minstrel: Performance styles was Calling On Song

Patricia Yarrow yarrowp at mscd.edu
Wed Jun 11 11:05:44 PDT 2008

Oh, good, a discussion.  I was hoping for some!

Adelaide wrote (with some snipping):

<<I've got tons of British trad style recordings.  It makes my husband run
screaming from the room, but I've learned some wonderful songs from some
really, really terrible singers!  The Watersons actually sound great
together; the guy who solos "John Barleycorn" on the other hand...  Tim
Hart doesn't choose to sing like that, he just does!>>

You should hear his Tam Lin.  Really, you should, especially since you
mentioned the narrative elements of the ballad.  His ornamentation is superb
and very, very natural.

<<The thing that struck me about their arrangement was the intentional
drone; I wonder if they were trying to mimic the sound of the
hurdy-gurdy that might accompany the later dance?>>

That's possible, but they use the drone a lot, not just in this piece.  

<<I wouldn't necessarily think that "rustic style" was anything more than
natural singing to a madrigal performer.  I don't sing a madrigal the same
way I sing a ballad.>>

Neither do I.  This particular group, however, recorded multiple madrigals
"in the rustic style" side by side with others in the court style.  They
must have gotten the idea somewhere.  I believe I found the recording, by
the way, if you're interested.  It's The Jaye Consort, from Bawdy
Elizabethan Evening in Merrie Olde England, downloadable or listen to a
sample here:


<<[I've wondered for a while if this "country aesthetic" survived side by
side with the straight tone, polished sound.]

I think it's fraught with peril to assume that "country aesthetic" was
something intentional, as some modern "roots music" performers seem to
think (Eric Bogle jokes in "You're a Bloody Rotten Audience": "And when
I sing traditional, I sing it through me nose!").  Why should "straight
tone" necessarily equate with "polished sound"?>>

I wasn't equating them, or didn't mean to.  I was contrasting the Watersons
with an aesthetic that favored straight tone and a "polished" sound, which
is hard to define.  Perhaps if I say smooth, with the burrs rubbed out?  I
could go further and add high pitch.  The English schoolboy sound, if you
will.  Remember that the role of the hero in early opera went to a castrato;
the convention persists into musical theater with the hero often being a
tenor, the villain a bass, the heroine a soprano, the villainess a
contralto.  Whereas the Watersons are definitely singing in the lower ends
of their ranges.  I'm not a voice teacher, so I don't know what role, if
any, head voice vs. chest voice plays in this mixture.

<<Personally, I think that local/country performers were simply using the
instrument they had, however good or bad that instrument was.  Since a
ballad performer has to a) remember the words, b) project the words, and
c) make the words into a compelling story, that's already asking a lot.
To further ask that person to have a nice clear natural tone may often
be a bridge too far.  The storytelling aspect of a ballad is far more
important than the melody, so if the person who can deliver the story
doesn't happen to be the best singer, they may still be the best ballad


<<Listen to kindergarten kids sing.
Nobody sings through their nose; some (the ones with a natural ear) are
on pitch, some aren't, but there aren't any artifacts yet, no vibrato,
no nasality.  Those have to be taught, except in very rare cases.>>

Perhaps - but vibrato and/or nasality are important features of the vocal
music aesthetic in many cultures.  There are naturally occurring forms of
vibrato that are not affectations and aren't necessarily taught.  Part of my
speculation here is whether there may have been an alternate aesthetic in
the British Isles at an earlier time, one that has persisted to this day in
some traditional music.

<<Last winter Anuna came here for a concert, and they all hung out after
the show and chatted.  I found myself in conversation with Charlotte
(Charlie) Richardson, the current soloist on "The Bluebird", who has the
most angelic pure clear tone it's ever been my pleasure to hear.  During
the "meet the band" segment, they mentioned that she's at the Royal
Academy in London-- studying Wagner!  I said, "Omigod, how can you
sacrifice your perfect natural tone to sing Wagner?" and she replied,
"Yes, I figure I've got about another year and a half before my voice is
too big for this material, but it's what I've always wanted to do...">>

What a pity, at least from my point of view.  I once thought about getting a
vocal music degree, but decided against it for just this reason.  I want my
own voice, warts and all.

Thanks for the comments, and the Frankie Armstrong link.


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