Songwriting Basics Section II – Analysis 42: Caledonia

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

 

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The lyrics of Caledonia talk of the singer’s feelings of homesickness, using imagery that evokes a rural situation reminding him of his own homeland.

It’s a device used in another once-iconic Scottish song, Andy Stewart’s A Scottish Soldier, in which the dying soldier talks of the hills of the Tyrol, comparing them to the hills of home.

In this case, fortunately, the singer is in a position to return to Caledonia (an ancient name for Scotland), and the landscape he describes is not that of Austria but of Brittany, that most Celtic part of France, where Dougie Maclean was staying in 1977.doug.gif

He says that he wrote the song in under 10 minutes while sitting on a beach there, feeling homesick for Scotland.

“I was in my early 20s and had been busking around with some Irish guys. I was genuinely homesick. I’d always lived in Perthshire. I played it to the guys when I got back to the youth hostel where we were staying and that was the final straw – we all went home the next day.” 

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Caledonia appeared on the album of the same name, recorded later in 1977 and released in 1978. The album featured Maclean and fellow Perthshire musician Alan Roberts – with whom he toured and recorded for the next couple of years.

The album was pretty successful, and Maclean’s stature in the world of Scottish folk was on the rise – he’d previously worked with The Tannahill Weavers, and was shortly to work and record with Scottish folk legends Alex Campbell and Silly Wizard.

While Irish singer Dolores Keane had success with the song in 1988, it really took off when Glasgow soul singer Frankie Miller recorded it – initially for a Tennent’s Lager commercial in the early 90s, and subsequently as a single.

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Miller’s version only reached no. 45 in the UK charts, but it spawned a host of imitators and was soon a staple of open mics, pub sessions, and both the folk and pop/rock circuits.

 

MacLean says:

“I remembered them asking me about the ad and I went down thinking ‘I’m not letting anyone use my song to sell beer. Then I saw the ad and said to myself ‘this is about Scottish self-confidence, go ahead, use the song’.”

Since then, Caledonia has been recorded by “Everybody and their Granny” – as my mother used to say! Among that multitude are Eddi Reader, Paolo Nutini, Amy Macdonald, Nathan Carter, and Ronan Keating.

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The song was featured in an advert on Scottish television for Homecoming Scotland 2009, a campaign inviting people to come home to Scotland on the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’s birth.

The commercial was a portmanteau version of the song featuring Scottish actors, singers and celebrities, including Sean Connery, Chris Hoy, Eddi Reader and Lulu, each singing (or, in Connery’s case, reciting) part of the song.

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It was written over 40 years ago, and Maclean, now a very polished songwriter indeed, thinks that part of its charm is in its very straightforward, direct language:

“I was very young when I wrote it so the words are very simple”

Caledonia‘s popularity has rebounded onto Maclean himself as it has undoubtedly helped open doors worldwide to him as a performer.

While Dougie stresses that anyone longing for their native land could identify with the song, it’s also become a bit of an anthem for the Scottish Independence movement – of which he is a supporter, having come out for a YES vote in 2014 and having performed Caledonia at YES rallies.

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Lend an ear and an eye …

eye.gif Caledonia

© 1977 Dougie Maclean

Dougie MacLean plays the song in the key of E, using Open C tuning with a capo on the 4th fret.

He fingerpicks a melodic accompaniment using the chords below, but generally only part-fingering them, playing arpeggios with some strings ringing open to create more of a melodic line than just solid chords. 

So, be prepared to experiment a bit till it sounds right. I will say that practically all of the chord charts online – at least for Dougie’s arrangement of the song – are just plain wrong (even if they fit the notes of the melody)!

Caledonia.jpg

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Stress, both strong and weak …

stres

The verse has a stress pattern of 3 lines with 4 stresses, followed by one with 3 stresses.

The 4-stress lines are further divided into alternating strong and weak stresses, e.g. (strong stresses in red)

I don’t know if you can see

The chorus pattern is

33, 7
3
3, 5

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Motoring round the metres …car.gif

Dougie says he was very young when he wrote this, and, in terms of the metre, it shows!

The one consistent point is that he favours initial-syllable stressed metres all the way through. These are mainly trochees (DUM-dah) and dactyls (DUM-dah-dah), but the  1st paeon (DUM-dah-dah-dah) and single syllable (DUM) crop up too, e.g.

“|If I should be- |-come a |stran -ger, know that |
it would make me |more than |sad

“|DUM-dah-dah-dah |DUM-dah |DUM-dah-dah-dah |
DUM-dah-dah-dah |DUM-dah |DUM|”

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Remarkably free verse …free.gif

The rhyme scheme is also, frankly, all over the place.

The chorus, simply because it’s repeated, is the only consistently-rhymed part of the song – and, even then, it’s only the last two lines that actually rhyme:

A  B  C  D 
E  E

“you” “time” “home” “stranger” 
“sad” “had”

V1 rhymes

A A B B
C C D B

“see” “me” “afraid” “away”
“songs” “from” “seem” “today”

V2 rhymes

A  A  A  B
C  C  C  D

“moving” “proving” “losing” “way”
“crying” “denying” “flying” “wind”

V3 rhymes

A  A  A  B
C  D  E  F

“fire” “choir” “higher” “gone”
“clear” “tomorrow” “flowed” “disappear”

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The key to it all …key

If we disregard the 4th fret capo, then the whole song is in an absolutely regular C major, but making good use of a range of the chords available in that key.

Thus we see the basic major trio of C, F, and G, but also two of the associated minor chords, Dm and Em.

All nice and simple for folky players!

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So, what’s the verdict? …jdg

Well, given the song’s enormous success, it’s got to be a positive one. This is, however, a definite case of the exception that proves (in the sense of breaks) the rule!

But there are really no rules as such beyond what simply sounds good to the ear. 

The recommendations I have made in this course of articles are merely that: just a series of observations that usually help things along.

In the case of Caledonia, I simply have to throw up my hands and say, despite all its irregularities, it works! I actually love the song, so we’ll call it a hit and leave it at that!

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Next time, we’ll tear another one
of mine to shreds!

 

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

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