Songwriting Basics Section II – Analysis 31: Lands o the Sioux an the Cree

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

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Orkney to Hudson’s Bay …

Being half-Orcadian myself, I’ve always been interested in the history and legends of Orkney.

From 1702 onwards, Orkney had strong links with the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company.

The company’s ships regularly called into Stromness for supplies.

Orkney and Hudson’s Bay both lie near 60° north latitude, so the journey from Stromness or Kirkwall to the  Bay  was a third shorter than the distance from London to Jamestown, Virginia. map.gif

It also minimised the risk of coming across any of England’s maritime enemies – notably, the French.

Since they were there anyway, and since the price of labour, particularly skilled labour, was much lower than in London, the company took to recruiting as well as buying supplies.

The Orcadians, descendants of Vikings, and many of them well-acquainted with the sea, jumped at this opportunity.

As the ships departed, they would round the Ness – a promontory just to the west of Stromness. The battery of cannons placed there to defend the town would fire a salute in their honour.

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The workforce …

In 1791 the HBC appointed David Geddes, a Stromness merchant, as their local agent.

By this time – the late eighteenth century – three-quarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company workforce in Canada were Orcadians. In 1799, of the 530 men working in the Hudson’s Bay Company post in North America, 416 were from Orkney.

The “on ca'” (on call) system in Orkney meant that most farm workers were only employed during key times such as sowing and harvest. For the rest of the year, many would struggle to survive on the yield from a tiny plot of land and whatever they could catch in the sea and lochs.

Young, male Orcadians particularly embraced the opportunity offered by the HBC, and typically signed a 5-year contract at £6/year. This may not seem much in modern terms, but was sufficient to let them save and return with enough to buy a plot of land big enough to sustain a family.

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Many of the workers stayed on in Canada or the northern USA (HBC trading routes extended from the territory of the Cree in Canada down to Sioux lands around the Red River).
They either moved to larger settlements and married women of European origin, or married into the indigenous tribes, their children becoming part of the Anglo-Métis community.

Naturally, all this had the knock-on effect of reducing local labour supply in Orkney and increasing its cost. This was not popular with the Orcadian owner-class.

Writing in The Old Statistical Account for Orphir, the Reverend Francis Liddell complained:

“Instead of offering an honourable service to their King and country, or staying at home to cultivate their lands, and protect their wives, their children, and their parents, for the sum of £6 per annum they hire themselves out for slaves in a savage land.”

Hudson’s Bay ships took on supplies and labour in Stromness until the early 1900s.

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Chon and his chum …

I imagined a couple of young lads about to embark on such a voyage.

Chon (Orcadian pronunciation of “John”) and his pal would be excited at the great adventure that lay ahead of them.

By sailing off to the “Wast” – that’s how folk used to say “West” in Orkney – they would free themselves of their dependence on the local laird (lord).

They would also be able to come back, buy a farm, marry and raise a “dose o bairns” (a lot of children).ship.gif

 

Their voyaging would recall that of their Viking ancestors.

 

I’m sure there were some tearful partings from family and lady friends, so I put in a verse wherein the narrator tries to reassure his fiance, “Freya” (a suitably Norse name), that not only will he return, but their lives will be much improved.

Orkney is famed for its fiddlers, so, I built the chorus around the idea that Chon would pack his fiddle.fiddler.gif

In fact, many Orcadians did so, as can be seen by the fact  Cree tribe members around the Hudson Bay area took up the fiddle and learned the Orcadians’ tunes.

I had the pleasure of hearing Cree fiddlers at the Orkney Folk Festival a few years ago.

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Notes on the dialect …

Since the song is about Orcadians, I decided to write the song in Orkney Scots – I was lucky enough to have many “beta-testers” who corrected my mistakes and suggested words when I had difficulty finding a rhyme.

Since recording the song, I’ve noticed a few minor errors that I missed – if I ever record the song in another context, I’ll correct them, but they’re not hugely significant (I hope!).

“Thou/Thee” is still alive in Orkney – although the first would be rendered “Thoo”. “Thee” is also used instead of the expected “Thy”

“Hairst” is, as it is in some other parts of Scotland, the word for “harvest”.

“Our” is expressed as “Wir” and “It” as “Hid”.

“Wur” = “We’re”

“”Wid” = “Would”

and

“Gaan” = “Going”

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Lend an ear and an eye …

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Lands o the Sioux an the Cree

© 2019 Bob Leslie

(Capo on 2)

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Rhythm and stress …beat.gif

The stress and metre patterns are absolutely regular

  • 2 lines with 2 stresses each + 1 line with 3 stresses

repeating throughout the song, and  metrically divided as follows:

Ll 1&2 – 1 x dactyl(dah-dah-DUM) (sometimes created by doubling an “Oh” to “Oh-oh”)+ 1 x fourth paeon (dah-dah-dah-DUM)

  • “|For the Laird | we were on ca’|”
  • “|As the work | wid come an go|”
  • “|Sae we signt | the ither day|”
  • “|Wi the man | fae Hudson’s Bay|”
  • “|Oh-oh pack| thee fiddle, Chon|”
  • “|As the guns | fire o’er the Ness|” etc.

L3 adds another fourth paeon, giving 1 x dactyl2fourth paeon

  • “|Chon and me | fir brave ad-vent– |-ture hid a thirst|”
  • “|Noo the laird|kin go an whist-| -le fir his hairst|” etc.

This changes only in the final line of the chorus, which has 3dactyl

  • “| tae the lands| o the Sioux| an the Cree|”

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Rhymes as regular as clockwork …
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The end-rhyme pattern is A  A  B  C  C  B

 

  • “ca'” “go” “thirst”
    “day” “Bay” “hairst”
  • “Chon” “morn” “see”
    “Ness” “Wast” “Cree” etc.

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A bunch of keys …keys.gif

If we overlook the 2nd fret capo (which takes the song up a whole tone), the verses are mainly in G major.

However, in Ll 4&5,   the song drifts into a mode closely related to the relative minor of that key – namely E Dorian, identical to E natural minor (aka E Aeolian) except for the raising of the sixth note, C, by a semitone, to C#.

  • E  F#  G  A  B  C#  D  E
  • E Dorian has chords
    i, IV, and v as
    EmA major, and Bm.

The verse then jumps straight back into G major via a C major chord.

The chorus alternates E minor with G major, both starting and finishing in the minor key.

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The moment of truth …tr.gif

The story is, I hope, an interesting one from both the historical and the human interest viewpoints.

Audience sympathy is solicited for the lads’ excitement at their adventure, their snub to the authority of the “laird”, their hopes for the future, and the parting of the narrator from his lover.

The stress on the “fiddle” in the chorus is not only a sound historical reference, but also gives an indication of the lads’ merry natures. In addition, it provides the suggestion for the wild fiddle solo in the break.

Structurally, the song is about as regular as it could be, maintaining a solid rhythm tying the words to the tune, and keeping a strong rhyme pattern.

The key/mode mixture is of closely related-elements, but nevertheless gives the song variety. Verse and chorus are well-differentiated by their respective major and minor  tonalities.

The melody makes good use of the notes available, spanning a full 9th from low G to high A, and moving freely within that range.

The contrast between verse and chorus is reinforced by the differing rising and falling inflections at the end of each line.fall.gif

The verse has

  • rise, rise, fall, fall, rise, fall

While the chorus follows this pattern:

  • fall, fall, fall, fall, rise, fall, fall

So, plenty of melodic and chordal variety within a very solid structure, and a strong human interest and historical tale running through the lyric.

What’s not to like?

I’m actually pretty proud of this song as it turned out exactly as I intended and says all that I wanted to say.thumb

I hope you agree!

 

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Next time, we’ll be back looking
at an oldie but goldie!

 

 

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