Songwriting Basics Section II – Analysis 20: The Deserter

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

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The Deserter …

The Recruiting Act of 1703  gave the military authorities the right to impress civilians into the army, and was used during the many wars in which England (and, later, the UK) was involved both on the Continent of Europe and in the Americas. 

The Deserter tells of a man taken by an army press-gang and forced to be a soldier. This dates the original song to before 1780 when press-ganging was discontinued in the British Army (although it continued in the Navy).

The soldier deserts, but is betrayed by a “cruel comrade”, and is sentenced to 303 lashes. Deserting once more, he is again denounced – this time by his “cruel sweetheart” – and is sentenced to be shot. 

In some versions of the song (probably those closest to the original), the execution will go forward as planned.al.gif

More modern versions feature a reprieve – in the case of the song examined here, the reprieve is granted by Prince Albert, who just happens to be passing, and who comes to the instant conclusion that this chap will henceforth make a fine soldier.

This is an obvious later addition to the lyric, inserted to make the song seem current, and also to appeal to the patriotic regard for the Royal Family in 19th century Victorian society.

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Whodunnit? …

Fairport Convention recorded the song in 1969 for their groundbreaking longplayer Liege and Lief – arguably the first British folk-rock album.

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The band consisted, at that point, of lead guitarist Richard Thompson (later famed for his solo work), rhythm guitarist Simon Nicol, bassplayer Ashley Hutchings (who went on to found Steeleye Span), virtuoso fiddler Dave Swarbrick, drummer Dave Mattacks, and acclaimed singer Sandy Denny. 

 

As well as being first-class musicians, just about every band member  was also an excellent songwriter – Thompson and Denny probably being best-known in that regard, with songs covered by many other artists.

The album was a mixture of original and traditional songs bound together by strong and inventive arrangements that combined electric instruments with a folk sensibility, masterful dynamics, and often unorthodox time signatures.

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Lend an ear and an eye …

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The Deserter

Trad. arr Fairport Convention 1969

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Metre under stress  …

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There are 4 stresses per line throughout the song,  and the dominant metre is dactylic tetrametre (a dactyl is DUM-dah-dah, and tetrametre means that there are 4 of them). This tends to over-run from line to line, e.g.

  • “|I was a- |-walk-ing a- |-long Ratcliffe |High-way, a |
    rec-ruiting | par-ty came [a] |bea-ting my |way, they en-|
    list-ed me | ” etc.

The metre shows minor variations throughout, interpolating extra syllables that Sandy Denny is forced to squeeze into the vocal lines to maintain the rhythm.

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Rhyme time … rhy.gif

The end-rhyme pattern is pretty simplistic:

3 verses  follow the model 

  • A  A  B  B

    “highway” “my way” 
    “know” “go”

While the remaining 3 simplify this down to

  • A  A  A  A
    “me” “three” “cruel-ty (pron. –tee-)” “me”

with “me” being repeated within the same verses

Not the world’s most sophisticated rhyme scheme!

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All keyed up …

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Most of the song is in D Mixolydian

  • D  E  F#  G  A  B  C

with the 2nd half of every 2nd line finishing in D major via a brief insertion of an A major chord

  • D  E  F#  G  A  B  C#

The moves between mode and major may simply be a question of Fairport Convention’s arrangement preference, since there are no notes in the melody which require that change. 

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Summing-up …tick.gif

The storyline is pretty basic, but the insertion of the “reprieve” verse rounds the song off with a happy ending. In my experience, audiences tend to be hopeless sentimentalists where happy endings are concerned!

The melody makes good use of range – a full octave from to  high A – and has good variation between the first and second halves of the verse.

The stresses all occur at the same points musically, and the metre, although displaying some variation from the basic dactylic model, is reasonably regular.

The rhyme scheme holds together, but verges on the banal with its limited selection of rhyming words and syllables.

So, my verdict?

The song’s weaker aspects could have made it just an “album-filler” track. The fact that it rises above that fate is mainly down to 3 factors:

the melody – good range and variation

the arrangement – good interweaving of instruments in the accompaniment, nice melodic touches, sympathetic counter-rhythms, and great dynamics – particularly in the vocal department

the performance – a typically strong vocal from Sandy, and the band behind her has some of the best players in the genre

“I like it! How about you?” (to quote a different song entirely!)

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Next time, we’ll look at a work by a modern writer in the folk tradition!

 

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

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