Jackson Browne, Rhyme Lord

Since Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, essentially for songwriting, I’ve been thinking of winners I would have preferred. Not to be too contrary, and to limit this to Rock, I’m more of a fan of Don Henley, Carole King, J.D. Souther, Joni Mitchell, Warren Zevon, and other Southern California songwriters I have no time to name but who are equally fine. I vote first, however, for Jackson Browne, whose songwriting prowess amazed me when I began studying poetry.

My students and anyone else who knows me knows that I am not a fan of rhyme unless the device is used as effectively and well as do writers Edwin Arlington Robinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, Sara Teasdale, and Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

Half (-assed) and off (-the-wall) rhymes, especially those found in songs, which use catchy music to carry awkward, stupid, repetitive, or reprehensible lyrics and ideas, are allowed too much leeway and airplay. Inexpert rhyme is painful to hear and tedium to endure.

At random, for a close look at Browne’s use of rhyme, I selected “Fountain of Sorrow” from the album Late for the Sky (Google it to see all the lyrics). Examining the rhyme scheme was enlightening. I discovered that every rhyme in the song is a perfect rhyme, in which the final consonant and final vowel in the ending words of paired lines match exactly in sound. That’s not easy, but Browne made the lines sound that way.

More rewarding was noting how Browne overturned expectations about word use and rhyme in the song. The use of the verb “take” demonstrates impressive ironic virtuosity. In the first verse, the narrator evaluates his past:


“Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer
I was taken by a photograph of you
There were one or two I know that you would have liked a little more
But they didn't show your spirit quite as true
            You were turning 'round to see who was behind you
            And I took your childish laughter by surprise
            And at the moment that my camera happened to find you
            There was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes”


In the first use of “take,” where we might expect a photograph to be taken, instead, the narrator “is taken by a photograph,” an apt, elegant, and masterful reversal of our familiar vernacular wording.

In the next instance, the narrator again does not “take” a picture, but “took your childish laughter,” meaning he surprised a spontaneous moment of unscripted revelation from the subject.

Finally, where Browne might have most logically used the verb “take,” he overturns our expectations for the word, instead, by writing, “my camera happened to find you,” which suggests more about the relationship than the anticipated word would.

For these “chops” alone, Jackson Browne deserves close attention and great respect. In addition, he has written many beautiful and meaningful songs. Don’t take my word for this. Listen to these ten songs, my own wild, personal selection:


Before the Deluge
For Everyman
My Opening Farewell
The Pretender
The Rebel Jesus
Red-Neck Friend
Running on Empty
These Days
Your Bright Baby Blues



Eric Shaffer