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Tidings of comfort and joy, Professor and Mary Ann!

Posted by on Friday, January 7, 2011 in December 2010, Editor's Column.

We begin with a little holiday trivia: Have you ever noticed that “O Little Town of Bethlehem” can be sung to the tune of the “Theme from Gilligan’s Island”?

I’ll just wait here a minute while you sing along to yourself and try it out.


It works, doesn’t it? The tunes fit and the stresses in the words fall in the right place.

It seems weird, but this is not as much of a coincidence as it seems. Both songs were written in ballad meter, which has to do with the number of syllables in lines, how they’re stressed, and the rhyme scheme.

The song can be slow or fast, somber or light-hearted, but if it uses ballad meter, it will likely fit either of these tunes, or, for that matter, a lot of other songs that may or may not exist in the same compartment of your brain.

Such as “House of the Rising Sun” and “Amazing Grace,” both of which are also in ballad meter and have interchangeable lyrics and tunes, although, it’s safe to say, not interchangeable themes.

You can even sing “America the Beautiful” to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

When I was thinking about this, it reminded me of something else I heard somewhere: that pretty much all of Emily Dickinson’s poems could be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

Here—try it out on the first verse of one of her most well known poems:

Because I could not stop for Death,

He kindly stopped for me;

The carriage held but just ourselves

And Immortality.

Again, it works. The peppy tune is completely out of step with the subject matter, but completely in step with the rhythm of the words. The meter has nothing to do with the speed or tone of the music or the meaning of the words, only the timing and stress of the syllables.

The song or poem can be religious, patriotic, popular or even inane; the meter doesn’t care.

And, if you’ve been reading carefully, it will now come as no surprise to you that “Amazing Grace,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” “America the Beautiful,” and “House of the Rising Sun” can all be sung to the “Theme from Gilligan’s Island.”

If this isn’t enough of a musical and cultural collision in your brain, it’s a rare Baby Boomer who doesn’t know dozens of songs by heart that use ballad meter: Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” the Coke commercial song “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Even other Christmas songs, such as “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”

Let’s just take some first lines and see how the words to each fit each other’s tunes. Hum with me:

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…”

“O little town of Bethlehem…”

“Amazing grace how sweet the sound…”

“There is a house in New Orleans…”

“I’d like to teach the world to sing…”

This knowledge lends itself to many disturbing ideas for caroling this season.

  • You can sing several Christmas songs to the tunes of other Christmas songs, seriously confusing the people who hear you caroling.
  • You can sing several Christmas songs to the same Christmas tune, seriously boring the people who hear you caroling.
  • Or you can sing everything to the tune of the “Theme from Gilligan’s Island,” and seriously freak out the people who hear you caroling.

I trust you to do the right thing.

Research information from Wikipedia and Cecil Adams’ “The Straight Dope” were used in this column. Along with vague recollections from long ago English classes.