How do you reclaim a colour that has been used against you as an insult? You take it and you warm it by breathing love into it.
In the traditional Scottish song Black is the Colour of my True Love’s Hair, the choice of black as opposed to brown or grey gives a slight boost of exotic ‘gypsy’ passion to the true love. That’s all. Red would have done the trick just as easily.
Truly (natural) black or red hair is unusual and eye-catching. It sounds special, implying some exceptional quality to the singer too, for having captured the love of such a rare creature.
For Nina Simone and Emile Latimer, in 1960s America, black was much, much, much more than a hair colour. How do they infuse the word with the love it deserves? Like this:
If English isn’t your first language: when you sing an English song that involves a colour, that colour will have been chosen by the songwriter for its symbolism within the English speaking world. Your own culture may have a different understanding of that colour – you may consider white to be the colour of death and mourning. In an English song, white is the colour of weddings.
First, check the general cultural meaning of a colour in English. Then try to identify the specific meaning of the colour in your chosen song. Why did the songwriter choose that colour?
Think of Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl. Why brown not blue, green or black? In Van’s song, brown carries a feeling of softness, which adds to the song’s nostalgic mood. A blue eyed girl would have given an impression of innocence and purity, green eyed would have given the girl cat-like, passionate but untrustworthy qualities and black eyed would have made the audience think of domestic violence and this.
Never give a colour, or any other English word, one single meaning. Meanings mutate, from song to song. If you want to sing Chuck Berry’s song Brown Eyed Handsome Man, you’ll have to give brown eyed a different kind of attention:
Now here’s a singing in English question: why does it sound as if Nina Simone’s crooning softly to herself, cherishing and polishing a private memory of her lover, when Emile Latimer, on the same stage, at the same time, singing the same words, sounds as if he’s describing his lover to another?
© Sing Better English, 2015