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Deconstructing Lyrics 101

When Maddie was around ten months old,
she’d occasionally wake in the night still, crying. I’d
go in to comfort her and would stand, rocking her and singing,
until she calmed down and could be put back down to sleep. She came
to have a few favorite songs (though there was no telling why one
would catch her fancy) and I quickly established a “Greatest
Hits” list.

Now that Madeleine’s older and able to sing songs herself,
she will often request a specific song of me at odd times of the
day, which she’ll then focus on intensely as she tries to
memorize it herself. She’ll have her own name for a song and
I’ll have to figure out which one she means before I can

All of this is well and good, except that my precocious child
isn’t content simply to listen to the music, or even to sing
along herself. She is now digging into the lyrics and wrestling
with the meanings, trying to understand what she’s hearing
about. No big deal, except when you’re singing whatever weird
song happened to capture her attention as a ten-month-old at 3

A perfect example is
“Josephine”, a turn-of-the (19th)-century song that
captivates Maddie. Here are the lyrics:

“Come Josephine in my flying machine going up she goes, up
she goes.

Balance yourself like a bird on the wing in the air she goes, there
she goes.

Up, up, a little bit higher! Oh, my, the moon is on fire!

Come Josephine in my flying machine going up and up she

I sang this song just yesterday for Maddie during lunch. There was
a thoughtful pause as she inwardly digested the music. Then the
questions began.

“What’s a flying machine?”

“It’s an airplane. It’s a machine that flies in
the air, so it used to be called a flying machine.”

“Who is Josephine?”

“Josephine is the girl the singer wants to take up in his
airplane. The singer is usually a man, and he wants to take
Josephine for a ride in his airplane.”


“Well, to go somewhere fun. He probably loves Josephine and
hopes she’ll marry him (what am going to say, he’s
trying to score?).”

“How can you balance on a bird’s wing?”

“It’s just an expression – “a bird on the
wing” means a bird turning tightly, so the singer is telling
you to try to keep your balance because you’re flying really

“Why is the moon on fire? Is it hot? If it’s on fire
why are they going near it?”

“Well, the moon’s not really on fire. That’s his
way of saying that the moon is really bright – so bright it
looks like it’s on fire.”

“Why didn’t he say that?”

“Because sometimes people like to say things in a prettier
way, in a way that rhymes. Rhyming is using words that sound like
each other. Like, you know when Elmo sings the ‘Five’
song? He says, ‘Yo, Five, no jive,” and what he means
is, ‘I’m saying five, and I really mean it, I’m
not kidding,’ but that’s not as fun to sing.”

Maddie nodded thoughtfully. “Yo five no jive is fun to sing,
that’s true.”

How do I get myself in these situations? I can bet that neither the
author of “Josephine” nor the person who penned
“Five” ever thought the lyrics would be dissected so
relentlessly by a two-year-old eating a bologna sandwich.

And this is yet one more sign I’m a mother – I’ve
got literally hundreds of books, a relentless appetite for reading,
and a rather sophisticated (if I do say so myself) depth of
understanding of the English language and ways to use it to great

But I find myself explaining rhyme and symbolism through Elmo.


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