Songwriting Basics Section II – Analysis 9: Follow the Heron

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

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Follow the Heron …

By her own account, Karine Polwart the words of  Follow the Heron were inspired while returning from singing at an outlying island event during the Shetland Folk Festival 2002.

Heading home on the ferry, in the early morning, a heron rose in front of the boat and flew on ahead. In the song, the bird symbolises the return of Spring, day after night, and heron1.gifhope after loss.

It was first recorded, later that year, by her then band Malinky, on their album 3 Ravens.

According to the sleeve notes, the tune came separately:

“[It] surfaced backstage after a gig at the 2002 Shetland Folk Festival, where we had the mightiest craic ever. Steve was playing away a few chords on the guitar and Karine sang the melody over the top whereupon we insisted that our splendidly musically-literate fiddler Jon write it down before the Balvenie made us forget it…”

It’s since been covered many times – most notably by Cathie Ryan, and has entered the repertoire of many a folk session.

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The Contents page …

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The Shetland Folk Festival takes place at the beginning of May – so the wintry weather is, hopefully (this is the far North of Scotland though!), now past. V1 reflects aspects of this: the lengthening of the days, and the blooming of the gowans (daisies). 

The chorus captures the holiday spirits of the Festival-goers, “By night and day, we’ll sport and we’ll play”, via a line that references Thomas Shadwell’s and Henry Purcell’s 17th century  holiday song Nymphs and Shepherds “In this grove, we’ll sport and play.”

Hamish Henderson also used the line in his Freedom Come All Ye, so it’s probably familiar to a lot of people.

After all the song and celebration, the travellers are too pleasantly tired to notice the cold of the dawn, and are cheered by the sight of the heron flying ahead of the boat.

V2 looks back at the long dark winter, the dark thoughts it engendered, and the attempts to dispel them via a cheery fire. It welcomes the oncoming summer, which brings with it new hope.

V3 wishes Shetland well, summing up characteristic elements of island life: salmon-fishing, the smell of snow in the air, and the crisp North wind blowing over the sea and islands.

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Lend an ear and an eye …

eye.gif Follow the Heron

© 2002 & 2006 Karine Polwart

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Reading the metre …metreman.gif

The metre and rhyme patterns are extremely regular.

In the verseLl 1 & 3 have 4 stresses, and Ll 2 & 4 have 3 stresses.

These are divided between iambs (dah-DUMs) and anapests (dah-dah-DUMs) as follows:

  • L1 – 1 x iamb, 3 x anapest
    “The back | of the win– | ter is bro– | o-o-ken”
  • L2 – 1 x iamb, 2 x anapest
    “And light | lin-gers long | by the door”
  • L3 – 4 x anapest
    “And the seeds | of the sum– | mer have spo– | o-o-ken
  • L4 – 1 x iamb, 2 x anapest
    “In gow– | ans that bloom | on the shore

This is regular throughout except for V3 L2 which ditches the initial iamb in favour of another anapest – making in total:

  • “And the snow– | scent-ed sounds | of your home

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In the chorusLl 1, 2, & 3 have 4 stresses, and L4 has – laid out as follows:

  • L1 – 3 x iamb, 1 x anapest
    “By night | and day | we’ll sport | and we’ll play
  • L2 – 4 x anapest
    “And de-light | as the dawn | dan-ces ov– | er the bay
  • L3 introduces a new metre: the dactyl (DUM-dah-dah). There are 4 of them, with the last running on to the beginning of the next line:
    Sleep blows the | breath of the | mor-ning a- |way (And we …)”
  • L4 continues with 1 x trochee (DUM-dah), 2 x iamb
    fol-low | the her– | on home

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Rhyme Time …

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The end-rhymes, in every verse, follow a simple A  B  A  B  format, i.e.

  • broken/door/spoken/shore
  • sorrow/fear/hollow/cheer
  • salmon/home/sermon/stone

The chorus goes A  A  A  B, i.e.

play/bay/away/home

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The chords are all contained within the key of G major (or A major if we allow for it being capo’d up 2 frets on the guitar).

The originality of the tune lies mainly in the chorus starting on the dominant chord (D major), and in the way the melody rises there.

It would be slightly more usual for a chorus  to either stay on the tonic (G major) or go to the sub-dominant (C major). While it’s not particularly radical to go to the chord, it is slightly less predictable.scale.gif

It’s the jump of an octave, from low to high G, that literally lifts the song, and makes it more interesting for listener and singer alike.

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The verdict? …

The song is very tightly constructed in terms of metre and rhyme.

The melody makes good use of the singer’s range, but is simple enough to be memorable.

The chorus has a number of features that stick in the mind: 

  • the use of the familiar “sport and play” line
  • the alliteration in Ll 2 & 3 – “delight as the dawn dances”, “blows the breath”
  • the strong (also alliterative) hookline “And we follow the heron home”

Finally, the emotional tone of the lyric is very positive and attractive. It emphasises movement from winter to summer, darkness to light, all symbolised by the image of a beautiful bird flying ahead of a boat, as though leading it to better things. 

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 It’s a winner!

 

 

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Next time, we’ll look at another of my little ditties, and I’ll try to be ruthlessly critical. Honest!

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

 

 

 

 

 

 

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