Archive for the ‘Perception’ Category

What was she singing?

February 15, 2009

It’s sometimes difficult to work out the words that someone is saying, and it can be especially difficult to work out the words that someone is singing. We get mondegreens, and there are disputes about the words to songs, even when we have recordings that can be played over and over (in “Live and Let Die”, did Paul McCartney sing “in this world in which we live in” or “in this world in which we’re livin'”? — some Language Log discussion here). Now, in the latest Harper’s Magazine (March 2009), a spectacular display of disagreement about lyrics, in an exchange in the Letters section (pp. 4-5). 

The problem clearly lies in the articulation of the singer, Geeshie Wiley. One of the disputants, John Jeremiah Sullivan, actually takes the opacity of Wiley’s articulation to be a positive feature of her performances:

Part of those early recordings’ profundity and aliveness is that they’ll never close themselves to our guesses.