Songwriting Basics Section II – Analysis 17: King Orfeo

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

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King Orfeo …

The oldest manuscript we have telling the story of this next song is a narrative, dating from 1320, which transplants the story of Orpheus and Eurydice to England.

Orfeo loses his wife – as in the original – but, in this case, she’s stolen by the fairies. So Orfeo goes off to the fairy court, enchants the Fairy King with his singing, is offered any reward he desires, and asks for his wife back.

After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, the king accedes to his wish and, unlike the original, the happy couple both make their escape. There’s nothing like a happy ending!

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The story seems to have travelled independently into the Northern Islands of Scotland and been transformed into a sung ballad – nobody knows precisely when.

However, the song’s text (it’s Child Ballad 19 by the way) , as written down from a rendition in Unst, shet.gif Shetland in 1865, alternates  each line in Shetland Scots with a refrain in Norn – the once-dominant Norse dialect of the islands.

So it would seem to have been created much earlier when both languages were still in daily use – Norn now has no native speakers.

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The tune wasn’t notated in 1865, so the ballad remained a literary curiosity until 1947.

Again on Unst, a certain Mr John Stickle, during a discussion of nonsensical song lyrics with his friend, Patrick Shaw,  a folksong-collector up from London, remarked “Have you ever heard anything as nonsensical as this?”

He then sang what he had always thought was a silly song that he’d never been able to get out of his head.

Pat Shaw, familiar with the Child Ballads’ version, immediately recognised what a prize he had, and thus the song re-entered the traditional repertoire. By the way, this was the same Pat Shaw who composed Margaret’s Waltz – which many people take for a Shetland original.

The “silly” part of the ballad was, of course, the chorus in somewhat distorted NornScowan erla grae …far yorten han grun orla” which Mr Stickle took to be a Shetland deer.gifequivalent of lines like “Fah lah lah lanky down dillie”.

In fact the refrain means “The deer goes each year to the woods that turn green early” in Norn.

That statement may well be true, but comes up against the fact that Shetland had, and has, very few trees and definitely no deer. 

Curiouser and curiouser. It seems probable that the story was “retro-fitted” to an earlier Scandinavian song which featured this chorus.

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Whodunnit? …

The version I’m referencing is by Scottish folk band Malinky mal.gif – from their 2005 album The Unseen Hours.   It’s also been recorded by Archie Fisher, Steeleye Span, Frankie Armstrong, Alison McMorland, Fay Hield, Emily Smith, and Josie Duncan – so, from being effectively “lost” in the mists of time, the song has revived to the point where it’s practically a folk standard!

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Lend an ear and an eye …

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King Orfeo

Trad. arr Malinky 2005

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Rhythm and rhyme to keep the time  …

The stress pattern is regular throughout as stress.gif

  • L1 – 4 stresses
  • L2 – 2 stresses
  • L3 – 4 stresses
  • L43 stresses

Metrically, the stresses are divided thus – 

  • L1 – 4 x iamb (dah-DUM)
    | “There lived | a lad– | -y in | yon ha’ |
  • L2 – anapest (dah-dah-DUM) and 1iamb
    | “Scowan er– | -la grae” |
  • L34 x iamb
    | “Her name | was Lad– | -y Lis– | -a bell” | 
  • L4 – 1paeon (DUM-dah-dah-dah) and 2trochee (DUM-dah) – the first beat of the paeon is instrumental or implied by the rhythm if unaccompanied
    | “[DUM] far yorten | han grun | or-la” |

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The metre, although largely conforming to this model, is irregular in a number of verses. Some lines accordingly result a little gabbled, e.g. 

  • | “And then | he played-the-guidgab-ber | reel” |

The scansion would be perfect if the unnecessary “the guid” were omitted. I can only presume that some ancient singer whose “party-piece” this was liked the alliteration of “guid” and “gabber”!

As Tom Lehrer once remarked, “The trouble with folk songs is that they’re written by the folk!” 

“Gabber”, by the way, apparently means “rollicking!”

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Rhyme time …

The end-rhymes generally follow the model 

  • A  B  A  C
    “Gane” “grae” “alane” “orla”

where the B and C endings are those of the chorus lines.

However, some of the verses make no attempt at even a half-rhyme and it’s only the rhythm  that holds them together, e.g. 

  • “noon” “grae” “bell” “orla”

Again, I suspect this is down to the number of voices the song has passed through.

The prose original dates at least to the early 14th century, and the mingling of Norn and Scots suggests a pretty early origin for the sung version too.

So, as in a game of Chinese Whispers, all sorts of little changes have doubtless crept in over the centuries.

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The key point is …

Since the original was sung unaccompanied to Pat Shaw, there can be no definite attribution of key to King Orfeo, so it’s up to modern musicians to decide how they want to accompany it.

The melody utilises a standard pentatonic structure, so lends itself to a relatively simple accompaniment.

The mention of the “gabber reel” in the lyric, and the notes used in the melody, suggests that it is probably meant to be a reel.

One of the simplest chordings for a reel uses just a minor chord and the major chord a full tone below it. 

This is, in fact, what Malinky do for most of the song by using just Am and chords to back the melody – although their take on the tempo makes it a rather slow reel, more akin to a hornpipe.

However, as it is a fairly long ballad, they vary this by substituting the chords F major and D minor for the initial A minor, and E minor and Em7 for the G major.

The melody, however, stays the same over the new chords. 

Taken together, all these chords fit neatly within the mode of A Aeolian aka A natural minor – 

  • A  B  C  D  E  F  G
    aeolian.gif

 

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What do I think? …

Well, as I’ve indicated, there are weaknesses in both rhyme and metre.

The stress pattern is very regular, however, and the pentatonic melody and rhythm follow familar traditional lines, with the melody lilting up and down in a very catchy manner.

I’m a sucker for the supernatural in folk ballads – my favourite example being Tam Lin,  so the subject matter appeals to me greatly.king.gif

The wresting of his love from the Fairy King‘s captivity is also very reminiscent of Tam Lin‘s similar theme, but with its interest enhanced by its being combined with a story that dates back to Ancient Greece (if not before).

The number of recordings it has featured on since its re-discovery suggests that I’m not alone in liking this.

So, despite its flaws, it’s a winner for me!

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Next time, we’ll look at a song by one of those
really-up-to-date traditional writers!

 

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

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