I Heard it Through the Grapevine

Marvin Gaye sings whispers and shadows into I Heard it Through the Grapevine. He paints a vivid, visceral sound picture of betrayal. How?

He sings the word grapevine into a rich, deep shape. Listen and you’ll hear him stretch the vowel sounds at the centre of grape and vine just a little longer and a little deeper than the dictionary version (listen to the standard American English version of grapevine here).

You think there’s only one way to sing the English word grapevine? Watch Gladys Knight sing the same song and the same word, with a different message. For Gladys, betrayal is nasty but no big surprise. The grapevine is a close friend. A helpful source of extra, useful information about her man. She makes her feelings clear in the brisk way she sings the word grapevine. The word carries no shadows. Marvin’s lingers on the hidden betrayal of grapevine, Gladys skips past it:

It’s easy to forget now that Marvin Gaye was singing a cover version. And easy to forget that Norman Whitfield produced both versions for Motown, with close attention to different details within the song. When you watch Gladys Knight singing the original hit version of I Heard it Through the Grapevine, it makes you realise how much meaning Marvin invested in a single word. Her intentions and  Marvin’s intentions are different. Gladys doesn’t sound too bothered or surprised by her man’s bad behaviour, Marvin sounds distraught. She’s upbeat, he’s downcast. She lands on the words blue/you/knew and before/more and bounces on those rhymes. She gives yeah a lot more enthusiasmGladys’ grapevine has done her a favour. She’s moving on.

One word is never enough, but it’s a beginning. A singer needs to seed emotion throughout their song. We, the audience, need to be shown which words and sounds are important to the singer. So that we can ‘read’ the emotion in the song.

In Marvin’s version of I Heard it Through the Grapevine he reminds us why his pain is so deep: it’s not just the thought of losing his lady, it’s the fact that she deceived him. He trusted her. Why didn’t she tell him herself that she’d found someone else? His pride is as damaged as his heart.

The words that carry the heaviest weight of emotion of I Heard it Through the Grapevine echo and rhyme with the double diphthong vowel sounds at the heart of grapevine. Marvin gives those precious diphthongs space to swell. He dwells on them. He sings grape and vine with a tiny gap between the two halves of the word. It’s his choice. Gladys Knight makes a different choice. She sings the word grapevine as a quick, matter-of-fact word. No surprise, no separation, no added width or depth to grape or vine. 

The crestfallen ay /eɪ/ sound that Marvin sings into grape resurfaces in say, yesterday, baby and ain’t.  Ain’t is especially important to his song. I imagine ‘A man ain’t supposed to cry’, sung as if the singer’s own tears are ready to fall, called even more attention in 1968.  A statement of the new man of the 1960s. In I Heard it Through the Grapevine, the word man is placed as a springboard into emotion. Man rolls straight forward onto the ay /eɪ/ of ain’t. No breath, no gap in between. The word isn’t there to draw attention to itself.  It has no time to puff out its chest. This man has different work to accomplish. He’s not the man of It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World:

Same word, different purpose. Placing a different stress shakes the kaleidoscope of meaning that each word holds within itself. All words carry many meanings. We hear different nuances when a word is placed differently. Or when it pushes up close to other words. Marvin’s man isn’t there to trumpet his own masculinity.  He’s Everyman, not ‘me, Marvin, look at me all big and strong on this stage’. A man ain’t supposed to cry is a statement of social gender norms, and they’re about to be overturned.

Marvin Gaye, born in 1939 and raised in times of clear-cut/rigid definitions, came to manhood when expectations were beginning to change. His audience would have been the same: knowing what was expected in the past but aware of a different future being born. As in Smokey Robinson’s The Tears of a Clown and Tracks of my Tears, there’s a frisson of the unexpected when a man sings of crying:

The I /aɪ/ diphthong at the centre of vine reverberates through guy/guys, mine, mind, surprise, life, inside, cry and, of course, I. There’s a great pleasure for an audience in recognising the repetition of sound. Everything leads us back to that grapevine.

I’m not saying that Barrett Strong, the songwriter, chose the word grapevine as a grammatical exercise in diphthongs. Far from it. The phrase through the grapevine presented itself to Strong with far from romantic meanings in Chicago, but when he worked it up into a full song with Norman Whitfield English words that echoed the vowel sounds in grape and vine will have been first to pop into their heads as ripe possibilities. The mind seeks and loves a satisfying pattern, not just in end-of-line rhymes, but stitched into the fabric of a song. Pockets of rhyme to discover along the way.

The mind loves contrast too. If every single important word in I Heard it Through the Grapevine rhymed with grape or vine, the song would sound like a nursery rhyme. We’d feel cheated. Too much obvious repetition dulls emotional depth. A song needs to be seasoned with other important shapes: blue/you/knew, before/more. Controlled variety. 

If you write songs in English: don’t choose your words for their diphthongs, but welcome and use diphthong words that choose you. Recognise that diphthongs, like three-syllabled words and phrasal verbs, give you an extra layer to play with and extra emotional corners to explore. Your audience will register everything that repeats or makes a pattern. They’ll pay extra attention to the words that echo words or parts of words in your title. Diphthongs, with their gliding shifts of sound, give you room for emotion. Short vowel sounds don’t.

Slow has a spacious diphthong at its centre (/sləʊ/), quick (/kwɪk/) is short and to the point. If English isn’t your first language, remember: Most English words hold the taste of their nature in their sound. Always use sound to support meaning and music.

When you sing in English: diphthongs are a gift. You choose whether to expand and contract them. It’s up to you. Diphthongs are like umbrellas. You keep them folded up until you need them. Listen to Marvin singing the word I. He starts to stretch the vowel sound only when he starts ad-libbing (about 3:40 in). As he deepens and expands the diphthong sound of the I, we hear and feel his emotion deepen. Subtle, but true songcraft.

Listen for points in English songs when the singer begins to unfurl the diphthong of and you’ll notice that it always signifies a deepening of emotion.

If English isn’t your first language, before you sing I Heard it Through the Grapevine, remember:

  • Pay close attention to the diphthongs in grape and vine, and in their echoes. They are at the heart of the song. You may find that your English teacher hasn’t  modelled the diphthong vowel sounds correctly for you. Always check before you sing. Think of it as sharpening a knife, shining your shoes or brushing your teeth. Preparation is king.
  • If you can’t feel your mouth changing shape while you sing grape then you’re probably singing grep, or grip. That’s wrong. It will sound wrong.
  • The shape you need to make with your mouth to correctly shape the ay /eɪ/ of grape, say, yesterday, ain’t, baby is beautifully demonstrated in a video from the BBC here.
  • If you can’t feel your mouth change shape when you sing vine, I, my, cry etc then you are probably shortening the vowel sound. In vine, if you get it wrong, you’re rushing the and pushing the stress forward onto the n, leaving the central diphthong no space to breathe. The shape of the I /aɪ/ of vine, mine, mind, I, cry, surprise, inside is demonstrated in a BBC video here .
  • If you’re interested in learning more about diphthongs in songs, watch Alex Turner here, White Town here or Pete Atkin here.
  • Don’t overplay diphthongs when you sing. Prepare, get them right and then relax.
  • Recognise the emotional power of expanding or tightening diphthongs. They should be alive in your song.
  • No English word should sound identical every time it appears in a song. Words illustrate meaning and depth of feeling by degrees of difference. Like this.
  • Breathe life into your English, don’t restrict it. Don’t force it, but let your words bloom into meaning.

Yes, Gladys is singing uptempo, well within her comfort zone. Yes, Marvin is singing in a higher key than his normal vocal range (which heightens his anguished sound), Marvin’s song is slower, with that ominous vamp in the background, but the cherry on the cake of Marvin’s I Heard it Through the Grapevine is his delivery. His song brims with disappointed love. We feel for him. We’d like his ‘lady’ to realise she’s made a terrible mistake, or we’d like the grapevine to have been mistaken. We know he loves her.

And Gladys? We feel that Gladys is probably well rid of her faithless man and that she’s already looking to better luck in the future. We’re not worried about Gladys. We’re worried about Marvin.

Why? The words are nearly identical. But the words in a song are like the paints in a paintbox. Limits and freedom. That’s the magic of language when it moves to music. Think of the word grapevine: Gladys skips through the word. She leaves no gap between the grape and the vine. She sings grapevine in a matter-of-fact way, with a singing shrug of the shoulders. Marvin is stunned still, in a pool of shock and betrayal. He can’t believe it. Gladys can.

Marvin draws us deep  into his song. His heartache. Words are his net and we are the fish.



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