Songwriting basics Section II – Analysis 3: The Green Fields of France (No-Man’s Land)

 

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Bob Leslie is an Independent Scottish Songwriter, Singer, and Recording Artist

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The Green Fields of France …

The Green Fields of France (also known as No-Man’s Land or Willie McBride) is a song written in 1976 by Scottish folk singer-songwriter Eric Bogle (who now lives in Australia).

It’s probably best described as a protest song against war that is presented in the form of a traditional commemorative ballad.grave1.gif

The singer looks at the grave of Willie McBride – a young man who died in World War – and wonders in what manner he met his death, and what ceremony attended his burial. 

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The Contents page …

The song is couched in the form of a series of questions – 

  • Does Willie mind if he sits by his grave?
  • Did Willie have a quick & merciful, or a slow and agonising death?
  • Did he leave loved ones behind, and is he still remembered?
  • Did he and his companions know why they fought?
  • Did they believe the reasons given by their “superiors”?
  • Did they really think it was the “war to end wars”?

interspersed with observations on

  • the horrors of war contrasted with the peaceful field
  • man’s inhumanity to man
  • the indifference of those who came after, as they repeated the cycles of war over and over again.

 

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The song’s chorus refers to two famous pieces of music, both often played at military funerals: The Last Post and the Scottish ballad, The Flooers of the Forest. piper.gif

 

The slow, stately pace of the song also mirrors a funeral march, and contributes to the atmosphere of the piece.

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The ancestors …

c-hat.gifMelodically, and with respect to the words – especially in the chorus (“did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly”), and the theme of the song (a young man cut down in his prime), Green Fields of France is in a straight line of descent from The Streets of Laredo, a famous American cowboy ballad.

And the origins of that song can be traced back to an 18th-century harp.gifEnglish ballad called The Unfortunate Rake and an Irish ballad The Bard of Armagh – supposedly composed, in Irish, at the turn of the 17th/18th centuries, with an English-language version appearing in the early 19th century.

Eric Bogle’s deliberate use of all these familiar elements has kept his song within an easily recognisable traditional context of funeral ballads. This helps the audience know what to expect to some extent, and helps shape their easier understanding of the piece.

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So who’s singing it? …

The version we’re going to look at is the original, by Eric Bogle himself. It was written in 1976 after he and his wife had toured military cemeteries in Flanders and Northern France.

Bogle deliberately gave the dead soldier an Irish name (“Willie McBride”) as a counter to the anti-Irish sentiment rife in 1970s Britain. EB.gif

Eric Bogle was born on 23 September 1944 in Peebles, Scotland. His upbringing was conducive to learning about music as his  father, a railway signalman, played the bagpipes. 

Eric started writing poetry when he was eight years old. After attending school until he was sixteen, he worked variously as a labourer, clerk and barman. Then, in 1969, he emigrated to Australia, and eventually settled in Adelaide.

Before leaving Scotland, he had already made a start as a musician, working in skiffle and rock groups, before turning to folk. He continued this interest in Australia, and is nowadays well-regarded worldwide as a singer and writer, having toured extensively in his long musical career.

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Lend an ear and an eye …

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The Green Fields of France (No-Man’s Land)

 

 

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A procession of mourners  …

The song has a regular stress pattern in the lyrics, in that every line, bar Line 3 of the Chorus, has the pattern of STRONG stress, weak stress, STRONG stress, weak stress.

This effectively echoes the rhythm  of a military funeral march with the snare drums and the feet of the pallbearers coming down (the STRONG stress), then up again (the weak stress):

“Well, HOW do you do, Private WILLiam McBride,
Do you MIND if I sit here, down BY your graveside?
I’ll REST for a while in the WARM summer sun,
I’ve been WALKing all day, and I’M nearly done.”

This stress pattern is the model for every verse.

The Chorus varies that slightly by having the lyric of the third line omit a final weak stress (although it’s still apparent in the music).

“Did the BUGle play the last post and CHOrus?”

This short pause helps to draw attention to, and augment the emotional impact of the last line

“Did the PIPES play the Flooers of the FOR-est?”thistle.gif

The ballad that line refers to –  The Flooers of the Forest  – is a well-known and powerful commemoration of the Scottish dead at the Battle of Flodden in 1513 when around 12,000 Scots lost their lives. 

Thus that final line, at least for Scots, has very powerful emotional overtones.

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The metre of the march …

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Rhythmically, the stresses line up as almost entirely 4 “DUM-dah-dah”s  – known as dactyls – per line.

 

Most lines carry the final “dah-dah” into the start of the following line, e.g.

“… William McBride
[Do you] mind if I sit …”

The third line of the Chorus differs by effectively being 2 dactlys  (DUM-dah-dah) and a trochee (DUM-dah), which, again, helps place emphasis on the final 

“… PIPES play the Flooers of the FO-o-o rest”

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The basic rhythm underpinning the verses is therefore

[dah dah]DUM dah-dah dum dah-dah DUM dah-dah dum
[dah dah]DUM dah-dah dum dah-dah DUM dah-dah dum
etc.

or

4 dactyls per line

with, as noted above, the shortening of Ch. L3 to 2 dactyls & a trochee.

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The Green Fields of France is a very tightly constructed song indeed from the point of view of both stress and metric patterns.

In my view, this has been done deliberately by Eric Bogle to suggest a slow, regular funeral march.

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Rhyme time …

The rhyming model established in the 1st verse is followed for all the other verses.

The end rhymes of Verse 1, for example, arer&r.gif

  • “McBride
  • “graveside
  • sun
  • done”
  • “nineteen
  • “fifteen
  • clean
  • “obscene

That is, A  A  B  B  C  C  C  C

The unusual 4xC form of the second half of each verse underlines the feeling of the inevitability of war, and is spectacularly effective in the last verse where the “-aim” / “-ain”  final rhyme turns into a despairing cry of 

“again and again and again and again

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Hook ’em in! …

fishThe Chorus has a regular, strong construction, and brings the listener back, again and again (!), to the dramatic irony of the chaotic butchery of war vs the carefully structured forms of a military funeral.

I have already commented on how charged the final line “did the pipes play The Flooers of the Forest?” is for Scottish listeners, but it is also a strong and memorable hookline in itself for anyone else hearing the song.

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Major key, but not major mood …

The Green Fields of France is played, all the way through, in G major. Given the sadness of the main theme, one might, perhaps, expect more of a minor tonality.

However, apart from a few Am chords inserted where a C major could equally have been expected, Bogle keeps to a more forceful major tonality – perhaps because of that very forcefulness.

There are, nevertheless, a number of plagal cadences – that is to say, ending a line with the chords IV > I rather than the more usual V>I. In the key of G major, that means C>G rather than the expected D>G.

This particularly stands out at the end of the first half of each verse.hymnal.gif

The most familiar musical form that makes great use of that can be found in any church hymnary. It is especially common under the sung “A…men” of your average church service.

Again, Eric Bogle is employing yet another device designed to make us think of a sacred and/or commemorative event.

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How does it stand up? …

It’s a very solid song that follows clear patterns all the way through – thus making it easier to learn and increasing its memorability.

Structurally, with a miniscule number of variations, the song displays the following audience-grabbing features:

  • Stress pattern in the lyrics repeating in each verse
  • Tightly repeated metric pattern
  • Tightly repeated rhyme pattern
  • G major key is possibly unexpected, but that very major forcefulness helps push the anger that Bogle mixes with the sadness of the song
  • Memorable chorus with an established emotive hook selected for that very reason by this Scottish-born writer

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Next week, we’ll look at a song that’s a tad cheerier, written in a traditional style,
by a modern songwriter – who IS me!
winker

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