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.