Black is the Colour of my True Love’s Hair

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 GirlWhy 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

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4 thoughts on “Black is the Colour of my True Love’s Hair”

  1. I suppose she uses more rubato than him, and that makes it sound like she’s messing around with the melody and words for her own pleasure? His version sticks to its rhythm, which makes it sound more like he’s describing his true love to someone else.

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    1. Hi RF – good point. Emile was a respected percussionist and I wonder if that drew him back to the rhythm as he sang.

      I’ve read that Emile was the only person that Nina Simone invited onto the stage to sing with her during her years of high fame in the 60s. Watching the two of them together, I can see why he was such a good choice. He develops the story of Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair without overshadowing Nina. He weaves his performance into hers by beginning close to her phrasing, but then setting off on his own.

      Both of them pronounce the word black more lovingly than people like Paul Weller, singing the original Scottish version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nW4OMpCGGIw

      It reminds me of Kizzy Crawford rehabilitating the colour brown https://singbetterenglish.wordpress.com/2014/09/20/kizzy-crawford-golden-brown/

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  2. I think Nina Simone visualises what she is singing, she is living the song, it comes out of her soul, you forget about the stage when hearing her and the emotions become part of you (or the other way round). It feels like she is herself, it feels natural. She is not all the time strictly singing.
    The other guy has a beautiful voice too, but has a more ‘performing’ style, I can imagine he was too worried to do it perfectly and forgot a bit about the meaning behind the song or he cared too much about the public, which I think make you feel (and thus sing) differently. But who knows… I’m not a singer. 😀

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    1. Hi Rosa – I imagine Nina Simone would have been really, really delighted to know that her song reached you, so far across time and space. It’s what any artist, in any medium wants, isn’t it? – to reach into the heart of another human being and leave a drop of their own emotions there.

      I read somewhere that it was quite a surprise for Emile Latimer when Nina Simone asked him to share her stage. I don’t hear that in his voice – but you do, so there must be something of it there.

      One thing I’ve been thinking about is the way that they, both of them, sing the word black – in such a rich, loving way. In the time when they were singing, so close to the Civil Rights movement of the 60s, people like Nina Simone were reclaiming and rehabilitating the colour. I think that might be in her mind too – to add an extra layer of love to black especially as Emile Latimer added lyrics to the traditional Scottish song so that black isn’t just hair colour, but all colour:

      Black is the colour of my true love’s hair.
      Black is the colour of my love so fair.
      Black is her body so firm, so whole.
      Black is her beauty, her soul of gold.

      It reminds me of Izzy Crawford reclaiming brown https://singbetterenglish.wordpress.com/2014/09/20/kizzy-crawford-golden-brown/

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