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Lyric Transcriptions--The Song or the Performance?

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Hi all,
I think the recent discussion in the Mississippi Sheiks lyric thread has clarified for me a significant issue pertaining to the lyric transcriptions we have been doing here and which are still being done--Are we transcribing the song's lyrics or the performance? With regard to the "Stop And Listen Blues" transcription currently under discussion in the Mississippi Sheiks thread, waxwing has made a very carefully considered and good faith attempt to transcribe Walter Vinson's vocal performance of the song. My problem with that is that much of what is included in the transcription is not actually the song's lyrics, but rather Walter Vinson's delivery of those lyrics. Does the delivery constitute the song's lyrics? From my own point of view it does not, because if it did, every person who subsequently performed the song would have to deliver it in the same fashion. The various drawn out syllables in the transcription and elisions of concluding consonants are, in fact, not the words to the song, but rather Walter's delivery of the words to the song.

I feel that lyric transcriptions that present a performance of a song rather than the lyrics themselves are much more limiting than a matter-of-fact presentation of the words would be. Simply giving the words to a song presumes that whoever may subsequently sing a song will sing it in accordance with his/her own sense of phrasing, regional accent, sense of musical style, etc. By presenting a transcription of a performance as the song lyric, it sets up what were various interpretive decisions on the part of the original performer as intrinsic elements of the song, which I would contend is most often not the case, but rather a matter of that performer's personal musical style and taste.

If a transcriber wants to acknowledge some aspect of the original performance in the transcription, I think it makes more sense to add a note to the beginning of the transcription, for example, "In his delivery of "Stop And Listen Blues", Walter Vinson consistently did three falsetto leaps in his singing of the tagline of each verse." This seems a clear way to differentiate between the words themselves and the way that the performer delivered them.

I should say that I have presented drawn-out syllables in a bunch of my own transcriptions, as well as elisions of concluding consonants in words, especially those ending in "ing". It was seeing such a careful transcription of a performance that clarified my own thoughts for me on the subject of whether to transcribe lyrics or a performance. I welcome other thoughts on the issue.

All best,

Thank you, John. Your post is well thought out and well written.

Some random thoughts:

I think the distinction is very important, although not absolute because the transcription is usually of a specific recording. Nevertheless, I agree that the transcription should focus on the lyrics and not the other aspects of the performance. My suggestion is that the other aspects, which can also be important for understanding the lyrics, can be noted below the main body of the transcription.

I used the word, “representation(s),” because that is what writing and writing systems are. We have been using the standard English spellings of words, with some modifications, to represent the words—the lyrics—we hear sung. But there are times when the standard pronunciation and spelling of a word and the sound of the word as it is sung differ to the extent where a modified spelling that represents it is perhaps is in order, if only to be placed below the main body of the transcription. As an example, in “Stop and Listen,” V1/L4, Frank transcribed the line as, “Crying, seems like tomorrow is the same old way.” For me, “tomorrow” is undecipherable, even after numerous listenings. Wax transcribed as, “to-oooomor.’” A note below the main body of the transcription that simply reads, “V1/L4: “tomorrow” sung as “to-oooomor’” as per Wax,” would be helpful.

Of course, the counter argument is that as long as one has access to the recording, one should simply listen to it for the variations in pronunciation, etc.  But that doesn’t always yield the best outcome for each and every individual. Thus, I err on the side of being helpful.

“Variants” could also be placed below the main body of the transcription. For example, in V4/L1, Frank has, “bell did tone,” Wax has, “bell it to’” and Blues Vintage hears, “Bell intone.” In cases such as this one, noting the differences in the perception of sound might be appropriate.

A week or so ago I mentioned that it would be helpful to have a synopsis below the original transcription. I didn’t mention it at the time (a lapse on my part), but I was thinking of how the comments regarding a song transcription are not necessarily all grouped together in a thread, with some being posted after the initial cluster and being separated by other songs, their transcriptions and comments. Synopsis was probably not the best choice of words. What I was driving at was that the various comments, corrections, variants, etc. could be collected, sorted through and placed below the main body of the transcription. –Essentially, a “variorum,” Weenie Campbell style.

IMHO, what needs to be discussed, clarified and decided upon are the guidelines and format for the main body of the transcription and any notes, variants, and/or other comments to be placed above or below it. And of course anything else that comes to mind. My initial suggestion is for an introduction for the song, followed by the main body of the transcription, a separator line below which any comments, variants, annotations, etc., would appear after being edited and organized according to an agreed upon format. It’s essentially what we have now, but with a few modifications and refinements.

Finally, some of our members and visitors are not native English speakers. They should be considered when deciding on the spellings used in the main body of the transcription, and the representation of variations in pronunciation entered below it.

I listened to the 1931 version of Blind Willie McTell's "East Saint Louis Blues" this morning and wrote out the lyrics, which I have posted below the YouTube videos in my original post.

As a convention, I used standard English spellings in the transcriptions. I marked pronunciations that differ from the standard spellings with an asterisk* and listed those below the main body of the transcription. Other items in the transcription that I think require a note are marked by an asterisk and are noted below as well. I also included a section for "comments," although it is empty at this time.

I think comments on the format and any comments re: style sheet guideline should be placed in this thread. This way they are separate from the Blind Willie McTell lyrics thread.

This can function as an example of me following a proto-Weenie Campbell "style sheet." You can look it over and work it over when time permits. We can use it as a starting point and make modifications and changes as we deem appropriate. And of course, there's more than one format and/or style sheet we can follow.

I'm a firm believer that my toughest critics are my best friends and I don't confuse rigorous critical evaluation with negative personal criticism, so have at it.

Hi Stuart,
I have to admit that when I read your suggestions about variorum and synopsis I thought they were gilding the lily in most instances and basically making work where work was not necessary. When I listened to the '31 version of "East St. Louis Blues" and read your transcription and saw how your suggestions played out in a case in point, I really liked how it worked, and especially liked not having phonetic re-spellings of words in the transcription.  I have a couple of small suggestions with regard to the content of the transcription (how it was heard) which I'll put in the McTell lyrics thread as per standard practice.

I do think that where transcriptions don't require changes or are in agreement with regard to changes that are made, synopsis and variorum may or may not be necessary. The great majority of transcriptions end up having consensus with regard to content and only require two or three additional posts to arrive at the final version. 

Hi John:

Thank you for your post and for your insightful comments.

As I mentioned, my "East St. Louis Blues" transcription is a starting point and something tangible to work with. I agree that where there's agreement after due attention is given to problematic sections, and the subsequent posts are more or less in close proximity to the original, there is no reason to once again list the "variants" discussed in the thread under the main body of the transcription. And a link back from the Weeniepedia entry will suffice for the person who lands there first and wants to work through the process of refining the transcription.

There are cases though where the level of uncertainty is such that noting variants may be appropriate. The first line of Charley Patton's "Down The Dirt Road" comes to mind. The discussion covers pages and I don't know if there will or can ever be certainty about what Charley's intended lyrics were. But we might agree on an effectively functional transcription, one that makes sense, but also acknowledges that there are other possibilities that should not be dismissed. These could be placed in the variants section for convenience. --Just an example.

I guess this is a long winded way of saying that although we might settle on guidelines, we should also be flexible and make our decisions on a case-by-case basis.


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