In 2005 (in the UK) a song called Black Horse and the Cherry Tree by KT Tunstall was getting a lot of play on the radio. It’s been variously described as pop, folk, blues and indie rock. Needless to say, none of those tags capture the essence of the song, not even taken together.
It’s short (under 3 minutes), simple and has an infectious chorus. So it’s a pop song, right? Apart from some light percussion and subtle backing vocals it’s just a girl singer and her acoustic guitar; so perhaps it’s a folk song. The lyrics are darkly strange and mysterious; there’s a hint of the blues there. But most of all it has a rocking rhythm that invites us to tap our feet in time to the music. It’s not rock and roll, and it’s not loud, so it must be indie rock. I guess.
What makes Black Horse different is its alternating passages of palpitating guitar chords and sparse unaccompanied singing. It’s as if the heart stutters for a moment and then recovers. As the song puts it:
My heart hit a problem in the early hours
So I stopped it dead for a beat or two
It’s a scary moment but it passes. A scary moment like the time in a dream in which a black stallion asks the singer to marry him. She has come to a fork in life’s road and must decide which path to take without knowing where either will lead. It is the middle of nowhere. There are no signposts here; just the big black horse and a cherry tree.
Following her pounding heart she rejects the marriage proposal, singing “you’re not the one for me”. And now, for the first time, we hear guitar, percussion, lead and backing vocals all together as the chorus rocks along, blood flooding through the veins again.
As a child KT Tunstall, the Wide Web tells me, had a heart murmur. It doesn’t say whether the song draws on any specific incidents in KT’s life but it seems safe to assume that her childhood medical condition fed into the song. And she has been quoted as saying that Black Horse is about being lost and having to choose a way forward. She has found a compelling way to express herself and, in the process, has written a truly great song.
Here’s my advice: never mind the genre, just feel the beat.
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