‘Cry Me A River’ (Singing as storytelling 2)

This is the second in the blog series Singing as Storytelling. The majority of singers – famous ones as well as amateurs – work hard to produce a stylish and technically excellent performance in terms of musical delivery, whatever the genre. However, it is rare to find a singer who genuinely delivers the lyric in a way that feels ‘real’ or ‘true’. In acting, it is assumed that the actor will deliver the lines as though they are thinking and feeling them for the first time, making them up in the moment as the character. Even when telling a story, a good storyteller does not sound like they have told the story before, but as though they are putting the words, ideas and images and dialogue together for the very first time, in front of us as we listen. That is what makes their performance electrifying. But singers routinely seem to deliver a musical performance in which the story of the words, the choice of a metaphor or image, or the portrayal of a real person going through a real experience, are all irrelevant. The words remained unlived by the singer. But the voice can do extraordinary things. In spoken conversation, tone of voice, and how someone says something, makes huge impact on us. So perhaps we should be doing this in singing as well.

The torch song ‘Cry Me A River’ was written in 1953 by Arthur Hamilton. Originally, it was to be sung by Ella Fitzgerald in the movie ‘Pete Kelly’s Blues’, but it got dropped. It is one of those songs that everyone seems to have heard, but many people have never registered what it is really about. I think that’s because singers don’t understand what they need to do to bring the lyric to life – instead they focus just on the magnificent tune and harmonies, and creating their own musical interpretation. It is a stunning song, and it’s hard to believe that 38 singers (including Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore and Perry Como) rejected it before Hamilton found someone to take it on, a former high-school girlfriend called Julie London. London made the first recording of ‘Cry Me A River’ in 1955; her version is considered by many to be the definitive interpretation. Here is a performance she gave in 1964:

It is deliberately cold, showing the lack of concern for the lover who regrets jilting her; part of its appeal is that she gives a sensual, sexually charged performance, while remaining emotionally unavailable. However, I think she misses the possibilities for the nuanced changes of mood and intention in the song. For me, the outstanding performance of this song comes from Barbara Streisand early in her career (1963, the Dinah Shore show). Streisand brings her dramatic ability to bear, starting with calculated understatement, and gradually letting the performance build through pain, rage, disappointment and vengeful delight – unleashing a relentless flood of mixed emotions. Such a performance takes great emotional insight, a superb feel for language and the possibilities in the music, and control as a performer.

Here is a completely different kind of performance by Diana Krall in her ‘Live in Paris’ show in 2001. It shows fabulous musicianship, and works the melody, harmonies and instrumentation into a great version. However, compared to the raw realism of Streisand, Krall seems to leave the lyrics entirely alone and just deliver them as a set of syllables to fit the music. There is no storytelling, no sense that she is living the character or situation implicit in the words. In her hands (and voice), the song becomes a vehicle for her musicianship, but the point of the song is missed.

Michael Bublé recorded it for his 2009 album ‘Crazy Love’ – Hamilton was in the studio at the time. Bublé has taken to opening his shows with it. I’m afraid I remain unconvinced by his version. The musical arrangement is ‘high drama’, and intended to make big impact, but for me, it lacks the intimacy needed for the song. It is delivered as a ‘showstopper’, and what I call a ‘look at me’ performance which leaves me running for the door. I think a singer’s real life persona should disappear in a song, so that as listeners, we are left with the character or storyteller, and be drawn into the story being played out in the lyric. For me, Bublé’s performance fails in this regard. He does not immerse himself in the character, and his movements and glances remind us there is musical rhythm and a big band playing. It is ‘impressive’ but I remain unmoved. (Don’t feel compelled to watch the whole performance if you don’t want to!) In a dramatic song performance should make us forget there is music or a singer – we should be able to take those things for granted, and not notice them.

So, as an antidote, and reminder of what this song is really about, perhaps listen to Streisand once more:


Here is a small tip for singers who want to take this song on. Make sure that you articulate clearly the three words ‘Cry me a’ so that the listener on first hearing would understand them. Remember, this song is not called ‘Crimea River’!

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