A Punter’s Perspective
Random observations on the wide, weird world of folk from the side of the stage
#10 It’s only words, and that is all… Damn, what’s the next line?
First published in Trad and Now magazine, May 2008
By Bill Quinn
At a recent singing session, a participant asked a very leading question in between songs.
“I love singing and I love songs, but I can never remember all the words. How do you singers remember not only the words to one song, but to so many songs?”
It’s a fair question. One with possibly as many answers as there were singers in attendance to provide answers.
How does one recall to mind lyrics they’ve written themselves, lyrics written by their peers, and lyrics written by others from one to 400 years previous?
(Arguably, the same question applies to instruments, notes and chords, however, since the author isn’t a musician – or at least, not for the last 27 years – we’ll confine the discussion to the realm of the vocal cords.)
In singing sessions, not everyone is expecting polished performances, and there’s a fair amount of group effort involved; if someone starts to falter, others will usually chime in with a word or phrase or some background accompaniment while the main singer gets back on track. If they know the song.
It’s not always the case. One session singer recently introduced a song with a few disclaimers about how long it had been since she’d sung it, only to be barked at by another: ‘For God’s sake, pick something you know you can sing, otherwise you’ll make a fool of yourself’.
Mercifully, that’s a reasonably rare occurrence.
But how about paid performers who are expected to deliver a fluent performance on stage?
I spoke to a handful of singers and some common tips and themes recurred, including remembering a key word of the first line of each verse. Singers also mostly concur that a song that tells a story is much easier to visualise and get in the right order than more conceptual songs.
For Craig and Simone Dawson, it very much depends on the song and the author. Craig has a little black book he uses to write new songs, in scribbled lyrics with a few crossings out here and there, and lots of finished and ‘in progress’ songs. Craig visualises that creative process and sometimes relies on a visual snapshot of those scribbled lyrics in his book when he’s singing.
Simone finds that some songs are firmly imprinted in the cerebrum but others don’t spring back so quickly. There are some songs she needs to play again and again for days leading up to a performance to have any confidence that she’s going to get from go to whoa in one piece.
For other songs, it’s not such a trial; simply remembering the first word of each verse either before or during the song is enough to bring the full verse to mind.
In a singing workshop at St Albans, Penelope Swales lost the thread of where she was up to in a song sung in Gaelic, which led her to muse on the vagaries of memory.
‘Sometimes when I’m on stage,’ she confessed, ‘I drift off and lose where I’m up to. I have to stop and listen to what I’m singing and then catch up’.
(Penelope’s words prompted a discussion within the workshop of others’ experiences forgetting words, including someone who’d forgotten the words to a poem while mid-recital just the morning before.)
‘Thanks for that discussion,’ Penelope said. ‘I’ve now remembered where I’m up to with the song!’
Though their performances may seem as untroubled and serene as the gliding of the proverbial duck across a pond, for some singers, their metaphorical legs are paddling just as hard and fast as possible beneath the surface to make it all happen.
Nigel “Muddy” Walters is one who struggles with his memory when it comes to song lyrics. In a workshop helping another muso out, it’s fairly kosher to have song sheets with chords and lyrics available for rarely played songs, but when playing with the Wheeze and Suck Band, he doesn’t have that facility.
‘I’m bad with words. If anyone in the band is going to forget them, it’s me.’
I wondered whether this might be an issue when I noticed at a festival in September last year that the words to his own composition ‘William Walker’ were printed across the top of his mandocello. In fairness, the Flash Lads album bearing the song was literally hot off the presses, but months later Nigel still had some visual prompts.
‘I have to re-practice every time before playing the songs; it takes ages for me to learn them. I’ve had awful moments of just finishing the first verse and then I couldn’t remember the words to the second. I’ve been known to ask band members for prompts. I’m sure there are techniques you can use, but I just try to remember.’
Nigel doffs his cap to fellow band member Ian “Pump” Macintosh who has an incredible repertoire, and the ability to recall lyrics to songs he’s only heard a handful of times.
Rosie McDonald from the Mothers of Intention has similar problems with lyric recall on some songs.
‘I sometimes have Penny (Rankin-Smith, bodhran player and harmony singer) feeding me a word in the first line. Like in ‘Rocky Road to Dublin’, Penny might simply say ‘Dublin’ or ‘Mullingar’ or whatever and that’s enough. Unfortunately, that makes me lazy!’
‘You have songs that you learn as a child or in your teens and the lyrics are imprinted. Others are mostly up there in the head but I just need to run through them for a performance.’
‘I could sing a lot more songs but I don’t spend the time to imprint them. It’s easier for songs I’ve written myself.’
Michael-John Azzorpardi has no real problems remembering lyrics, except maybe with cover versions he hasn’t played for a while.
We have quite some time to talk about the subject, mid-Sunday afternoon as the St Albans Folk Festival is coming to a close, while we’re some kilometres away, slowly creeping forward in a long line of cars towards the Webbs Creek ferry, having an interrupted conversation over the space of almost an hour in between shifting our vehicles ahead about 12 car lengths at a time.
I highly recommend the ferry queue if you haven’t had a chance to catch up with people at St Albans. By the time we were half-way to the ferry, the chat had incorporated Janet from the bar at the Illawarra Folk Festival, and Mark Davies who’d been doing recording sessions at St Albans.
‘I like to be comfortable with what I’m singing on stage,’ continued Michael-John, so I had the lyrics to ‘Masters of War’ on top of my guitar, just in case, but I didn’t need them.’
‘If I ever do forget a line, I just make it up and keep going.’
This is not such a chore for Michael-John, as his earlier gigs used to be 90% improvised, so no problems with hastily invented words.
‘People would come up to me after the show and ask the name to this or that song. I’d have to reply that I didn’t know as I’d just made them up. My APRA returns would say ‘Off the Cuff #1’, ‘Off the Cuff#2’, and so on.’
Michael-John has some plans to take some of these creations that he’s recorded and go back into the studio and do a full album of his improvisations. We muse for a moment on the process of assiduously recording in a studio environment the songs that were created spontaneously in a live environment.
It would at this point be highly predictable (and not very clever) to say I’d forgotten the next lines of the article.
I’ll just end by reiterating the words of others that the first word (or the key word in the first line) of each verse will get you out of all sorts of trouble. And if you can get away with it, the left wrist makes a handy (no pun intended) and fairly surreptitious notepad.