Songwriting Basics Section II – Analysis 5: The Grey Selkie o Sule Skerry

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

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The Grey Selkie o Sule Skerry

For some reason – possibly the influence of evangelical Christianity? – old songs dealing with the ancient myths and legends of Orkney and Shetland are rare. The sound of fiddles predominates – which has its good points, I suppose, the standard of Orkney & Shetland fiddling is world-renowned. 

However, I personally find it regrettable that so much traditional balladry seems to have vanished. There is still a story-telling tradition, but where have the songs gone? Who knows?

Anyway, one of the few to have survived is this one. It’s seal1.gif known under various titles: The Grey Selkie o Sule SkerryThe Great SelchieThe Silkie, A Norway Maid etc. etc. A selkie is a creature which is human on land, and a seal at sea. Some legends have it that they can only mate as humans, and often seek human partners – as is the case in this piece.

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The story behind the story …

To understand it properly, one should know that it appears to derive from a longer work The Play of de Lathie Odivere (The Play of the Lady Odivere), a 90 verse part-spoken, part-sung, ballad, published by Orcadian folklorist Walter Traill Dennison  in The Scottish Antiquary in 1894. According to him, it was reconstructed from various older fragments he had collected from different sources that seem to have survived from Norse times.  

A Norwegian knight, Odivere, swears by Odin that he will have the lady. odin.gif

Odin grants his wish and she is magically compelled to marry him. Then Odivere goes off on a crusade, and spends considerable time diverting himself with the ladies of Constantinople on the way back.

It’s implied that the whole relationship is cursed because he, a Christian knight, has invoked the aid of the Norse god, Odin.

While he is away, his Lady has a visit from a former lover disguised as a wandering knight. His name is variously given as Hein or Hind Mailer, or San Imravoe. He shows her the ring she gave him, and they curse the Odin oath that meant they could never marry.

One thing leads to another, and she has a baby.baby.gif

Her lover returns after 6 months and reveals that he is in fact a lord (a “jarl”) of the Selkie folk from Sule Skerry  – a small rocky island 25 miles west of Hoy, in Orkney.

He gives her gold and says he must take his son (presumably so that Odivere never finds out).  She ties a gold chain – a gift from her husband – in the child’s hair, as a remembrance of her.

Odivere finally returns, and, one day, he goes out hunting. he sees a seal on a rock and kills it. Then he sees the gold chain tangled in its fur, and becomes suspicious. He confronts his wife with the chain and the dead seal, and, broken-hearted, she confesses all.

whale.gifHe hauls her before the local court (the “Ting”), and she is condemned to burn for her infidelity.  On the day before her execution is scheduled, the Selkie Jarl and his subjects drive a pod of whales into the bay. The Norwegian knight and his hunters rush out to pursue the whales, who lead them a merry chase out to sea. 

Having failed to catch any, they return to his hall to find that Lady Odivere’s cell has been broken open, and she has disappeared with the Grey Selkie. She is never seen again, and Odivere curses the day he swore an oath by Odin.

The central part of the piece – dealing with the baby, the impossibility of marriage between the Lady and the Selkie, the removal of the child, and the death of the seal – has come down to us separately as the ballad The Grey Selkie o Sule Skerry.

There are a number of different versions, and I have chosen the one that seems to show most antiquity and relationship to the Odivere plot. A few lines have been taken from other versions to make the plot-line more cohesive, but, essentially, it’s the ballad sung here by Archie Fisher (who calls it The Norway Maid).

The original tune was thought lost, and, in the 1950s, a melody written for it by Dr. James Waters of Columbia University became very popular (it’s the version Joan Baez sings).

However, the old tune had, in fact, been sung to Dr. Otto Andersson, a song collector,  in 1938, by John Sinclair on the island of Flotta, Orkney, and has gained much popularity in the last 25 years or so. This is the tune that Archie sings.

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Lend an ear and an eye …

eye.gif The Grey Selkie o Sule Skerry

The Norway Maid – recording © Archie Fisher 1970

greyselkie

 

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The stresses are strained …strain.gif

Every verse has 4 stressed syllables, and it’s pretty much iambic tetrametre (4x dah-DUM) all the way.

However, about half-way through, our author – Mr Anon or his pal Trad Arr – starts adding in extra syllables all over the place, e.g.

  • “Thoo may bae a gey good guess on he”
    (‘You may make a very good guess it’s him’)

So, an initial exceptionally tight scansion and rhythm loosens up a little as the song goes on – maybe our author was in a hurry!

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Rhyme time …

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The rhyme structure is a consistent 

  • A  B  C  B

e.g.

  • -aid, -an, -is, -in

except for one verse.

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Why waste a good chorus? …

The verse that goes

  • I am a man upon the land
    I am a selkie in the sea
    An when I’m far frae every strand
    My dwellin is in Sule Skerry

not only has an A  B  A  B  structure, but also has a pattern of internal rhymes and half-rhymes 

  • man, land
  • selkie, sea
  • far, strand
  • dwellin, Skerry

This stands out as the most tightly-constructed verse, and also the one that introduces the central supernatural image of the shape-shifting seal-man. 

sing.gifIt seems a shame to only sing it once in the song, so I use it as a chorus every second verse after it’s sung for the first time. Audiences love to join in with it, and it’s probably the most memorable and well-known verse anyway, so well worth a bit of repetition!

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The key to unlock the song …lock.gif

Archie actually does this in Eb, but I refuse to believe any folk guitarist would voluntarily play those chords, so I’ve written it in D to be capo’ed on the first fret

It’s absolutely regular in D major. The melody is essentially a slightly eerie pentatonic tune using these five notes

  • D  E  F#  A  B

with an occasional G passing note.

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My verdict? …verdict.gif

Well-constructed in terms of stress pattern. Rhythms start out strong but loosen up a little half-way through – not so important in a slowish ballad. 

The rhyme pattern is consistent all the way through, except for one verse – the “I am a man upon the land” one.

While the song has no obvious hook or chorus, the tight rhythm and doubled end-rhymes +internal rhymes strongly imply that this verse is special, and was probably intended as the  ballad’s refrain.

If it wasn’t, then it’s just a happy accident that it fits the bill so well.

One of the strongest elements in the song’s construction is, of course, the fact that it’s a great story with an added supernatural touch that really lifts it out of the standard adultery/revenge generic camp.

One of my favourite folk songs!

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Next time, we’ll look at another song by a much more modern traditional writer!

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

 

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