Ward Thomas: Cartwheels

A happy word sung sadly is sadder than a sad word sung sadly. Song titles like The Weeping Song or Broken Dream give us fair warning. We’re ready for a story of hope crushed by time or tragedy. The singer can deepen what we already expect, but they can’t turn our expectation upside-down. A Broken Dream can’t be fixed in a song Weeping can’t disguise itself as laughter. Sad words are sad words.

But what do you expect from a song called Cartwheels? Joy and spontaneous exuberance? The innocent, happy whirl of love’s first days or weeks? Watch Catherine and Lizzy Ward Thomas sing the word cartwheels into sorrowHow? Listen for the catch in the voice on the ar of cartwheels. It throws a shadow on shared memory of carefree love:

That subtle catch in the Ward Thomas sisters’ voices on the ar carries a whole history of relationship breakdown after glowing happiness. It changes our perception of the word cartwheels, but we hold our own personal picture of the word, as a thing of joy, at the same time. The subtlety of the singer shades the emotion of cartwheels into three dimensions, giving it an imagined happy past, difficult present and dark future.

Cartwheels, in this song, carries a shadow of summery joy. That shadow makes cartwheels sadder than a sad word. The shadow is in the singer’s voice. And in the story our imaginations construct for us as we listen.

It’s a little like the conflict set up by Lana Del Rey’s Summertime SadnessWe’re listening to the sadness, but we don’t let go of our idea of summertime as freedom, sunshine and light. Our happy idea of the word plays in our minds each time she sings it. Moderating that happiness in our own heads makes us mourn her lost happiness even more closely. We’re with her in nostalgia and what ‘should have been.’

The Ward Thomas twins choose their words well.  And sing them well, once they’re chosen. There’s an added layer of sadness in their choice of doing cartwheels, not the more usual turning cartwheelsDoing cartwheels feels different.

So I’ve been doing cartwheels
Anything to save us
Anything to make you notice me

What difference does doing make here? Turning cartwheels is pure joy and  exuberant freedom. Doing cartwheels, to save a relationship, is a forced and repetitive action. A desperate turning and turning. A sad display.

Cartwheel is one of those words that carries the sensation of its own movement within its sound and shape. Try saying the English word cartwheel out loud. It’s a round, turning word in its original, ancient meaning as the wheel of a cart. You can see why cartwheel was taken up, in the mid-19th century, as ‘the word’ for an athletic sideways somersault. Clever person who first used it. The word feels right as you say it. Can you feel the graceful, round, turning shape of the word in your mouth? The hard propels you forwards onto your hands and the smooth whoosh of the ar glides you over. The tiny gap between and is that pause of stillness at the top of your cartwheel, before the long smooth eel turns you back onto your feet.

It’s all there in the word. Wheel has an ancient history in English. It’s a word that, satisfyingly, has been shaped, over time, to sound exactly like what it is: a turning circle. When you sing the word wheel, either in This Wheel’s on Fire or in Cartwheels, remember that physical feeling. Whether you sing the word happy or sad, you must sing it as a full, round movement.

If English isn’t your first language, check that you:  Give the ee of wheel its full, long, lazy space, like this. Think of a wheel turning right round. Give the ar of cartwheel its full, wide, smooth English sound, like this. Think of a cartwheel as you sing it.

By the way, the Ward Thomas twins have a habit of upsetting expectations for ordinary words. You don’t often hear flowers and guilty placed side by side in a song:

© Sing Better English, 2016


11 thoughts on “Ward Thomas: Cartwheels”

  1. I love your analysis of the word “cartwheels.” Once again you have me thinking about a familiar old word in a whole new way! Thank you also for introducing me to the Ward Thomas twins. I probably would have dismissed “Guilty Flowers” for its pop orchestration and “hey” shouts, had I simply heard it in the background on the radio. But boy, do they pack a songwriting punch! Wonderful lyrics and storytelling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Heather. Thanks for that. They’re interesting women and they seem to have a knack for choosing interesting words and then singing the socks off them.

      Cartwheel’s a wonderful old word. It often feels as if our oldest words have been worked into shape over time, like well-carved soup spoons, to feel good in the mouth and to do their job efficiently.

      I know what you mean about the Ward Thomas ladies and their poppy sound. Over here, it’s seen as interestingly subversive to be singing country music. The sound means something different over there, doesn’t it?


    1. Thank you for enjoying it! I think we all pick up meaning in the subtleties of word choice and the thoughtful singing of those choices. I try to pin some of the details down for the sake of singers who don’t have English as a first language, to make up for the missing years the rest of us spend arguing, loving and persuading in English, and bending it into shape.

      I like your songs, by the way. Are you in America? The photo on your blog looks like America to me!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. One more link, and then I’ll leave you in peace. Do you know the Scottish songwriter Al Stewart? You might know him for ‘Year of the Cat’ – but how about ‘Carol’? I wrote about the sound of names in songs: http://wp.me/p4f2mI-1AJ

        Hope you enjoy it.


      2. hi! I have heard of him, but don’t know anything about him. I love how you listen, the way you notice things. I think the best singers are oral poets, and you pick up on this perfectly with the examples of Al Stewart and Chuck Berry.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thank you. You’re kind. I agree with you about the poetry of song, even when the poetry clothes a single, insistent beat. We are so lucky with English, where the words bend and stretch to suit the music. There’s a freedom to the language and a precision, with hinterlands of emotion and cultural story behind most words. I love it!

        Liked by 1 person

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