Sister Rosetta Tharpe, on a rainy day in the North of England:
On that same 1964 British tour, a 15 year old fan by the name of Robert Plant went backstage. Sister Rosetta was so impressed with his voice and his looks that she invited him onto her tour bus. He said no.
When I heard Sigrid Hausing on Desert Island Discs this week, choosing the gorgeous Robert Plant and Alison Krauss cover of Sam Phillips’ song, Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us, as one of her ten discs, I thought how beautifully circular 50 years of time can be.
No horses in the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us video, sadly. But listen for the way Alison sings the many ng sounds in the song: things, happening, standing, long and looking. She rests a soft millisecond longer than expected on each final ng, making us notice the rounded elasticity of the sound as we relax into her voice. The ng sounds balance the repeated soft n sounds of again and alone, bookending the lines:
Of course, Alison Krauss didn’t make a calculated decision to pay attention to the ng sounds in the lyrics. As she began rehearsals, and started feeling her way into the mood and the music of Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us, caressing those ng sounds will have felt natural and right for the song. If it felt right she’ll have kept doing it.
The sounds are all there in the lyrics for Alison to use. And use them she does. The music leads her. Her conscious mind stays out of it.
If you’re less of an experienced singer than Alison, or not a native speaker of English, such things may be less automatic. If you’re going to sing a cover of Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us, the swooping and dipping ng sound will help you to colour the mood of the song.
The song is loaded with soft consonant sounds: the smooth s of music and the v of above. The vowels are light and floaty: day, hear, sky, my, echoes, tonight. They complement the shifting, klezmer-type melody.
To get technical: Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us is written in ternary form (AABA). The contrast between the third verse and the other three is important. The third verse is peppered with hard, cracking consonants: broken, darkness, cross, lost, too much. Broken is the hardest to ignore when you sing. You can’t smother the cracking sound of that central k. Broken is onomatopoeic.
Your listeners will notice the ternary form difference more if you establish the first two verses as places of smooth melancholy and then ‘come home’ to the same gentle sounds in the final verse.
Alison doesn’t overplay the sharper consonants in the third verse. She sings them lightly, but crisply, letting the chipped consonants get on with their work: to subtly communicate emotional disruption.
When you sing it, relax. Don’t overplay the soft sounds, or the hard sounds. They’re so perfectly balanced through the verses that you’ll unsettle them if you pay any word too much attention. Let them be.
Sing Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us softly, warmly, but resolutely, and the sounds hidden in the lyrics will favour you.
By the way: if you’re a Sister Rosetta fan, you’ll notice that Sam Phillips laced Sister Rosetta’s own words into her song: Up above my head, I hear music in the air, there’s strange things happening every day:
© Sing Better English, 2016