Like chocolate chips in a cookie, hard sounds sprinkled into smooth music attract attention. Imagine a sudden 15 seconds of pizzicato cellos in the middle of a lilting waltz. You’d notice them, wouldn’t you? You’d wonder what they ‘meant.’
What do you think the 15 seconds of hard consonants: suitcase, drunk and trunk, ‘mean’, in among the rounded sounds of House of the Rising Sun? Who’s talking? Who’s he talking about? There’s deep sadness in a son who names the ‘only things’ his own father needs, without including himself. Eric Burdon doesn’t need to emphasise the hard consonants. Your emotional antennae pick them up:
Before we go on – why doesn’t Eric Burdon need to emphasise the hard consonants? For the same reason that you get a strong sense of the sound of poetry, simply by reading it to yourself, straight off the page. We each carry a personal sound picture of individual words, in our own mind. We all know that suitcase, trunk and drunk have a different feel to the other words in the song. We notice. The sounds affect us. That’s sufficient.
Why choose those particular words? Surely a gambler needs dollars, cards or luck** more than multiple items of luggage? (**If you’re interested in why luck wouldn’t have worked here, hard consonants notwithstanding, go right to the end of this post).
You pack a suitcase and a trunk when you’re leaving home for a long time. If you’d settled down in New Orleans to gamble, you wouldn’t need a suitcase and a trunk, unless you expected to go home. You’d pawn them for gambling cash. Along with the possessions that filled them. A suitcase and a trunk, especially used with the present tense – needs – imply somebody coming and going. They’re physical things a child would notice as his father walked away from home and from him, again. And again.
I can hear some of you sniggering at the back – does it all sounds a bit too pop psychology? Remember: none of this will have been planned. Nobody will have thought – “I know, we’ll express the child’s perception of neglect through a description of his gambling father’s luggage.” Over time those particular words will have settled into place within the song. Because they worked. Not because of some intentional Freudian alchemy.
The group of hard consonants will originally have found their place as part of the melancholy chiaroscuro of the song. To season its shades of regret. A song full of words ending with smooth n, w, s and y sounds needs clumps of crunchy consonants for emotional and musical contrast. Otherwise it descends into dirge or lullaby.
House of the Rising Sun is a traditional folk song with a long history. It exists in many forms. In every version, groups of hard consonants are used to draw attention to the gambler or drunkard; the catalyst of the singer’s misfortunes. Sometime the singer is a woman and her downfall results from her unfortunate choice of sweetheart. In that case, the hard k sound is often used to name him as a drunkard and to talk about the liquor he consumes to get drunk. Interestingly, in a Rule of 3 fashion, each version has 3 words with hard consonants placed together. Listen to Nina Simone here.
You still don’t believe that the hard consonants make any difference?
Let the music speak: watch Eric Burdon improvising as he sings House of the Rising Sun, twenty-four years later. Every word he adds into the early part of the song is soft and round – Louisiana, yeah, I hear you calling, believe me baby etc. It’s only when he starts riffing on the downside of life in a rock & roll band that he introduces new words like motel and hotel. With their hard bisecting t. Listen to the guitarists as they respond to the emotional change in his voice. That tells you something about the subtle message of sound:
It’s subtle but it’s there. Eric Burdon has strong negative feelings about touring and it comes out in his choice of hard consonants. You can read his thoughts about the stresses, the drugs and the ‘craziness’ of life on the road in the 60s here. Moving from hotel to motel isn’t good for mental health. That’s what Eric’s thinking about. Just as a boy might recall the wretchedness of watching his gambler father packing suitcase & trunk, ready to leave home again.
When you’re preparing to sing: it’s worth making a Sherlock Holmes style investigation of the soundscape of any song:
- If the song is smooth, look out for clumps of hard consonants. Does the music change when they appear? Are they ‘dark’, ‘angry’ hard consonants? Or light, cheery, snappy chunks of sound, like our friend, the chocolate chip cookie?
- If the song is hard, fast and choppy, look out for marshmallow soft words and slow sections. What change do they represent?
- Do what you want with consonants, but don’t ignore them. Listen to Liza Minelli wringing maximum colour out of a single tt here. Or Laura Marling varying her tt for 2 different effects here. Consonants can be powerful allies when you sing.
- Listen to some alternative interpretations. They’ll inform your own choices as a singer: Sinead O’Connor chooses to sing the hard consonants in House of the Rising Sun more strongly than Eric Burdon here.
- Snakefarm omit the hard consonants completely. Here’s their version. See what you think.
Shades of sound colour human emotion. It’s always worth investigating the full palette of sounds available to you in a song. Then you can choose how to apply them.
If English isn’t your first language:
- First words first: get the soft th of There is a house right. Don’t sing ‘Dare is a house’. If you need some help, practise with music and tongue twisters here or here. The soft th of the first word sets the mood of the song. If you listen carefully you’ll hear that every word has a smooth beginning and ending – except for the words suitcase, trunk and drunk. That’s subtle but important.
- Fourth word next: get the h of house right. Don’t cough up Xhouse. Don’t whisper ouse. Sing house. Practise your English h with AC/DC here or with Pharrell Williams here.
- Don’t hiss the s of house like a snake. It’s softer than that. Put your energy into the spacious central diphthong sound.
- Careful with the word ruin. Listen to it pronounced here.
- Listen carefully to Eric Burdon singing the words poor, boy, do and I here. Did your English teacher ever pronounce those words like that? Did your English teacher ever sing the blues to you?
Let your words breathe and expand to fill the generous space of the song. Don’t sing standard spoken versions of English words. They won’t fill the rambling rooms of the House of the Rising Sun.
**About luck – Not all hard consonants have the same effect. Although its rhyming partner f**k would have sounded angry, luck has too much of a positive reputation to have worked quickly in this song. Nobody would argue with the fact that luck is something every gambler needs. A suitcase and a trunk provoke more thought. They’re more interesting as lyrics.
© Sing Better English, 2014