Category Archives: Poetics

A Critique of the Lyrics of Sally From Syracuse

StuNunneryToday, I’ll be critiquing the lyrics of Stu Nunnery’s 1971 hit “Sally from Syracuse” (song here, if you care to listen).  If you’re all very lucky, this will be just the first in a long series, assuming I can find enough songs on topics about which I have expertise (Syracuse, in this case, not Sally).

“Sally from Syracuse” tells the story of a lawyer from a big-city family, born with a “silvery spoon”.  He had, for some time, followed his daddy’s life, going so far as to get a fancy wife.  He had obtained, in fact, a home on Long Island, complete with three kids and maid, and an office on Park Avenue.  Now we come to the first problem with the lyrics (if we may set aside the fact that the spoon he was born with was “silvery”, rather than “silver” which implies that it may have been a cheap fake).  The narrator tells us that he spent his days in court, learning cases and torts, “things that he already knew”.  Now, if he already knew them, he couldn’t really be learning them, it seems to me.  At any rate, it seems to have contributed to his malaise, and led to him hopping into his Caddy and saying goodbye to old daddy before heading for wide open skies, and eventually meeting the eponymous Sally.

Our first encounter with the chorus, “Sally from Syracuse / I was a young recluse / You broke the shell over me / Sally from Syracuse / You’re such a silly goose / Don’t take your lovin’ from me,” presents several more problems.  First of all, while it is possible to have a shell “over” something, more generally you’d expect to see the word “spell” in that formulation.  More importantly, we have the rhymes for “Syracuse”, recluse and goose.  “Syracuse” is a word rich in potential rhymes – chartreuse, masseuse,  fruit juice, Norway spruce, etc., so these are weak choices.  Surely a lawyer with an office on Park Avenue would not be likely to be a recluse, and this is meant to be the song of a man liberated from a stultifying existence by an exceptional woman – it seems odd to call her a “silly goose” (a term more suited for use by matrons scolding young boys).  I would note in passing that in some versions of his song “Wanted Man”, Johnny Cash rhymes “Syracuse” with “Baton Rouge” – this is one way we know that Johnny Cash is a goddamn lyrical genius and Stu Nunnery is not.  Stu also pronounces “Syracuse” in a vaguely Italian fashion (“Siracuse”), as opposed to how the locals pronounce it (“halfway between “Sare-a-cuse” and “Syare-a-cuse”), but we can let that slide since the narrator does theoretically hail from Long Island, and might not know better.

As we leave the chorus, there are a few more problems.  First off, the narrator meets Sally “standing at the end of the turnpike” – there are a few roads called turnpikes in New York, but it is a fairly uncommon usage.  Even if we let that pass, though, we run immediately into the description of Sally, who has a “body quite alarming, as her jeans gave her ass quite a squeeze”.  Now, as Eric Jonrosh will tell you, any writer worth his salt knows you can’t bunch the same word up against the same word like that, it’s not done.  And “quite” is not used as a rhyme, so Stu would have been free to pick any number of intensifiers on how alarming her body was and how squeezed her ass.  And the first thing Sally does is to tell the narrator not to “dilly dally” (which, I mean, come on), and demand to be taken to “West Syracuse”.  Now, Syracuse happens to have suburbs called “East Syracuse” and “North Syracuse”, and it has a distinct “South Side”, but there is no particular entity such as “West Syracuse” – anyone who needed to be taken to some specific location in western Syracuse would instruct the narrator to take this buggy to Solvay or Onondaga Lake or something.  Stu had a three in four chance to pick a relevant direction and managed to blow it.  At any rate, the narrator and Sally then spent the week “making it like it was going out of style” at Sally’s “downtown apartment”, and downtown Syracuse is nowhere near the west side of the city – I suppose Sally might have had to run an errand at the state fairgrounds or someplace before heading home, but it all seems unnecessarily complicated, and detracts from the central message of the song (again, redemption from a dull life and introduction to adultery by an exciting woman).

This is when we run into another one of Stu’s odd “slant cliches” – Sally loosens the narrator up, and gives him a “new look on life”.  We’ve all heard of a “new lease on life”, of course, and a “new outlook”, and Stu seems to have gotten these confused, since one generally looks at things, not on them.  The song ends with Stu attempting to rhyme “driving” with “slipping and sliding” (you’re not the Man in Black, Stu, just stop trying) before ending with a repetition of the “dilly-dally” thing, which along with the “silly goose” business begins to make Sally and the narrator sound like geriatrics.

All in all, while this song was apparently “inspired by a real life event”, I’m afraid it shows signs of both lack of research and lazy rhyme schemes.




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