Songwriting Basics Section II – Analysis 11: Let No Man Steal Your Thyme

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

thyme1.gif

Let no man steal your thyme …

This is one of a family of songs, with closely related lyrical themes, but different tunes, called variously Sprig o’ Thyme / The Bunch of Thyme / Let No Man Steal Your Thyme / Come All You Garners Gay / (I Sowed) The Seeds of Love. 

They are all believed to descend from an old Scottish ballad called The Gardener, gardener.gif whose earliest surviving appearance in print was in Ancient Scottish Ballads : recovered from tradition and never before published by George Ritchie Kinloch in 1827. 

However, all those descendants now sung in folk gatherings are noted no earlier than the start of the 20th century.

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The first thing one has to know about Let No Man Steal Your Thyme is that the herbs mentioned in it are symbolic: thyme, in this context, stands for virginity, and rue means regret (it was also historically used to remove an unwanted pregnancy). 

rue.gif In the UK, thyme  flowers in June – July, and rue in late July – September. This ties in nicely with the symbolism, as when thyme blooms are dying off, rue flowers start to appear. 

Astute readers will be starting by now to wonder about the real meaning behind the popular folk song 
Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go/Wild Mountain Thyme!

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Let No Man Steal Your Thyme has 3 verses:

V1 – The singer warns “fair and tender” – ie young & unmarried – girls to “keep their garden fair”, ie not to let themselves be seduced. The song title is here introduced as an admonition to keep their virginity, and is sung twice at the end of the verse. Sometimes, since the verse contains the title, it is used as a chorus or final refrain.

V2 – More warnings! Men are not to be depended on, and young girls are likely to “rue” tree.gifletting them have their wicked way. 

V3 – Women are compared to a flourishing tree, and men to parasitic vines that cling to them.

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So who’s singing it? …

The version we’re going to look at is by Shelagh McDonald a Scottish folk singer and sheila.gifsongwriter who released two acclaimed albums before effectively disappearing in 1971, not to resurface in public until 2005. The full story is here

The first release was simply entitled The Shelagh McDonald Album, and that’s where this recording comes from.

Her voice has been called a cross between Sandy Denny and Joan Baez, and there is no doubt that she would have been a major and long lasting star on the folk circuit if all had gone well.

In recent years, she’s made a bit of a comeback, and a new recording has been promised.

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Lend an ear and an eye …

eye.gif Let No Man Steal Your Thyme

Trad. arr Shelagh McDonald 1970

Capo on 1st fret

LetNo.gif

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Putting the metre under stress …

In this version, the pattern of Ll 1- 4 having 4 stresses, and L5 having 3 is maintained by stretching the final word to two syllables, and then repeating it as one in Ll 2 & 4, e.g.

str.gif

 

  • “pri-ime, prime” 
  • “thy-yme, thyme”metr.gif

 

 

The metre of the verses is, essentially, iambic (dah-DUM) with 4 iambs on each line except L5 which has three, e.g

  • “Let no | man steal | your thy- |-yme, thyme
    Let no | man steal | your thyme”

Exceptions to this are V1 L3 which is structured thus:

  • 2 x iamb, 1 x dactyl (DUM-dah-dah), 1 x iamb
  • “Be-ware | be-warekeep your gar- |den fair “

and V3 Ll4&5 which start with an anapest (dah-dah-DUM) instead of a iamb

“He takes all | that he | can fi- |-ind find
He takes all| that he| can find

However, the number of stresses remains the same, and they take up the same time as in the other verses.

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Rhyme and rhythm time … rhyt.gif

The end-rhyme structure is an absolutely regular

  • A  B  C  B  B
  • “girls, prime, fair, thymethyme

and the song is sung over a slightly unusual 8/8 time signature split 3+3+2 which gives it a continuous rolling feel
(think “Company, Company Picnic, Company, Company Picnic”)

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The key is  à la mode … pie.gif

The song has a simple chord structure in (allowing for the 1st fret capo) D Aeolian mode or D natural minor as it’s also known. So all the chords are made up of notes from the following scale:

D  E  F  G  A  B  C

This has an even more minor tonality than regular D minor as it possesses an A minor rather than an A major chord.  That extra minor element underscores the melancholy feel of the song – as if the singer isn’t really very hopeful her advice will be followed (or perhaps to communicate the idea that the singer let someone into her “herb garden”!).

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How does it stand up? … scaf.gif

It’s a solidly structured song that pretty closely observes the same/very similar patterns all the way through. This makes it easy on the ear, easy to learn, and increases its memorability.

The repetition of the final line in each verse is an invitation for an audience to join in and echo it back to the singer – always a crowd-pleaser.

Despite its generally melancholy tone (reinforced by its minor mode), the symbolic use of thymerue, and garden provokes a certain rueful (if you’ll excuse the term) humorous recognition on the part of the public, who can pat themselves on the back for being clever enough to spot it!

The metaphors also lend a pretty and poetic feel to the lyric.

The rolling rhythm gives it an unusual flow, which would also help its audience memorability.

ros.gif All in all, it’s easy to see why it’s lasted so long as a folk club favourite. A winner!

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Next time, we’ll look a more recent entry into the traditional folk world! babe.gif

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

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