Sunday, July 7, 2024

Sweet Baby James

I've been reading Tolkien's The Notion Club Papers rather slowly. Today I came to Frankley's poem about Saint Brendan, with its interesting rhyme scheme:

We sailed for a year and a day and hailed
no field nor coast of men;
no boat nor bird saw we ever afloat
for forty days and ten.

As you can see, in the first and third lines of every quatrain, the first foot (not the second as in limericks) rhymes with the fourth. Sometimes this is done in a very clever way which would not have been possible if rhymes came only at the ends of lines:

We turned away, and we left astern
the rumbling and the gloom;
then the smoking cloud asunder broke,
and we saw that Tower of Doom:

What this made me think of, oddly, was the James Taylor song "Sweet Baby James." In my 2019 post "The rhyme burden of various poetic forms," I had noted the song's rhyme scheme as being slightly more challenging to write in than the ottava rima of Byron's Don Juan. (By the metric used in that post, the rhyme burden of ottava rima is 0.35, while "Sweet Baby James" is 0.357. Frankley's poem is 0.429, the same as a Spenserian sonnet.) 

These thoughts led me to listen to "Sweet Baby James," and some of the lyrics hit differently than they had in the past -- "Good night, you moonlight ladies," for instance. What really got my attention was this verse, though:

There's a song that they sing when they take to the highway
A song that they sing when they take to the sea
A song that they sing of their home in the sky
Maybe you can believe it if it helps you to see
But singing seems to work fine for me

In "Pushed to Zion with songs of everlasting joy," I wrote about the song the ransomed sing as they return via a "highway" which is actually the sea. And of course this "sea" may in fact be a figurative reference to outer space, hence the song "of their home in the sky." In that post, the ransomed are portrayed as singing yaks, tying in with the cattle-herding theme of "Sweet Baby James."

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