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Posts Tagged ‘songs’

Learn English through Classic Songs: They All Laughed

Friday, September 11th, 2015

Written by brothers George and Ira Gershwin for the 1937 film Shall We Dance, the famous song They All Laughed has been covered by so many great singers, it won’t be easy to choose your favorite: the original version with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers? Or Frank Sinatra? Sarah Vaughan? Ella Fitzgerald, Stacey Kent, or a duet of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga?

The classic song revolves around the idiom to have the last laugh, which means to succeed when others think you will not. In the intro, the singer strikes a defiant pose against the pessimists who predict his/her budding romance doesn’t stand a chance.

The lyrics, courtesy of Wikipedia:


The odds were a hundred to one against me
The world thought the heights were too high to climb
But people from Missouri never incensed me
Oh, I wasn’t a bit concerned
For from history I had learned
How many, many times the worm had turned

Odds refers to how likely it is that something will or will not happen. In a race like the Kentucky Derby, if the odds on a particular horse are 100-1, the horse is considered a long shot and very unlikely to win.

Incensed, here a verb but usually used as an adjective, means to make someone very angry.

The idiom the worm has turned, originally used by Shakespeare to suggest that even the most harmless of creatures will fight to defend itself, evokes again the idea of expectations upended.

In the first verse, the narrator compares herself/himself to famous inventors and explorers (click on the links for more information) who proved the doubters and skeptics wrong.

1st verse

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound
They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother when they said that man could fly
Why, they told Marconi wireless was a phoney – it’s the same old cry
Why they laughed at me, wanting you – said I was reaching for the moon
But oh, you came through – and now they’ll have to change their tune
They all said we’d never get together – they laughed at us and how
For oh, ho, ho – Who’s got the last laugh now?

Changing a preposition can have a powerful effect on meaning: to laugh with someone means to share one’s amusement with another, and the tone is friendly; to laugh at someone is to mock them, and the tone is distinctly unfriendly.

Phoney (also spelled phony) means fake, or in this context worthless.

Cry is used here in the sense of shout rather than weep.

To reach for the moon is to try to attain the unattainable.

To come through is a phrasal verb meaning to succeed despite the difficulties.

To change your tune is to voice an opinion contrary to your previous opinion.

The second and final verse lists a series of inventions (and an architectural project) that were mocked when new.

2nd verse

They all laughed at Rockefeller Center – now they’re fighting to get in
They all laughed at Whitney and his cotton gin
They all laughed at Fulton and his steamboatHershey and his chocolate bar
Ford and his Lizzie kept the laughers busy – that’s how people are
Why they laughed at me, wanting you – said it would be “Hello – Goodbye”
But oh, you came through – and now they’re eating humble pie
They all said we’d never get together – darling, let’s take a bow
For oh, ho, ho, Who’s got the last laugh –
Hee, hee, hee, Let’s have the last laugh –
Ha, ha, ha, Who’s got the last laugh now?

To eat humble pie is an old-fashioned idiom describing an apologetic, chastened, and somewhat humiliated attitude. Here, the idea is that the gossips who thought this couple’s romance was doomed should now be embarrassed.

To take a bow is to acknowledge applause and admiration, and that’s exactly what Fred and Ginger do at the end of their elegant and fast-footed dance number in Shall We Dance.

English through Song: John Gorka

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Gritty (showing fortitude in a difficult situation) songs about hardscrabble (earning a bare subsistence) or mean-street (poor or rough part of town) childhoods are a folk music tradition and the truth has often been bent (changed enough to give a false impression)  by Folk singer-songwriter John Gorka.songwriters with middle-class backgrounds jealous of the aura that comes with hardship, so it’s refreshing to see the honesty in John Gorka‘s new song about his own relatively comfortable upbringing (childhood) – Ignorance and Privilege, off his latest release So Dark You See.

The song, by a popular American guitarist/singer/songwriter born in 1958, is full of idioms useful to English students. For a quick vocabulary lesson, read the lyrics below, study the vocabulary notes, and listen to the song.

Ignorance and Privilege

I was born to ignorance, yes, and lesser poverties
I was born to privilege that I did not see
Lack of pigment in my skin, won a free and easy in
I didn’t know it, but my way was paved

I grew up a Catholic boy, in a northeastern state
A place when asked ‘Where you from’, some people tend to hesitate
Reply a little late, as if maybe you didn’t rate
I was born to privilege and ignorance.

My dad ran a printing press, a tag and label factory
I may have seen it as a child, now a distant memory
Almost too faint to see, dark red brick factory
I didn’t know it but my way was paved

We moved from a city street, shortly after I arrived
To a house on a gravel road, where I learned to be alive
Crawl, walk, run and ride, that’s where I learned to come alive
I didn’t know it, but my way was paved

If the wind is at your back and you never turn around
You may never know the wind is there
You may never hear the sound

Got to grow and go to school, work at home and dream at night
Even be a college fool, like I had any right
Never went through a war, never Great Depression poor
I didn’t know it, but my way was paved

Nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel
Back against the wall, maybe you know how it feels

If the wind is at your back and you never turn around
You may never know the wind is there
You may never hear the sound

I was born to ignorance, yes, and lesser poverties
I was born to privilege that I did not see
Lack of pigment in my skin, won a free and easy in
I didn’t know it but my way was paved
I was born to ignorance and privilege.

John Gorka's 2009 CD So Dark You See.Vocabulary notes:

lack of pigment in my skin (lack of means you don’t have it; referring to not having dark skin and therefore not being a victim of racism)

my way was paved (a road paved with asphalt is easier to drive on than an unpaved road; referring to the advantages he had in making his way in life)

grew up (past of grow up, referring to his childhood)

northeastern state (in the northeast US, in his case New Jersey, which perhaps unfairly has a reputation for being a little boring)

hesitate (to pause or wait before speaking or doing something out of fear, indecision, or disinclination)

you didn’t rate (rate refers to rating, a kind of evaluation; here, means you’re not impressive)

a tag and label factory (Gorka’s father was the manager of a factory that printed tags – e.g. price tags on clothing – and labels – e.g. the printed paper on the side of a wine bottle)

too faint to see (not clear, vivid, or bright, so therefore difficult to see)

shortly (soon, a short time later)

gravel road (road with small stones rather than asphalt or dirt)

crawl (what a baby does before she/he walks)

the wind is at your back (idiom meaning things are easy for you, you’re lucky)

a college fool (in other words, well-educated but in many ways naive)

nose to the grindstone (working very hard, like a knife sharpener bent over a grindstone sharpening his knife)

shoulder to the wheel (trying very hard to do something difficult, like a horsecart driver in the old days trying to push his cart out of the mud)

back against the wall (in a bad or dangerous situation, without much hope for escape)

“Gorka is an accomplished musician (guitar, banjo, harmonium, occasional percussion),” writes Richard Elliot in a review of Gorka’s newest CD on the website PopMatters, “has a fine baritone voice, and displays a finely-honed knack (well-developed ability) for crafting a telling (effective, striking) lyric.”

When John Gorka sings, he enunciates very clearly, making it easier to understand the lyrics and practice your listening skills in English in an enjoyable way. Give him a try!