All stories, be they written, spoken or sung, imply a voice. When a story is spoken, read or sung, there is of course an actual voice airing the implied one. I’m fascinated by how this changes the story itself.
Many folk songs imply the narrator of a story – all too often they start something like ‘as I roved out one morning, all in the early spring, I overheard…’ separating the singer from the story to be told so that gender and age don’t impact on the telling. Not all folk songs are about voyeurism, many are told in the first person, and the actions of that person imply gender. Pregnant and abandoned lamenting women aside, gender in folk songs isn’t always straightforward. If a lass sings a song about how her lad went off and got killed in a war, the song sounds very straight. If a chap sings it, we might not be clear if he’s singing on behalf of the female narrator in the song, or if he’s singing it as a gay lover mourning for the lost soldier boy.
There are a lot of folk songs about girls who ‘dress in man’s apparel’ and run off to join the army, follow lovers across oceans, or who are just there for the sheer hell of it. The songs themselves make it clear that the surface appearance of the character is not always the whole story.
In this last week, John Holland and I have been picking stories for Stroud Short story competition, at the end of which we found out who had written what. I noted that my perception of the narrator was not always correct – there were two occasions where I’d inferred a male voice, but the writer was female, and several where I hadn’t know either way. Some of those stories will be different stories to the ones I first read, because of the gender shift. It will alter where the sympathies seem to lie, and that will be decidedly interesting to hear.
Gender plays a big role in how we perceive each other, and it features heavily in the stories we tell. It’s the most obvious way in which a voice can change a story. Accents can also have an impact, especially if there’s a class or racial aspect to a story. Something profoundly working class voiced in an upper class voice might easily sound condescending. Voicing someone of a different ethnicity can easily turn into a racist caricature. Putting a voice to a story when the voice does not seem to match the story at all, can create new possibilities, opening the way to different takes on what the story means and changing what it can reflect. I think this is one of the reasons people keep putting Shakespeare plays into different cultures, times and places – the stories can be caused to say something different if you change the voices expressing them.
Do we put on voices to create an effect when voicing a story, or do we use our own voices, and let the impact of that voice – whatever it is, and however it fits or clashes with the material, do what it does in a more naturalistic way? And of course even if you use your own voice in all things, the choice of material you make will decide whether you’re playing to type, or pushing at the edges in some way in order to let a whole new story in.