Songwriting basics Section II – Analysis 4: Sir Alexander Leslie

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

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Sir Alexander Leslie …

This title came from a story I had running around in my head for ages before I finally got around to writing a song based on it.

I can’t remember the circumstances, but, some years back, I had come across the cav.gifamusing tale of a General Leslie who had served as the Russian ambassador to the Sultan of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

He was entrusted with agreeing a peace treaty with the Sultan in Istanbul.

In the middle of negotiations with the Grand Vizier – conducted through interpreters on both sides – the Turkish representative, who had been closely studying General Leslie’s face, leaned over and enquired, “Dae Ah no ken ye?”

General Leslie, taken aback, spluttered, “Wha the Hell are ye?” viz1.gif

The Grand Vizier then replied, “Ah’m Geordie fae Kirkcaldy, the bellringer’s son. Dae ye no mind o me? It fair gleds ma hert tae see we’ve baith done weel!”  

 

This story, I later found out, has also been told of a General Keith who served in Russia from 1727 – 1747. Being a Leslie myself, I’m more inclined to favour my own clan’s involvement.

In any case, disappointingly, there is no evidence whatsoever of there ever having been a Scottish Grand Vizier (I checked!). The whole story was probably made up as a “ripping yarn” to be told at military get-togethers.

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Who fits the bill? …

I did some research, and, out of many Generals Leslie (my clan seems to have been a bloodthirsty lot!), the only one who served in Russia, and had attained a rank high enough to be a Russian ambassador, was General Alexander Leslie of Auchentoul.

He also turned out to be the founder of the Russian Army!

Alexander served as a mercenary commander with King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, in 1608, and with King Sigismund III of Poland, in 1610.

When captured by the Russians in 1616, he promptly changed sides and briefly served them before returning to Sweden.  

Alex1.gifIn 1630, he turned up again at the Russian court and was taken on by the then Czar, Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov.

Given the rank of Colonel, Leslie participated in the failed siege of Smolensk – then held by the Poles – and was dismissed by the disgruntled Czar.

 

Returning to Scotland, he fought in the Civil War against the Parliamentary armies.

Captured at the Battle of Philiphaugh in 1645, Alexander was one of only two officers not executed.

The opposing commander, his distant relative, General David Leslie (I told you there were a lot of them!), intervened, and his punishment was changed to banishment from Scotland for life.czar.gif

In 1645, the new Czar, Alexei Mikhailovich Romanov, decided to reorganise his army on western lines.

Fortuitously, Alexander turned up once more, this time with a letter of recommendation from King Charles I.

He was one of the foreign officers entrusted with the reorganisation, and, after converting to the Russian Orthodox faith in 1652, he was appointed General.

In 1654, Smolensk was once more attacked. Leslie commanded the siege himself, and after the city was finally retaken, Leslie was named the new Voyevod, or regional commander, of the city.

He remained in Russian service for the rest of his life, and founded the Russian branch of the Leslie family (which also had a distinguished history).

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Mixing up the ingredients …mix.gif

All the above information was more than enough to start writing the song.

Since Sir Alexander had been so successful, and that was, effectively, the message of the story’s punchline too, I thought I would make the Chorus a general reflection on the reputation Scots have for doing well abroad.

The verses practically structured themselves as a timeline of his life:

  • Verse 1 – Alexander’s military background
  • Verse 2 – The Czar’s decision to employ him as Ambassador to the Ottoman Court
  • Verse 3 – the negotiations, and the encounter with and recognition by the Turkish Grand Vizier

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Lend an ear and an eye …

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Sir Alexander Leslie © Bob Leslie 2017

SirAlex.gif ……………………………………………………………..

What’s the pattern? …knitsheep.gif

The Verses alternate lines of

  • 7 stressed syllables &
  • 5 stressed syllables

to a total of 8 lines. 

  • “Sir Alexander Leslie, younger son of Auchintoul wi’ a letter from King Charles tae Russia came”

There is an exception in Line 7 of V1, where there are only 6 stresses – that’s because there is a pause in the vocal, but the regular beat is maintained by the instrumental backing.

The Chorus has 4 lines with the same alternating pattern of 7 and 5 stressed syllables.

This pattern is absolutely regular through the whole song. ……………………………………………………………..

Metre matters …

Rhythmically, the song is mainly in dah-DUMs (iambs), with some dah-dah-DUMs (anapests) and DUM-dahs (trochees).

Verse 1

  • Line 1 has 7 iambs

    metr.gif

  • Line 2 has 1 anapest and 4 iambs
  • Line 3 has 1 anapest and 6 iambs
  • Line 4 has 1 anapest and 4 iambs
  • Line 5 has 1 anapest and 6 iambs 
  • Line 6 has 1 anapest and 4 iambs
  • Line 7 has 1 anapest, 2 iambs1 anapest, and 2 iambs
  • Line 8 has 1 anapest and 4 iambs

Verse 2

 

  • Line 1 has 7 iambs
  • Line 2 has 1 anapest and 4 iambs
  • Line 3 has 1 anapest and 6 iambs
  • Line 4 has 1 anapest and 4 iambs
  • Line 5 has 1 anapest and 6 iambs
  • Line 6 has 1 anapest and 4 iambs
  • Line 7 has 1 anapest and 6 iambs
  • Line 8 has 5 iambs

Verse 3

  • Line 1 has 1 anapest and 6 iambs cavey.gif
  • Line 2 has 1 anapest and 4 iambs
  • Line 3 has 7 iambs
  • Line 4 has 1 anapest and 4 iambs
  • Line 5 has 1 anapest and 6 iambs
  • Line 6 has 1 anapest and 4 iambs
  • Line 7 has 7 iambs
  • Line 8 has 1 anapest and 4 iambs

Chorus

  • Line 1 has 1 anapest and 6 iambs
  • Line 2 has 1 anapest and 4 iambs
  • Line 3 has 1 anapest and 6 iambs
  • Line 4 has 5 iambs

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The main variation in the rhythm is the occasional substitution of an anapest for a iamb.beat.gif

In terms of the song, all that means is that the singer has to sing two brief unstressed syllables in the space of one longer one.

It doesn’t make any difference to the length of the line, nor to where the stresses occur – so the listener would perceive the rhythm as constant.

The only exception – Line 7, V.1 – has a half-beat pause in the vocal after “1654“, but the music fills in that space, and thus, again, keeps the rhythm constant. ……………………………………………………………..

Rhyme time again …

The rhyming model established in the 1st verse is followed for all the other verses. The end rhymes of Verse 1, for example, are

  • “AuchintoulRT.gif
  • came
  • “martial skill
  • same
  • cause
  • “his men
  • wa’s
  • “became

1 and 3 have a half-rhyme with the same vowel+ L structure. 

2 and have a perfect rhyme with the same -ame sound.  

5 and also have a perfect rhyme – both with an -oz sound. 6 and 8 have a half-rhyme with a vowel+n/m format.

So, if we count in all the rhymes and half-rhymes together, there is a pattern as follows:

  • A  B  A  B  C  D  C  D

All three verses follow this model.

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The Chorus end-rhymes are

  • “nothin new
  • land
  • “Auchintoul
  • can

Lines 1 and share an -ooh sound, with Line 3’s ending in a soft L that barely affects perception of a rhyme. 

Lines 2 and 4 share the -an sound, and, again, the final -d of “land” registers only a tiny conflict with the rhyme.

Accordingly, the Chorus pattern is

  • A  B  A  B

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Hooking them in …

fishy.gif The protagonist’s name is repeated several times throughout the song, so the listener’s awareness of the title is subtly reinforced.

There’s also a kind of subliminal reinforcement in that the Czar shares the same name in its Russian equivalent.  

 

The Chorus occurs at the end of each verse, and is doubled at the end.

The audience, if Scots, will further identify with, and remember, the final hookline
We jist get oan, an dae the best we can“.

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The song is well-structured for memorability by having an almost completely regular stress pattern, and a metric structure that is almost as regular. 

The rhyme model is solid throughout.

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The presentation of the story is linear and leads nicely to the “punchline” at the end – which is, if you were unaware of the plot beforehand, a totally unexpected dénouement to the song: a nice surprise!

 

It’s in the key of G major throughout, and, on guitar, is played using an Open G tuning

  • D  G  D  G  B  D.

To be honest, I’m pleased with the way this song is turned out, and audiences seem to enjoy it – they always join in with the Chorus!

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Next time, we’ll look at another “oldie-but-goldie”!

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

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