The Singer and the Song

Here’s a light-hearted piece I wrote a while ago for a magazine. In the end it wasn’t published so you can read it here instead.

The Singer and the Song

I don’t sing but I’m a good listener. There’s nothing I like better than listening to a good song sung by a great singer. In fact, I like singing so much that I’m reluctant to listen to music that doesn’t have a vocal. Which means I sometimes skip the instrumental tracks on albums and much of the vast pantheon of European classical music leaves me cold. But Kate Rusby can sing any old song and I’m all ears.

There are exceptions to this general rule. When Liam O’Flynn’s uillean pipes kick in on a Planxty song, for example, I go all weak at the knees. Even so it’s usually the song that is still the most important thing and the uillean pipes just sneak into my consciousness a bit later to weave their spell.

I said I don’t sing but there have been exceptions to that rule too. As a child growing up in England, I had to sing hymns in school assemblies but surrounded by numerous other children, many of whom were lip-syncing as I usually was. My only public appearance as a solo singer came years later after I had moved to Japan, home of karaoke. On many more than seven drunken nights I ploughed through karaoke versions of ‘My Way’ and ‘Yesterday’ like everyone else did at the time, but my crowning moment on stage came at the wedding party of a Japanese friend.

At weddings in Japan – and indeed almost any formal celebratory occasion – it’s customary for each guest to perform a party piece. Word had got around that I was a bit of a Bob Dylan fan and so I was requested (a few days in advance) to sing a Dylan song at the wedding. After days of practicing at home – and fortified by a few glasses of lemonade on the day itself – I managed a half-decent rendition of ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’ accompanying myself on guitar. The song was chosen mainly because of its simple enough chord structure which made it relatively easy to play while I concentrated fiercely on trying to remember the words and sing them in tune.

As for the lyrics it wouldn’t have made any difference if I’d made up new ones on the spot (as Bob himself has been known to do) or thrown in a few choice obscenities since none of the wedding guests had any understanding of English and were simply pleased to see the foreigner singing a song and doing his bit.

Barnsley’s nightingale Kate Rusby

That was the last time I sang in front of an audience but I well remember comments from the gathered guests along the lines of how good it was to hear a native English speaker singing and, even, how much better it is to hear a Westerner singing as they have the natural rhythm, phrasing and timing that is elusive to most Japanese vocalists.

This myth of the supremacy of Western singers – and specifically those who sing in the English language – was all pervasive in my early experience in Japan and I’ll come back to that in a bit, but first…

What I’ve also noticed among listeners of all countries – well, my UK and Japanese friends anyway – is that most people don’t really like music. Or not that much. I used to ask my students at the Japanese university where I was employed what they liked to do best. One of the most common responses was ‘listen to music’. Further probing failed to find anything but the vaguest interest in music, whether listening, singing, playing, going to concerts, buying music or any of the things that real music aficionados are supposed to do. Saying you liked music was simply the easy option that wouldn’t draw unwanted attention or mark you out as weird or strange. A safe hobby not like bungee-jumping or collecting antique bottle tops.

My academic colleagues were no different. The opinion most often aired was that so-and-so (insert famous pop vocalist here, but frequently Celine Dion) can be easily enjoyed because she/he has ‘a great voice’. I had never thought about ‘great voices’ when I first became excited by songs and singing. Surely anyone who makes a record or stands up on a stage (except me at a wedding party) must already have a pretty good voice or they wouldn’t be doing it.

Tom Waits: not a ‘pure’ voice but a great singer (Photo: Kenny Mathieson)

What they really mean is that it’s not too disturbing and makes a pleasant sound. Well yes, I adore Kate Rusby and her ‘pure’ singing but I also love Tom Waits who always sounds like he’s been out drinking and smoking way past his bedtime. Tom has a great voice, and so has Bob Dylan, of course. It’s not to do with whether you can hit the right notes and sound nice, it’s all in the phrasing, the blend of words and music, the ability to evoke an emotional response, to disturb and upset if necessary.

And it doesn’t matter what words you are singing, to get back to the point I was about to make earlier about language. A few years ago, many of my friends, family and acquaintances in the UK would have been mortified at the thought of having to listen to a song (or heaven forbid, an entire album) sung in a language other than English. Unless it’s opera, of course, and then it mustn’t be sung in English. They imagined that understanding the words was the most important thing. They deluded themselves. Even the lyrics of their favourite British and American pop songs were frequently misheard or buried under a wall of noise. They just felt more comfortable if they were at least mishearing in English. Thankfully, many of those attitudes are now changing but it’s still sometimes a struggle to convince them to really open their minds and ears to the wealth of great songs and singing all over the world.

The Japanese are a bit different as they are used to listening to songs sung in other languages they don’t understand and especially to English. In fact, they sometimes prefer to listen to English whether understanding it or not. They are also eager to insert often meaningless English phrases and words into their own songs.

Here on Okinawa, the iconic roots singer Shoukichi Kina still believes that he needs to have his Okinawan songs changed into English if they are to reach bigger overseas audiences. Not just translated, but he needs to sing them in English too. This, even though he doesn’t speak English and has never sung in anything other than Okinawan or Japanese. I have tried telling him the beauty of the original singing would be lost but he just gives me a funny look. Fortunately, the chances of this really happening are about as likely as my singing at another wedding.

I’m not likely to overcome my reluctance to sing but I will certainly never stop listening to others who do and who thrill and excite me with their wonderful voices – and it won’t matter if they are singing in Basque, Okinawan or Swahili.

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2 Comments on “The Singer and the Song”

  1. Julian south Says:

    John, this was an interesting read and raises further questions about the role of a singer in music. I have been listening to music for many years and equally enjoy song and instrumental tracks. But with song I rarely listen closely to the words. There are some songs I have listened to many times yet have no idea of what they are about. However, this makes no difference to me at all; it’s as if the words are simply another part of the music but play no part in the meaning they give. Maybe the occasional phrase will give some meaning to me but this is an exception. Am I unusual in this respect? The great thing is that I can easily listen and enjoy songs in any language. An example is that I often listen to songs in Scots Gaelic.


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