Eleanor Rigby

I know Eleanor Rigby as background music. I’ve never actually paid any attention to the words. But I belong to a singing group that is getting ready to sing a Beatles concert and we are learning some Beatles songs. Kind of.

I have learned that Beatles songs are hard to sing unless you are the Beatles and my guess is that they sang them differently from night to night and they were all “right” because they were, after all, the Beatles. But if you look at the music, you see right away that the notation and the rhythm are just suggestions. In the first line—hum a little “all the lonely people” to yourself and you will know where I am—the “the” comes on the second half of the first beat; the “lone” of “lonely” comes on the second half of the second beat; -ly comes on the second half of the third beat; and the “peo-“ of “people” on the second half of the fourth beat.

Briefly, none of the words starts on the beat. No big deal? Hah! There is only one way to be on the beat but there are a dozen ways to be “off the beat.” And if you are singing as an ensemble, you have to all choose the same amount of “off the beat” all the time. Music notation was not developed for that level of cooperation.

You can be as exact as you like with the notation and the best you can do is sing it “right.” But any audience will tell you that singing if “right” sounds wrong. And it is wrong. The music values will get you all in the same parking lot; they won’t get you in the same slot—particularly if the slot you are all supposed to be in changes from night to night.

That’s why “actually being the Beatles” is the only really good solution. People hear what you are doing and assume it is what you intended to do and that it is therefore “right.” Singing it “right,” which is the best you can do by looking at the sheet music, sounds wrong.

Some years ago I was singing in the tenor section of a choir which was trying to learn to sing a response that had been written by a guy in my section. I was sitting right next to him. I could hear him singing his music and he was singing it wrong. There were three quarter rests in the first line. He gave each of them a different value and he did it the same way every time. In other words, he knew what he was doing.

I was right on the edge of getting snarky with him. I was singing it exactly the way the music said to sing it and he was not. Then, finally, it occurred to me that he was singing it the way he wanted it and it was the notation that was flawed. If there was a sign for pause for “about two thirds of a quarter rest” and another sign for “just a little more than one third a quarter rest” then the music could have been printed the way he was singing it. There is not.

Finally, I gave up and did what the Beatles do. I learned to sing it the way he was singing it. That means sensing how he is about to sing it and then singing it that way at the times when he sang it that way. It wasn’t easy, but is was exciting and singing with the composer was a real kick.

That’s the musical part of the Eleanor Rigby problem. The second part is easier. How on earth did this become a popular song? It’s not about love. It’s not about loss. It’s not about cheating. It’s about pervasive and meaningless failure. Oh boy!

Eleanor Rigby waits at a window in a church where a wedding has been. Not hers, obviously. She is “wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door.” It is not her face. She keeps it handy in case she has to wear it. As an image of profound alienation, I don’t see how Lennon and McCartney could have done any better.

Father McKenzie is busy writing the words of a sermon no one will hear. You would have to know a great deal to know that no one will hear the sermon, but Lennon and McCartney need it only as marker of futility and it does that really well. As does the last line, which remarks on the effects of Father McKenzie’s funeral liturgy: “no one was saved.” Saved? Really? Were they supposed to be? Well not really, but if you can hang a priest simultaneously for trying to do some pointless thing and also for failing at it, this is a marvelous line.

Eleanor is buried at the service where Father McKenzie gives the homily that doesn’t save anyone. No one attended the service. Eleanor lived an inconsequential life. The only marker suggested is that she might have left progeny behind and she did not. Her name was buried along with her body.

So these four young men with Liverpudlian accents get up and sing a rhythmically challenging song about a priest and a young woman who are living or have lived inconsequential lives. And the crowd goes wild.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.