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Lyricists: It’s time to retire “at all”

March 26, 2013

It’s been a good run for the rhyme “at all”

“At all” has been the go to rhyme for decades when a lyricist is looking for a phrase that will fit almost anywhere, underline with an often mournful emphasis another idea, provide a nice open vowel, and rhyme with a whole host of words.

Here it is in Joni Mitchell’s great song Both Sides Now, where it is doing it’s level best to underline the sentiment of the song with a slight melancholy:

I’ve looked at life from both sides now,
From win and lose, and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions i recall.
I really don’t know life at all.

Irving Berlin used it in his 1909 song I didn’t go home at all:

I heard the clock strike
One A.M.
One A.M.
One A.M.
It told me of my promise when I left you in the hall
Before I knew ’twas
Two A.M.
Three A.M.
Four A.M.
But you know I promised to be home at ten
So I didn’t go home at all

and then more than half a century later in 1966 in his last published song for a revival of Annie Get Your Gun:

I want a wedding like the Vanderbilt’s had
Everything big not small
If I can’t have that kind of a wedding
I don’t want to be married at all.

It does terrific work in one of my favorite Irving Berlin Songs, from 1933:

Maybe with a love so great and a love so small
Maybe I’ll be left with no love at all

Cole Porter was also a fan:

Mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all,

And:

When dawn comes to waken me,
You’re never there at all!
I know you’ve forsaken me
Till the shadows fall,

Hammerstein used it:

I’m jist a girl who cain’t say no,
Cain’t seem to say it at all
I hate to disserpoint a beau
When he is payin’ a call!

and

There’s a hell of a lotta stars in the sky
And the sky’s so big the sea looks small
And two little people, you and I
We don’t count at all

Here it is in a Sondheim lyric:

Way down underneath…
She was —
Sometimes when the wrappings fall,
There’s nothing underneath at all.

Stephen Schwartz Likes it.

Here it is in Pippin:

Oh, it’s time to start livin’
Time to take a little from this world were given
Time to take time, ’cause Spring will turn to Fall
In Just no time at all.

Here it is in The Baker’s Wife:

And then one day, suddenly, something can happen,
It may be quite simple, it may be quite small
But all of a sudden your stew tastes different
And you hear the gull cry in a different key
And you see with new eyes,
And the faces you see
Are people you don’t know at all

Here it is in Children of Eden:

The spark of creation, burning bright within me
The spark of creation, won’t let me rest at all
Until I discover or build or uncover
A thing that I can call,
My celebration
Of the spark creation

Here it is in Zippel’s lyrics for City of Angels:

A show off, a blowhard
You’re equal parts hot air and gall
And no one would doubt me
Without me you’re nothing at all

Here it is in Cabaret:

Oh, I understand your objection,
I grant my problem’s not small;
But if you could see her thru my eyes,
She wouldn’t look Jewish at all!

In But The World Goes Round, also by Kander and Ebb:

Sometimes you’re dreams get broken in pieces
But that doesn’t matter at all
Take it from me there’s still going to be
A summer a winter a spring and a fall

Jason Robert Brown uses “at all” frequently:

From Songs For A New World:

And I’m not afraid of anyone
I am sure to win with anyone at all
I’m not afraid of anyone
Not a soul alive can get behind this wall
So let them call
And watch them fall
Cause after all
I’m not afraid

From Parade:

Leaves too high to touch,
Roots too strong to fall.
All the days gone by
To never show I loved you so
And I never knew anything at all.

From The Last 5 Years:

Give me a day, Jamie
Bring back the lies
Hang them back on the wall
Maybe I’d see
How you could be
So certain that we
Had no chance at all

Or:

They got a little cutehouse on a little cute street with a crucifix on the door,
Mitchell got a job at a record store in the mall.
Just the typical facts of a typical life in a town on the Eastern Shore –
I thought about what I wanted,
It wasn’t like that at all.

Or:

And said, “This is the life I choose-
This is the thing I can’t bear to lose
Trip us or trap us, but we refuse to fall”
That’s what I thought we agreed on, Cathy
If I hadn’t believed in you
I wouldn’t have loved you at all

Or:

I swear to God I’ll never understand
How you can stand there, straight and tall
And see I’m crying,
And not do anything at all…

Just for good measure, one from Next To Normal:

With you always beside me
To catch me when I fall
I’d never get to know the feel
Of solid ground at all

It isn’t that “at all” isn’t a good line. In fact, in most of these cases it works well. It’s just that it’s now so overused that to use it is lazy. Because it’s so non-specific, it keeps writers from doing the harder work of finding a way of saying the same thing that is specific to the lyric they’re working on. It reminds me of Ira Gershwin’s 1931 Lyric for Blah Blah Blah:

(Verse)
I’ve written you a song,
A beautiful routine.
(I hope you like it.)
My technique can’t be wrong:
I learned it from the screen.
(I hope you like it.)
I studied all the lines that all the lovers sing;
Then just for you I wrote this little thing:

(Refrain)
Blah, blah, blah, blah, moon.
Blah, blah, blah, above;
Blah, blah, blah, blah, croon,
Blah, blah, blah, blah, love.
Tra la la la, tra la la la la merry month of May;
Tra la la la, tra la la la la ‘neath the clouds of gray
Blah, blah, blah, your hair,
Blah, blah, blah, your eyes;
Blah, blah, blah, blah, care.
Blah, blah, blah, blah, skies.
Tra la la la, tra la la la la la, cottage for two–
Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah darling, with you!

To which we may now add:
Blah blah blah blah Fall…
Blah blah blah…. at all…

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One comment

  1. Brilliant proposal, Peter; not too extreme at all. (Oops)



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