Songwriting Basics Section II – Analysis 24: John O’Dreams

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

 

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You are going to sleep   …

This week, I promised to analyse a modern song that has entered the traditional pt.gifrepertoire. The song I’ve chosen to look at – John O’Dreams – is, however, only partly modern in that its lyric was written in 1967, but its tune, by a chap called Tchaikovsky, was composed in 1893!

It’s not the widest distance in time between lyricist and composer – that record is probably held by the song Turn! Turn! Turn!  written by Pete Seeger and the author of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes – but 74 years is a long time for a song to gestate.

The melody is actually adapted from part of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony – aka the Pathétique, but it’s not the first time it’s been used as the basis for a song. Writers Al Hoffman, Mann Curtis, & Jerry Livingston, in 1941, came up with The Story of a Starry Night, based on the same tune, which was a hit for Glenn Miller the following year.

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bc.gifThe writer of John O’Dreams, English folksinger Bill Caddick (1944 – 2018), stated, in 2005,

“It was a very long time ago but I seem to remember a black and white TV version of “Hamlet” starring Richard Chamberlain (he of “Dr. Kildare fame in those days) and John o’ Dreams was mentioned. I’d already thought of Tchaikovsky’s theme from his No. 6 Symphony as a great tune, and the two just went together.”

The “John O’Dreams” in Hamlet  is mentioned once – as “John-a-dreams” – in Act 2, Scene 2 of the play, and means ‘a dreamer’ or ‘person without ambition or focus.’

Caddick has changed that to make his protagonist an avatar of the mythical Sandman, who brings sleep. 

The song shows John as a great leveller in that all people are equal in sleep:

All things are equal when the day is done
The Prince and the ploughman, the slave and freeman
All find their comfort in old John O’Dreams

But John may also be taken as a metaphor for death – the other “great leveller”. The references in the song to crossing a river, and escaping danger (“the hawks of morning”) seem to hint at that double meaning. 

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John O’Dreams has been recorded by artists on both sides of the Atlantic, including, amongst others, Gordon Bok, Planxty, Christy Moore, Jean Redpath, Max Boyce, Garnet Rogers and The Clancy Brothers.

christy.gifFollowing on Christy Moore’s 1978 recording, the song became hugely popular on the Irish traditional scene, and is now thought by many to be an original Irish folk song.

I’ve seen comments on the lines of “If Christy Moore were to record God Save the Queen, within 6 months it’d be touted as an Irish folk song!” Although the intent is satirical, as with most satire, the remark contains a grain of truth.emily.gif

The version I’ve chosen to examine is the one by award-winning Scottish singer Emily Smith, from her 2014 album Echoes. I’ve chosen her recording because she was the first person I heard performing the song, and because it’s also a lovely interpretation.

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Lend an ear and an eye …

eye.gif John O’Dreams

© 1967 Bill Caddick
This performance © 2014 Emily Smith

Capo on 4

JD.jpg

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Getting the beats …cat.gif

 

Probably because they are set to a classical tune rather than a standard folk rhythm, the lines are longer than usual for the genre with six stresses apiece in LL 1-3, and five in L4.  These are divided following a complex but regular metric pattern.

Ll1 & 2 have 6 stresses divided over 4 trochees (DUM-dahs) and a metric foot we haven’t looked at before: a double-stressed foot called a spondee (Dum-Dum)

  • “| When mid- |-night comes | and peo- |-ple home- |-ward tread |
         Seek
    now | your blan- |-ket and | your feath- | –er  bed |”

L3 has 2 x [1 dactyl (Dum-dah-dah) + 1 spondee]

  • “| Home comes the | roverhis journey’s | over |”

L4 has 3trochee2iamb (dah-Dum)

  • “| Yield up |  the night- | –time to | old John | O’-Dreams |”

Each verse follows the model exactly.

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Rhymes in the right place …poet.gif

The End-rhyme pattern is as follows:

A  A  B  C 

“tread” “bed”
“over”
“Dreams”

There is also an internal B rhyme in L3

“rover” “over”

Again, this is regular throughout.

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Key to unlocking the tune …key.gif

Surprisingly, considering its classical origins, the melody and harmonic underpinning of the song adapt to a pretty folksy structure (although Tchaikovsky’s chording is very much more complex).

It’s in D major* with no key/modal variation at all apart from the intro/outro which hints at a move to the relative minor – but that’s purely a feature of Emily Smith’s arrangement, and, in any case, B minor is a chord made up of notes all within the key of D major.

*I’m ignoring the 4th fret capo, which, of course, takes the song up to F# major.

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So, what’s the verdict? …paper.gif

I agree totally with Bill Caddick that it’s a great tune – who am I to argue with Tchaikovsky after all?

As far as the lyric is concerned, he’s done a great job of fitting it to a structure that’s more complex than that of your average folk-song. 

The stress pattern is even over each verse. The metric pattern is absolutely regular throughout. And the rhyming structure is also strictly applied to each verse.

So, no arguments with the structural layout of the song.

clap.gifLyrically, it has the powerful dual sleep/death metaphor running through it, and Caddick has made excellent use of imagery – flying stars, dying candles, the equality of sleep/death, “hawks” as an image of problematic mornings/life, sleep as a river etc. It’s a fine poem as well as a song lyric.

I think it deserves a round of applause!

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Next time, we’ll look at another song that Bob made 
and hope it comes up to scratch!

 

 

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