Songwriting Basics Section II – Analysis 21: The Briar and the Rose

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

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The Briar and the Rose …

The song was written in 1990 for a play, The Black Rider.

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The play, in turn, was based on an old German folk tale about a marksman who, by a contract with the devil, obtains seven bullets destined to hit whatever object he wishes.

 

Six of the targets are designated by the marksman, but the seventh is at the absolute disposal of the devil himself – naturally, the deal backfires, if you’ll excuse the expression, on the marksman and he ends up killing his lover.tom.gif

Tom Waits wrote the songs for the play and issued them as The Black Rider album in 1993. 

This particular track, The Briar and the Rose,  is definitely written as a traditional-style song and has been taken up as one by the folk world.

It tells of a dream the singer has of lovers, presumably of different and mutually exclusive social status, represented by the metaphor of a rose irrevocably twined around a briar. Attempts to separate them cause pain as of a bullet to the heart.

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The song has a number of traditional and Celtic elements in it – Waits was possibly familiar with these via his father’s Scots-Irish ancestry. 

There is mention of “Brennan’s Glen” as the location of the song. There is a Brennan’s sham.gifGlen in Co. Kerry, Ireland,  and Waits had travelled to Kerry for his honeymoon with his his wife and collaborator, Kathleen Brennan – so there’s probably a double-dose of Brennan inspiring that element of the song.

The “dream” aspect is very common in folk songs, but, given that the young Waits was a Dylan fan, and the older Waits is a friend of the Bobster, it was probably derived in this case, consciously or otherwise, from Bob Dylan’s Dream – which, in turn, borrows from the old broadside ballad Lord Franklin.

sleep.gifPlants winding together are a common metaphor for love. The song’s “Briar ” is entwined with the “Rose”, however, since both plants tend to have thorns, one would expect a prickly relationship! I suspect Tom picked them more for the sound than their botanical aspects! The words may also have been suggested by the traditional Briar Rose fairytale (a variant on Sleeping Beauty).

The melody also seems to be based on other traditional tunes. While it stands up by itself, I can definitely hear echoes of Scarlet Ribbons and Spanish Is the Loving Tongue. Waits was definitely familiar with the latter song – there is a rather undistinguished 1974  live take of him singing it on YouTube.

So, it seems pretty clear Tom intended it to be taken as a traditional-style song! And, in fact, that’s what’s happened. The Briar and the Rose is now pretty firmly part of the folk canon. Here are a few examples of traditional-style covers of the song (in case Ol’ Tom’s a little too gruff for you!): Niamh Parsons, Fay Hield, The Cottars, and Irish a cappella group Coda.

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Lend an ear and an eye …

eye.gif The Briar and the Rose

© 1993 Tom Waits

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Just a word about stress …stres.gif

The stresses in each verse follow the same model all the way through:

  • Ll 1-3 5-7 – 4 stresses/line
  • Ll 4 & 8 – 3 stresses/line

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Converting stress to the metric system … 

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With the exception of V1L5, which is made up of 4 anapests (dah-dah-DUMs)

  • “|There’s a tree | in the for– | -est but I | don’t know where|”

and V3L6, which has 1 trochee (DUM-dah), a single syllable, a dactyl (DUM-dah-dah) formed by spreading the word “will” over 2 syllables, ands a final single syllable

  • “|Tell me | so  | I wi-ill | know |”

the metre is iambs (dah-DUMs) all the way, e.g.

  • “| I fell | as-leep | down by | the stream |”
  • “| The bri– | -ar and | the rose |”

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V3L6 is a bit of an odd one, as Waits could have made the metre more rhythmic  by simply inserting the word “that” and converting it to 3trochee1 single syllable, ie

“|Tell me | so that | I will | know |”

As it is, my feeling is that the line sticks out like a sore thumb – a needless flaw in a pretty well-organised song.

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Knitting together the rhymes … knit.gif

The end-rhyme structure of V1 is as follows

  • A  A  B  B  C  C  C  B
  • “stream” “dream”
  • “grows” “rose”
  • “where” “hair” “air”
  • “rose”

V2 varies that slightly

  • A  A  B  B  C  C  B  B
  • “been” “Glen”
  • “grows” “rose”
  • “morn” “thorn”
  • “wove” “rose”

V3  has a different variation

  • A  A  B  B  C  B  B  B
  • “apart” “heart”
  • “clothes” “rose”
  • “grave”
  • “know” “grow” “rose”

 The number of “B” rhymes goes up by one per verse – which, I suppose, is a kind of pattern in itself. In practice, it doesn’t distract from the song, so maybe we should view it as a pattern!

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Key points … key.gif

The song’s first verse starts in F major, but, since the chord relationships are the same, and the rest of the song is a tone higher, we’ll just look at it from V2 onwards.

The chords and melody go back and forth between the two closely-related keys G major and E minorE minor is the relative minor of G major – it is based on the note Lah of that scale (ie E) and differs only via the presence of a D# instead of D:

  • G major – G  A  B  C  D  E  F#  G
  • E minor – E  F#  G  A  B  C  D#  E

So, apart from the moving up a tone after V1, the chords are all pretty standard folky ones – in fact, others covering the song often leave out the change.

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The verdict is in …

It’s a sweet song, with proven popularity, and, apart from the kind of weak “Tell me so I will know” line, it’s nicely regular  in stressmetre, and rhyme.thumb.gif

So here’s a hearty thumbs-up for The Briar and the Rose!

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Next time, we’ll look at another opus of mine 
and tear it to shreds!

 

 

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

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