September 26, 2011

Writers think about titles all the time, not just for their own stories, but for the work of others they admire. “What are you working on?” friends have asked.

“A new book about how to live inside the English language,” I’d say.

“What’s it called?”

The Glamour of Grammar.”

“Great title.”

The original title of “Treasure Island” was “The Sea Cook.” (What was Robert Louis Stevenson thinking?) The great American editor Maxwell Perkins persuaded F. Scott Fitzgerald that “The Great Gatsby” was a better title than “Trimalchio in West Egg.”

Titles, including headlines, have a logic and a grammar of their own. Long titles stand out as eccentric. Standard book titles are one to seven words long. They have to fit on the dust jacket, after all, in big type. In fact, writers act as if a book title or song title is a genre — tighter than a poetic couplet, tighter than a haiku, much tighter than a tweet.

The search for a title can kick-start a story and help the writer find focus.

When asked in a 1962 interview what comes first, the melody or the lyrics, famed songwriter Johnny Mercer offered a surprising answer:

First — the title. That encompasses the grand idea, the crux of the obsession, the thought; it all goes into that … that’s what hits first, that’s what’s way back in your mind brought together in sharp focus; the title hits like a bullet, and if it’s right, then you have it, all of it, ready to go, in a succinct package — all the crazy, unconscious groping has merged into something real. … A title sends me. Is it the title that comes first? Or is it all of the inside of you that has produced the title, and suddenly you recognize it, and you think there it is — and from there you go. When a title occurs — I have begun.

For the record, Johnny Mercer’s famous song titles include:

  • “Jeepers Creepers”
  • “I’m an Old Cow Hand”
  • “Accentuate the Positive”
  • “Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe”
  • “Come Rain, Come Shine”
  • “Blues in the Night”
  • “That Old Black Magic”
  • “And the Angels Sing”
  • “Goody Goody”
  • “Lazybones”

Inspired by this commentary, I decided to explore the notion that a title is a genre with a logic and grammar of its own. I picked off my shelf one of my favorite books, “The Heart of Rock & Soul” by music critic Dave Marsh.

Marsh, who became Bruce Springsteen’s agent, lists in order of his preference the 1,001 greatest songs of the rock era. It occurred to me that, in general, great songs have great titles, so I decided to take the first 15 on the list and deconstruct them for language and meaning. Here goes:

1. “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” — Marvin Gaye. This title is a sentence, but the key is the pronoun “it” which generates a narrative mystery: What did he hear?

2. “Johnny B. Goode” — Chuck Berry. This title is the name of the protagonist in the story, a dynamic young country guitar player. But the fun comes from the double meaning: the title is not just a name, but a sentence uttered by an encouraging fan. Be good, Johnny!

3. “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” — James Brown. The Godfather of Soul invented funk with this record. James Brown is the Papa and his “bag” is musician slang for a style of music.

4. “Reach Out I’ll Be There” — The Four Tops. This great title is actually two sentences spliced together, the first in the imperative mood, the second indicative of a lover’s support.

5. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” — The Righteous Brothers. A sentence that suggests an emotional conversation, one half of a dialogue with a lover who has lost the spark. The second person “you” makes it feel real.

6. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” — The Rolling Stones. Most people call this song “Satisfaction,” a wonderful four syllable abstraction that stands for everything from emotional fulfillment to sexual gratification. But the prologue — “I Can’t Get No” — with its non-standard double negative gives the narrator a gritty persona. Imagine Julie Andrews trying to sing it: “I Cannot Get Any….”

7. “Like a Rolling Stone” — Bob Dylan. Similes work in poetry, in ballad lyrics, even in song titles, a simile that lent its name to an English rock group and to a well-known rock and roll magazine.

8. “Respect” — Aretha Franklin. This title belongs to Otis Redding, who wrote the song during the height of the Civil Rights era. It shows that a word can work at multiple levels for different audiences. The narrative meaning derives from a domestic scene, a musician coming home from the road looking for respect from his woman. But in the early 1960s, a black man from the South demanding respect carried powerful meaning. Of course, Aretha made it her own, adapting the song for a woman’s perspective and spelling out the word R-E-S-P-E-C-T in case her man wasn’t listening.

9. “Tutti Frutti” — Little Richard. Although Pat Boone bleached all the sex and soul out of this tune, Little Richard chose a title that reflected the raving lunacy of The Other — a gay black man who wore makeup when he played and who always sounded like he was screaming in church.

10. “Nowhere to Run” — Martha and the Vandellas. I love the way this title attaches the infinitive “to run” to the adverb “nowhere.” The American Heritage Dictionary recognizes a noun form of nowhere as well, a state of nonexistence as in “the road to nowhere.” But parts of speech cross-dress all the time, which is how the Beatles could turn the word into an adjective: “He’s a real Nowhere Man living in a Nowhere land, making all his Nowhere plans for Nobody.”)

11. “Louie, Louie” The Kingsmen. The production values in this version of an older island song were so poor that no one could make out the lyrics, leading to urban legends that they were filthy. Louie is the name of the bartender who hears the singer’s lament about his lost love. But what I love most about this title is that funky comma in the middle.

12. “Mystery Train” Elvis Presley. Like the word “secret,” the word “mystery” always teases the audience into wanting more. Why would anyone not want to climb aboard a mystery train?

13. “Shake, Rattle and Roll” — Big Joe Turner. Unlike the hyper-sexualized lyrics of some hip hop songs, early rock and roll conveyed sexual power through the rhythm and feel of the music, but also through veiled language such as shake, rattle, roll, rock, jazz, juke, all of which were euphemisms for sex.

14. “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” — Jerry Lee Lewis. Who says you can’t end a sentence with a preposition? The Killer did any damn thing he wanted to. The rules were made to be broken, piano stools were made to be kicked over and pianos to be lit on fire. I love all the O’s in the this title, a vowel patter that makes you want to shake your assonance.

15. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” — Otis Redding. The long version gives us most of a sentence with two prepositional phrases. This provides the setting, including the croaking of seagulls, for a narrator paralyzed by indecision — a soulful Hamlet.

What have we learned? That good songs benefit from good titles. That good stories benefit from good headlines. That even within the limit of eight words, the writer can use the tools of grammar, syntax, slang, punctuation, diction and narrative to open a door to tone, voice and meaning. The effort to find a fitting title helps both the writer and the reader.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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