Songwriting Basics Section II – Analysis 26: Twa Corbies

patreon

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

corbies1.gif

Twa Corbies derives from an older English ballad The Three Ravens, first published in Ravenscroft’s Melismata in 1611. 

The Scottish ballad dates from the 18th century, but the first published edition that survives appeared in the 1812 of  Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border where it was published with no indication of its tune.

Scott came across the ballad via a letter from a friend, Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, dated August 8, 1802. As to its origins, Sharpe told Scott,

“The song of ‘The Twa Corbies‘ was given to me by Miss Erskine of Alva (now Mrs Kerr), who, I think, said that she had written it down from the recitation of an old woman at Alva.”

……………………………………………………………..

Scots song, Breton tune …

The key word here is “recitation.”

The song languished without a tune for as long as anyone could remember. swan.gif

Finally, Scots poet and songwriter Morris Blythman (aka ‘Thurso Berwick’) learned An Alarc-h  or “The Swan” from Breton folksinger Zaig Montjarrét in the 1950s, and promptly recognised that it had the perfect melody for the Scots song.

……………………………………………………………..

The plot …

Two corbies [crows] decide they will dine on the corpse of a newly-slain knight, who lies behind a fail dyke [sod wall].

One corbie will sit on his hause bane [collarbone] while the other picks out his eyes, and his hair will theek [thatch] their nest when it grows bare. No one knows the knight is there and the wind will blow over his bones for ever.

His hound has gone hunting, his hawk wildfowling and his lady to another mate – there’s a clear implication that she had something to do with his death as the knight is “new-slain,” yet she’s already with another. 

In the spirit of internationalism, the version which I’ll be looking at is Steeleye Span’s 1970 version – mainly because it’s the best arrangement I could find!ssp.gif

The text is mainly the authentic traditional Scots, although the otherwise brilliant Maddy Prior makes a few wee pronunciation errors – which I’m disposed to overlook. I mean, c’mon, guys, it’s Maddy Prior!. 

……………………………………………………………..

Lend an ear and an eye …

eye.gif

Twa Corbies

Traditional, arr Steeleye Span 1970

twacorb.jpg

……………………………………………………………..

Stress is a metre-beater …

meter.gif

There is an absolutely regular pattern of 4 stresses per line all the way through.

However, the metre varies a bit – probably partly down to the words having been noted down from an old lady whose memory may not have been of the best.

 

A tune also tends to provide a metre-stabilising effect, as the words have to follow it. In this case, the original melody had been lost – which may also help to explain the irregularities.

……………………………………………………………..iamb.gif

The bulk of the song is in iambic tetrametre (4 x dah-DUM), with a few single stressed syllables, some anapests (dah-dah-DUMs) sprinkled here and there, and one example of a fourth paeon (dah-dah-dah-DUM)

……………………………………………………………..

  • V1 – all iambs except the anapest on “shall we gang

  • “As I | was walk– | -ing all | al-ane,
    I heard | twa cor– | -bies mak– | -kin mane
    And tain | un-tae | the tith– | -er did say– |
    -o, Where | shall we gang | and dine | the day
    -o, Where | shall we gang | and dine | the day

……………………………………………………………..

  • V2 – one single stressed syllable  and a mixture of iambs and anapests plus one fourth paeon (underlined)
  • In |be-hind |yon auld |fail dyke
    I wot |there lies |a new |slain knight
    And nae– |-bod-y kens |that he |lies there
    -o, But his hawk |and his hound |and his la– |-dy fair
    -o, His hawk |and his hound |and his la– | -dy fair.”

……………………………………………………………..

  • V3 – mainly iambs and anapests with one initial single stressed syllable
  • Ye’ll |sit on |his white |hause-bane
    And I’ll |pike out |his bon–  |-ny blue een
    Wi’ man– |-y a lock |of his gol–  |-den hair
    -o, We’ll theek |our nest |when it |grows bare-
    -o, Theek |our nest |when it |grows bare.”

……………………………………………………………..

  • V4 – starts with a trochee (DUM-dah), then it’s all iambs except for an anapest on
    “-o, The wind” 
  • Man-y |a one |for him |maks mane
    But nane |shall ken |where he |is gane
    O’er his |white bones |when they |are bare
    -o, The wind |shall blow |for ev– |-er-mair– 
    -o, The wind |shall blow |for ev– |-er-mair.”

……………………………………………………………..

Rock-solid rhyme …rock.gif

The end-rhyme  pattern is a solid A  A  B  B (although with some half-rhymes),
with the last line repeated, e.g.

  • “alane” “mane”
    “say” “day” “day”

  • “dyke” “knight”
    “there” “fair” “fair”

although it should be noted that a Scots pronunciation would make a perfect rhyme of “there” and “fair” (ie therr and ferr).

……………………………………………………………..

A simple key …

key.gif

Steeleye Span have gone for the simplest possible chording – the song works fine with just the two chords of Dm and C major.

However, an occasional substitution of F major for the Dm, and Am for C major might make it a tad more interesting if you’re playing it without a band arrangement behind the song. 

Either way, it’s in D natural minor aka Aeolian mode.

Whichever you choose, the heavy minor emphasis throughout underlines the fact that it’s a grim tale you’re telling!

……………………………………………………………..

How did it do? …

Well, as noted, it’s a perfect marriage of tune/harmony and theme. Grimly satisfying!

The stress and rhyme patterns are regular throughout.

It has a great story, and there’s even a wee bit of philosophical musing on the impermanence of life, and the fact that we all, as Shakespeare said, “Like chimney-sweepers come to dust” – or, in this case, to birdfood and nesting material!

Metre-wise, it’s not so solid, but not so much as to disturb the underlying rhythm – we’ll dock it half a point for that.

yay.gif

But, for an eerie, atmospheric, and fascinatingly grim ballad, it pushes all the right buttons. A palpable hit!

 

……………………………………………………………..

vin.gif

 

Next time, we’ll look at a song, of more recent vintage 
that has entered the folk repertoire!

 

 

……………………………………………………………..

Click here to return to Home page

Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s