Posted by: bkivey | 11 February 2011

“Gonna Write a Little Letter . . . “

Over on his RAM blog Rowland Jones wrote a post talking about how some classic rock/pop songs would be altered by the virtual disappearance of letter-writing. He uses the example of The Boxtops The Letter, to show how the letter, that product of pen, paper, and manual labor, lends a weight to a song that a text message or email just doesn’t have. This got me to thinking about how other songs might be affected.

The Marvelette’s Mr. Postman, of course, comes right to mind. This song also suffers from the PC plague, as we see how the opening stanza:

Wait!
Oh yes, wait a minute Mr. postman
Wait!
Wai-ai-ai-ait Mr. postman

morphs into:

Wait!
Oh yes, wait a minute Mr./Ms. letter carrier
Wait!
Wai-ai-ai-ait Mr./Ms. letter carrier

You can see how it lacks a certain something, like flow. The troubles are just beginning. I’d say that the number of personal letters delivered by the Postal Service is vanishingly small these days. So the beginning of the next stanza:

Mr. postman look and see (oh yeah)
You got a letter in your bag for me (please please Mr. po-o-o-stman)

might have to be rewritten today as:

Oh ISP look and see (oh yeah)
You got a email on your server for me

It’s just not the same.

Further illustrating the point on how modern communication lacks gravitas, let’s consider REO Speedwagon’s In Your Letter:

In your letter you
said you didn’t love me
You said you’re gonna leave me
but you could’ve said it better
Oh oh, in your letter
you said you couldn’t face me
You said you could replace me
but you could’ve said it better

You can feel the anticipation of opening the envelope, and the disappointment as the unfolded letter reveals the bad news. Because writing is a physical act qualitatively different than typing, you just know that his girl really meant what she was saying. Modern methods just don’t seem to convey the same sense of committment to the message:

In ur email u
sed u didnt luv me
U sed ur gonna leev me
but u coodv txtd betr
Oh oh, in ur email 
U sed u coodnt face me
U sed u cood replace me
but u coodve txtd betr

While the original version isn’t exactly Shakespeare, the modern version is hardly better.

Then there’s Elvis Presley’s Return to Sender:

I gave a letter to the postman,
he put it his sack.
Bright in early next morning,
he brought my letter back.

In this era of instant communication we might have:

I texted an email to the server,
it put it in it’s stack.
And the very next minute, 
it sent my email back.

The next stanza:

She wrote upon it:
Return to sender, address unknown.
No such number, no such zone.
We had a quarrel, a lover’s spat
I write I’m sorry but my letter keeps coming back.

hardly fares better:

Her server rejected:
Return to sender, address unknown.
No such IP, code 554.
We had a quarrel, a lover’s spat
I text I’m sorry but my text keeps coming back.

For our last example let’s look at a song that’s not about a letter, but involves writing one. In Chuck Berry’s immortal Roll Over Beethoven, the first lines:

I’m gonna write a little letter,
Gonna mail it to my local DJ.

actually don’t fare too badly in modern guise:

I’m gonna write a little email,
Gonna text it to my local DJ.

We run into problems when we take other technology into account, as this line illustrates:

Long as she got a dime the music wont never stop.

What now? “Long as she got an iPod”? “Long as she got a download”? A file?

Modern personal electronics are neat and powerful and fun to use, but they have no soul.

Nonplussed

This week I heard a radio host misquote the aphorism “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” He knew the verb form of ‘gander’ but didn’t know the noun form. His assistant looked it up and found the correct quote. Based on that, his conclusion was that ‘gander’ was a culinary term. Still incorrect, and no further enlightenment was forthcoming.

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Responses

  1. A couple more letter songs.

    Love Letters

    Love letters straight from your heart
    keep us so near when we’re apart
    I’m not alone in the night
    when i can have all the love you write.

    and

    P.S. I Love You

    What is there to write, what is there to say?
    Same things happen everyday
    not a thing to write, not a thing to say,
    So I take my pen in hand and start the same old way

    Dear I thought I’d drop a line
    the weather’s cool, the folks are fine
    I’m in bed each night at 9
    P.S. I love you

  2. Hi Keith,

    Thanks for stopping by and offering a couple more examples. If you substitute modern tech for writing you can see how it goes to the point that letters are more consequential than the ephmera of electrons in cyberspace.

    Love Letters

    Love emails straight from your heart
    keep us so near when we’re apart
    I’m not alone nor vexed
    when i can have all the love you text.

    P.S. I Love You

    What is there to text, what is there to say?
    Same things happen everyday
    not a thing to write, not a thing to say,
    So I take my phone in hand and start the same old way

    Fifteen years ago that last line would have made no sense at all.

    Cheers!

    Blair


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