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.