I’m leaving on a jet plane

One of the songs I sang at the Forest Folk Club tonight was John Denver’s I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane. Even though I’d not had time to learn all the words, and had to read from a printout — something that I’ve found degrades performances — it went down very well, and had lots of people singing along in the chorus.

But why does it work so well? Surely by any objective standard, the chorus is bodged.

The highest note — the emotional climax — falls on the word “on”. I’m leaving on a jet plane, Denver tells us. He’s insisting on the preposition. It’s the most important part of his statement. I’m not leaving in a jet plane, he wants us to know. Not leaving under a jet plane. Not leaving juxtaposed with a jet plane. No, dammit! On a jet plane. On! On! On!

Clearly the emphasis should have appeared literally anywhere else in the line:

  • I’m leaving on a jet plane — not someone else, me.
  • I’m leaving on a jet plane — not arriving.
  • I’m leaving on a jet plane — not on a truck or train.

Any of these, yes. But leaving on a jet plane? No.

So my question is this: how is it that song works anyway?

9 responses to “I’m leaving on a jet plane

  1. It works mainly for people who aren’t pedants. That evidently still is a large number of people. :-)

  2. That is a very interesting answer, precisely because I think it’s so wrong. I’m convinced that even people with no musical training at all intuitively understand what is a good or bad song, even if they can’t explain why. So on some level, I think the inappropriate emphasis on the preposition is downgrading pretty much everyone’s enjoyment of the song. But evidently it’s a hugely successful song despite that. (Note: emphasis on preposition deliberate.) So something else is going on, and I want to understand what.

  3. Why not on a jet plane? I don’t hear emphasis put on a single word there.

  4. I don’t think the highest note necessarily emphasises that word in the way you imply. In fact (going from memory, as I haven’t heard it in a while) the word “leaving” is distinctly stressed (and elongated, for what it’s worth).

  5. I’ve just listened to the song again and I think the emphasis really happens on “lea-ving”, which is split into two strong (half speed) syllables by the meter of the song. The “on”, even though it’s the high note, is part of a sort of glissando of “on a jet plane” which run together. “Leaving” has already done it’s job of being the important part, with extra emphasis. When I hear the song, the “on a jet plane”, that seems like an added thought after the main point – ie that he’s leaving. The rest of the lyrics are simple and unpretentious – he’s sad about leaving the woman he loves. If they were more portentous, maybe the average listener wouldn’t like the chorus – but the basic human emotion (as a programmer I’m talking theoretically at this point) is recognisable, so the chorus sounds like a plea from the heart, not a trick of linguistic or musical legerdemain.
    Also – in music, unnatural emphasis that is dictated by the song’s meter is often ignored. You expect the words to follow the tune, if the tune sounds natural, like this one does. Lots of musical numbers (Got. The mustard. Out. – Buffy) use Punctuation. For. Emphasis that would sound like something Kirk might come up with if you said them aloud with the same inflection. Being in a song excuses that.
    Also – if most people understand what is a good or bad song, can you please explain why MTV contains a music channel called Flava? Also, I expect your thesis on vast tracts of the Country and Western genre as soon as possible. :-)

  6. Thanks, Robin (and Martin), I think your explanation of why the song works makes sense. (I laughed “as a programmer I’m talking theoretically at this point”.)

    Yes, songs do often get away with unnatural scansion and emphasis; but the best ones don’t, and that’s part of what makes them the best ones. I tremendously admire the craftsmanship in songs by, say, Paul Simon, where the lyric matches the tune perfectly and sounds natural and unforced.

    And, haha, no, I can’t explain MTV, or country music, or for that matter almost any recently charting single. I admit all of these things are body blows to my hypothesis that even musically uneducated people can subconsciously pick up on quality.

  7. It’s also a song which, quite successfully, plays for the back rows — all the emotions are big, simple, and signposted well in advance. That means that people can relax and sing along without having any subconscious worry about whether they’re keeping up, or whether they’re going to miss some subtlety.

    (A couple months ago I was listening to different versions of “Early Morning Rain” on youtube (here’s a nice performance by Bill Staines) and by comparison “Leaving On a Jet Plain” feels tooth-achingly sweet — even though they’re fairly similar songs.)

  8. That is an excellent point, NickS. I often find when I sing at folk clubs that the response is a very respectful kind of silence — which I guess is a compliment of a kind — but when I did Jet Plane almost everyone sang along. It could be the uncomplicated nature of the emotional palette that does that.

  9. Pingback: So how was the Cinderford Music Festival? | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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