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Listening for form in popular music
Listening for form in popular music

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3 Identifying choruses

This is a photograph of the Imperial State Prison Farm.
Figure 4 The Imperial State Prison Farm, Sugar Land, c.1908. Photo: Taken from Wikimedia, Texas Prison Museum/Public Domain.

The previous section introduced two specialist terms for describing form, namely ‘verse’ and ‘chorus’. In the next activities, you will try to identify verses and choruses yourself in a 1977 performance of ‘Midnight Special’ by the guitarist and singer Brownie McGhee and the harmonica player and singer Sonny Terry. The duo performs a folksong about prison life that originated in Texas in the early twentieth century (Cohen, 2000, p. 479). The ‘Midnight Special’ of the title is widely understood to refer to a train that left Houston at midnight and whose light shone through the windows of the Sugar Land state prison farm, 30 miles outside that city (Cohen, 2000, p. 479; Lomax and Lomax, 1947, p. 292).

Activity 2

Timing: Allow around 25 minutes for this activity

Listen to ‘Midnight Special’ two or three times and try to determine which part of the performance is the chorus (this may not be immediately clear). In the box below, answer the following questions:

  1. What are the words of the chorus? (Don’t worry if you can’t make these out exactly.)
  2. How is the placement of this chorus different from that of ‘Be My Baby’?
  3. How many times do you hear the chorus?
  4. What is the track time at the beginning of each occurrence of the chorus? Use the format 00:00 to give your answer.
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  1. The words are:

(Well) let the Midnight Special shine the light on me;
(Well) let the Midnight Special shine the ever-loving light on me.

(Traditional, 1977)
  1. Unlike in ‘Be My Baby’, where the first verse is heard before the first chorus, the chorus is the first vocal material to be heard in ‘Midnight Special’.
  2. The chorus is sung eight times during the performance.
  3. The choruses begin around 00:11 00:40, 01:20, 01:59, 02:39, 03:00, 03:29 and 03:49.

Notice that the word ‘well’ is in parentheses in the transcription of the lyrics above; this indicates that the musicians only sometimes sing the word. There are a number of such differences from chorus to chorus, including at 03:29, where it sounds as though there may have been some confusion about which of the two singers should be leading. These are further examples of minor variations within repetitions. Together, they suggest that this is a somewhat extemporised (improvised) performance, and that the musicians have sung the song in slightly different ways from time to time.

As for the way the chorus is heard right at the beginning of this song, this is a relatively common practice. One way to understand it is as a bid to capture the listener’s attention by deploying the most memorable material right away.