Off-kilter voices

February 25, 2009

I’m not a good singer, but I do hit the note every so often. Else why would they have given me the second solo in ‘Once In Royal David’s City’ (the second verse, and I’ve forgotten it, too), in the carol service when I was ten? Not the first solo, notice.

This isn’t the memory which first sprang to mind when I started writing (I don’t plan what I’m going to write: fatal: you may have noticed), so I will digress immediately. I had forgotten that one minute of fame. It was an unspoken rule of boarding schools that, if the child, expelled as he or she had been from the family home in the hope of acquiring manners and a straight path to the City or Army, was chosen to do something special, a parent had to attend. At ten I had only been despatched about sixty miles, into the Deep South of Yorkshire, so my father (selected on this occasion) hadn’t far to drive. But then my father, who worshipped the sensation of speed, and had one of the first E-Types, never had very far to drive, in terms of time. So his calculation of how long it would take was different from that of a normal mortal.

It was very, very foggy that night, and I knew he would be putting his foot down. Like all the other well-scrubbed children incarcerated in this particular not-very-home-from-home, I was looking out for him in the audience (i.e. congregation). But there was no sign of him from where I was looking – I would have been in the choir stalls, and have had an elevated view. So I decided that, since there was fog, and he was speeding, that he was dead. And that was why I sang the solo with tears pouring down my cheeks. I expect the listeners were moved my by devotion to the Christian cause, and put some extra silver in the box passed round. It was an emotional and rather wobbly rendition. After my stint, I retired to the stalls again, and persisted with my sobs.

Actually, he was there, but too late to nab a pew, and listening loyally from the ante-chapel, out of sight, and probably wondering what he had done to be sent down the A1 for such a trifle. But that was me, and still is: fear the worst. I just don’t burst into tears so easily any more.

What I intended to write about was triggered by listening to Davy Graham (‘Folk, Blues, And Beyond’), the brilliant folk-jazz-fusion guitarist, who died last year, and who is rightly thought to have influenced everyone by changing the tuning of his guitar, and experimenting with eastern influences. He never made it very big, but having a smack habit didn’t help. I love his guitar.

But I am not keen on his voice. Why is that so many folk singers (male, I can’t think of a female equivalent) sing so oddly, and off the note (Bert Jansch is another culprit)? I’m not addicted to melody, but I always wish they’d recorded the guitar into one channel, and the voice into another. And yet the moment I’d thought of how odd Davy Graham sounds (to folk purists, I expect this is heresy), it occurred to me that there are plenty of flat singers who don’t cause me anything like the same problem. Astrud Gilberto always sings off the note (desafinado is the technical term, I think), and I’m quite keen on her. Liam Gallagher of Oasis sings off the note, too, but he is objectionable for other reasons, and anyway, vocal sneering was in style in the 1990s. And Bob Dylan’s voice encouraged a host of imitators to think anyone could sing (big mistake).

In fact, what attracted me to Dylan was his voice, not least because I was too young really to understand the words when I first encountered him. Even now, although his voice is wrecked beyond recognition, I quite enjoy it. But that may be blind loyalty.

So, no answers to the conundrum. I will just have to live with the voice for the sake of the guitar.