I have just read in Robert McCrum’s excellent biography of PG Wodehouse that the master wrote the lyrics of about 250 musical comedy songs for the theatreland of London and New York. Working with composers like Jerome Kerne he wrote the words of songs like ‘Look for the Silver Lining’, ‘You’re the Top’, ‘Yesterday’, ‘Only a Rose’, ‘My Bill’, songs hummed on the busses and whistled in the streets by people who had heard them only secondhand on radio and recordings. I heard them myself as a young boy back in the 1930s and you can still hear them nowadays on nostalgic radio shows and TV programmes, as delightfully singable as ever.
On the very rare occasions when someone asks me questions about lyric-writing (chiefly, no doubt, in order to say something about anything) it is usually along the lines of ‘which comes first – the words or the music?’ The answer is, both. I prefer having the tune already in front of me when I begin on the words. I was relieved to read that Wodehouse, too, always preferred the composer to write the tune first, so that he could follow the mood of the music and write words to fit. It means that the words can be written according to the mood of the music, changing from the lighthearted to the solemn, the languorous to the active, at the right points, and welding themselves to the music so that you can’t hear the joins.
To do it the other way round is possible but only if the lyricist has written all verses, each line of each verse, in exactly the same mood as in Verse One. And not mood alone; scansion – regularity of stresses – is vitally important. If the first line of Verse 1 goes, ‘The cat sat on the mat and waited patiently for milk‘, then in the first line of Verse 2 the stressed syllables must come in exactly the same places.
And I have found that, in most cases, that is exactly what eventually happens; the lyricist has to buckle down and write first. The alternative is a luxury seldom enjoyed.