December 14, 2016

No Nobel Prize for These Lyrics

I count myself among the many fans who applaud the Nobel Prize Commission’s decision to honor Bob Dylan for his lyrics. His life’s work certainly stands up when compared with many of our most celebrated authors and poets. I do wonder if they’ve opened a door for other songwriters. What about Lennon/McCartney, Joni Mitchell, or Oscar Hammerstein?
There were plenty of people who felt this prize was a bad decision. Perhaps it is an unfair competition to consider lyrics when they have the obvious benefit of music. Or perhaps some of those objectors couldn’t separate Dylan’s writing from the opposite end of the lyric spectrum, the subject of this blog. I am speaking of those nonsensical phrases, often earworms, that seem to have no reason for being except to be matched with catchy musical riffs.
This is not a new concept. Composers since Bach’s era and before frequently extended melodic lines by hanging out on one particular vowel. To acknowledge the holidays, a well known example is the song “Angels We Have Heard On High.” The hook to the song employs the word “Gloria.” In this traditional French carol, the O vowel in Gloria is extended for four full measures, an interesting and effective compositional tool.
Frankie Valli did much the same in the Four Seasons hit, “She … eh … eh … eh… eh … erie Baby.” Working musicians know that the bar will erupt in sound and sing along when the band arrives at these meaningless “words.”
These hooks are most obvious when they became the song titles. A short list includes the 1960 one hit wonder “Alley Oop” by the Hollywood Argyles; a 1963 hit by the Crystals, “Da Doo Ron Ron”; in 1964, “Do Wah Diddy” by Manfred Mann; and Ob La Di, Ob La Da” by the Beatles in 1968.
More often, these verbal licks are contained within the song. When I hear them I often get the impression that the songwriter may have been stuck trying to fill in a measure or two, and just resorted to an effective consonant/vowel combination. They often become the hook of the song, the most memorable part.
See if you can name these tunes. The following are verbal riffs. See if you can name the tune and the artist. You can post your guesses in the comments section. I’d love to see more if you can find some to share with us.
1. Fa-la-la-la-la…la-la-la-la
2. Heidi-heidi-heidi-ho
3. Thumpety-thump-thump
4. Bop-shop-a-lu-bop
5. Sha-la-la-la-la-la-la
6. Boom-shaka-laka-laka
7. Na-na-na…na-na-na-na
8. La-la-la-la-dee-da-da, La-la-la-la-tee-da
9. Ooka-chaka-ooka-chaka
10. Ba-da-ya
In addition to his writings worthy of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Bob Dylan may have penned an ultimate syllable-only tune. His 1970 LP “Self Portrait” included what is essentially an instrumental song entitled “Wigwam.” Throughout the song Dylan reinforces the melody with a lengthy series of one syllable sounds. It’s the kind of thing a songwriter might do as they’re searching for the actual words, only to eventually decide that the syllables suffice. It is truly a memorable tune that speaks to the power of a hook that is not dependent on words for its strength.


  1. #1 is a gimme at this season, that's Deck the Halls. and I think #2 had something to do with Cab Calloway but I don't know the song.

  2. Correct on both counts. #2 is Minnie the Moocher, a big hit for Cab Calloway in 1931. The heidi heidi heidi ho was sung out by Cab and sung back by the audience.