The Weeping Song

Weeping is an ancient English word. Its sound and shape are crafted to speak directly to the human heart. We feel it; we don’t think it:

We’ve been working on the word weeping since Anglo Saxon times:

Weep: Old English wepan “shed tears, cry; bewail, mourn over; complain,” from Proto-Germanic wopjan (source also of Old Norse op, Old High German wuof “shout, shouting, crying,” Old Saxon wopian, Gothic wopjan “to shout, cry out, weep”), from Proto-Indo-European wab- “to cry, scream.”                                   (from the Online Etymology Dictionary)

Weeping has always begun with a soft tickle of w.  Over time its central ee has been widened, to make it move more smoothly and, I’d say, to sound more like deep sadness. The quick pop of the pushes it onwards. No tangle of consonants to slow it down. The word speeds forwards, then the sound slows and pools into the final ing. 

Weeping, the word, moves as human tears do: the prickling behind the eyes, the smooth flow down the cheeks. All of that is automatic. The ing of the word, depending on how you imagine, say or sing it, is the conscious, active part. That ing can mean continuous, overwhelming sorrow. It can mean the action of weeping itself.

Weeping is a word that touches onlookers. We are all onlookers in The Weeping Song.

When a song is built around a single word, that word must be strong enough to take the weight.

If you’re planning to sing the song: remember, it’s The Weeping Song, not The Weepin Song. It’s not easy to hear the at the end of Weeping. It’s a ghost sound. It appears and fades. But it’s there and it’s crucial.

You can read the lyrics on Nick Cave’s own website, here.

Why does the final g matter? Because Blixa and Nick shape their mouths to form the shape of that final g, knowing it affects the sound, the shape and the balance of the word weeping itself.

If you sing weepin instead of weeping, you maim the word and kill the song. Weepin is quick, casual and dismissive. A faux-cowboy version of the word. Sing weepin and you’re singing: “Oh yeah, I saw some people who seemed kind of upset. No idea why. Weird, huh?” 

Sing weeping and you’re singing: “Life is sorrow.”

Weeping‘s power and sadness lives in that final ng, as it forces a stop. A deep, slightly elastic stilling.That ng is the sound of stopping to notice, stopping to comfort or stopping because your own sorrow has overcome you. A physical, human sound, a response to sorrow.

Sing weepin without its and you’re singing a jolly cowboy song. Sing weeping with a ghosted and you’re singing The Weeping Song.

Out of interest: blonde Berlin-born Blixa Bargeld pronounces the final g a little more strongly. I’d guess that’s partly because he’s the ‘father’ in the song, playing the part of world-weary experience. It also sets up a character contrast between his voice and Nick Cave’s.

When a word is repeated over and over in a song, your audience has time to register and ‘read’ subtle contrast. As in Iggy Pop’s The Passenger or The Easybeat’s Friday on My MindWhen you sing, repetition is always opportunity. Always take opportunities.

Notice the chorus:  Blixa and Nick sing, quite strongly: “A song in which to weep-uh/ while all the little children sleep-uh.” Why the uh?

That extra, light sound after the sharpens it as an ending, balances the beats of the line, draws the audience’s attention and gives Nick and Blixa an extra bit of bounce to swing into the next word. The ‘uh‘ gets their mouths smoothly into position for the of while. 

You can hear Pharrell Williams using that same uh sound, to frame the end of each line in Happy

If you decide to use the uh, remember: it’s a soft, light, easy sound. A breath. It’s not a word and it’s not a grunt. It’s a slight exaggeration of the natural ‘pop’ at the end of any word that ends in p.

One of the best ways to get yourself into the right frame of mind to sing The Weeping Song is to watch the French aerialists Compagnie Retouramont. They used The Weeping Song as a backdrop to the last few minutes of their Brighton Festival show. The music’s different in the video below, but the slow, rhythmic movement of the women is the same:

By the way, if English isn’t your first language: remember to sing weeping not whipping. If you find the difference in vowel sound hard to hear, try this and this.

Sometimes words have a shape in sound that speaks to the heart. Weeping is one of those words. Sing it with attention and handle it with care.

If you write songs in English: tell me – would sobbing have worked instead of weeping in Nick Cave’s song? And would weeping have worked instead of sobbing for Chrissie Hynde?

© Sing Better English, 2016



6 thoughts on “The Weeping Song”

  1. I love how your posts always take me down unexpected rabbit-holes. In this case, it was the juxtaposition of “weeping” and “weapon,” which made me wonder how often the first has been used as the second. (Don’t you hate it when people use crying as a way to get their way?) *Ahem.* Thank you also for your humorous reminder about that final “g.” “Sing weepin and you’re singing: ‘Oh yeah, I saw some people who seemed kind of upset. No idea why. Weird, huh?’ ” That’s WONDERFUL.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Heather. If you get a chance to see Compagnie Retournant’s piece “Clairière Urbaine”, please do. If you see 4 women stringing wires between high-rises next time you’re in Paris, that’ll be the clue. There’s something mesmerising about the way they move, and the lines of The Weeping Song seemed to sway from side to side with them when they were swinging in mid-air at the end of their piece. I felt lucky to have seen them.

      By the way, thinking of rabbit-holes and weapons. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word ‘weapon’ shares heritage with the word ‘penis’:

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oooo! Thank you for passing along the info about Clairière Urbaine. I’ve bookmarked their site so I can look into whether they have any performances lined up next time I visit. (“Public art” such as this is one of my favorite things about Europe.)

        As for your last sentence … in the interest of public decorum I will simply smile and keep quiet. Though it does remind me of a now-famous newspaper typo from a few years back, about the then-governor of Wisconsin. “Tommy Thompson’s penis a sword.” Ha ha haa!


      2. France seems to be particularly rich in aerialists and pyrotechnicians. We caught an exceptional French group at an International Street Theatre festival in Krakow – Underclouds Cie – they’re worth bookmarking too. One of their performers, a young woman, looked as if she’d been raised by sparrows on a telegraph wire. She’s the one standing on a man’s shoulders as he walks along a tightrope on top of a bus, about 2.30 minutes in:

        Have you ever been to the Paris Street Theatre Festival in May?

        And, now I’m thinking of France – do you listen to FIP Radio while you’re back home? The music isn’t all French, but it’s a “Radio Musicale Eclectique” station in Paris, so the interviews, announcements etc are all in wonderfully atmospheric French. It’s funny how voices on the radio have a different character from country to country and even from station to station within a country. You can always recognise an NPR ‘type’ voice versus a drive-time/sports radio voice. Anyway, FIP’s here:


      3. Yes! What IS it with the French and their fascination with aerial acts? The most notable who comes to mind for me is Philippe Petit, but of course your links show that there are many others.

        As for the Paris Street Theatre … sigh. No, I’ve not yet attended — in fact, I just missed it by two days (ditto for the Saint Germain Jazz Festival). I really must get better at making my travel dates coincide with some of these events!

        On other note, THANK YOU for the introduction to FIP Radio! That one had somehow slipped beneath my radar, but I’m their newest fan. As you say so well, it’s “wonderfully atmospheric.” Thank you for that, even if suddenly I feel very homesick.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. FIP are fab, aren’t they? We had a pirate radio station broadcasting FIP to the folk of Brighton, for 10 years, pre-internet times.

        I’ve read that French schoolchildren do circus arts from Primary level, as part of the national curriculum So, I suppose, they’re almost born into it.

        And, of course, there was Jules Léotard, who practised law in Toulouse while inventing hand-knitted ‘streamlined’ aerialist outfits, back in the 1800s


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