Songwriting Basics Section II – Analysis 8: Sir Patrick Spens

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

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Sir Patrick Spens …

This song is one that many of us here in Scotland got dinned into us as a poem in school.

It first appears in writing in the 18th century, but, depending on

a) whether you reckon it’s actually based on historical fact,
&
b) which set of facts you favour,

it may date back as far as the 13th century.

It’s about a Scottish king who, presumably under the influence of “the blood red wine” boat.giforders Sir Patrick Spens to undertake a voyage to Norway to bring back the princess to whom he is betrothed.

It’s entirely the wrong time of year, the weather is foul, and, sure enough, poor Sir Patrick ends up 50 fathoms deep with the Scots lords at his feet.

But did he really exist?

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History or “somebody else’s” story? …

There is no historical reference to any Sir Patrick Spens, although the events in the song have some parallels in real life.  And there is the following intriguing story.

William Aytoun (b.1813, d. 1865), Sheriff and Lord Admiral of Orkney and Shetland, edited a collection of Scottish poetry in which the first poem was Sir Patrick Spens.

In his foreword to the poem he wrote:

“It is true that the name of Sir Patrick Spens is not mentioned in history; but I am able to state that tradition has preserved it.mound.gif

In the little island of Papa Stronsay, one of the Orcadian group, lying over against Norway, there is a large grave or tumulus, which has been known to the inhabitants, from time immemorial, as ‘The grave of Sir Patrick Spens’. 

The Scottish ballads were not early current in Orkney, a Scandinavian country; so it is very unlikely that the poem could have originated the name.

The people know nothing beyond the traditional appellation of the spot, and they have no legend to tell.

Spens is a Scottish, not a Scandinavian name.

Is it, then, a forced conjecture, that the shipwreck took place off the iron bound coast of the northern islands, which did not then belong to the Crown of Scotland? “

The grave in question is “Earl’s Knowe” aka “Earl’s Knoll”. So, there you go, Sir Patrick Spens is buried in Orkney. Or is he?

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Competing tales …

There’s also a theory that the song may be based on a voyage undertaken by Sir Patrick Vans of Barnbarroch. JVI.gif

Vans was the original ambassador sent to negotiate the marriage between James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) and Anne of Denmark. He accompanied James VI when he set out during tempestuous weather in October 1589 to bring home his bride, who had been driven back to the coast of Norway by storms.

Unlike Sir Patrick Spens however, Vans survived the journey.

It may also be loosely derived from the tale of the young “Maid of Norway” Margaret, daughter of King Eric II of Norway and Margaret of Scotland, the daughter of King Alexander III of Scotland. As the heir to the Scottish throne, she was sent from Norway in 1290, but took ill and died in Orkney.

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Whodunnit? …

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I have no idea of the truth of the matter, but all that, and the song, make for a great story.

It was recorded by Canadian songwriter Buffy Sainte Marie in 1966, but was probably introduced to most people outside these isles by Fairport Convention in 1970 via their album Full House. reiver.gif

Fairport Convention weren’t wild about the tune generally set to the words. They therefore “borrowed” the tune of an old ballad about a Border Reiver (cattle rustler) called Hughie Graeme

They also edited the text some to smooth out some rough edges, and anglicised some of it to make it more comprehensible to non-Scots.

So, it’s not the version I had hammered into me at school, but I love the Fairports’ arrangement, so that’s what you’re getting today, folks.

The version originally released had Dave Swarbrick, their amazingly talented fiddle player, singing, since Sandy Denny had left the band at that point.
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However, there was a previous studio recording, with Sandy on vocals, that eventually saw the light of day. I love Sandy Denny “this side ‘idolatry” (as Ben Jonson said about Shakespeare), so that’s the version I’m going with.

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Lend an ear and an eye …

eye.gif Sir Patrick Spens

Fairport Convention 1969

Pat-Spens.jpgmoon.gif

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Keeping an eye on the metre …metre.gif

Verses 1, 2, 4, 5, 7 & 8 have 4 stresses in each line, structured as follows:

  • L1iambic tetrametre (4 x dah-DUM), e.g.
    “The king sat in Dunfermline town”

 

  • L2 – trochaic tetrametre (4 x DUM-dah), e.g.
    Drinking of the blood-red wine” (the missing final -dah is in the music not the lyric)

 

  • L3 – varies from verse to verse – generally  a mixture of iambs (dah-DUMs) and a choice of trochees (DUM-dah), anapests (DUM-dah-dah), or dactyls (dah-dah-DUM). Here’s one pretty irregular line:
    Where can I |get a |good sea| captain”  – rather trochee-heavy

 

  • L4 – iambic tetrametre. e.g.
    “To sail this migh-ty ship of mine

Verses 3, 6, & 9 also have 4 stresses in each line, 3 and are mainly in iambic tetrametre, but with occasional trochees and dactyls, e.g.

  • “Here’s a health| to you, |my mer|-ry young men

Verse 9 however is in trochees (DUM-dah)  – perhaps to make the fate of Sir Patrick, the crew, and the Scots lords sound more emphatic?

  • For-ty miles off Ab-er-deen, the wat-er’s fif-ty fath-oms deep [-dah in the music]
    There lies good Sir Pat-rick Spens [-dah in the music], with the Scots lords at his feet”

So, a rather irregular metric pattern!

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Does the rhyme have reason? …Q.gif

Every verse rhymes or half-rhymes the 2nd and 4th lines, i.e.

  • wine/mine
  • knee/sea
  • hand/command
  • me/be
  • arm/storm
  • three/sea
  • hand/again
  • hand/land
  • deep/feet

But an extra rhyme is added in V4-L1: “be”, in V6-L1: “sea”, V7-LL1&3 have their own rhyme: “mermaiden/men”, and V9  does the same, with the half-rhymes “Aberdeen/Spens”

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Ringing the changes …

Whether the original came pre-loaded with changes, or whether it was the Fairports’ individual touch in the arrangement, it’s ended up moving through 1 key, and 2 modes.

The first half of Verses 1, 2, 4, 5, 7 & 8 is in G major.

Then it modulates, via a mutual E minor chord to E Aeolian or natural minor.

Then, it’s off, via a mutual A minor chord, to either G major again, or, in verses 3, 6, & 9, to D Mixolydian

So, plenty of melodic and harmonic variety there!

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The verdict? …judgy.gif

Well, it’s a great story, and a great performance.

There’s certainly lots of musical interest contained in the basic harmonic pattern – which gives the accompanying musicians plenty to work with.

Against that, there’s a lot of metre variation and random extra rhymes.

Rhymes pretty much always go hand-in-hand with emphasis, and a change in that can affect where you need to breathe. So  the singer has to be very aware of where the changes are.

There’s an early BBC recording of the song where Sandy, apparently, had a wee bit of difficulty in her delivery – probably because of all the irregularities.

Plus, there’s no hookline or chorus to help make it more memorable to an audience and to give them something to sing along with.

The song is therefore very dependent on the strength of its story – and it is a good one – and of its performance to hold its public’s attention. Fortunately, here it has the best folk-rock band in the known universe to provide that necessary strength.

But, even with that, the celebrated mediaeval lyricist A. Non could probably have done with a bit more editorial assistance to tighten the whole thing up!

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Next time, we’ll examine a younger song!

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

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