Dolly Parton and the Long Vowel

imageI can’t sing but I love poetry, so when I came across a blog called Sing Better English,I was intrigued. (You had me at the title.)

The blog is aimed at non-native English speakers, but it’s a treat for anyone who loves words or enjoys the company of a knowledgeable host.

I spent the evening reading the blog’s quirky posts (It’s Hard To Sing Reggae When Your Head Is Full Of Strawberry Jam), and listening to the music it explores: Nirvana, Kate Bush, Ella Fitzgerald. It’s amazing how much richer the songs seemed when I started to understand the choices the performers were making: choices about pronunciation, inflection and even breath control.

It made me think about reading my own work in public, and whether I take as much care speaking my words as I do writing them. Great singers pay attention to the tiniest of details. Lesson learnt.

I can’t imagine Sing Better English will do much for my singing voice. But it’s already raised the bar for my speaking voice. And given me a new-found respect for Dolly Parton’s Jolene. (Click here to see why.)

Do yourself a favour. Head over there. And writer friends? You’re welcome.

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14 thoughts on “Dolly Parton and the Long Vowel

  1. Thank you Aileen – that’s very generous of you. Glad you enjoyed the posts.
    I think most of the things that we do with language are not done consciously – otherwise you’d end up like Mrs Thatcher after her elocution lessons, when she was ‘improving’ her speech to gain more gravitas. Though I suppose it became natural to her eventually.
    It would be terrifying to open our mouths if we were constantly planning or evaluating every tiny nuance of speech. But I do believe that subtle tones of speech have powerful effect – thinking of how we pick up and ‘read’ every shade of sound in a family argument or a lover’s quarrel. When we listen to songs we’re in a heightened state of attention and awareness – unless we know the song so well that it’s become an old friend and we’re singing along louder than the singer on stage.
    Do you do long readings or short readings? I only ask because I suppose people must focus most intently when a poem’s being read or when a short story’s unfolding. We do like to know where we’re being led when we can’t see what’s ahead. Can you ‘read’ an audience’s attention level? Can you tell whether they like what you’re reading?

    1. Hi Elaine,

      You’re right. We can’t possibly make conscious decisions about every aspect of our speech! Still, when the stakes are high, it’s worth thinking about how we say something. Poetry, for example, relies on the most muscular of language. Every word has to earn its place on the page, so it makes sense to get the most out of those same words when we speak them. And all while sounding natural! I usually read short, non-fiction or fiction pieces. If the audience laughs or gasps at the right places, I know they’re enjoying the piece. But there are other more subtle clues too. A change in body language, a different quality to the silence. Sadly, it’s even easier to know if you’ve lost a room. Lots of coughing and chair scraping! Biggest challenge so far? I once read a series of 300 word sentences. Breath control, breath control . . . .

  2. It’s interesting that feeling of ‘losing’ or ‘holding’ a room, isn’t it? Nothing’s said, people don’t heckle or purr, but, as humans, we can read each other when the stakes are high. I’ve talked to buskers who have to work with that – the idea of attracting a crowd and binding them to you. The best ones are like magicians.

    I suppose it’s an art like any other – but a different one from choosing the right words in the first place. Getting the shape and sound of the words inside your head to flow into the ears of your audience. That must be an interesting challenge. Are there workshops or classes to help readers breathe life into their own words?

    Were the 300 word sentences your own? I can imagine music forming as you led your audience through them. I was reading Saramago recently – ‘Death at Intervals’ – full of unpunctuated, lengthy sentences. It was interesting to feel myself dropping my own breath intervals into them – without any commas to signpost Saramago’s own intentions. (Or his translator’s intentions).

    1. Yes! It’s hard to explain. The cues almost imperceptible and yet we somehow sense how engaged the audience is. It’s a great feeling when (if) it all goes well. The (long) sentences were my own: a series I wrote a year or so ago. I often write in very tight frames, but working without punctuation was a departure. A challenge, too. Lots of reading aloud to get the rhythm right.

      I’m off to listen to Adele sing Skyfall, now that I know which ghosts to listen for!

      1. I had an extra question on the Adele post – you might enjoy it – in some live versions of Skyfall you hear her pronounce the final ‘d’ of the first line – ‘this is the end’ quite clearly. Here’s the Oscar’s version
        So the question – why do you think she ghosts the ‘d’ for the James Bond soundtrack version?

      2. Will you lose respect for me if I tell you I’ve no idea?:) I did notice that she used the American pronunciation of ‘overdue’ in her Oscar performance. At least give me points for that!

  3. No loos of respect but super, extra, bonus points! I hadn’t picked up on that. It’s smoother and swifter to sing ‘overdue’ with an American pronunciation, I suppose. We’re lucky to have the choice to cross the Atlantic when it suits us. There’s a Liza Minnelli song where she chooses a British pronunciation to, I think, draw attention to a word.

    My idea about the ‘d’ of ‘end’ is that it’s left as a ghost in the James Bond soundtrack because crashing the first line into the abrupt wall of ‘end’ would interrupt the momentum of the song. Apparently the song was written to evoke feelings of death and rebirth, so ‘end’ is planted as a seed, but not handed to the audience as a fully developed shrub. James Bond is all about action and forward movement, after all, so the decks have to be cleared for that. I think Adele can bring her audience’s attention to the word ‘end’ when she’s singing the song in concert, to slightly alter the focus.

    1. Like this idea of ghosting in songs. Something similar happens in literature, I suppose. We read a poem and are influenced subconsciously by all the other poems we’ve read. Do you know the quote from Stanley Kunitz: “A poem has secrets that the poet knows nothing of.” Do you think that applies to songs and songwriters too?

  4. Sorry – loss, not loos! Should have looked before posting.

  5. Thought provoking post about the devil in the detail. I had a nosey about on the Sing Better English site too – fascinating stuff, thanks for the recommendation!

    1. Isn’t it a great site? Lots to ponder. Elaine is a font of knowledge, and a lovely writer to boot. Thanks for stopping by, Jenny. Am enjoying wandering around your blog. Fantastic photos!

      1. I love it when I stumble across a new blog I love, and then that one leads me to yet another…life’s little pleasures! Thank you for your kind comments Aileen, you are very welcome to visit and wander about any time!

      2. Hi Jenny, Unexpected treats are always the best! Definitely.

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