Musical Rhyme

A series of theatre plays (Smoke on the Mountain, Sanders Family Christmas, Mt. Pleasant Homecoming) feature a family of traveling bluegrass musicians. The elder daughter is the only one that doesn’t sing. Instead, she signs, performing ASL of the lyrics (although she has not encountered any deaf people so far). I’ve seen people do this at folk festivals, which are lyric-intensive. It adds a lot, actually; part translation, part interpretive dance.

There is a concept of rhyme in ASL, which has to do with using signs that are visually similar—mirrored, or both follow an upward move but diverge at the end, or both involve the same fingers in different configuration. One example that stuck with me was spelling out the last word of the line with the right hand sweeping out, and the last word of the rhyming line with the left hand.

With a musical instrument, equivalents include things like the same pattern transposed to a different chord, the same rhythm with different movement, inversions and retrogrades, or putting a stinger on the end of the rhyming lines. It’s particularly delicious to repeat the same form, perhaps transposed diatonically, at a point where it sits differently against the chords—the first time it fits perfectly, and the second time it starts in chord but ends a fifth off because the progression is different.

As with most ideas, it’s not necessary to be heavyhanded. Here’s a solo I do over Black Orpheus that is a limerick form, but I don’t square it off like I’ve written here. Slant rhyme gets the point across without wearying the audience, and I move on into the next chorus on the last line instead of completing the limerick. On a recording I would vary it a lot; live, it’s good to be clear, but if someone’s going to listen to it repeatedly it would just be singsong.

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