Rag’n’Bone Man

You pick up your mother tongue through love and listening. You pick up your singing voice in the same way:

There’s nothing fake about Rory Graham‘s singing voice, even though it’s an Atlantic Ocean away from his speaking voice. Like Spanish singer Alberto Anaut, Rory was raised on blues and R&B. It’s their musical mother tongue, so they sing it as they heard it. Words and music woven together. With no teacher in between. The sounds of the language are as clear as the notes of the music.

Spanish Alberto heard R&B as a baby, with the voice as part of the music, long before he went to English class and had to learn English grammar. His spoken English is ‘learned from a book’; it’s less fluid. His singing English is pure and true. In through his ears and out through his mouth, like a native speaker/singer.

It’s the same for Rory. When he speaks, he’s pure Uckfield; when he sings, his vowels are pure American. He shortens his words in all the right American places, without thinking about it. Thinking would get in the way. This voice is his voice, for his songs. The voice closest to his heart. The voice that carries his words best.

“And I know, when I sing, people believe me”

A lot of British musicians worry that singing in an American accent will sound false or pretentious. Just a a touch of American is as noticeable as a sprinkle of glitter. One word is enough.

Listen to David Bowie feed the utterly American Buddy into Drive-in Saturday. “His name was always … Buddy” drops anyone British straight into a Hollywood teenage romance, in a way our home-grown Freddy or Neddy never could. Drive-in has already put the idea of America in our minds, though the song is obviously not set in present day America. For the British, the one word: Buddy is a masterstroke, especially when Bowie’s places it after a ‘pay attention’ millisecond of silence. With its shortened first syllable, tight American dd and Bowie’s wonderfully rich, ‘notice this’ American twang on the final y, Buddy paints a vivid picture. We can all imagine Buddy, clean-cut, shiny and bright.

Bowie turns quickly back to his London accent on stay, to make it clear: Buddy‘s just a character, a character in a film within the story of Drive-in Saturday. Bowie wants to remind us that the story of his song isn’t in America. Drive-in Saturday lives in the future.

“a song from the year 2033”

If English isn’t your first language: settle on American or British English when you sing in English. Don’t swerve between them. Choose: British vowel sounds or American vowel sounds. Or reggae vowel sounds. Or Australian English vowel sounds. But choose. To a native English speaker, the differences are clear. If you skip between them, you’ll distract your audience. They won’t be listening to you, they’ll be trying to understand you. Not good.

One last Rag’n’Bone Man song. Supporting Joan Armatrading, near home in Brighton, with Right from Wrong:



9 thoughts on “Rag’n’Bone Man”

  1. WHAT A TREAT! You’ve said it so beautifully: “This voice is his voice, for his songs. The voice closest to his heart. The voice that carries his words best.” Thank you for introducing me to yet another wonderful artist! This fellow is the real deal, as we say here in the States.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for that kind comment, Heather.

      I think Rag’N’Bone Man is, indeed, the ‘real deal’. He’s probably lucky that he’s had time to settle into himself as an adult (he’s about 31, I think), so whatever wild sudden interest the world of music blows his way will be easier to assimilate. Winning the Critic’s Choice at the Brit Awards is a spotlight that can burn.

      Did you ever have ‘rag and bone men’ in the US? Like this: http://www.thegreencentre.co.uk/get-involved/rag-n-bone.aspx

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m ashamed to say I don’t know whether we ever had rag and bone men in the States, SbE. But I still make it my project today to find out.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. What a wonderfully whiffly, mellifluous word! Chiffonniers. Thank you for (once again) expanding my vocabulary.

        As for rag-pickers in the U.S.: Apparently it has become an industry, according to the Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carl-pope/rag-picking-in-america-_b_1351912.html

        I guess I hadn’t thought of metal scraps as “rags and bones,” but if we broaden the definition I can tell you that we do still have these folks in the States. There’s one who comes by my neighborhood quite often on the weekends looking for scrap metal, and I’ve taken to leaving him bits and bobs when I pull apart old things in our basement.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Rory’s (and Bowie’s) stage presence is part of why he is so easily understood. It’s more than visual. It’s a persistent belief in what is being sung. That strength rings into the song, and that desire to communicate is essential. I love, too, the live setting for a performance, when the visual element is added to the experience. Beads of sweat, the gestures and other body language, and, in the case of the Bowie clip, the engagement of the audience and band members, enhance the performance and punctuate the singer’s desire to get the music/message across. I really enjoy these posts. Keep it up!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bowie looks so relaxed in the video, doesn’t he?

      Not sure how many of his early interviews came over to your side of the Atlantic, but you might enjoy this one, from “Russell Harty Plus Pop” in 1973:

      Which led on to this:


      1. Aaah. That was Russell Harty’s persona – ‘middle-aged grammar school boy from up North, bemused on behalf of the ordinary viewer’. In those days, the early 70s, you couldn’t shake a stick without hitting a man in make-up, shiny clothes and platform heels. So it’s not as if Bowie was such a remarkable surprise. Intriguing, yes, but nowhere near unique. To me, Bowie seemed remarkably even tempered and thoughtful.

        I wonder whether Russell Harty worked by asking slightly odd questions and giving the guest plenty of time and room to think and answer, as they chose. Letting the guest shine:


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