This Wheel’s on Fire

How do you pump the simplest English words full of air and enigma, without shouting?

Billy Bragg and KT Tunstall do it like this:

For a native speaker of English, it’s natural and enjoyable to pour energy into the words that need it when you sing, no matter how ordinary those words may be. The music leads you and you know, in your heart, that music erases the fixed boundaries of spoken English words. So you stretch and bend the words as necessary, with confidence.

If English isn’t your first language: it’s the simple English words that will trap you into mistakes, especially in a song like this, where nothing is quite as it seems. Relax your mouth so that wheel, fire, road, rolling, explode, down and the can take the free shape they need in this song. Move the boundaries.

If you shape your mouth as you would normally, to say rolling down the road in an English conversation class, there’ll be a control and restriction to your voice that will unsettle the music and the song. Remember Go Down Moses here? That’s the freedom you need.

You might be pronouncing easy words like fire or you correctly, but that’s not enough. In This Wheel’s on Fire, most words have more than one layer of meaning. You need to encompass every shade of meaning in your voice as you sing. Otherwise you won’t be doing justice to the song.

How will you sing the word memory? It’s written as mem’ry, which suits the music, but it’s not the only way (see Siouxsie Sioux’s version below). If you give memory three syllables – mem-or-y – how will you reshape the other words in the line?

By the way, native English speaker or not – if you watch Billy and KT you can see that they’re not simply adding volume to the chorus. Singing powerfully isn’t the same as shouting. Each word weaves a part of the sound picture. Each sound is there for you, and the audience to relish. Let the shape of the words shape your experience of the song.

Greil Marcus describes This Wheel’s on Fire as a thing of ‘slow uncoiling menace.’ In a shifting, dream-like world where suitcases of lace tied into sailor’s knots are constantly being packed and unpacked, it’s the presence and the repetition of the simple, everyday words that’s most mesmerising.

The word memory at the very beginning of the song sets a tone of half-understood, cryptic mystery. The lyrics are Bob Dylan’s (here) and, like a lot of his songs, This Wheel’s on Fire sounds like part of an overheard conversation, where the meaning is clear to the singer, but intriguingly obscure to a casual member of the audience.

Everything’s topsy-turvy when ordinary words like your, down, road and well are filled with extra layers of sound and meaning, but a bizarre phrase like best notify my next of kin is sung as casually as could be.

It’s not just the chorus that weaves a spider’s web out of simple repetition. Lines like You’ll remember you’re the oneThat called on me to call on them, To get you your favors done trap the listener in a tangled map of relationships, partly because of the subtle difference in meaning of the two call ons.

If English isn’t your first language – notice that each call on is a different version of the phrasal verbCalled on me has this meaning but call on them means this. You need to have each meaning clear in your head when you sing, otherwise you’ll confuse your listeners.

Julie Driscoll’s 1968 version of the song stretches the tiny words in different places:

On the level of songwriting, This Wheel’s on Fire is an example of ‘less is more.’ With just a couple of well-placed clues, the listener is free to fill the gaps between the words with meaning.  Simple words leave bigger, more intriguing gaps. As a singer, it’s a wonderful opportunity to let rip and to fill the space inside those tiny words with sound.

Peter Viney has collected thoughts about the song here.

Remember, especially if you learnt English at school: Ordinary words like wheel, my and road need to stretch like chewing gum in this song. Don’t sing the standard versions of the words that you learnt in English classes. The wheels you need for This Wheel’s on Fire aren’t these wheels.

Be sure that you don’t constrict your mouth as you sing. If you do, you’ll strangle your words. Watch Billy Bragg and KT Tunstall as they sing. Notice how relaxed their mouths look.

By the way – what do you think of the way Siouxsie Sioux covered the song here? Do you like the way she stretches road as row-a-row-a-road and fire as fy-yah? Or do you prefer Billy Bragg and KT Tunstall’s version? Do you like the way she sings memory rather than mem’ry? Or would you sing the song differently?

© Sing Better English, 2015


8 thoughts on “This Wheel’s on Fire”

  1. Once again you have amazed me by presenting a song — and several words — with which I am well familiar, but helping me hear them in a new way. Thank you for this wonderful post, Elaine!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re sweet, Heather.

      Nowadays, This Wheel’s on Fire is probably most famous for its association with Absolutely Fabulous. Did the series ever find its way to your part of the world? It’s very much of its time, and very funny:

      By the way, KT Tunstall is a really impressive songwriter in her own right. You can see her working wonders with a loop delay on her first, solo television appearance, on Jools Holland here: It’s all filmed live, and the programme is known for making or breaking careers. You’d never guess it by looking at her, would you?

      All best wishes

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes! Yes, we did get AbFab in my part of the world. But somehow I’d forgotten/missed the Wheel’s on Fire connection! (Another thing you’re great at: connecting the dots.) As for KT Tungstall … I wasn’t familiar with her, nor would I have guessed. So thank you for introducing me to her, too. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Off the subject of singing in English, but if you want to hear some real cut-glass posh English, here’s Joanna Lumley (Patsy from AbFab) back in 1976:

        The extra joke for most of the Absolutely Fabulous audience in the UK was that we remembered Joanna Lumley as the glamorous secret agent Purdey on the tv series New Avengers ( The series wasn’t as popular as the original and lots of viewers thought Joanna Lumley a sad replacement for Diana Rigg. So seeing Joanna again, 15 years on, as the drink-sozzled Patsy was believably surreal. 🙂


  2. Great version of “Wheel’s on Fire” by Bragg & Tunstall, and such interesting commentary. It makes explicit a singing style I was drawn to when I picked up a guitar years ago, listening to performers like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who was a big influence on early Dylan. You have a very fun site, and if I’m not careful I will spend the day with all these clips.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Jim. Come on in, the water’s lovely.

      Now, with my wine-waiter hat on, I have a feeling you might enjoy this post about birdsong slowed down so that humans can sing it and then speeded up so that a bird would understand it again: And, still in the world of Northumbria and birds, I think you’d like the Unthanks Magpie Song And, for the beautiful music accompanying the murmuration of starlings:

      Forgive my cheek at recommending without having been asked. It just seemed a bit rude to leave you wandering without offering a light.

      All best wishes

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The unthanks is blocked from uploading in the US, but the other two are truly astonishing. Your site is like the rabbit hole into Wonderland, both mind-expanding and incredibly fun. Excellent wine-waiter hat.

        Liked by 1 person

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