Songwriting Basics Section II – Analysis 43: Drover tae Cowboy

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

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Hielan coos and longhorns …

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The inspiration for this song was a book, written by musician, author, and, until 2016, Scottish National Party MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, Rob Gibson.

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The book was Plaids and Bandanas: From Scottish Drover to Wild West Cowboy (2001). 
It chronicled the growth of Highland cattle droving and its 19th century decline in the face of the Highland Clearances, land enclosure, and the extension of the railway network into the North of Scotland.

Many of the drovers found their way to North America where they sought work herding cattle, initially in Texas, and later in the Northern states of Wyoming and Montana.

Their employment, although carrying obvious similarities to what they had done in Scotland, came with a new job title: cowboy.

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One incident in the book described how, in 1746, what was essentially a “posse”, led by minor chieftain Macmurchaidh Riabhaich (pron. macMURRichy REEVach – “ch” as in “Bach”), pursued a gang of cattle thieves to Lochaber. They retrieved the cattle, and killed all but the thieves’ watchman, who was left to carry the warning of what would befall anyone who tried THAT again.

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Intrigued by my reading, I went online searching for stories about Scottish cowboys. I came across the story of how, in 1884, a vigilante group, headed by a Montana rancher called Stewart or Stuart, caught and hanged a gang of 34 rustlers. The vigilantes were somehat ghoulishly known as “Stewart’s Stranglers.”

 

The parallels were obvious, and the first verse started forming in my mind. The Lochaber tale was obviously too early for a 19th century emigrant, so I cast it as a fireside story he might have heard told – perhaps because an ancestor had been involved?

This provided me with a two-part format for that verse, and I followed that structure, with some degree of contrast between the first and second parts, for the subsequent verses.

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The second verse has the protagonist reminisce about his childhood and youth going with his father to the Falkirk Tryst – then a huge cattle fair. Then he contrasts that social event with his current job standing alone as night guard over the herd, in the shadow of the Rockies, singing to them to keep the animals calm. The details for all this also came from Gibson’s book.

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The third verse was partly inspired by another work, The Negro Cowboys (1983), by Philip Durham and Everett L. Jones, which, as its title implies, deals with another group of Western cowhands: former black slaves. In addition to the Black riders, the book also mentions Hispanic, Irish, and American Indian cowboys too. 

 

So, there were Scots, Irish, Hispanic, Afro-American, and Indian cowboys. Not exactly what the average Hollywood Western would have you believe!

The second part of that verse needed some kind of finish. Would he stay, or would he make his money and return to Scotland? Gibson’s work mentioned cowboys hunting deer in the Spring, and the cool waters of the Rockies’ foothills, and I thought the availability of land would also be a strong persuader, so I had my protagonist commit to America and send money home for his sweetheart to join him. A happy ending!

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Lend an ear and an eye …

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Drover tae Cowboy

© 2019 Bob Leslie

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Stressing the points …

In the verses, each line has 2 stresses, e.g.

“Ah remember auld fireside …”

This is regular in every verse.

The chorus has 2 x (2 lines of 2 stresses followed by one with 4 stresses), e.g.

Naethin wis left fir a man o ma kind …”

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How’s the metre running? … metre.gif

In the verses, the metres used are end-emphasised, with metric feet often over-running from the end of one line to the next.

A mixture of iambs (dah-DUM), anapests (dah-dah-DUM), and 4th paeons (dah-dah-dah-DUM) is employed. The most common metre here is the anapest.

“|Ah re-mem– |-ber auld fire– |-side tales |o the lif– |-tin o kye |tae Loch-ab– |
-er, wi the Prince |yet oan Skye |”

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The chorus similarly uses end-emphasised metres, but with Ll 14 each starting with a iamb.

” Fae drov– |-er tae cow-|
-boy …”
&
“|Wi ir– |-on wire fen– |
-ces  …|”

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Long-distance rhymes …RR

In the verses, the end-rhymes occur only every 4th line, e.g.

“Summer” “bonnie” “deer” “Spring”
“siller” “Braemore” “lassie” “sing”

The chorus rhymes every 3rd line, but, because each 3rd line is double the length of the foregoing lines, the effect is a similar one of far-apart end-rhymes.

“79”
“kind”

That separation is, to some extent, offset by a fair number of  alliterations (the same letter or sound at the beginning of words), which help to bind the lyrics together, e.g.

“repeated” “rustlers” “reivers”
“Heilans” “homesteads”
“follae” “faither” “Falkirk”
“rifle” “Rockies”

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Key à la mode …km

There is a strong-but-connected contrast between the verses and the chorus.

The tonic note of the song is D, but the form the verse  scale takes is D dorian,

D  E  F  G  A  B  C  D

principal chords 

D minor
G major
A minor

The minor emphasis of the mode gives the verse  a mellow, contemplative tone, matching the themes of reminiscence and description.

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The chorus switches up smoothly, via common G major chord, to D major,

D  E  F#  G  B  C#  D

with a brief shift to the C major chord in D mixolydian,

D  E  F#  G  A  B  C  D

via a common B minor chord, in the last line, before jumping straight to the dominant A major chord to suggest a brief verse-beginning excursion into D minor

D  E  F  G  A  B  C#  D

before settling back into D dorian – an easy slide via the common  D minor chord.

So it’s all the Ds!

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The use of the major in the chorus makes it more emphatic – as suits the description of the dramatic events forcing the emigration and the anger felt when contemplating them.

The song also contrasts the melodies of verse and chorus, with the former having a range of a flattened 7th – low G to high F, and the latter extending that range up to a 10th by soaring up to a high B.

The extended range, plus the raising of F natural to F sharp via the key change, makes for a really strong differentiation between the two sections of the song. Thematically, it also calls for greater volume and intensity in the singing to underline the fiercer emotions of the chorus

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What’s the verdict?eh

Well, as far as regularity goes, there’s a constant stress pattern and the metres, while varying somewhat, all follow an end-emphatic model.

The rhyme pattern is also dead regular – even if the rhymes are well-separated, and the alliteration helps bind the song too.

The melody has more than enough variation and range to maintain anyone’s interest, while still being within most singers’ capabilities. It also accurately reflects the changes in mood within the song – from contemplation and reminiscence, to the residual anger provoked by what was, essentially, a forced emigration.

So, what is regular binds the song, and what changes serves the song by emphasising its differing moods.

It’s also, if I say so myself, a damn good human interest story, as well as capturing a useful bit of history.

yay

 

 

Here’s the most important part: people seem to like it, and join in the chorus when I sing it. It’s a hit!

 

 

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mins

Next time, we’ll look at something that doesn’t just describe history, but actually is history! Back in time ….

 

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

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