Song is the power of communication that can, and has, reached multitudes. It brings awareness of the history in which we are embedded, reflecting the inner worlds of people who are living intensely in their own eras and cultures, becoming part of history. What is the relationship between music and words in a song? The words of the song have to fit the rhythm of the music, while the music has to express the emotional meaning of the words. Are words set to music lyrics or poems? Lyrics are words deliberately set to music, and the lyricist knows that the words have to fit the musical structure of the song. Yet, poetry itself has a musical aspect. The sound of the words in a poem is as important as the lit-

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eral meanings of the words.

The Musicality of Poetry

Poet and critic Ezra Pound ascribed three aspects to poetry: melopoeia, the sound of the words; phanopoeia, the imagery evoked by the words; and logopoeia, the “dance of meaning,” or the intellectual significance of the words. Pound used the word melopoeia to emphasize the musical element of poetry, from an ancient Greek word meaning song maker or lyric poet. Our English word melody is derived from the ancient Greek melōidíā, meaning singing or chanting.

W. B. Yeats spoke of the musicality of poetry, saying that when he walked alone along the hedgerows, he would chant his poetry aloud. The poet wished he could do so when he gave poetry readings, but didn’t dare. He very much saw himself in the bardic tradition, when poetry was chanted or sung aloud. In his poem “Under Ben Bulben,” Yeats (1956) has a stanza that begins with a couplet, “Irish poets learn your trade/Sing whatever is well made” (p. 343). He emphasizes the musicality of poetry.

As writer Kurt Vonnegut says, “Virtually every writer I know would rather be a musician.”  Perhaps essayists and fiction writers, yet so many poets, like Yeats, experience themselves as word-musicians, making music with words; they don’t set their lyrics to music, but find music in the sound of poetry. Throughout the world, poetry and music were intertwined in orally transmitted traditions, from the griots of Africa to the minstrels of Europe to the calypso of the Caribbean, poetry that was chanted and sung to transmit cultural truths, tell us who we are, or share what the latest news is. The griots musically recited genealogies. The British Isles folk ballad tradition told people what was going on around them. The musical elements of poetry helped performers to memorize long narrative passages that they would recite, chant, or sing. For instance, rhyme is a musical element that jogs memory because the last word of an upcoming line has to rhyme with the last word of a line already spoken.

In medieval Europe, minstrels were court entertainers, but eventually, they were replaced by troubadours, who sang only of courtly love. Thus, the court entertainers became traveling minstrels, bringing stories of the world to every social and economic class. The traditions continued in American folk and popular songs. Narratives that told the news, once so necessary in cultures

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in which only the elite were literate and the vast majority of people were not, underwent a sea change in a primarily literate society.

The Resonance of a Society with National Anthems

Resonance, a musical term, describes an enrichment of sound caused by vibrations in a cavity, whether an anatomical cavity for the human voice or in a musical instrument. Yet the word is used as a metaphor for responsiveness. Something that has resonance for us prompts us to respond. We resonate with emotional intensity, cultural meanings, and other people.

Our 20th and 21st century C.E. minstrels, from blues singers to political radicals to social commentators, all address politically charged issues, issues that touch the heart and soul of people, issues that raise consciousness, provoke anger or guilt, and are often a call to action. Some politically charged songs that have captured the imagination of America have used religious hymns and anthems as inspiration. The civil rights movement and anti-war movement songs that are so memorable—“We Shall Overcome” and “Down By the Riverside”, for example—are instances of this power to inspire. The melodies and sentiments are familiar, but the contexts are new.

“Down By the Riverside,” first recorded in 1920 by the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet, was well-known as a church hymn in the African-American community. It was recorded by the great blues singer Big Bill Broonzy in 1953 and covered by such diverse artists as Al Hirt, Elvis Presley, Mahalia Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Raffi, as well as picked up by the anti-war movement.

“We Shall Overcome” is derived from a gospel song written by African-American songwriter Charles Albert Trindley, “I’ll Overcome Some Day.”  The song captured the imagination first of the African-American community, then the general American community, and, indeed, the world. There is a power in the word “We.”  The struggle of the individual is strengthened by a sense of community. The isolation of a child who suffers injustice and a sense of abandonment is dispelled when parents use “we,” eliminating disjunction. Adults are also strengthened by a sense that their sufferings are understood by their community, which shares, responds, and takes action. We learn that we are as strong as our community.

There are a host of modern and contemporary balladeers,

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from blues singer/songwriter Josh White to Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Richard Dyer-Bennet, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Buffy Sainte Marie, Phil Ochs, Bob Marley, Malvina Reynolds, Duane Stephenson, Holly Near, Grandmaster Flash, Public Enemy, Ani DiFranco, and groups such as the Almanac Singers, the Weavers, and the Freedom Singers. Both Woody Guthrie, on his own and with the Almanac Singers, and Pete Seeger, on his own and with the Weavers, brought the power of folk song, and the power of people united by a common cause, to national attention. Woody Guthrie, who through his music chronicled so many social events and supported so many causes, placed a label on his guitar in 1941 with the statement, “This machine kills Fascists.”  The music carried the impact of the lyrics. Reciting the lyrics is not as powerful as singing the lyrics.

Woody Guthrie’s anthem, “This Land is Your Land,” is remarkable because it underscores inclusiveness. Inclusion speaks to the needs of people who may feel alienated due to economic limitations, discrimination, and even geographic isolation. Social alienation may have unconscious emotional parallels, but often people who are alienated due to socioeconomic factors don’t wind up getting psychotherapy. They do, however, have an opportunity to find community through music, and a song like “This Land is Your Land” offers a necessary connection: “this land was made for you and me.”  Today, it can serve as an antidote to the sense that the 1% own and control our country, and the other 99% are powerless.

National anthems are used to generate strong emotions of patriotism. At large gatherings, when national anthems are played, people tend to stand en masse, and to feel solidarity. The American national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” is known to be difficult to sing. The tonal range is challenging: an octave and a fifth. The high note, on an open vowel in the word “free,” is difficult to sustain. When a professional singer hits that note, those who “sing-along” fall quiet, tending to feel awe at the quality of the singer’s musicianship, and patriotic awe.

Some have suggested that “America the Beautiful” would be preferable as the American national anthem, with an easy tonal range, but the lyrics are not testosterone-driven, and those of “The Star-Spangled Banner” are, celebrating triumphant warfare, “the rockets’ red glare.”  Some have hoped that Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” would become our national anthem, but no political climate would allow that song to replace the star-spangled

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banner waving in a strong wind “o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  Those listening to “The Star-Spangled Banner” in large crowds resonate with the song, the music, the words, and each other, with patriotic emotion. Patriotic fervor resonates with martial fervor, going hand in hand with warfare. Songs about war, whether anti-war or partisan, continue to compel people to action.

One song that came out of the 1916 anti-British Irish uprising, “Kevin Barry,” is a tribute to an 18-year-old young man who was arrested on Bloody Sunday and hanged for his crimes against British sovereignty. Some continue to view Kevin Barry as a criminal, but the ardent Irish nationalists who fought for independence, and those today who cherish Irish independence, view him as a hero and martyr. “Kevin Barry” could serve well as a national anthem.

Ireland’s national anthem, “A Soldier’s Song,” is war-like. The lyrics originally were written in English. The Irish title, translated from the English, “Amhrán na bhFiann,” re-translates as “We are the Warriors of Destiny.”  Yet whichever language is used, the melody remains the same, and the sound of the melody evokes patriotic fervor in a loyal Irish soul.

“Peat Bog Soldiers” (“Die Moorsoldaten”), a song about forced labor during the Nazi regime, was written by political prisoners in the Emslandlager during the 1930s and was sung as a protest song during the Resistance and the Spanish Civil War. Paul Robeson, the polymath singer, actor, and social activist, the conscience of 20th century America, sang a stirring rendition. The song chronicles the difficulties of an oppressive forced labor camp and eventually imagines returning home.

This song is quite a contrast to the song in Cabaret that a member of the Hitler Youth sings, robustly, enchantingly, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” adapted from an old German military song, “Die Wacht am Rhein,” a fiercely patriotic song that Nazi German soldiers sing around the piano in Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca. So, “Peat Bog Soldiers” and “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” share the same sentiment about country—“homeland” and “fatherland”—but with entirely different politics.

A Personal Resonance with Music

A number of songs emerging from the Jewish experience in Europe, from both World Wars, and particularly the era of the Hol-

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ocaust, express the anguish of statelessness and war. One song, “Vu is das gesele,” was well known both in Yiddish and in Russian. The lyrics translate as “Where is the street, where is the house, where is the little girl I used to love, gone is the street, gone is the house, gone is the little girl I used to love.”  This was a song my father sang in the late 1940s and thereafter in English, Yiddish, and Russian. He told me the song was about soldiers who returned home from war, only to discover their villages destroyed, and the people they loved were dead. Whatever ethnicity, whatever language, the song expresses dismay over loss, depicting the horror of the war’s consequences.

My brother is an educator. He and I share a cultural background, a frame of reference. He plays guitar and sings. Commissioned to conduct teacher training in Kyrgyzstan, on his first day there, wandering the streets, he came to a plaza where a street musician was playing guitar and singing. Drawn by the music, he came closer and realized that the singer was singing the song he had learned as a child, not in Yiddish, of course, but in Russian. He sang along, and the two musicians bonded.

As Leo Tolstoy says, “Music is the shorthand of emotion.”  I wish I could define and explain harmonic overtones, but I can’t. Yet I have played harmonic overtones on my Celtic harp. I pluck a string in a particular way and hear two tones. The frequencies are different, yet they resonate. There is a tradition of vocal singing in Eurasia, “throat singing,” where singers create harmonic overtones. Is the concept of harmonic overtones a useful metaphor for cultural similarities in musical traditions? Can we resonate with other people’s responses to their own cultural associations when they hear music from their culture, whether it be national anthems, songs from childhood, or songs from adolescence? I hope and believe so. Are musical harmonic overtones a metaphor for genuine empathy? Will music bring us together in one world? I hope and would like to believe so.

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  • Pound, Ezra (1968). The literary essays of Ezra Pound. New Directions.
  • Yeats, W. B. (1956). The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc.


Merle Molofsky

Merle Molofsky, PhD, is a New York State-licensed psychoanalyst, faculty member of the Training Institute of NPAP and the Harlem Family Institute. She has published articles in psychoanalytic journals, including Clio’s Psyche, and chapters in psychoanalytic books. Her novel, Streets 1970 (2015), and a collection of her short fiction, Necessary Voices (2018), were published by International Psychoanalytic Books. She serves on the Editorial Boards of The Psychoanalytic Review and The International Journal of Controversial Discussions. She can be reached at .

How to Cite This:

Molofsky, M. (2023). The power of song: A synergy of music and words. Clio’s Psyche, 29(2), 165-171.

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