Your Woman was My Woman

When you sing in English, repeated pairs of words are a gift to you, and to your listeners. If you use them well.

You establish your ‘standard’ pronunciation of words early in every song. Your listeners calibrate their emotional understanding of you accordingly. They read every single change in emphasis and breath against your own personal ‘standard’. You’re free to move away from the ‘normal’, to play any word-pair like bongo drums, moving from one to the other, harder and softer, lighter and deeper, to weave layers of subtle meaning.

Macho and hembra
Macho and hembra

In Spanish, the larger, deeper drum of the two is called the ‘female’ (hembra) and the smaller is the ‘male’ or macho. Make of that what you will.

White Town sings the words your and woman differently each time, stretching Bing Crosby’s straightforward My Woman into a far more complicated creature. There’s a Twelfth Night gender shifting quality to his song. There is no stable ground, except in the repeated Your Woman mantra. We listen harder to White Town’s subtle changes because he knows how to make us listen:

The shifting rhyme scheme of the verses is designed to unsettle us and to make us listen harder as we desperately search for a pattern:

  • In the first verse, the first and third lines rhyme.
  • In the second verse the rhyme switches to the first and second lines. There is no certainty.
  • The rhymes vary from the exact: true and you, through the distant: truth and through and beyond, all the way to the stretched rhyme of yesterday and same.

The uncertainties of the rhyme scheme prime us to pay close attention throughout – so unexpected words like high-brow Marxist ways don’t get lost. White Town sings in an intimate crooner style to draw listeners into the web of his story. Once you start listening, you’re committed, no matter where he chooses to lead you and even though you can’t see where he’s taking you.

When the first chorus begins, the listener has no idea that anything will be repeated. So they listen hard. White Town knows he has their full attention. He varies his pronunciation of your woman – bouncing between an emphasis on your (not mine, far from me), a matter-of-fact pronunciation of woman, a full, curvaceous pronunciation of woman,  a stretching of the diphthong in your, etc., etc. He makes the absolute best of a simple two word phrase and breathes a rolling landscape of meaning into it.

The word your, with its uncertainty and its expandable diphthong centre, serves White Town’s purpose better than the my of Bing Crosby’s original My Woman. White Town says he was inspired by jazz singer Al Bowlly’s version of the song, mimed by Bob Hoskins in the BBC series Pennies from Heaven:

Al Bowlly shapes and stretches the word woman, so that the word expresses his changing thoughts about the lady in question. He shades the word woman differently each time, with intention and belief. This is his story, a sad progress from new song to blue song. She’s always his: my woman, but love has led him down a blind alleyway. Dennis Potter chose the song in irony.

You can see Al Bowlly himself, backed, as in My Woman, by Lew Stone and His Monseigneur Band here:

If English isn’t your first language remember:  The simplest words in English are like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag.  Full of surprises. All words are available for change. Think of Jarvis Cocker working wonders with do here. Never pass over simple English words. All sounds in a song are there to be used.

Look at the word your there are two standard pronunciations of your listed in the Oxford dictionary here. White Town goes far beyond them. He stretches the vowel sounds at the centre of your – this long vowel sound and this double vowel sound, or diphthong.

When you sing in English be prepared to copy White Town, or to do something completely different. Consider each word in your song carefully, especially the short, everyday ones. How can you make them work for you? In song, the sound you give each word carries emotional meaning. It’s your job to make that meaning vivid and clear.

Repetition in a song gives extra opportunity to a singer. You can sing repeated words the same each time, or you can weave contrast into each repetition. Like this or this.

By the way – just because you can change a repeated word doesn’t mean that you always should. The choice is yours. Next post features a famous song where repetition produces mesmeric power. Clue: the singer’s first name is James, though it’s far from the name you know him by. A colleague and one-time flatmate of David Bowie.

© Sing Better English, 2014

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14 thoughts on “Your Woman was My Woman”

  1. ha! i love how you link the definition of ‘discombobulated’ hahaha… for those ppl who would normally just skip over words they don’t know. (i personally love dictionary.com and wish i could find a better translation app for my android phone)…. i don’t particularly care for scientologists (too push and arrogant from my perspective) but i do enjoy how much L. Ron Hubbard stressed knowing the meanings of words – they are after all the building blocks constraining our paradigm!

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    1. I do it mainly because the blog is aimed at people who don’t have English as their first language. Usually I do it for phrasal verbs, which seem so simple to native speakers but are utterly incomprehensible and illogical to people learning the language. Bring off, bring down, bring up, bring about, bring back, bring off – impenetrable if you haven’t grown up hearing them.

      By the way – did you guess the hypnotic song? People seem quite nervous of putting their guesses in writing!

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  2. AND i love that you see an opportunity to dig deeper in the repeats… normal crappy music on the radio just repeats with almost exactly the same feeling (or lack thereof), sans drum track on the 3rd or 4th chorus of course for the ‘take down’. ugh.

    even the yogis, thousands of years ago, understood the power of repetition. it creates trance-like states, yes, but to quote the yoga sutras ( paraphrased ) : the stilling of the patterning of consciousness can be achieved via meditating on ‘om’. through repetition, its meaning becomes clear.

    ….aaaaand that’s about enough crazy talk for one day! back to my day job in online marketing, essentially lying to certain people and pretending to be someone i’m not. i love my job, it keeps me walking the line 🙂

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  3. guess the hypnotic song? totally lost you on that…. you mean did i guess which one has the hypnotic effect?

    phrasal verbs are the worst! actually, prepositions are probably the worst…. at the weekend or (in US) on the weekend. thankfully we have verbs and nouns to know what the hell is going on, because prepositions relating them to one another can be quite different from continent to contenent haha

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      1. Ha! Okay ill try to read instead of skim tho being at work is a good excuse… so many studies done on the lack of attn span thanks to modern tech!

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  4. oh! oh! i finally read the last 60% of this post. really, you write SO well and i love the not-condescending-yet-pedantic style. such a pleasure to read! you should go self-hosted and earn some ad revenue!!! your content is just superb. (yeah, i’m an online marketer at heart haha)

    hmm, james. jimmi hendrix? ah, but i don’t know many of his songs… crap. lemme google this a moment… um, maybe ‘hey joe?’. haha, just a total guess, as i can’t really listen to a few of his songs at the moment.

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    1. You get the prize anyway, for being the first guesser! So pick a song for me to write about and I will.

      But no, not Jimi. 😦

      Remember, this person shared a flat with David Bowie. Supplementary clue – the name he’s known by rhymes with the name of one of Mr Bowie’s most famous incarnations.

      I’d forgotten that self-hosting = ad revenue. That’s a good thought.

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      1. hahhaa WOW you know so much more about these things than i do !!! i can’t even name one of david bowie’s songs… i know that’s tantamount to sacrilege after having been in berlin for so long…. :-/

        and the synchronicity is just amazing! i was literally writing this comment (paragraphs underneath) when i saw your comment above!

        Ah! That could be another post topic perhaps, the power of the pause: “I’d like to hold her…. head under water.” Another lyric that I love is from Ani Difranco, something like ‘you left me with nothing but baby, I’ve worked with less’. So true. The burdens we carry can be such a hindrance in this lifetime that having ‘nothing’ is much more preferable. (Referencing a recent break up here, where I moved out and my stuff got thrown out! Haha…. oh material possessions. Such a nuisance.)

        So if I win the prize then….. um…. hmm, it would be interesting to have an expert such as yourself analyse one of my songs, but I don’t think I’ll put myself up to that fire YET. Haha.

        Maybe “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”? I like how in songs people can get away with misplacing accentuation. someWHERE not SOMEwhere…. maybe becuase the ‘where’ leads us to ‘there’ which is just beyond the rainbow….

        I don’t know. Good luck with that one! 🙂

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      2. You’re allowed to pick a song at any time of your choosing. Like a Get Out Of Jail card. So choose when you feel like it.

        If you truly want me to write about Somewhere Over the Rainbow, I’ll do it – just say. in the meantime, you’ll appreciate Ms Minnelli here (sorry if you’ve read it already – or never wanted to read it!) https://singbetterenglish.wordpress.com/2014/03/09/power-of-pretty/

        The Power of the Pause – a wonderful title for a blog post. The subject could be anything from Zen Buddhism to grizzly bears.

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      3. Wow you are so interesting! Will love to spend more time reading ur thoughts and experiences! So refreshing and interesting and yes parrallel to my life too!

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Wow yes! So thankful another enlightened (for me its hit or miss honestly) soul / mind is out there and we’re in touch.

        U noTiced the hesitation and thanks for allowing the free pass. I’ll let you know when the right song comes along! Thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Alright – ready for your expertise and opinion on ‘Hallelujah’.

    Yasmin Levy’s version of ‘Hallelujah’ gives me goosebumps with it’s passion and precision … I’m pretty sure it’s a covered form of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ but in Spanish.

    Cohen’s version (the live one here on YouTube, not sure if you can watch it in the UK or outside Germany) is quite moving as well, giving me goosebumps not for his precision but the contrast between verse and chorus, the passion in his voice, you can really hear his broken soul crying out.

    (ps: I’ve covered this too, but always forget the lyrics and make up my own form of brokenness haha)

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