B B King Dies: “The Thrill is Gone” and Lyrics vs Poetry

The legendary Blues artist B. B. King has died, and it seems only appropriate that his most-loved and most famous song was “The Thrill Is Gone.” The lyrics form an especially moving element of this song, although there is no doubt King’s performance is why the song gained prominence and a major factor in its power.

Poetry, on the other hand, is supposed to stand on its own, words alone, against a background of silence. Matthew Zapruder, in this article in the Boston Review, says,

It seems absurd to me to contend that lyrics inherently have less literary merit than poetry, or are easier to create, or are less valuable in a cultural or human sense, and therefore somehow do not deserve the rarified title of “poetry.” But I also think the desire to consider lyrics as literature reflects some unfortunate and persistent biases that are detrimental to both poetry and song.

In fact, he believes the difference between lyrics and poetry are rather simple and obvious, and imply no valuation of one over the other.

Words in a poem take place against the context of silence (or maybe an espresso maker, depending on the reading series), whereas, as musicians like Will Oldham and David Byrne have recently pointed out, lyrics take place in the context of a lot of deliberate musical information: melody, rhythm, instrumentation, the quality of the singer’’s voice, other qualities of the recording, etc. Without all that musical information, lyrics usually do not function as well, precisely because they were intentionally designed that way. The ways the conditions of that environment affect the construction of the words (refrain, repetition, the ways information that can be communicated musically must be communicated in other ways in a poem, etc.) is where we can begin to locate the main differences between poetry and lyrics.

With that in mind, note the similarities between the two in the example of lyrics to “The Thrill Is Gone,” written by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell. Like poetry, the meaning of these lyrics apply to a subject other than that intended by the author and singer: a reflection of an appreciative audience on the bluesman’s death.

Thrill is gone
The thrill is gone away
The thrill is gone, baby
The thrill is gone away

You know you done me wrong, baby
And you’ll be sorry someday
The thrill is gone
It’s gone away from me
The thrill is gone, baby
The thrill is gone away from me

Although, I’ll still live on
But so lonely I’ll be

The thrill is gone
It’s gone away for good
The thrill is gone, baby
It’s gone away for good

Someday I know I’ll be open armed, baby
Just like I know a good man should

You know I’m free, free now, baby
I’m free from your spell
Oh, I’m free, free, free now
I’m free from your spell
And now that it’s all over
All I can do is wish you well.

Except perhaps the part about being “free from your spell.” Who really wants to be free from the spell of a spellbinding performance?

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