“When we moved to our new house, for us kids it was a huge huge big deal to have trees in the back garden. Where we had lived in Selly Park, the back garden was more concrete than grass, so it felt like we were in a forest. Some of my happiest memories are of endless summer holidays where it seems like we spent most of the time in the garden, making up dance routines or having mammoth waterfights. The song is a celebration of that.” Laura Mvula, speaking to the Birmingham Post
Say the English word garden out loud. Two equal syllables, neat and tidy. Now listen to Laura Mvula unzip that first syllable and pack it full of happy memories, of sanctuary and joy:
Magical, isn’t it? Laura warms and rounds the edges of garden and unfurls its centre. Her ar seems to hold an extra moment of sound, a captured moment of summer, buzzing with bees.
It’s her own memories that shape her intention, her mouth and her breath, to sculpt the sound she sings. She keeps those memories close and paints them into her Green Garden.
Once you open up an English vowel sound, you can fill it with any meaning you choose. Joni Mitchell makes different choices for her song Woodstock. She stretches the ar of garden, about as wide as it will go. She doesn’t fill garden with safety or summer memories. Her garden is a dream and a metaphor:
Joni Mitchell gives a clue to the garden she’s imagining, by placing ‘the’ in front of it. That definite article signals, to her American listeners, that she’s singing a version of the Garden of Eden. There is no other famous garden called so easily to the American cultural mind by the, especially in a song whose first line is “I came upon a child of God.” Joni sows the Biblical seed in her listeners’ minds with those words, ready to harvest the meaning later.
In the UK, the idea of ‘returning’ to the Garden of Eden isn’t strongly evoked in churches, hymns or popular culture. The Biblical link exists, but it’s not immediate. We’re more attached to William Morris:
and Capability Brown:
so Laura has plenty of room to layer her childhood memories of ‘the garden next to her house’ with cultural concepts of garden as cottage garden, Paradise, the Garden of Eden or Gaia. It’s her garden and it’s all our gardens, real and imaginary.
Joni Mitchell’s garden is all metaphor – metaphor for the Garden of Eden, ‘returning to the land’, the truth and purity of Nature, the 1960s dream, flowers in your hair and flowers in the muzzle of a soldier’s gun. She sings all of that into her garden.
Joni’s not thinking of her own garden. Laura is, and she’s thinking beyond it. Their intentions shape the word as they sing it.
Of course, the word garden can represent nothing more than a common or garden garden in a song. Watch Ringo Starr with his Octopus’s Garden and hear him telescope his garden vowels into compact ordinariness. He needs the surreal contrast of garden and octopus to power his song. Garden must be sung nonchalantly and normally for octopus to shine. This octopus hasn’t read the Bible:
If English isn’t your first language: whether the garden in your song is just an ordinary garden or a meaningful, metaphorical one, be sure to sing the English ar smoothly, like this. The final en of garden is a schwa sound, like this. The en of garden rhymes with the on of Monday, not, definitely not, with the en of Benjamin.
Remember to sing garden to suit your song. Does the garden in your song represent anything beyond plants and a lawn? How will you communicate its meaning to your audience?
Don’t overdo it. Don’t throw meaningful glances at your audience to communicate a hidden meaning in garden. Intention will shape your mouth sufficiently. Connect to your song and the words will do their job, subtly and surely.
You breathe the meaning into words as you sing them. Make sure you’re singing the right meaning. Too much meaning can cause you as many problems as too little.
If Ringo Starr had sung his garden as a mythical, mysterious place, his octopus would have lost her meaning within it. Ringo’s song would have become an Atlantis fairy story and we would have felt disappointed when nothing much happened in it. If Laura Mvula had sung garden as matter-of-factly as Ringo, her song would have shrunk and shrivelled into dust.
© Sing Better English, 2016
2 thoughts on “Singing 3 gardens into life”
Great post and appropriate to me as I gave a talk only this week and we discussed what is a garden!! we didn’t sing it though!!
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Hi Anne – thanks. I happened to hear Laura Mvula when I was in TK Maxx this week and it struck me that she was somehow painting extra depth into the word ‘garden’.
I doubt if she’s doing it consciously. As she says, the song was written in clear memory of a green garden after yards of concrete. That’s what she’s imagining and that’s what we hear in her voice.
I do find the process of communicating meaning through sound fascinating. We spend our lives with our antennae tuned to the ‘true’ meaning behind words. Especially when we’re around teenagers, bosses or mothers in law!