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February 03, 2006

Music history question

I have a question for all the ethnomusicology geeks out there: When did it become unusual for English-speaking male singers to use first-person-female lyrics? You know, songs like Danny Boy, which explicitly designate the singer as female. I'm not talking about any abstract or obscure kind of gendering. The naive reading of Danny Boy is just that it's a song about a woman who's addressing a man who's going off to war.

These days, male singers seem more likely to tweak first-person-female lyrics in order to make the narrator of the song male. Unless of course they're going for a self-consciously traditional/archaic vibe, e.g., contemporary artists who record Danny Boy. Maybe female singers are also more likely to "translate" when they cover first-person-male lyrics, e.g., Janis Joplin making Bobby male in her cover of Me and Bobby McGee.

Maybe there is no trend. I'll defer to people with data.

I ask because I was surprised to hear a very Bob Dylan singing from a first-person-female perspective in part one of Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home. (I forget which song.) Dylan obviously wasn't trying to make a statement about gender. He was probably just doing something that was still commonplace in the folk/pop tradition of the time.

Any thoughts?


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Just guessing here, but I bet it has something to do with focus groups.

I'm guessing male singers started turning away from female 1st person lyrics during the advent of recorded music, c. early 20th century. Recorded music created an explosion of song-writing, which gave male singers the opportunity to pick the best male-oriented lyrics available. Prior to recorded music most songs were folk songs, so I think singers then sang pretty much any song they knew. Once they had an opportunity to pick and choose their repertoire, they simply gravitated toward gender(hetero)-appropriate songs.

This is just my half-assed on-the-fly attempt to explain this phenomenon. My background is psychology, which you can see is factored into my explanation. In any event, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

What was that pop song from a few years ago where a man sang from a woman's point of view -- the chorus was something like, "I can never be your woman."

I remember there was a huge freaky fuss about it, but the singer/songwriter was unapologetic and pointed out that there's a long history of songs like that.

Though I have to say that Cait O'Riordan did a fabulous version of "Danny Boy" on the soundtrack to "Straight to Hell."

That song, I believe, is "Your Woman" by White Town.

In folk music, one is often taking on the persona of the song's narrator. ("Virgil Caine is my name ...," sang Joan Baez.)

Much of pop is what I think of as "music designed to get somebody laid," and that trumps historical accuracy in favor of expressing the singer's sexuality.

Me First and the Gimme Gimmes did a sweet cover of "Natural Woman" with no alteration of the lyrics. Clearly, one data point doesn't prove or disprove but I was struck by the fact that they didn't change the lyrics in much the same way that Lindsay was.

Me First and the Gimmes Gimmes never alter the lyrics of the songs they cover. They've also covered "My Boyfriend's Back" and "Stand By Your Man". They do all their songs just for fun. I like them.

Dylan sang "House of the Rising Sun" from the female POV (the traditional way). One of John Prine's great songs "Angel from Montgomery" is sung from a female POV, "I am an old woman, named after my mother..."

I play "Angel" regulary with my duo partner. The song makes no sense with the altered gender. I have never thought it was a big deal to sing from the oposite gender's POV...

I'll guess that it's been fashionable for men to sing women's lyrics whenever it's been unfashionable for women to sing in public.

Changing the sexes in a song is one of my pet peeves. I heard a cover of "Hateful" done by No Doubt the other day and I dare say I would have hated it less if she hadn't changed the gender of the person addressed as "hateful" from a woman to a man.

The lyrics to Danny Boy do not denote the singer as explicitly female. ( unless there are references in additional stanzas )

I've always visualized the singer as a father whose son goes away. And again, my image was that he was emigrating, though yes he certainly could have been going off to war.

One example of man-singing-from-female-POV that is also a really good song is the White Stripes' cover of 'Jolene' by Dolly Parton.

Available on your favorite file-sharing network.

This doesn't answer your question, but I've always loved Lyle Lovett's cover of "Stand by your man" from the _Crying Game_ sound track. And Dar William's cover of Highway Patrolman (the best song on the otherwise disapointing _Badlands_ Springsteen tribute), and the original version of _Ballad of Mary Magdalen_ by Richard Shindell

Curse of Millhaven: female serial killer POV sung by Nick Cave. Schweet.

I think John is onto something. I'd bet that as soon as we started seeing pop music breeding idols like Frank Sinatra, with man's-man (hey, stop snickering) stage personas, it wouldn't be done as much for a man to sing a woman's part. Bob Dylan or the White Stripes, certainly Nick Cave, and even Lyle Lovett, I think of as more willing to be self-consciously artsy, so it's "oo, taking the woman's part--how daring!" But the guys who depend upon a manly image, no way.

The more unfortunate among you may remember (and if not, cover your eyes before you read this) Sammy Hagar covering "Piece of my Heart" by Janis Joplin, and changing "that a woman can be tough" to "that this--man can get tough," complete with stumble, where the new lyric ruins the scansion. Like Amanda, I often can't stand that. I especially can't stand it when the lyrics didn't even make you gay in the first place, but they still have to change every "he" in the song to a "she" and vice-versa. I wish I could think of the example, I heard it the other day.

An interesting side-note: if you get into English and Irish traditional music (and you should, it's great), you _constantly_ get not only female singers singing from the man's point of view (though only more rarely do male singers sing from the female POV), but the subjects of the songs are so often to do with women dressing themselves as men. Kate Bush did a great version of "The Handsome Cabin Boy," who was, of course, secretly a woman. Steeleye Span's version of "The Female Drummer" is a great song on the same subject. More to come.

(Nothing against the artsy artists mentioned, they're great, but I'm just saying)

Fun song to fuck w/ expectations: the Raincoats' covering "Lola". Women singing as a man who's hitting on a woman who's actually a man. Fun!

Like Phantom, I don't see how Danny Boy makes anything explicit regarding the sex of the speaker. The reading with which I'm familiar is that it is a parent whose son is emigrating to escape the Famine or its aftermath of continued poverty.

Let's see. The Beatles changed "To Know Him is to Love Him" to her/her. On the other hand, "Boys" stayed "Boys." On the other other hand, they gave it to Ringo to sing. They also changed "(There's a) Devil in His Heart" to "her heart." And, in a catagory all its own, "Long Tall Sally" went from a cross-dressing man to a woman without so much as a change of pro-noun.

Since i have a two year old son, I have been wondering quite a bit about those three men in that tub. I mean, really, what ARE the butcher, baker and candlestick maker doing in there? But I digress.

Sandy Denny sings from the POV of sailors and the like (e.g. "It Suits Me Well"). And no-one changes the words to "She Moved Thro the Fair," whether it's Anne Briggs or Van Morrison.

As a convention, it makes more sense to preserve the gender of the pronouns when the singer is playing a character in a narrative (as in the denny song). I don't think focus groups or any other kind of cowardice is to blame. I think it probably comes down to which way calls the least attention to itself.

I'm still waiting for someone to cover "Oh Yoko."

>I'm still waiting for someone to cover "Oh Yoko."

It's late, but this made me laugh.

I was fishing for a Sandy Denny piece. And yes, many women sing "She Moved Through the Fair."

As a convention, it makes more sense to preserve the gender of the pronouns when the singer is playing a character in a narrative (as in the denny song). I don't think focus groups or any other kind of cowardice is to blame.

I wouldn't call it cowardice, or even anti-gay, more that straight singers, unless they're trying to fuck with the world, don't want to start people wondering if they're gay, and get the million questions.

I remember, during the 80's, hearing Craig Chaquico of Jefferson Starship (and there's a _noun_ that I didn't need changed) saying that when they wrote "Be My Lady," of course Mickey Thomas had to sing it; "we couldn't really have Grace sing it--we could start a few new rumours that way." So, despite the fact that female singers can get away with it more often, she couldn't do it for that one. Was it because it was a new song, and not a standard that everyone already knew?

>I think it probably comes down to which way calls the least attention to itself.

Yeah, it's like ending a sentence on a preposition. Someone decided, a century and a half ago, that it _tended_ to look better, in formal writing, if you didn't do that. And there is the example "that is something up with which I will not put." But if you insist on proofing your every sentence against that, then it gets really really tortured. Same with changing the genders.

I remember seeing a woman singing "Two Ladies," from Cabaret, and changing it to "Two Gentlemen." It worked well enough.

Getting a snicker imagining some woman singing "He Moved Through the Fair." Somehow I get a less-than-graceful image of the "He," like of an Irish KRS-One or Biggie Smalls.

The Flaming Lips covered Kylie Minogue's "Can't Get You Out of My Head" without changing the words, though whether the persona they meant to take on was a woman or a gay/bi man is debatable. I think the Magnetic Fields also do the gender-swap thing in a few of their 69 Love Songs, though I can't name any specific examples offhand.

The best example for lyric-changing I can think of is Joss Stone's "Fell in Love with a Boy." If she hadn't changed the lyrics, it would have been seen as a self-conscious attempt to appeal to adolescent male fantasies, a la t.A.T.u., and her powerful voice would have been overlooked. But then that says some really disturbing things about our culture, now that I think of it.

I'm glad someone mentioned "House of the Rising Sun," because I think The Animals' redo of that with a male POV and a gambling house (which makes very little sense when read in context with the rest of the lyrics), rather than a female POV and a house of ill repute, was probably the definitive moment when it became non-mainstream for male singers to take on a female persona.

I think the factor that really made it unacceptable for men to sing female lyrics, especially, is homoeroticism. Back when everybody was straight (*snicker*), it was perfectly acceptable for a man to sing first-person female lyrics. But once the sexual revolution began to sink in, suddenly heterosexual men were worried about having their masculinity--or perhaps even, horror of horrors, their sexual orientation--challenged by any perceived gender-bending.

Which brings us back to White Town's "Your Woman." I remember hearing that on the radio for the first time, and it blew my mind. First thought: So this is what gay pop sounds like. Hey, I was a teenager and Rufus Wainwright hadn't even recorded his first album yet, so sue me. But I think that's at the center of why men don't record songs with female POVs: They're afraid of being thought of as gay.

My gut tells me that women have generally been better about not changing around the lyrics, but I don't have anything resembling statistical evidence to back that up.



Actually it is my understanding that Danny Boy was written in New York by a father who had just lost his son

In "Millworker", James Taylor sings from the pov of a working class seamstress. It's on his double CD "James Taylor, Live" (1993).

[sniff sniff] What, you love the hivemind better than me?

Anyway, "Danny Boy" isn't technically a folk song (it's actually an early popular song, ©1913, albeit one based on a much older folk melody) and, as others have pointed out, the lyrics are gender-neutral -- in fact, deliberately so:

I should point out that Fred Weatherly was a highly successful professional song writer. In his day, song writers made most of their money from sales of sheet music to amateur vocalists. To maximise sales, the lyrics specify neither the gender of the singer nor the relationship to Danny, thereby maximising the size of the potential sheet music-buying public. In fact, the same lack of specificity can be found in many of Fred Weatherly's songs. It was thinking of things like this that helped him to become extremely wealthy.

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