I'm always impressed by things that English majors and people who roast marshmallows around campfires know. Since the advent of google, I sometimes even supplement the question "why?" with the question "how?".
Last night, I drove home from one of those Baltimore trips in which I arrived in the city at 11 p.m., took a curious and cool surface rail to my hotel, attended a meeting all morning, and flew out in the afternoon. I pondered the "Amazing Grace"/"Gilligan's Island" melody/meter conundrum.
It's not a particularly obscure fact. "Gilligan's Island" and "Amazing Grace" use the same meter.
You can sing one of them to the tune of the other. As any church camp aficionado knows, the same holds true for "House of the Rising Sun". "Gilligan's Island" sounds good when sung to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun", you see, even when sung by an exhausted middle-aged man driving alone with the BBC news as the backing band.
Tonight while I pondered, weak and weary (no, wait, that's Poe--wrong meter), I decided to do some intrinsically healthy factual research into this question. I knew that all these song lyrics share a common meter. But I did not know what the meter is called.
It turns out that the meter is 8686, based on the number of syllables in each line. This meter is called "The Common Meter", because it is so common in church hymns. For instance, the Methodist classic "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing" is in common meter, and can be handily sung to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun".
Precocious literature graduate students also know that much of Emily Dickinson's work, stray musings of AE Housman, and no doubt entirely random sections of the telephone book all also operate in 8686 meter.
I find this an uncommonly off-the-meter trivial fact to know. I recognize that this is not the kind of trivia that wins one points at the 1980s version of trivial pursuit. It's got this way of being obvious and yet not obvious enough, somehow. If there is an antonym phrase to "hide in plain sight" it would not be "found in invisibility", I suppose, but you get the idea. Actually, "found in invisibility" sums up certain aspects of my social life in a younger era.
Now I'm combing cyberspace, hunting for pre-1923 poems written in Common Meter. I have this idea that I can then sing the poem over "amazing grace", record the result, and add to my personal amusement. Never mind that I am not much good at recording singing. It's worth a try.
This issue of hymn, poem and meter is particularly intriguing to me since 8:30 a.m. on Sunday.
That is the time that my wife and I eschewed the traditional 11:00 a.m. service for the "contemporary" early service.
I remember in childhood how the "popular music is sinful" debate seeped into even sections of our open-minded and non-controversial little Methodist church--the kind of church in which they put up little slide-in hymn numbers on the wall each Sunday, to simplify the burden imposed by actually having to read the program.
We did not talk much about Satanic rhythms, or anything, unlike the kind of people who in 1968 proclaimed the anti-christ to have a Russian first name. We lived in a loving culture. But it's said that certain older members might exit the church in high dudgeon (n.b., what is low dudgeon?) if a cymbal were played in church. I personally ensured that the only thing I ever played in that church was a deep G handbell, the bell they give to people so uncoordinated that they must play only 2 notes a song.
I am not one of those kind of "I hate modernity" curmudgeons. I love modernity. I love experimental music. I am post-post-post rock, I suppose, though I love rock, too. "Post-rock", by the way, became a sort of in-joke, used by people who don't know what they want, but know how not to get it. I am not rockist or avante-haughty, though. I love a world of tunes and,left to my own devices, might sing to myself "Red River Valley" or "I Wanna Be Sedated", "Heroes" or any of the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
So when I say I love the traditional music, perhaps you'll understand what I mean when I say it's their revolutionary vigor I love. The "contemporary songs" can all too often sound like also-rans from "The Little Mermaid" or like the musical equivalent of marking through the phrase "Creation Science" in the school textbook and inserting the phrase "Intelligent Design". E.O. Wilson can find the synthesis there. I personally prefer the 18th Century songs, usually invented by music masters of obscure Welsh Methodist, East End and midlands Anglican churches, and other curious places which often accompany lyrics written in the 19th Century by people who dreamed of tent revivals and apidistra plants. This music rejected tradition, embraced tradition, and now has become tradition, all at once, like Woody Guthrie did, like Frank Black wishes he could do (but cannot) and like the Ramones still do, even after the band left this frail earth.
I must admit that Sunday's contemporary songs were more pleasing than I feared. It's true that they had a certain Disney edge to them. I love Disney, mind you, but I do not necessarily think that one enters the Kingdom of Heaven to the tune of "Be Our Guest" from "Beauty and the Beast".
The clincher, indeed, appealed to my 1973 youth factor. The post-benediction song (and don't ask me why benedictions need dessert) was a rousing rocker involving a propulsive bluesy bass, a lot of power chords, and all the children in the congregation being encouraged to shake shakers. It was all very Foghat, except there was no ice machine. I kept wanting to try out my once-potent falsetto on a shout of "Slow Ride!", but I abstained.
So you see, I am not a jaded man. I can appreciate songs in which all the chords are G, F, and C, crescendo-ing and de-crescendo-ing just like a Grassroots song. I like GFC myself, when I write,
because toss in a 7th or 2 and next thing you know you have a hymn-like song.
But that's just the thing. I want to write songs people can sing in common meter. Then I'll find something by John Greenleaf Whittier, or Edwin Arlington Robinson in Common Meter, if possible,
and then I'll have my computer play while I sing. I may not share this experience, or I may. Who knows? Life is a funny thing. It's a bit like blank verse, sometimes, all meter and no rhyme.
But I know the words to "Gilligan's Island",and they fit in nicely in the Common Meter.
Who needs string theory in the face of that?