Songwriting Basics Section II – Analysis 41: Annie Laurie

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

I have to confess to a personal interest in this next song. It was the first one that could be termed a Scottish folk song that I learned in singing class at primary school, and I sang it, aged 8 or 9, for the Pensioners’ Christmas party organised by the Edinburgh Orkney Association (Dad was from Stromness).

My younger sister  later levelled the accusation, once we were home, that “Robert made the old ladies cry” – ah, the power of song!

The ditty in question was Annie Laurie. A song based on a poem said to have been written by William Douglas (1672 -1760) of Dumfries and Galloway, about his romance with Annie Laurie of Maxwelton about the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Douglas pleads his love most convincingly, but, probably because he was a Jacobite, it was never to be.

On realising the jig was up, the pragmatic Mr Douglas eloped, with an heiress, to Edinburgh in 1706. 

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The words were modified and the tune added by Lady Alicia Scott in 1835. She published a book, containing this and other songs she had composed, in the mid-1850s for the benefit of the families of soldiers killed in the Crimean War.

To give you an idea of the “modification” process,  Lady Scott left the first verse more or less alone, and changed the rest – to the song’s benefit, I might add. The original 2nd verse reads as follows:

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“She’s backit like the peacock, she’s breistit like the swan
She’s jimp aboot the middle, her waist ye weel may span
Her waist ye weel may span, and she has a rolling eye
And for bonnie Annie Laurie I’d lay doun my head and die.”

 

Quite a chimaera really!

I mind I used to be quite “jimp aboot the middle” – but, alas, those days are gone – although my eye does occasionally roll it has to be said.  

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The song swiftly crossed the Atlantic – possibly carried by dispossessed Scottish cattle drovers who went on to become cowboys in Texas, Wyoming, and Montana, as it was a favourite “lullaby”, sung by whoever was on watch at night, to calm the cattle. cb.gif

 

Singing to the herd was a necessary part of making sure they weren’t spooked into a stampede by any of the prairie’s nocturnal dwellers – coyotes’ howls could start them running.

 

The song, and the melody as a fiddle tune, became popular on both sides of the Civil War, and can be found in the repertoire of country singers like Slim Whitman and cowboy balladeers like Don Edwards. It even popped up in the 1945 movie A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

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On its native side of the Atlantic, Annie Laurie has been recorded by, amongst many other,  The Corries, Archie Fisher, Jean Redpath, and Claire Hastings, with a more operatic treatment given it by the likes of Kenneth McKellar, and even the Red Army Choir – check it out, there’s an amazing crescendo that will shake your speakers!

The range of the melody – a full 10th from low F to high A – needs a singer with a fair voice to carry it off, which probably explains its attraction to classically-inclined singers as well as to those of the folky persuasion.

I’m going for a more traditional take on the song here, so we’ll be looking at, and listening to, a live version by Scottish singer Jean Redpath, performing on the Prairie Home Companion show in 1986.

Unfortunately, she seems to forget the words of verse 2, but, very professionally, bulks it out by getting the audience to sing along with a repeat of the 2nd part of verse 3!

Nevertheless, it’s the version closest to how I’ve always heard the song in a folk context (the Corries take is better known, but far too busy instrumentally for my liking).

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Lend an ear and an eye …

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Annie Laurie

Wm. Douglas & Lady Scott, arr Jean Redpath 1986

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Almost regular as clockwork …clock

There is a regular stress pattern all the way through of 3 stresses per line except on line 7 of  each verse which has 4 stresses.

The rhythm is expressed generally via final-stress metres – mainly iambs (dah-DUM), but some lines begin with anapests (dah-dah-DUM), some line-ends run into the beginning of the next line, also creating anapests, e.g.

“|Max-wel |- ton’s braes |are bon |- nie Where ear |- ly fa’s |the dew
And ’twas there |that An |- nie Laur |- ie Gave me |her prom |- ise true |”

The exception occurs in L7 where a stressed and drawn-out “Aaaannnd” adds an extra stressed single syllable.

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Tightly rhymed …

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The end-rhyme structure is based on

A  B  C  B 
B  D  E  D

“snawdrift” “swan” “fairest” “on”
“on” “ee” “Laurie” “dee”

However, VV 1&3 rhyme LL 13 as well

A  B  A  B
B  D  E  D

“lying” “feet” “sighing” “sweet”
“sweet” “me” “Laurie” “dee”

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Keeping the key … key

Jean Redpath’s version is in F major throughout, so very traditionally simple.

Many singers, seeking to make the arrangement and tonality a little more interesting, move into D minor (the closely-related relative minor of F major) on L6, e.g.

              Dm         Gm       A
Which ne’er forgot will be

This is a pretty natural change  since it involves no alteration of the melody. Play around with it, see what you think!

As mentioned above, the tune doesn’t lack for interest, since it’s constantly swooping around within its ambitious-for-a-folk-song range of a 10th.

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Summing up … comp.gif

More or less regular in both stress and metre, and solidly rhymed, the lyric has a poetic quality which probably contributes strongly to its popularity over the last 160 years or so.

The melody is memorable, and, given its range, adaptable to a number of different musical genres, folk, country, cowboy, classical. 

And, if all that weren’t enough to ensure the song’s survival, you can always use it to lull your cows to sleep!

I think we have a hit on our hands!

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Next time, we’ll look at a younger addition 
to the traditional repertoire!

 

 

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

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