Songwriting Basics Section II – Analysis 23: O Aa the Airts the Wind Can Blaw

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

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Aa the airts …

Scotland’s National Bard, Robert Bums, wrote O’ Aa the Airts the Wind Can Blaw (“Of All the Ways the Wind Can Blow”) in 1788, in honour of his wife, Jean Armour.rab.gif

At the time of composing the song, Burns was building the house at Ellisland in Dumfriesshire where and Jean would live for a few years, but she was still living at Mossgiel, in Ayrshire (to the North-West) – hence the reference to “I dearly lue the west”.

Burns describes the period as being in the middle of his honeymoon, a bit of a late honeymoon considering that poor Jeannie had already borne him 2 sets of twins before they finally tied the knot!  

The tune did not, in fact, originate with Burns, but was borrowed by him from Marshall’s Strathspey Reels, published in 1781 by Scots fiddler William Marshall. It was written around 1775 in honour of Margaret Gordon, daughter of Admiral William Gordon, and named after her: Miss Admiral Gordon’s Strathspey.
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Ceolbeg, with Davy Steele on vocals, do a great rendition of the song, so that’s the version, from their 1991 album Seeds to the Wind, that I’m using as my exemplar.


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Lend an ear and an eye …

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Aa the Airts

Robert Burns, arr Ceolbeg 1991

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If the Scots proves too impenetrable, someone called Taylor has graciously provided an excellent English translation here!

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Regular as clockwork …

clock.gifThis is an exceptionally regular song in terms of stress and metre.

Each line carries 7 stresses, and the entire song, with one very small exception, is in iambic heptametre (x dah-DUM), e.g.

  • “| O aa | the airts | the winds | can blaw | I dear– |-ly lue | the west |

The exception occurs in V1L3 where the word “mony’s” has the “-y’s” as potentially an extra syllable. However, when sung, it is effectively absorbed into the following “the” via the similarity of the “-s-” and “-th-” sounds.

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Keeping those rhymes tight …tight.gif

The end-rhyme scheme is also perfectly regular

  • A  A  B  B 
  • “west” “best” “between” “Jean”
  • “fair” “air” “stream” “Jean”

The regularity is underlined by each stanza ending in “Jean”, which thus, in effect, becomes the hook of the song.

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All keyed-up …

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The song is in the key of F major all the way through, but, unlike many folk ballads, makes near-maximum use of that key’s chord supply:


  • F majorG minorA minorBb majorC majorD minor

 

The only chord  omitted is E diminished.

The use of so many chords also helps provide a variety to accommodate the range of the melody – an octave + a sixth, from low A to high F

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Creating a little tension …tense.gif

Ceolbeg employ the interesting device of finishing each stanza on the 4th or subdominant chord of Bb major rather than the 1st or tonic of F major

This generates an interesting tension which remains unresolved until the song’s end. This is purely a feature of Ceolbeg’s arrangement as other singers resolve onto the tonic at those points.

It imparts a very fitting wistful tone to the song, and also tells the listener’s subconscious that there is more to come, as one waits for the 4th to resolve. A clever little musical device!

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In conclusion …

A masterly love poem, set to an ambitiously soaring melody, O’ Aa the Airts the Wind Can Blaw follows, in its precise regularity, every recommendation made in the early posts of  my blog.cup.gif

I am therefore compelled, both on those grounds and because it’s a lovely song, beautifully sung, to declare O’ Aa the Airts the Wind Can Blaw a resounding success!

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Next time, we’ll look at a song, composed recently, but which was so irresistible it’s been adopted wholeheartedly by the folk world!

 

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