The Lord Of Misrule

'A Feast Of Fools' by Claire Aberlé

‘A Feast Of Fools’ by Claire Aberlé

With its origins in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, the tradition of inverting the normal order of things thrived in mediaeval and Tudor Britain.

For a number of days in December, a person of low rank would be appointed ruler of the midwinter festivities, and would orchestrate all manner of bizarre and irreverent goings-on.

Those who normally held power were obliged to follow the commands of the Lord of Misrule.

It’s a great subject and it became possibly my favourite song on the album.  Here we had licence to include quirky lyrics, unexpected harmonic twists, rhythmic playfulness, and a splash of something sinister – and we got them all in.

It starts with an instrumental chorus, and possibly the first thing to strike the listener as odd is the rhythmic jerk that occurs just two chords in.  The second chord has a beat missing, so it lasts for seven beats instead of eight.  The drum part obligingly drops a beat too so it stays on track with the guitar and bass, but the sleighbell is playing only on the odd numbered beats, and continues defiantly to do so, producing a little warp which is then corrected when the next chord also misses a beat and everything falls back in sync.

This rhythmic ‘phasing’ – or polyrhythm, is something one can study in great depth.  For its own sake, it interests me as a mathematician, but as with many of the more complex aspects of composition and arrangement, it’s used best if it adds something to a song without drawing too much attention to itself.  (It could be argued that I’ve crossed my own line in this case.)

While the chorus uses nothing more obscure than Eb, Bb, and Fm, the verse asserts its individuality by modulating three times in each cycle and employing a couple of inversions along the way to give the bass a more comfortable path through this harmonic briar.  We have Cm, Fs2/A, Bb, G7, Edim7, Bb/F, A7.  Hack your way through that lot!

The first sung chorus has the female voice starting a fifth above the male, but in the second chorus the gap is widened as the male voice takes the female line down an octave and the female takes the male line up an octave, so the starting interval is now an eleventh.

The two singers are panned fairly far apart and they sometimes move around to surprise the headphone listener.  There are little bursts of woodwind here and there to punctuate certain moments, and a triangle for a playful feel.  There’s even a bit of birdsong in the background because I recorded the nylon-string guitar on a beautiful spring morning with the studio doors open.

Before the last chorus there’s the very simple execution of a key change – one tone up – just to give a little lift to the end section.  All of these tricks and devices serve to conjure an air of unpredictability, of mischief, of engineered strangeness teetering on the edge of chaos – just as the Lord Of Misrule would wish.

To hear samples of all the songs on the ‘Calendar’ album, go to The Straw Horses website.

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To The Mop Fair

'To The Mop Fair' by Claire Aberlé

‘To The Mop Fair’ by Claire Aberlé

Michaelmas Day is the 10th of October, and hiring fairs were often held on or around this date.

Labourers and servants would dress in their best clothes and go to the town centre, where the local landowners would also congregate.  Workers would hopefully negotiate employment for the next twelve months.  They each carried an item to betoken their job, such as a scythe, a milking stool, or a mop, and this is why these events were also known as mop fairs.

When workers were hired, they would be given a coin to secure the deal, whereupon they could put down the sign of their trade and decorate themselves with ribbons to signify their success.

We wanted this one to feel like it could be a couple of hundred years old, so we used chord progressions without the unexpected turns that some of our other songs have, and wrote a melody which trickles mellifluously up and down a couple of comfortable scales.  In short, we kept it pre-jazz.  This isn’t to say it’s uninteresting; the simple melodies over the fairly tame chords are doing a lot of tasty stuff, and I’ll talk about that a little here.

The verse chords are D, Am7, G, D.  We’re in the key of G, but this isn’t actually fixed until the second chord.  When the song opens, it feels like it’s in D, and the minor-ness of the Am7 comes as little surprise.  The vocal line features an F# during the Am7: a potent, mournful flavour (the F# gnaws at the C in the Am7, making the chord sound like a minor sixth).  The melody never jumps further than one degree up or down, which gives it a light, easy, storytelling feel.  That blend of poignancy and simplicity suits the subject: two young lovers hoping to find work – ideally together – so that they can save for their wedding: nothing complicated, but sad for its depiction of them as being at the mercy of circumstances over which they have little control.  The second half of the verse is a repeat of the first (melodically and harmonically, at least), offering another chance to become familiar with the tune before we move to the chorus.

The chorus is in the key of C, and uses (line 1) C, Am9, F^s2, C ; (line 2) C, Am9, D.  The straightforward drop from D to C as we enter the chorus gives a sense of ‘oh well then, here we go’ to the lyric ‘To the mop fair‘, and the melody makes bigger jumps here as we’re singing about a situation where there’s a lot at stake and a short time in which to secure a deal.  The second voice comes in here too, and between the two vocal lines, some of the richer details of the chords are brought out.  For example, over the Am9, one voice sings a G and the other a B, reinforcing the ninthiness of that chord.  The F^s2 gets Es and Gs sung over it, and, being rooted on the 4th degree of our key, offers a chance to get a raised fourth into the picture, which we naturally take, assigning a quick B to one of the voices.

To exit the chorus, we land on a D major (with a sung F# just to make absolutely sure) and stay there into the beginning of the next verse, and so it goes on.  The key changes are slight and comfortable, serving to give just a hint of a mood shift between the sections.

Marlborough in Wiltshire still has a mop fair – with its erstwhile central purpose considerably diminished, of course.  It’s now two days with a fun fair and various activities that takes over the town each October.  Don’t forget your ribbons!

To hear samples of all the songs on the ‘Calendar’ album, go to The Straw Horses website.

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Running Down The Line (Mallard’s Story)

‘Running Down The Line’ by Claire Aberlé

On the 3rd of July, 1938, the class A4 steam locomotive Mallard left Barkston Junction on a world speed record attempt.

After being slowed by unexpected works near Grantham, driver Joseph Duddington and fireman Thomas Bray (no relation, as far as I know) made the most of the opportunity presented to them by the slight downward gradient of Stoke Bank, and pushed Mallard to a momentary maximum speed of 126mph – a record that has never been matched by another steam locomotive.

This celebrated engine was retired in 1963 and now resides in the National Railway Museum.

A tale like this is obviously very rich in facts, and Mavis and I relished the task of getting as many of them as possible into our lyrics.  As with our song about Charles II, we felt we ought to immerse ourselves in the story in order that we could relate its details with a sense of familiarity.  Simple repetition of the information wouldn’t have had the right spirit.  So, films were watched, articles read, maps studied, and a railway expert (thank you, John Eccles) consulted.  When we began to write our lyrics, we were now telling a story we knew.

But facts alone, however thoroughly one has digested them, don’t make much of a song; we needed engagement with the tale too, and that came partly from moving the storyteller’s perspective around as the event unfolds.

Verse one gives a description of the engine before she sets off, from the point of view of an informed but unconnected observer – a reporter, perhaps.

Then comes the first chorus.  There’s no beat yet – she’s not moving – but there is bass, and it illustrates the build up of pressure in the still-stationary locomotive by holding a D from the final chord of the verse (itself a D major) right through the entire chorus, so we have:

G/D, A/D, D
G/D, A/D, D

The good old G, A, D is a well, well, well-used sequence with an easy, natural momentum to it, but locking the bass to a D throughout really feels like trying to drive off with the brakes on, and reflects Mallard’s eagerness (if we may impute such a feeling to a steam engine) to get going.

Lyrically, the chorus is from an indeterminate perspective.  It could be from 1938, or from today.  It’s simply ‘Mallard, oh Mallard, an engine built for speed‘: a summary, a reflection – it’s whatever it feels like to the listener.

In verse two, the description is completed with some more technical data and then the movement begins, accompanied by the start of the drums.  Now that we’re in motion, the bass allows the second chorus to move as it wants to, marking the root notes of the chords (with a I-V see-saw to help it along) before moving to the thirds for the second line of the chorus to add a sense of pushing.  It goes:

G, A, D
G/B, A/C#, D

The third verse shifts perspective to the cab where we add a human element by urging on the driver and fireman, abbreviating their names to Joe and Tommy as if we’re familiar with them.  They really need to give it all they’ve got now and take advantage of the lie of the track to achieve their speed record, and we illustrate their determination by holding that bass note (D) again for the first half of the chorus and the sequence becomes:

G/D, A/D, D
G, A, D

In verse four, the goal is reached, the bass walks around all over the place in excitement, and the final chorus opens up for the celebration, the bass again hitting the root notes followed by the thirds, which now serve to add an air of jubilation – majesty, even – to the final refrain.  It’s this again:

G, A, D
G/B, A/C#, D

I’ve focused on the bass notes in this analysis because I haven’t talked much about inversions elsewhere in these articles, and because this arrangement technique is a very simple way to squeeze some different moods out of the oldest three-chord trick in the world.

We sent our song to The National Railway Museum in time for the 75th anniversary of Mallard’s speed record.  It’d be really nice to give it to the families of Joe and Tommy, if any reader knows them.  I’ll be glad to hear from you if you do.

To hear samples of all the songs on the ‘Calendar’ album, go to The Straw Horses website.

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Shick Shack

‘Shick Shack’ by Claire Aberlé

Following his defeat at Worcester in 1651, Charles II had to flee England in disguise. During this long and dangerous escape, he spent a day hiding in an oak tree while Parliamentarian soldiers searched the surrounding woods.

On the 29th of May 1660, Charles returned from exile and rode into London, where he was welcomed by a great, jubilant crowd. The monarchy was restored, and those who were glad to have their king back took to wearing a sprig of oak on the anniversary of Charles’s return to commemorate the tree in which he had hidden from his pursuers.

May 29th remained a public holiday, known as Oak Apple Day, until 1859. People seen not sporting oak leaves might find themselves whipped with nettles to the cry of ‘shick shack’ – a milder version of a rather vulgar old epithet.

Oak Apple Day is still celebrated in St Neot, Cornwall, though I don’t believe they go for the whipping, or call each other ‘sh*t sack’.

This was the first of the songs on ‘Calendar’ to be written.  My writing partner Mavis Jackson had the idea of making an album of folk songs about traditions from each month of the year (see my post ‘The ‘Calendar’ Concept’), and as it was May when we started writing the album together, we began with that month.

We already knew about Charles hiding in an oak tree, of course, but we didn’t know the details of his flight from England, or about Oak Apple Day.  The whole story captivated us and we went far beyond the requirements of our song by tracking down old editions of ‘The Flight Of The King’ by Allan Fea, to immerse ourselves fully in the story.  Fea’s book was first published in 1897; my copy doesn’t say when it was printed, but it bears many library stamps dating back to 1959.  In addition to Fea’s retelling of Charles’s adventures, the book reproduces five 17th century accounts of the episode, rich in compelling details.

The style and feel of ‘Shick Shack’ represent what we at that stage thought the whole album might sound like.  The verses are factual, linear, and tell a story.  There are lots of them: six, in fact.  The chorus is very singable (we were thinking of folk clubs, song circles, etc.), and the music is uncomplicated (only five chords in the whole thing – and they’re among the first few that guitarists usually learn: G, C, D, Em, Am).

To carry on like that would have produced a very different album, and would have given me less to write about here, so while I like this song, I have to say I’m glad we rapidly broadened our harmonic compass.  The second song we wrote for the album was ‘The Heart Of The Year’ – see its article for comparison.

A point of possible interest to songwriting students is our use of the song’s title at both the beginning and end of the chorus.  It really ties a song together, that device, particularly when the chorus is a little bit wordy, as this one is.

Shick shack, shick shack,
Today’s the day King Charles came back
And all the jolly, merry folk
Will wear a bonny sprig of oak
Shick shack, shick shack,
Today’s the day our Charles came back
And those who do not love our King
Are soon to feel the nettles’ sting
We’ll pull their hats, give them a whack
Shick shack, shick shack

To hear samples of all the songs on the ‘Calendar’ album, go to The Straw Horses website.

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The Barrel Rollers Of Ottery St Mary

‘The Barrel Rollers Of Ottery St Mary’ by Claire Aberlé

Every 5th of November, the town of Ottery St Mary in Devon hosts a unique and breathtaking spectacle: townspeople charging through the crowded streets with burning barrels on their shoulders.

The barrels are lined with tar and filled with straw and paper before being set alight. Historically, they were rolled through the town, but the custom evolved to a new level of drama when it was decided that they should be lifted aloft and carried at head height instead.

Visitors flock to this event, lining the streets and adding to the danger and excitement.  Spectators attend at their own risk, and the Barrel Rollers are committed to maintaining their centuries-old tradition.  You’d better get out of the way!

And there’s the subject for our November song.  To bring the scene to life, we put ourselves right in the thick of it from the start:

‘Look left!  Look right!  Take care tonight –
You’ve never seen such a display
Stand back!  Hold tight!  The streets are alight – 
Make sure you don’t get in the way’

The lyrics were put together using the two-pronged ‘lists and rhymes’ method.  You make a list of as many words and phrases related to the subject as you can, and then work through them trying to find rhymes that can be incorporated into thematically relevant couplets.  (Of course, lyrics don’t need to rhyme at all, but a song can certainly be made more accessible and memorable by the use of rhymes, and since the aim of this song was to present a fact-led (rather than emotion-driven) account of the tar barrels in an upbeat, singalong fashion, this approach seemed an appropriate and efficient one to use.)

The subject calls for more drama than the rest of the album, to which end we employed electric guitar, drum kit, and some brass parts – all three of which are not used elsewhere on the album.  Steel string acoustic guitar was used instead of the classical, and it was strummed rather than picked.

To the chords!  Let’s have a look at what happens in the verse.  We start with Am – the choice of a minor starter lending a little weight, a little darkness – before going to D (with a little riff), then on to Bm which is followed by our first strong flavour, a Cadd9(#4) : x34030.  Let’s pause to look inside that one and find out why I named it that way.

Its constituent notes are C, F#, G, D, E.  The C, E, and G give us the triad of C major.  The D makes it an ‘add9’ – not a simple C9 because that would require a 7th.  (If the 9th is present but the 7th is not, you have an ‘add9’.)  So what about the F#?  If it were an octave higher, I’d call it a #11, but it’s right there between the root and the fifth, in the first octave of the chord, so I’m calling it a #4.  Why not voice it differently and put the F# at the top?  It’s certainly possible, without sacrificing any other notes – we could just swap the E and the F#: x32032 – so the note order would be C, E, G, D, F#.  Now the F# is a #11, for sure, and we could call this Cadd9(#11).  But this voicing misses two strong elements that enrich the flavour of the original: (1) the tritone between the C and the F#, and (2) the semitone crunch between the F# and the G.  And it just doesn’t have the same effect when you put it after a Bm.  Try them both out:

Bm to Cadd9(#4) : x24432 – x34030
Bm to Cadd9(#11): x24432 – x32032

The first one’s just stronger and darker, isn’t it?  And here I get to my point: this isn’t really about the naming of the chord; technically you could call the F# in the first octave a #11.  (I just have my preferred system for the sake of in-house disambiguation.)  It’s more about the importance of choosing the best voicing for your chords.  When you move from one chord to another, think of that change as a little set of individual movements of the constituent notes.  You can make the same change sound like an upwards movement, a downwards movement, a widening, or a contraction, depending on the choices you make about how to form your chords.

Anyway, after the Cadd9#whatever, we get an Em, and it feels like the end of a line, and we could certainly turn that around into an Am and start again, but we don’t: instead we get a quick E major, like a gravitational slingshot that throws us back with extra energy into the next line, mirroring the excitement of the fiery spectacle of the barrel rollers storming in succession around Ottery St Mary’s packed streets.

To hear samples of all the songs on the ‘Calendar’ album, go to The Straw Horses website.

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Farewell, My Lammas Love

‘Farewell, My Lammas Love’ by Claire Aberlé

Lammas Day, the 1st of August, was traditionally the start of the harvest, when the first wheat was cut and made into loaves that would be given to the church to thank God for the crops.

During the period of reaping, celebrating and thanksgiving that followed, a young couple might be permitted to spend 11 days in a trial romantic union.

This sometimes led to marriage, but if that wasn’t allowed, they might have to wait until the next Lammas fair before they could be together again.

We liked the sound of that, so we imagined a young couple who were very much in love, but who, for some reason, couldn’t stay together beyond the 11 days of the Lammas fair.
We decided from the off that we didn’t know why their union couldn’t continue, and that the listener would have to draw his own conclusion.  This added an interesting element to the writing process: we’d normally begin with a full story and set about pulling all its strands together, whereas this time we had a picture with a big hole in the middle whose shape we had to describe without hinting at the specifics of what was missing.  As a somewhat mechanically-minded writer (excessively so at times, I will readily own), it was a liberating experience for me to create a mystery and to have in mind no explanation for it.

(These articles assume that the reader has the lyrics to hand – or at least the recording.  The further I get into writing this set of post-hoc dissections, the clearer my view of what they’re for and what use they might have.  I think it’s not unreasonable to presume that anyone reading this far has access to the song under analysis.  If not, bon courage!)

Structurally, we have this:

instrumental chorus
bridge (A term with various interpretations even among songwriting coaches!)
verse 1
verse 2
coda (Same section as the bridge but with additions.)

Here, I use the word ‘bridge’ to refer to a bridging section between the chorus and the verse.  I don’t call middle eights bridges; I call them middle eights, whether or not they have eight bars and occur in the middle.  For me, a bridge is a link between two sections, although I’m not uncomfortable with alternative usages of the term.

Only two verses then, to set our story out.  It’s plenty, as the lines are long, and four of them could be argued to be eight, particularly with the rhymes falling halfway along them as well as at their ends.  The verse and chorus use the same chords, and the device we employ to differentiate between them is a change of harmonic rhythm – that is, the chord changes speed up.  The cycle is Dm7, C^, Gm7, A7, with one chord lasting two bars in the verse but only one bar in the chorus.  That increase in pace mirrors the shift from rosy reflection to hurried goodbye as we move from one section to the other.

At the end of the chorus, under the line ‘All the year I’ll keep you here inside my yearning heart’ the chords’ pace doubles again as we run through the sequence F^, Gm7, A7, Bb, Em7b5, A7 – a sorrowful little movement with a two-part harmony that lends a splash of poignancy to our thwarted lovers’ parting declaration.

The bridge is just Dm7 with decorations.  When it’s used as a coda, the strings get to explore the dorian mode with increasing confidence until the fade stops them getting too bold.

The song was recorded guitar-first without a click so that it could push and pull for a more natural, emotion-led feel.  It’s one of my favourites on the record, for the simplicity of its theme and the sadness of its sound.

To hear samples of all the songs on the ‘Calendar’ album, go to The Straw Horses website.

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Calling The Mare

‘The Horse Of Straw’ by Claire Aberlé

Our September song is ‘Calling The Mare’ and concerns an old farming tradition of lobbing a rudely fashioned straw horse over your neighbour’s wall to let him know you’ve finished your harvest.  As you throw it, you shout ‘Mare! Mare!’  He then hurries to gather his crops so he can chuck the horse into someone else’s yard, and eventually, the slowest farmer is left with the sorry little trophy and must display it for a year.

For what is ostensibly a folk album, ‘Calendar’ is light on traditional-sounding songs, so for this one we put all that arch, jazzy stuff aside and pulled out four basic chords for a good, honest, rustic romp.

Well, almost.  There’s an extra beat in lines 1 and 3 of the chorus, but it doesn’t sound lumpy because the pulse is fairly slow and the rhythm of the chorus is arguably in duple time (I’ll be happy to become better informed on this if anyone can help) so one extra beat just provides a comfortable ‘three’ feel, not that it’s really noticeable at all.

Structurally it couldn’t be much simpler.  Just alternating verse and chorus sections – four sung verses and one instrumental one.  The chorus includes the call ‘Mare! Mare! Mare!’ which is of course the hub of the whole piece, and by bringing the chorus in after every verse we illustrate the urgency of the several passes of the horse.

It was a quick and straightforward writing job – essentially a case of scribbling down connected ideas and phrases and then sifting through them for rhymes, but from a songwriting coach’s point of view I’d say there’s one aspect worth looking at a little more closely.  Here are the first three verses:

Now the harvest ace is on
Old man Bray is already done
No-one wants to be the last
Come on boys, let’s gather fast

The Jackson farm is working hard
See the corn stacked in his yard
Hurry now, away and reap
There’s no time to slack or sleep

If the Squire’s men are slow
Over his hedge the horse will go
When he sees it he’ll be vexed
Then he’ll rush to finish next

Each of them starts by describing a scene – either actual or possible – in two lines, and then issuing a call to action – or anticipating one – in the next two.  Nothing remarkable about that, but it does illustrate a lyric-writing method that I find very useful.  Once you’ve got a verse that you’re happy with, use it as a template.  Just change a few details and find another way of saying the same thing.  It wouldn’t be at all difficult to throw together another six verses for this song (but it might be difficult to listen to them all).

The last verse breaks away from the template and explains what’s been happening:

There’s a panic every year
When the horse of straw appears
For its journey always stops
With the last to reap his crop

Nice to do it that way around, I think.


To hear samples of all the songs on the ‘Calendar’ album, go to The Straw Horses website.

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