The key thing to remember about unaccompanied singing is that it’s the easiest and most natural way to sing. You just sing. You don’t have an instrument of your own to worry about, or a band to keep in time with. You learn the song, and you sing it. If it has a chorus, the audience joins in. Job done.
But if you want to complicate it, this article is all about tips. Get stuck in.
“The only harm you can do to a song is not to sing it.”
Martin Carthy said that, and if anyone knows what he’s talking about, it’s him. Just sing the song. However badly you might think you’re singing it, you’re serving the song by letting it out into the air where it can be heard.
The audience are your friends
If you’re singing in a folk club for the first time, you can be sure that the bulk of your audience has been where you are and remember the feeling. If you’ve picked a reasonably well-known song, and you forget where you are, there will be someone there who can prompt you with the next line. They will join in on the choruses – even if it’s a song you only wrote that afternoon, they’ll be with you on the second chorus and the harmonies will be great by the third.
The best advice I was given for learning songs and tunes was, “don’t learn a tune you don’t already know”, and it’s great advice for building your initial repertoire. Choose songs you know and like – ones that you feel you half know already, where singing along with your favourite recording is a doddle. If you’re choosing songs from bands that don’t perform unaccompanied, try and avoid songs that need to be carried by the arrangement. Say it’s a Bellowhead number, start by checking Mainly Norfolk or Mudcat for other sources, and hit Spotify or Youtube to see if any of those were unaccompanied singers. They’ll give you a clue about ways to sing it that don’t rely on accompaniment.
You’ve chosen your song and tune, and you know which set of words you’re going to use, so how do you go about learning it?
Firstly, you don’t actually need to learn the words to sing something. You can always pull the lyrics up on your phone and sing from there. I’ve done it myself in sessions where someone called for a song that we all half knew, so I pulled up the lyric while someone was singing something else, and off we went with the requested song. However, in my experience it’s far more satisfying to sing from memory – I reckon it helps me understand what I’m singing far better.
Here’s the trick I use for cementing songs into memory. I learned it from Sheila Kay Adams, a seventh-generation ballad singer from North Carolina, and it’s the technique her family used for passing songs on, “knee to knee”.
She explained that it works like this. You’d settle into some long and boring task with granny and she’d start by singing the first verse of a ballad…
“Comb back your hair, fair Annie”, he said
“Comb it back into your crown,
“For you must live a maiden life
“When I bring my bridal home”
And then you’d sing it back to her. As you finished, she’d sing you the second verse…
“Oh how shall I look maidenlike
“When maiden I am none
“When six fair sons have I had by you
“And the seventh coming on?”
You’d sing the first and second verses back to her, and she’d sing the third. You’d then sing back the whole ballad so far, and so it would go until the last verse… and you’d long since podded all the peas or salted all the beans or whatever it was you were working on. It’s time-consuming, sure, but it works.
These days, it works a bit differently and involves judicious use of the pause button. My method of learning songs up until then had been the far more haphazard, “You just learn it!” method, which usually involved singing something over and over with the words in front of me, or singing along with a recording until I was confident I didn’t need it anymore, then realising I did still need it, refreshing my memory, trying again, etc.
‘Fair Annie‘ [Roud 42] was the first song I tried it with. I cued up Peter Bellamy’s recording (he accompanies himself with a concertina, but no matter) and ran through it twice and I had it. You’d think it shouldn’t work for the later verses because you only sing them a few times, but I promise you it does. It works with a lyric sheet, too. You just cover more and more verses as you go through the repetitions. Handy if you’ve combined different versions or written a verse or two of your own.
It sounds counterintuitive, but I find longer, story-based songs much easier to learn and remember than shorter songs that don’t really have a narrative. Something like The Good Old Way [Roud 23864] is an absolute banger of a song with a great chorus, but the verses could be sung in almost any order without much loss, except you might end up accidentally repeating a verse or missing one out altogether (Eliza Carthy says that the Watersons would often miss a verse when performing this, but that they were sufficiently in sync with each other that they’d all miss the same one) – though that will probably only matter to you.
It’s enough. It’s interesting enough to just do it and people will listen.Debbie Armour, Burd Ellen
Once you’ve got the words and the tune under your belt, it’s time to sing it. Sing it everywhere: in the shower, while you’re making a cup of tea, driving, under your breath while you go round the supermarket. What you’re doing is learning what the song means to you and how you’re going to perform it. Where do you breathe? How do you pitch it? Which are the key moments? You’re not singing for an audience here, you’re singing to get your head around the song – to get comfy with it.
Get yourself down to your favourite folk club, singaround, open mic, after-hours session at a festival, post-Morris practice drinks, wedding, or party – wherever people sing – and sing it.
I can’t tell you much about how to perform to an audience. Style is incredibly personal, but here are a few pointers.
Less is more
Concentrate on telling the story in the song. Vocal pyrotechnics can be fun, but they’re distracting, too. Listen to Sam Larner singing Pleasant and Delightful [Roud 660] and he does very little with it. He takes his time and lets the story unfold, and then puts a beautiful little flourish into the repeat of the phrase, “the larks the sang melodious”, that catches my heart every time.
Take your time
I’ve lost count of the songs I’ve mucked up by singing them too fast. If you were just telling someone the story, how would you pace it? Even in long ballads, there are no spare verses. If you missed one out, the story would suffer, and if you garble a verse by going too fast, you might as well have skipped it. Slow down. Enjoy the song.
Sing to the back of the hall
If you’re unamplified (the norm in singarounds and many folk clubs), pick something at the far end of the room you’re in and sing to that. You will automatically be singing loud enough – I don’t know how it works, but it does.
Why else are you doing this?
Martin Carthy again, from a TradFolk interview…
“Seriously! Diction’s the most important thing.”
“When you’re telling people a story, the words are all you’ve got. I’ve sometimes said that it doesn’t matter about the tune. Of course, that’s nonsense because it’s really nice to sing a song to a nice tune. Sometimes you’ve got to do a little bit of work so that they sit right with the melody. There’s nothing wrong with that. When you start playing with words, that’s when you start to find your feet as a writer. You start to develop some understanding of pacing and timing. So, arranging it to your own taste, as far as words are concerned, is critical.”
There is a whole series of articles to unpack from that, but if you take one thing from it, “work on your diction” is definitely up there.
Paul Sartin notes that you shouldn’t forget to breathe — nerves and adrenaline can cause shallow breath. Remember to breathe deeply when you’re singing. As Paul says, this will slow down your heart rate, assist your tone and help you get to the end of each line. (Don’t be afraid to breath when you need to, even if it’s at an odd place in the song — there are some great recordings of source singers taking a breath in the middle of a word, and I’m sure some of them did it for effect.)
Paul also recommends using your own voice:
“One of the many great joys of trad music is that it does not adhere to received pronunciation. Neither do you have to copy or emulate a dialect or accent. So let your own voice out! It can be surprisingly tricky to find your own voice when singing, but the sense of freedom that comes when you do is really hard to beat.”
The last thing I’d say is, always aim to sing the song as well as you can. Don’t measure your performance against favourite singers or, “the original”. Measure against yourself. You know when you’ve sung something as well as you can sing it, and you’ll know how you might do it better next time. Listen widely to as many singers as you can, especially to the so-called “source singers” – the people who songs were collected from. Check out Sam Larner, The Copper Family, or the catalogues of labels like Musical Traditions and Veteran. Dive into the amazing Topic Records‘ collection, The Voice of the People. What you’ll hear there is an amazing variety of ways to sing unaccompanied songs. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find some great models to steal from, there. Dive deep into a particular singer’s style if that’s your thing, or magpie around. You’ll still end up sounding like you. And that’s brilliant.
Tips from Twitter
I asked my Twitter community what advice they wish they’d been given when they started out, and I got the following responses…
The overall aim is to draw attention to the story, not to yourself.
“Wish someone had told me how to do circular breathing! I sound like an asthmatic cordless vacuum cleaner on 15% power most of the time…”
“Go to sessions just to listen to the songs being sung. If you like one, then go and find other versions of it to see which bits you like most, and remember to make the song your own.”
Handed Down Podcast
“Warm up first. Work on the little details. Work on each verse at a time as well as the shape and dynamics of the whole song. Work on it in your head. Practice in the shower. The overall aim is to draw attention to the story, not to yourself.
“Also, the first time you sing it out loud it will sound terrible and this is normal so don’t give up. When you start to work on it, it will get better surprisingly quickly.
I’ll add that there’s plenty of advice on the internet about warming up. If you’re in a session, it can be as simple as joining in with choruses from singers before you, but it really doesn’t hurt to learn a few warm up exercises. I’m not the person to ask though. Hydration is good – soft drinks are generally better than booze, and warm is better than ice cold.
“Just try doing it to a sympathetic audience in a session or at a folk club, and don’t be shy. Give it some welly, as much as is appropriate to the song. Just do it and keep on doing it.”
“Just share the song and the moment. You don’t need to perform. Pitching a song is hard. It’s fine to stop and start again in a better key (but you’ll need to practice this). Even better, get a little guitar tuning pipe or a piano on your phone and check your note before you start.”
“Listen to the best source singers you can find recordings of. Ask for recommendations from experienced singers you admire.”
Emily Eastwood – Steel Songbirds
“For me, it would be to just turn up at any available local singing sessions. You’ll meet like-minded people (networking), pick up new tunes, and get plenty of practice in. You’ll hear about potential gigs, festivals, and generally get yourself known.”
“Here in western Canada, it’s so unusual that when I add an a-cappella song to a set, everyone sits up and listens. I was not expecting that.”
“I had a lesson with Hannah James (@Clogbox) the other day and she asked me, “How would you speak this? How would you tell this story, spoken?” Take note of different inflections and word stresses in your spoken voice.”
“Don’t over-dramatise. Just ‘cos you’re singing unaccompanied doesn’t mean you have to sing at a funereal pace, like the words are delicate china. Remember, folk song is a vernacular art.”
“I was doing a shanty singaround. I was nervous about leading a song with my much more experienced peers joining in. What if I didn’t go well, and so forth!?
“A mate said, “Don’t worry, think of it as having the greatest backing singers you’ve ever had.”
“He wasn’t wrong.
“I think I ended up leading ‘Barretts Privateers’ at 1,000 miles an hour!”
“Have you come across Voice of the People? You really can’t go wrong with VotP. It has inspired some great music too – Eliza Carthy’s Anglicana, for instance.”
Debbie Armour – Burd Ellen
“It’s enough. It’s interesting enough to just do it and people will listen.”
Marilla Homes – Steel Songbirds
“Sing because it is how you express yourself. There will always be someone who doesn’t like your flavour, and that’s their problem. By singing you, you find your people. Sometimes you get to lead the way, sometimes you follow. Sometimes you get lost and people nudge you back on track.
“The important thing is to start. Start singing along to songs you love, start making up your own. There are all sorts of technical things to learn, so if you want to, find a teacher. Otherwise, find groups and sessions to sing with. Build self-confidence in as many ways as possible.
“It can take courage to sing unaccompanied, ‘cos it can feel very exposed. There is no sound to hide behind. Vulnerability can be your greatest strength. Most importantly, know why you are singing, and sing for yourself.”
Where to sing?
This used to be easy. When I first started singing in public in the late 80s and early 90s, there was at least one folk club or session running every night within 10 miles of where I was living in Northampton. It’s not quite so easy these days, but Google is your friend.
Open mic nights can be great, too, if only for the expression on the sound engineer’s face when you tell them what you’re (not) playing. “Do you have a backing track then?”
“Nope, it’s just me.”
I promise you, you’ll make an impression . I’ve had some great nights singing anything from big chorus songs to 10-minute ballads at open mics. I find that ballads go down really well in settings like this because they’re entirely new to most of the audience. Eliza Carthy’s cousin, Bigby, can be heard on the York open mic circuit singing unaccompanied, and they go down really well, even with audiences who don’t hear their surname and think, “Ah! I wonder if they’re related?”
Post-COVID, plenty of clubs have started running Zoom sings that are accessible to anyone with a smartphone or laptop. You won’t have the experience of people joining in with you, but they’re welcoming and friendly and so easy to get to.
If you’re on Clubhouse, Eliza Carthy runs a folk club there with regular rooms on Wednesday nights at 7pm UK time where we mostly chat about whatever comes up, and sing the occasional song, and I run a traditional ballad room on Thursdays at 7pm, where we aim to sing more than we chat, and have a very loose definition of what counts as traditional. Or as a ballad. We’re delighted to welcome singers of all levels of experience and you might find it reassuring that people can’t see you as you’re singing.
I think finding and building your repertoire is best discussed in another article – let’s get you hooked on singing first – but I liked Paul Sartin’s suggestion:
“What are you singing, and why? Have a think about songs that have meaning for you. This could be from the sentiment of the lyrics. And/or it could be from a sense of place – songs that are local to you and your community.”
If you asked me about almost any song in my repertoire, I could quickly tell you why I learned it. The reasons range from, “it’s just great to sing in company!”, through, “the heroine’s such a badass”, to, “there’s this phrase halfway through that just stopped my heart the first time I heard it. I had to learn it after that.”
Eliza Carthy: “Are you a dancing monkey or a storyteller?”
I asked various folkies on Twitter for advice and they wrote a lot of lovely thoughtful feedback, all of which you can see above. Eliza Carthy wanted to chat, however, so I phoned her up.
I started by congratulating her on her new role as president of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), which she has been a member of since she was 12. It’s apparent that she doesn’t plan to be a mere figurehead and we should expect exciting things.
Eventually, we got to talking about unaccompanied singing. I asked how she got started.
“I didn’t know there was any other way! I couldn’t play anything then, and I grew up with The Watersons who weren’t big on playing instruments. Mike played a bit of guitar, and before arthritis got her, Norma played a bit of piano, and there would be occasional bouts of singing stuff like, ‘Just A Song At Twilight’ around the piano, but they didn’t play instruments on stage.”
The advantage of singing unaccompanied when you’re learning is that you can bring all your concentration to bear on one thing. Eliza’s known for singing to her fiddle, but that wasn’t something she did all at once. “Learn to sing. Learn to play. And then put it together and learn to do both at once — which is a whole other thing.”
The heart of her advice on getting started with unaccompanied singing sounds simple, but in practice can seem really complex: “Find the core and do that.”
On singing for the first time: “Try not to panic. Don’t worry about keeping some kind of strict tempo – that’s for dancing, not storytelling . Give yourself time, breathe when you run out of breath, and just tell the story.” (I’ve heard great singers get stuck into a ballad and switch from singing to paraphrasing a verse or two that they don’t quite remember before slipping back into the song again like a fish released from a keepnet. It’s unplanned, but it can be magical.)
We talked about Eliza’s barnstorming performance of Richard Thompson’s ‘The Great Valerio’ (see the video above) unaccompanied at the sold-out Albert Hall. “I’ve listened to it a few times,” she said, “and I can really hear the moment when I thought, ‘fucking hell, I’m singing unaccompanied in the Albert Hall!’ and faltered a bit.” Nerves can be a thing no matter how experienced you are , but I was lucky enough to be in the audience that night, and I didn’t hear it. Neither did anyone else. As we left the hall, the people around me, who were mostly Fairport Convention fans, were all, “Who was that? That was awesome!”
On ornamentation: maybe you got a song from a recording where the singer does some beautiful vocal tricks to ornament their singing, what Eliza calls, “a folky turnaround. Don’t worry about that, aim to sing it plain because that’s one less thing to worry about, you’re finding the core of the song. As you soak up other singers, you’ll gradually find your own style. Try not to be a singer where a listener can tell who you learned a song from by the way you sing it.”
On repertoire and credit: “Sing it because you love it. Find the songs that really speak to or for you, and don’t be afraid to adjust them if they don’t quite do that.” Many of the songs that The Watersons are best known for were largely written by Mike, because a song wasn’t long enough, maybe, or, “just for sheer devilment”. Martin turned four and a half verses of The Famous Flower of Serving Men [Roud 199] into an epic ballad, so credit your sources.
She’s adamant about this: it’s common practice for singers to do a lot of work on a song, adding verses, changing others, and then giving it away. “Trad. arr.” covers a lot. Eliza has had the experience of being told by a singer that “they found a song ‘In a book’, and I’d written half of it.” There’s nothing wrong with learning a song from a recording and anyone who tries to tell you there is, is a fool. If that’s where you learned something from, say so. If nothing else, it means you’re not going to put your foot in it like Eliza’s anonymous singer.
Most important: “Aim to serve the song, and keep doing it!”
Join Piers Cawley’s Song Swaps, Friday evenings, 8pm, on his Youtube Channel.
I forgot to say this in the piece, but it’s important: Even if you never sing in public, there’s a quiet pleasure to be had in simply learning songs and singing them around the house. Singing with an audience is a great thrill for me, but it might be terrifying for you.