The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #84679   Message #1564535
Posted By: Don Firth
15-Sep-05 - 04:27 PM
Thread Name: Folk Artists - Wise up (or Fade away)!
Subject: RE: Folk Artists - Wise up (or Fade away)!
Tam, it's a matter of—what shall I call it?—interpretation, I guess. Any halfway decent song, be it Schubert lied, operatic aria, Broadway show tune, pop song—or folk song—has an emotional subtext. Sometimes that subtext is not so "sub." And I've heard singers in all genres who can take a song and wring your heart with it. I've also heard singers who can sing the same song and put their audiences to sleep (and I'm not talkin' "lullabye" here!). An actor can read Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy and it sounds like he's reading the contents of a can of soup. Another actor can take the same speech and nail you to the wall with it ("My God! This guy is trying to decide whether to commit suicide or not! He's really stressed!").

Way back when, I took some voice lessons from a teacher who didn't ask me to learn a pre-canned bunch of songs just as vocal exercises. He asked me to bring my guitar to the lessons and we worked with the songs I actually wanted to sing. As I sang, he would often stop me and say, "Now that last line: what, exactly, does that mean?" It was not that he didn't know. He just wanted to be sure that I knew. And to sing it as if I knew. Not just by rote. Color the word. Color the line. Feel it. To sing it like I'm really there. I learned a lot more from this man than just vocal technique.

What I'm saying is, if you're going to really put a song across to an audience, you have to fully understand the song, including that emotional subtext. You've got to feel the emotion in the song (but not so much that you get choked up, burst into tears, or fall down laughing), and transmit that emotion to your audience. But it has to be done carefully. This sort of thing can really be overdone, and it can get almost embarrassing when it is. I don't see how a person can do that (to the right degree) without knowing the song thoroughly, and that includes memorizing it.

Now, once you have thoroughly absorbed the song and understand it, the chances that you will forget it are greatly diminished. But if you do blank out on a line from time to time, having a song sheet handy, not to read from, but to glance at if need be, can save you blowing the song by having to stop and stare at the ceiling and pray that the words come back to you.

Part of the process I use in learning a song is to write out the words. It's not that difficult to copy it (type it into the computer and print out a neat, readable copy—pick a type face that's easy to read without having to have your nose within six inches of it) and stick it into a three-ring binder. Put it where you can see it (but don't hold it in front of you like a choir boy), unobtrusively flip it open to the song you want to do, and you're all set. Safety net in place. Again, unobtrusively turn the page to your next song, and so forth. Tab the pages if necessary.

I've seen people walk into a song fest with a big armload of song books loaded with songs they don't really know. The armload is a dead giveaway. Much easier, and less of a red flag, to carry one notebook containing songs you do know, even if, from time to time, you might feel a bit of fuzziness about the specific words. No sweat. You have them right there. If you need them.

Don Firth