The Words Fit the Music, or Not

Do not fear. This post begins with a little poetry, but it soon veers off in a different direction.

[I don’t know what happened to the double-spacing between paragraphs. It’s there in the draft, but then some of it vanished. I hope this isn’t difficult to read.]

Because Emily Dickinson wrote many of her poems using the ballad stanza, they can be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” You might like to try it yourself.

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry. . . . 


He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality. . . .
Some of Dickinson’s poems don’t sound quite right sung to that tune, but it can be done.
Sometimes it works the other way. Lyricists—or somebody—take a well-known melody and write their own words. For example, there’s John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” No matter who plays it, I hear Mitch Miller’s version:
Be kind to your web-footed friends,
For a duck may be somebody’s mother,
Be kind to your friends in the swamp
Where the weather is very, very damp,
You may think that this is the end.
Well, it is!
Another tune that lends itself to parody was originally known as “John Brown’s Body,” but is now famous as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Here’s the hymn performed by the United States Army Field Band.
Please excuse me, but I always cry when I hear it. You might do so as well, so we’ll take a few moments out for that.
But rest assured—the remainder of this post will prompt no tears at all.
Children have for decades sung their own lyrics to the “Battle Hymn.”
“Glory, glory hallelujah
teacher hit me with a ruler
I bopped her on the bean
with a rotten tangerine
and she ain’t gonna teach no more.”
The lyrics get worse, so that’s as far we’ll go with that one.
Often, lyrics are written as mnemonics. When I was in paralegal school, I set a portion of the Texas Probate Code to the tune of “The Battle Hymn” to help me remember content for an exam. It’s called “John Brown’s Intestacy” and explains what happens to the property of a person who dies without leaving a will.
I’m proud of it because, in 2003, when I wrote it, it was accurate,* and composing it was a mammoth task.
If you’ve read it, you probably won’t read it again. If you haven’t, it might prove interesting. There’s a story, not just facts. You may sing it if you want.
Melvil Dewey. Author unknown. Public domain. Via Wikipedia.

Before paralegal school, when I was a librarian, I wrote a “Battle Hymn” explaining the Dewey Decimal System of Classification. The idea was to teach children the Dewey decades by having them learn the song. Unfortunately, it turned out, like the system, long and complex. Elementary students couldn’t have learned it in the twenty minutes a week I had with them, and no self-respecting high school student would have touched it.

In addition, I got stuck, couldn’t finish two of the verses, and stopped. I thought it was lost, but today, twenty-five years later, I found it in a box of old papers.
It isn’t perfect. I consider it a work in progress.
But it’s accurate.
Dewey Marches On 

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the Melvil Dewey plan.
He hath numbered all the classes so that we can understand
How to find those books and shelve those books, both squeaky clean and banned.
Our Dewey numbers on!

Glory, glory Melvil Dewey!
His Decimal System is so true. We
Now sing the praise that he is due-ey.
Our Dewey numbers on!

Generalia is a class designed to hold a lot of kinds
Of subjects like computers, magazines, and quotes. We find
It’s zero-zero-zero up through zero-ninety-nine.
Our Dewey numbers on!

100’s for philosophy, beliefs of humankind,
And also for psychology, the workings of the mind,
And ghosts and magic, ESP, and dreams that are divined.
Our Dewey numbers on!

200’s for religion—Bible stories, the Koran,
The Talmud—all the sacred book explaining God to man;
Mythology from Greece and Rome and many other lands.
Our Dewey numbers on!

300 is for social science, things that people do
To live together, like make laws, build schools, have manners, too.
Folk stories are a special treat—398.2.
Our Dewey numbers on!

Dewey spine labels. CC BY-SA-3.0. Via Wikipedia.

400 is for language—English, Spanish, German, Greek.
The dictionary tells us meanings of the words we seek,
The alphabet and languages we sign as well as speak.
Our Dewey numbers on!

Natural science is 500, mathematics is a start,
The solar system, heat and light, and weather are a part,
Wild animals and vegetables and minerals we sort.
Our Dewey numbers on!

600’s for technology—what we use science for,
Space travel and inventions, farming, cooking are just four,
And doctors for both folks and pets, and building things and more.
Our Dewey numbers on!

With arts and recreation, 700’s just for fun!
It’s sports and games and making crafts and paintings that we’ve done.
Photography and music make this class a number one!
Our Dewey numbers on!

800 is for literature, the books we love to read,
There’re plays and poems—Where the Sidewalk Ends and Hamlet’s deed,
And even jokes and riddles—almost more than we will need.
Our Dewey numbers on!

900 holds our history, the years that came before.
Geography tells where we are and where we might explore.
Remember that the Alamo’s 976.4!
Our Dewey numbers on!

To Dewey add some letters and our system is complete.
REF for Reference, F for fiction, B’s Biography.
And E for Easy/Everybody’s picture books so neat.
Our Dewey numbers on!

Glory, glory Melvil Dewey!
His Decimal System is so true. We
Now sing the praise that he is due-ey.
Our Dewey numbers on!



*The substance of the Texas Probate Code was codified in the Estates Code by the 81st and 82nd Legislatures, and for that reason, the Texas Legislative Council is not publishing it. If you would like more information, please contact the Texas Legislative Council.

In other words, “John Brown’s Intestacy” is no longer accurate. And the author is not attempting to practice law without a license.


Image of rose by JacLou DL from Pixabay