Getting the lyrics

After reading my last post about the importance of listening (and avoiding visual stimulation that distracts you from listening), one student apologized for having asked for the lyrics to a song. True, reading lyrics is a nonmusical activity. That’s why I stopped handing out lyrics before playing the recording of a song we’re about to work on in class — reading the lyrics is different from listening to a song, and you can’t really do both at the same time.

However, if you are going to learn to sing and play a song, you do need to learn the lyrics. And I do think having them in written or printed form is an essential step (before memorizing them, which I recommend doing well before performing the song).

So — how does one get the lyrics? Your first impulse is probably to do what you do when you are seeking most other forms of information these days: go online and google.  There are several major problems with this approach, however. First, the obscure blues songs we tend to work on in class might not have been transcribed and posted online. Second, even if you do find a transcription, it is likely to be grossly incorrect. And trying a different website probably won’t help, since websites tend to just lift from each other. The same error will appear all over the internet.

Note my use of the word “transcription” there. The lyrics do not exist in some pristine form that the songwriter typed out and filed away in a vault, and then were transferred to the internet for your convenience. No. The lyrics exist ONLY on the recording. If you find a rendering of the lyrics online, or in my collection, or in a book or sheet music, it is just that — a rendering, a transcription that some listener did by sitting down and writing what he heard or thought he heard. And in the case of 1920s blues recordings, with their hiss, scratches, archaic slang, regional accents, weird voices and muddy mono mixes, what the listener thought he heard is often very far from what the singer actually said! Why trust some stranger’s ears more than your own? You are experienced at listening to these old records and getting more experienced every day. Dig in! Even if you find a somewhat close-sounding transcription online, or if you get one from me or elsewhere, just use that as a starting point. Listen closely to the recording, stopping and starting often, and make corrections to the lyrics until you have a written document that matches what you hear. This process of repeated, hard listening will help you learn not only the lyrics, but how to sing them. And how to play the instrumental part. It will start to sink in and you might even have fun doing it.

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