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:
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 p 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 g 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 g and you’re singing a jolly cowboy song. Sing weeping with a ghosted g 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 Mind. When 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 p 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 w 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:
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