Lennon, Cash and Long Verse Structures

Today I’ll be talking about a particular tool in the songwriter’s kit that I don’t see utilized much any more: The long, non-repeating verse structure. This is in contrast to your standard pop verse which might be upwards of, say, 16 measures long, but typically takes a four bar (sometimes eight bar) chord progression and repeats it a few times – maybe changing the vocal melody on top to keep it interesting. I’ll just dive right in so you get the idea of what I’m talking about:

Johnny Cash – Sunday Morning Comin’ Down

sunday morning

EDIT: I forgot to mention that this song was written by Kris Kristofferson, not Johnny Cash.

There we have it! A wonderful, 26 bar verse. It takes us about forty seconds to complete this whole structure, and that’s at a pretty quick pace, too.

  • Melodically, we have AA’BC with each phrase taking six, six, eight and six bars to complete.

  • Notice how it cadences to the tonic three times; Twice by way of the dominant, and once by the subdominant.

  • I quite like those six bar phrases. They flow more nicely than they have any right to and they keep you on your toes. It makes the eight bar phrase even more interesting, too!

  • The choice to stay on the dominant for those last three bars, instead of resolving it, is a crafty choice indeed…

  • Notice how only four chords are used (five if you want to count the Ab7), but how they’re all sort of rearranged and moved around to create cadences and tensions. It’s quite lovely. You can have a four-chord song and make it interesting if you know what you’re doing 😉

A lot can be said about this heavenly tune. The fantastic arrangements, the stellar vocal performance, the relatable, slice of life lyrics…It’s a gem! This won’t be the last time I bring up Johnny Cash, but let’s move on to John Lennon:

John Lennon – Mother

mother

  • This structure is a lot more straight forward. I’ve parsed it on the slow side; meaning the snare hits are on 2 and 4 and not on 3. I suppose it could be looked at double speed with a half time feel, but that’s not how I hear it.
  • In that case, we’ve got sixteen bars here, and it takes us about a minute to get through the whole thing.
  • Even one less chord in this song than in Sunday Mornin’, and it’s still interesting for all the same reasons!
  • I enjoy Lennon’s use of negative space here. The sparse instrumentation really makes those drums shine and drive the song. Every note of every instrument is given its own gravitas. Combine that with the lyrical content and it’s pretty heavy stuff.
  • Lastly, the song is an unthinkable three verses and a mantra. Off the top of my head, I couldn’t tell you any other song with that sort of structure.

There we have it. A couple songs employing a particular type of verse structure that you just don’t see too often anymore…In passing, I’ve heard of such things being related to folk music which traditionally had nothing but verses (correct me if I’m wrong, I could be mistaken) – maybe that’s why it’s fallen out of fashion in recent years.

Here’s three more songs:

Bob Dylan – Desolation Row

David Bowie – Heroes

Beach Boys – Sloop John B (originally a traditional folk song, but reworked by Brian Wilson)

If you guys know of any more songs with similar structures going on, post in the comments or on reddit or wherever you feel 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Lennon, Cash and Long Verse Structures”

  1. If you are analyzing songs and the way they were written you should probably mention the songwriters, not just the performers.

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