Songwriting Basics Section II – Analysis 7: Ye’ll Nivver Find a Souter Doun in Hell

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

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Ye’ll Nivver Find a Souter Doun in Hell: the plot, and where it came from …

I’ve always been fascinated by fantasy, and, particularly, the interaction between the supernatural world and the human one.

My all-time favourite folk ballad, for example, has to be Fairport Convention’s rendering of Tam Lin with Sandy Denny’s marvellous voice really pushing the dynamics of the song.

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When I came across an old Scots saying “As black as the Earl o’ Hell’s weskit” – usually used to refer to a moonless night, I started, idly, to wonder about the rest of Satan’s apparel (I wondered in Scots) (naturally).

 

 

He’d obviously have a smart shirt (“sark” in Scots), and waistcoat. A nice pair of velvet trews would add to his evil elegance. feet.gif

But his feet?

They presented a problem. He’s a big chap, so his shoes (“shin” in Scots) wouldn’t be an off-the-shelf size, and cloven hooves would demand, at the least, a pretty wide fitting.

But what if there were no cobblers (“souters” in Scots) down in Hell? And there entered into my head the idea that “souters” were very industrious, and shoes in high demand, and therefore they had no time to get up to the high jinks that landed most souls in the Inferno. 

There was my Chorus!

“Auld Nick” would have to come to Earth to get his shoes hand-made. 

And there I had my interaction between the supernatural and the mundane!

That was Verse 1!

All work and no play makes for a dull life, mattie.gifand the Devil traditionally needs an invitation to join humans, so I had Wee Mattie, the souter, complain about what he wouldn’t give to have gold enough to free him from being enslaved (“thirled” in Scots) to his last (a kind of small anvil used to shape and repair shoes).

Bang! In comes Satan, in a cloud of fire and smoke, with a proposition that will solve both their problems.

That gave me Verse 2!

Now a deal requires a contract, so I postulated one.

But it’s with the Earl of Hell, so I added a couple of infernal elements: written on a virgin’s skin (which Mattie thought was taking things too far), and with a truly terrifying penalty clause.

And that was Verse 3!

Now, if you’re going to be tramping hefalump.gif about the fiery floors of Hell, you’ll need pretty thick, tough shoes. So which material to use? Entirely by chance, I had taken a stroll through Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum and noticed that the stuffed elephant normally there (it died of natural causes!) had gone.

Elephant hide! Ideal! And the tusks could provide decoration, giving him horns on his feet as well as on his head. Very appropriate.

Later, I discovered that the elephant had, in fact, just been away for cleaning and restoration, but why let the facts get in the way of a song?

And that was Verse 4!

I had to come up with a conclusion. Mattie would obviously be better off, so I had him go on cruises, buy a posh car, and take up residence in a mansion in a smart part of Glasgow. However, since he’d actually done nothing other than practise his trade – albeit with an unusual customer, I maintained the last line “Ye’ll nivver find a souter doun in Hell.” 

But I still lacked a couple of lines to complete my resumé of the situation in the final Chorus.

Suddenly, and I swear I hadn’t had this in mind till that point, the fact that “soul” and “sole” sounded exactly the same hit me like a hammer.hit.gif

Mattie hadn’t sold his soul, he’d sold a pair of soles. And thus, the running gag of the song developed a final, and appropriate, punch-line.

I really enjoyed writing this song, and, believe me, I’m constantly on the look-out for any other supernatural themes that might contain the makings of a ballad.

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Lend an ear and an eye …

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Ye’ll Nivver Find a Souter Doun in Hell

© 2019 Bob Leslie From his 2019 album The Barren Fig

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How does it hang together? …

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As a storyline, it couldn’t be better for this type of song. It has a completely linear structure: 

  • exposition – the Devil’s problem is delineated, 
  • development – he finds someone to help him, and they make appropriate arrangements re design, materials, and the contract, 
  • conclusion – both parties are satisfied, and the souter escapes Satan’s clutches as the contract is purely for his normal, mundane services.

The Chorus functions as an explanation of why the situation has arisen – there are no souters in Hell because they’re virtuous types who work too hard – and the finale provides a neat punch-line to a supernatural tale which carries only humorous intent.

Keywise, it’s mainly in G major with a modulation into D major in the last three lines of the verse via a sneaky sharpening of the third  transforming the expected Am to A major and thence to D major.

The Daug chord that introduces the chorus makes this jump out by providing the second step (an unexpected Bb)  in a bass run  that goes A  Bb and then to B as the third of the now restored tonic chord of G major.

The Daug chord is also a form of the dominant chord in G, thus also leading us back to that key.

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The rhythm, rhyme and reason of it all …

stress.gifThe stress pattern is pretty regular for each verse:

  • L1  – 7 stresses
  • L2 – 5 stresses
  • L3 – 7 stresses
  • L4 – 5 stresses
  • L5  – 7 stresses
  • L6 – 5 stresses
  • L7 – 7 stresses
  • L8 – 5 stresses

Minor variations occur in some of the 7-stress lines where the lyric pauses to give only 6 sung stresses, but the music fills the rhythmic gap, so, effectively, the listener barely notices the omission.

The metre is fundamentally iambic (ie it goes dah-Dum dah-Dum etc.). First Lines, and one or two others, tend to cram in another syllable to give an anapest (dah-dah-Dum) instead of the expected iamb, e.g.

  • “Oh, the Earl“, “Noo wee Mattie”

Rhyme-wise, it follows a pretty regular pattern of end-rhymes, both in the verses

  • A B A B C D E D – e.g. “hert” “sin” “smert” “shin” “seam” “fund” “walks” “grund” (although there are enough half- and near-rhymes to make the pattern effectively A  B  A  B  C  D  C  D for most of the song)

and in the choruses

  • A  B  A  B – “world” “clientele” “thirled” “Hell”

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Here comes da judge …judge.gif

Well, I’m obviously prejudiced, but I’m proud of this song.

It has a simple but dynamically effective melody, with a catchy hookline, “Ye’ll nivver find a souter doun in Hell”, which, in performance, everyone joins in with.  

Essentially, for a ballad-type folk-song, it has a strong, cohesive story. There are lots of humorous touches throughout the lyric, as well a a strong punch-line at the end.

I also think the Scots in which it is written sounds authentic, and it was surprisingly easy to write and find rhymes in. I’m smugly pleased about that!

Finally, there’s a strong rhythmic and rhyming structure tying it all together.

I’ve avoided repetition except in the chorus and hookline, so there’s plenty of lyrical variation.

The song is firmly rooted in Central Scotland, with local landmarks and places mentioned to give it a real folky feel and also promote audience identification – at least where I live!

Ye’ll Nivver Find a Souter Doun in Hell closely follows most of the recommendations made in my early advisory blogs, so I’m holding to my own “rules”, and it works! Yay! 

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Next time, we’ll examine an item of great antiquity!

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

 

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