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.