Some time ago I listened to Tom Lehrer’s classic bit (I forget from which album) on how professional musicians would have done the American folk song Clementine differently. (He began with the observation: “The reason most folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the people.”)
Playing around with the idea, it suddenly occurred to me that the lyrics to Clementine would scan perfectly to the melody of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy! Try it!
In a cavern, in a canyon
Excavating for a mine
Lived a miner Forty-Niner
And his daughter Clementine
Oh my darling, oh my darling
Oh my darling Clementine
You are lost and gone forever
Dreadful sorry, Clementine
Recently I shared this discovery with the Doper world on a GD thread – “What’s the deal with LaRouche?” – http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=268703 (The connection? The LaRouchies are huge Beethoven fans – what that would have to do with political ideology is not clear to me, but apparently it is to them.) And then Bryan Ekers pointed out, “The melody of La Cucaracha works, too.” Fancy that! So you could sing the Clementine lyrics to the tune of La Cucaracha – and the Ode to Joy lyrics (if you know them – it’s a musical setting of a poem by Schiller) to either one!
What songs do you know, whose lyrics would fit with other songs’ melodies?
(Leaving out, of course, songs that were written to trope the text of songs previously written, like a lot of Weird Al’s material, or those timeless classics from Mad magazine – “You’re a fat old hag, you’re an unsightly bag / Though you’re still my true love, Emmy Lou / You’re the emblem of the land I love / Your complexion is red, white and blue . . .”)
One reason I got interested in this was because of “Scans to Argo,” a memorable parody of the even more memorable Leslie Fish filk classic “Banned From Argo.” (Chorus: “With songs of seven iambs and a meter of 4/4 / we’ll all screw “Banned from Argo” up once more!”) The “Gilligan’s Island” theme was in there, but I don’t remember “Amazing Grace” –
I’ve tried and failed to find “Scans to Argo” on the Net . . .
The lyrics of the Gilligan theme, “Amazing Grace”, and “House of the Rising Sun” can all be sung to each other’s tunes. And all of their lyrics can be sung to the tune of “Stairway to Heaven”, but you can’t sing the lyrics of “Stairway” to the tunes of any of those other songs.
Like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and the alphabet song.
I think that would work. Traditional hymnals list that sort of thing: for instance, above “Rock of Ages”, the 1940 Espiscopal hymnal has 77.77.77 at the top of the page, indicating six half-lines of seven syllables each per verse.
Sing the following words to the tune of the MASH* theme song:
Just a good old boys, never meanin’ no harm,
Been in trouble with the law since the day they was born.
Makin’ their way, trappin’ their kill,
Someday the mountain might get 'em, but the law never wi-iiiiiiill
A pity that those aren’t the words to the Ballad of Hazzard County.
Just two good ol’ boys, never meanin’ no harm,
beats all you never saw, been in trouble with the law since the day they was born.
Straightenin’ the curves, flattenin’ the hills,
Someday the mountain might get 'em but the law never will.
Like Twinkle twinkle little star, and others already mentioned, these lines are in trochaic meter, a long or heavily accepted first syllable followed by a short one. The Davy Crockett meter is particularly strong in this regard:
DAY’ vee, DAY’ vee CROCK et
So any words that are trochaic will fit into the scheme and will enter your head and not leave it for days on end while you go around muttering random words in a rhythmic beat and frightening little children and impressionable adults.