Songwriting Basics Section II – Analysis 28: Cape Breton

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

 

Cape Breton, Ontario, or North Carolina?  …

One of the inspirations for the traditional-style songs I write is history – in the main, the Scottish variety.

For Scots, the main stand-out event of 19th century Scotland was the social disaster now known as The Highland Clearances. cl3.gif

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines these as

“the forced eviction of inhabitants of the Highlands and western islands of Scotland, beginning in the mid-to-late 18th century and continuing intermittently into the mid-19th century. The removals cleared the land of people primarily to allow for the introduction of sheep pastoralism.”

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In the first phase, landlords (often clan chiefs) would increase their income by fencing-in open fields used for shared planting and grazing. 

These would then be converted into large-scale farms stocked with sheep, and much higher rents would be charged. 

Both the enclosures and the higher rents had the effect of driving many tenants off the land.cl2.gif

Some were, in fact, forced out of their houses (which were then burnt down) by the landlord’s bailiffs and tacksmen.

A tacksman was the landlord’s local representative – often a relative – who acted as an intermediary for collecting rents and settling disputes.

Sometimes, of course, the tacksman himself would end up a victim since his tenants would have gone.

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Initially, many accepted – or were forced to accept – tenancies in the new crofting communities.

These had a kind of basic subsistence economy with only a small amount of land attached, forcing the crofters to take on other employment for the landlords, fishing, quarrying or the kelp industry.

It was similar, in some ways, to the share-cropping system in the Southern United States.

Often the tools provided were inadequate, and/or the crofters had no experience of the industry.
cl4.gif


Many overcrowded crofting communities then lost the means to support themselves, through famine, collapse of industries they had relied on, and population growth.


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“Assisted passages” were introduced, when landowners paid the fares for their tenants to cl1.gifemigrate – essentially, a way of getting rid of inconvenient populations and freeing up even more land for mass development. Tenants who were selected for this had little choice but to emigrate – in some cases, people were effectively forced onto ships.

 As in Ireland,  a Potato Famine struck towards the mid-19th century, impelling more people to emigrate.

The Western Scottish Highlands lost around a third of its population to emigration, forced or otherwise, between 1841 and 1861.

Principal destinations for the emigrants were Cape Breton and Ontario (in what is now Canada), and North Carolina in the USA.

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Given the integration of many clan chiefs into the English peerage system, and the wholesale enclosure of lands in England that drove so many into the factories and mills, I saw one motivation for the Clearances as a need for the Scots Lords to keep up with their English counterparts – an expensive process.

Thus, they abandoned the old clan system, wherein they would have had a duty to their tenants and fellow clan members, in favour of squeezing the maximum profit from the land.cl5.gif

The ships taking the emigrants to the New World were often minimally supplied, with poor hygiene, and inadequate food. Weakened by this, the very young, the sick, and the old often fell prey to disease, dying en route.

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In 1775, a Scots Gaelic immigrant, Michael Mor MacDonald settled in Cape Breton. He composed a song about the area called O ‘s àlainn an t-àite, or O, Fair is the Place, and I quote that title within the song.cb1.gif

As you can tell by those words – and by the continuing presence of Scots-descended Canadians and Americans, many worked hard and prospered in these new lands – but some had previously paid a terrible cost.

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I tried to reflect all of the above in the lyric to this song: Cape Breton.

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Lend an ear and an eye …

eye.gif

Cape Breton

© 2017 Bob Leslie

CapeB.jpg

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Stress: feel that pulse!  …pulse.gif

Since I wrote this, and therefore am pretty likely to be obeying my own recommendations, the stress pattern is absolutely regular! Surprise! Surprise!

Verses:

Ll 1-5 & L7 have 4 stresses

Ll 6 & 8 have 3 stresses

Chorus:

Ll 1 & 3 have 4 stresses

Ll 2 & 4 have 3 stresses

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I got rhythm …

With a few minor variations throughout, the basic metric structure is as follows:bears.gif

Verse: 

  • Ll 1 & 2 – 
    iamb (dah-DUM), 3anapest (dah-dah-DUM)
  • L3 – 
    2iamb2anapest
  • L4 – 
    4anapest

Then the 2nd half of the verse changes emphasis:

  • L5 – 
    4dactyl (DUM-dah-dah)
  • L6 – 
    2dactyl1trochee (DUM-dah)
  • L7
    4dactyl
  • L8 – 
    2trochee1 single syllable

“|Came fac-|-tor and ag-|-ents im-pat-|-ient and rough|
When John| made to fight| them they clubbed|him right down|
The last| Mairi saw| of the house| where she’d loved|
Was the smoke| and the flames| as it burned| to the ground|

Her-ded like|beasts they were| forced on a| ship that the|
Mar-quess most|gen‘rous-ly|paid so|
He could turn| ov-er his|ac-res to|sheep by trans-|
port-ing his|kin-folk a-|way …|”

The chorus goes …

  • L1 – 
    1iamb3anapest
  • L2 – 
    3anapest
  • L3 – 
    4anapest
  • L5
    3anapest

“|Cape Bre-|-ton On-tar-|-io or North| Caro-lin-|
-a the rea-|-son you’re sent|there is clear|
For the Laird|down in Lon-|-don needs mon-|ey to play|
with tae sup| wi his Eng-|-lish com-peers|”

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Bob the rhymer … rhymer.gif

The end-rhyme pattern is regular throughout.

The verse goes

  • A  B  A  B  C  D  C  D
  • “tears” “clan” “years” “man”
  • “doubts” “fed” “out” “dread”

The chorus goes

  • A  B  C  B
  • “Carolina” “clear” “with” “compeers”

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Key points …

Discounting the capo on 2 (which takes everything up a whole tone), the verse switches between A aeolian aka A natural minor

  • A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A

and D mixolydian

  • D  E  F#  G  A  B  C  D

via the chords of G major and A minor which are common to both.

The chorus switches up into major with C major

C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

and alternates that with A aeolian aka A natural minor

A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A

via A minor  and E minor which are common to both.

D  E  F#  G  A  B  C  D

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So, what do we think? … think.gif

It certainly adheres fairly closely to my structural recommendations: regular stress pattern, more-or-less regular metric pattern, solid rhyme structure, and closely-related key/modal transitions.

The change in both pitch and tonality (minor>major) from the verse to the chorus lifts the song, at the same time as it changes thematic focus from the family themselves to the reason they are in their predicament.

Singing it to audiences has confirmed that the chorus is catchy enough for them to pick up on and join in with – a very desirable feature in a traditional-style ballad.

The theme  is obviously a major one in terms of a historical ballad – which could easily end up grandiose, but I think I’ve managed to home in on the human side by focusing on one small family and contrasting their fate with the lot of their “laird down in London.”

All in all, I’m going to give myself a pat on the back for this one. It works! pat.gif

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lyre.gif

 

Next time, we’ll look at a traditional ballad 
from classic times!

 

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

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