrics, like those in "Moon River" and "On Eagle's Wings," could be explored further, and should be, in the case of liturgical song, because the human soul cries for the transcendence that metaphor can provide, while the voice of orthodoxy requires that metaphor be restrained to protect the gravitational field of truth. Another time, maybe!)

The whole of "Moon River" is certainly greater than the sum of these few parts I've demonstrated. The real magic is the blending of the melody and the lyric, a craft at which few have excelled to the degree that Henry Mancini has. Mancini's tune stands on its own in its evocative beauty, a "Moonlight Sonata" in 40 bars or so. Songwriters struggle for the kind of economy that Mercer and Mancini exercise in "Moon River," and it is rarely matched.

I hope to do the same with a few other songs I think are "perfect": The Beatles' "Yesterday," for instance, and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Edelweiss." Maybe you have some ideas about that, too. But in case I never get around to the others, at least you know the songs which represent perfection to me, and to which I aspire as a writer.

You can throw in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and "Happy Birthday," too. These things ought to be investigated!


  1. Oh, this post is going to carry me for the day!

    1. Thanks, Fran! "Neither silver nor gold," as scripture has it... ;)

  2. Wonderful insight! Maybe too schmaltzy for some, but I also love Somewhere Over the Rainbow. I think Moon River caters to the dreamer in me, and Rainbow caters to all of the hopes that I bear.

    1. E Y "Yip" Yarburgh was an idealist too, and a political one. He also was the librettist of Finians Rainbow, which had "Look to the Rainbow," which could be an immigrant's anthem! He liked rainbows, apparently...and wrote some good songs about them. Aretha covered Look to the Rainbow in the 80s, and ripped into some preachin' about abuse in the home &c....inspirational!