Landscape and Melody

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An Experience of Translating Song to Prose

‘It must live on, and because of its glorious ricketiness’ Umberto Eco[1]

Captain Swing and the Blacksmith is a novel inspired by traditional song. I was attracted to the terse economy of prose that is found in English folk song and the quirky melodic structure that is a characteristic of this tradition. Folk song is idiosyncratic in nature; lines are strung together in another-worldly marriage of tune and verse resulting in a singular power. Strong emotion and drama, and indeed whole epics, can be successfully conveyed in a few lines. And these sparse lyrics, handed down from one voice to another, are a lesson for any would be writer in choosing a few but well considered words over complexity of language. I wanted to produce a story in prose that mirrored the simplicity of these lyrics and yet was a deeper exploration into the lives of the characters that coloured the verses.

Folk song is rich in subtext – the listener fills in the gaps with the help of the tune. Sometimes it is the tune that serves as a cathartic release for the listener more than the story. Yet both are entwined, physically and emotionally. Sound embodies story and story embodies sound. The slides and slurs of the singer’s voice serve as a metonym for the intricacies of emotional disturbance: sorrow, joy, passion.

To begin with I had the idea to create a group of short stories that were linked in time and place, each one inspired from a different song. The protagonists and minor characters of English song make up a panoply of archetypes, some recognisable yet each one possessing their own personality. For example: the jilted pregnant girlfriend, the courageous highwayman, treacherous landlady and ghost lover are tropes that occur again and again. I wanted to create a world where all of these archetypes could interact and their stories woven together.

Umberto Eco described the film classic Casablanca as a ‘hodgepodge of sensational scenes strung together implausibly, its characters are psychologically incredible, its actors act in a mannered way.’ (CB, p.394) Folk songs often depict a hodgepodge of sometimes implausible events, often due to the slicing and grafting together of lines from other songs. Therefore, to appeal to the listener, the characters must have some archetypical and therefore recognisable appeal.

Yet what kind of place would a folk song world be? A land of transportation, boasting poachers, poisoned lovers and many abandoned pregnant girlfriends. It is also a place of physical beauty, sensual delight, of metaphors sunk deep into everyday tasks and objects, betrayal, passion, revenge…despair. It revels in melancholia, nostalgia and regret yet will hop into a sprightly celebration of the seasons, the raucous, the comical and the downright saucy. The songs reflect reality and yet are never realism or are to be entirely trusted as a true mirror to the world of the singers and their listeners. The folk song world seems to hover slightly above the ground. Like any soap opera that endeavours to portray gritty life events, it dramatizes the tragic and accentuates the joy of its participants. I wished then to create in my novel a subtle, altered reality; an entire folk song world inhabited by these archetypes that allowed me to enter their world with ease yet anchored alongside real historical events.

The song The Blacksmith {Appendices}first caught my attention because of the singer’s cynical and stoical attitude. The story is a universal one: a girl is courted by a young man, a blacksmith in this story, who promises her marriage. She then discovers he is to be married to another but it is too late for as inferred in the first line, she is already pregnant. What interested me about this song was the power of the girl’s words and her sarcastic commentary on the newly-weds. She is someone to be reckoned with and not destined to be another discarded Victorian casualty – ending her days in a workhouse or turning to prostitution.

The narrator, that I decided to call Sue Trindall, uses her words carefully to convey through clear metaphor and sarcasm the events that led to her rejection. Melody and word combined have a strange beauty; emotions are distilled and are all the more powerful. In short, the song describes the momentous in a very few chosen words that strike the listener with its simple profundity.

The song mixes perspective: it begins in 1stperson then ends in a 3rdperson omniscient voice that closes the narrative. It rounds off the tragic events as if we have stepped away from the voice in time – walked several fields and valleys and years later have begun to tell Sue’s story ourselves. We are initially inside her suffering and then are taken outside, witnessing her tragedy which is made all the more powerful by her curse from ‘God Almighty’.

The song is powerful because of Sue’s anger at his rejection, yet also her immense shock that anyone could treat her so callously. And it is shocking as her blacksmith must have known that her pregnancy would destroy all possibility of respectability in the world that they inhabited.

There are some ambiguities: he writes her a letter, what does it say? Who does he decide to marry and why is the other girl so much better? To solve these questions, I knew I had to continue her story. At first, I intended to take the protagonist of the song, who we leave ruminating on her tragedy and tell her story from there. The actual events of the song were just a starting point – her survival and that of the children was of more importance. But then the idea of grafting other songs to complete her story began to appeal. I liked the idea of rooting the entire structure around different songs thus creating a new lyrical ballad.

Because of the way folk song travels and develops over time stanzas are swapped, discarded, stolen and put to new tunes or grafted onto completely different songs. Singers become magpies, adding and stealing lines how they fancy as there are no rules in folk song and they are not static art forms. There are a number of common lines known as ‘floating stanzas’ that turn up again and again in different songs such as the song, I wish, I wish {Appendices} which is almost entirely made up of these lines. It illustrates my story well and the lines serve as a kind of glue, filling in the gaps that The Blacksmith had left.

I chose another song, Go from my Window {Appendices}. The motif of the persistent lover at a girl’s bedroom window was perfect for my libertine blacksmith. The melody had an inevitable and almost hopeless feel to its repetitive refrain. This song and One night as I lay on my bed {Appendices} are a part of a tradition of night visit songs which are said to have their origins in Greek mythology. I used these songs as my guide, bending and shaping them to my own melody/structure. I wanted to keep the narrative within the confines of this new song structure to give the story a folk authenticity.

However, developing Sue’s voice posed many difficulties. Initially my idea was to keep as close to the voice of the singer’s as possible but when translated, then expanded in to large amounts of prose, the verse sounded ridiculously archaic. I used key phrases from the songs, lines that my protagonist would surely have overheard, sung by others – as we incorporate phrases from adverts and incorporate them into our contemporary lexicon. Some worked, some didn’t and it was evident that if I didn’t want an entire book in cliché I would have to come up with a different approach.

Although folk songs are largely rural, created and sung by people who were intimately connected with the changing seasonal landscape, there is surprisingly little description of the land they inhabited. Flora and fauna are used symbolically or expressed in the use of occasional stock phrases referring to ‘little birds’ or ‘banks full of primroses’. Landscape is often used as a crude and obvious sexual metaphor – a landscape that punished them and denied them as a source of food through enclosure.

Singers prefer to move on swiftly to the events in the song. The emphasis is on people, their actions and their consequences. Characters are thinly described yet magically the lyrics manage to create a strong image in one line. But then they are often an archetype which we are already familiar with. We associate ourselves and our own emotions and experience with the protagonist inside the song because we have already met them subconsciously or literally. My problem was how to express this language in prose while still retaining the qualities of the original and at the same time add the depth and complexity that prose needs if the reader is to be engaged.

Dialogue is often used to illustrate the deciding denouement of a song often with great effect. I lifted whole lines of dialogue which gave me the inspiration for an entire scene. Stealing and embellishing on dialogue was a helpful way in which to retain the spirit of the songs through prose. I imagine the creator of a song may have inserted dialogue that was true to their own speech so that they could engage directly with their listeners. Dialogue slips easily into descriptive passages far more than obvious metaphorical uses of nature that swiftly translate into cliché.

In translating song into prose, I lost the melody which enables the listener to engage on a cathartic level with the drama of the characters. Melody not only fills the spaces left by words but also lifts the story into another realm of understanding. The songs that have been handed down have lasted, perhaps, because of the power of certain melodic structures that profoundly connect with their listeners. Yet lyrics and tune have a unity of purpose and meaning, both strengthening the other. I cannot create a sound on a page – only imagine it.

Although in lyrics landscape is barely commented on and action and character dominate, I had made a mistake in attempting to copy this approach in prose. Landscape became my melody. The soft ambling tunes that occasionally meander into sudden highs and lows, embellished with odd slides and slurs, could be a reflection of the West country with its apparent soft contours which can surprise the eye with odd abrupt shapes and erratic sweeping fields.

In my story landscape serves the same purpose as melody. If landscape in my prose replaces melody, then in a sense Sue is singing and whistling as she describes to the reader the slopes, combes and furrows of the ploughed fields she walks upon. It changes time signature and sharply ascends as Sue climbs hills then treads flat chalky fields. I feel my novel mostly as a ¾, a dancing, swaying tale that swirls through the drama.  The waltz was the rage of the 1830s and it is a waltz that Sue overhears the pregnant Maria play on the piano.  ¾ rhythms are associated with sea shanties and echo the swish and sway of the boat against the waves. Salisbury Plain becomes the sea for Sue:

The cart climbed steadily uphill so that we rode the crest of the wave I could see from our window back at the farm. We were up on high ground, riding across the face of the Plain and I marveled at the grandeur of the scene before us…there was no sign of human existence in any direction and for a moment I imagined the cart was a small boat, traversing the sea as the road before us tilted and dipped and glided along.[2]

 Before I began writing around The Blacksmith I wrote a story based on the song Salisbury Plain {Appendices} that tells the story of a highwayman who persuades a woman to join him in his vagabond lifestyle. He is finally captured holding up the mail coach on the Plain. The song is unusual because it is sung from her point of view which gives it an authenticity of emotion that other songs on the same subject made up of stock phrases, rarely do. Today Salisbury Plain is a vast tract of empty grassland, only farmed on its fringes as the army keeps the rest within its grasp. My research soon led me to the ruined village of Imber, that lies in the middle of the eastern half of the Plain. It was evacuated in 1943 for army preparation of D-day yet never returned to the people who had for generations farmed, lived and loved there. There are stories of the village blacksmith weeping on his anvil the day he had to leave. This anecdote, and the legendary Wayland’s Smithy, a prehistoric site that lies just beyond the western edge of the Plain, influenced the choice of location for my story.

The idea to recreate Imber as a place of solace and hope in opposition to its present state as a casualty of war, its former residents tricked and ignored by post-war politics, seemed a just decision. I chose to set the story 100 years before the evacuation as I had also discovered the Andover workhouse scandal of 1845. [3]My narrative was neatly constructed and my motivation clear – although I then discovered that Wiltshire in the years preceding the Andover scandal were far more eventful than I had previously imagined.

My first reason for choosing the 1840s was due to an apparent change in melodic structure. Traditionally, English tunes were squarer in feel and had a solid rhythmic structure that neatly rounds each phrase. An uncertainty began to creep in at the beginning of the 19thcentury. Verses end in question marks, melodies jump from sharps to flats that unexpectedly catch the listener’s attention. This creates a more questioning and perhaps melancholic effect. A.L. Lloyd suggests that this development in melodic structure is due to the dramatic changes taking place in the industrial centres:

‘Nor need we be surprised that, at a later date, with great change overtaking the life of many country workers towards the end of the 18thcentury, the folk tradition took one of those famous qualitative leaps and, within a dramatically short time [it seems] the songs presented a new face in which some of the old features were recognizable but the expression was much altered.’ [4]

Established tunes changed with the times:

‘In general, the earlier melodies are more vigorous, squarer, franker in cast, their harmonic structure dominated by the common chord. The newer versions tend rather to be dominated by the common chord…dominated by the 4th, their formal structure is well-enough defined but their intonations may be so surprising as to baffle the unaccustomed listener. True, some of the later melodies will be seen to carry on the bluff earlier tradition, but others are distinct in form and spirit, more mysterious and searching, less sure and outward-looking than the songs of the older world.’ (FSE, p.170)

Unbeknownst to me, I had set my story close in date to the Swing riots of 1830. The Swing riots were an agricultural uprising that swept the southern counties and East Anglia. An agricultural labourer at the beginning of the 1700s had a far better lot than in the 1800s. There was a greater chance that he and his family would be a live in labourer associated with one farm, working and often eating alongside the farm owner. He had security of employment and the farmer was not separated from his servants and so felt an obligation to look after their welfare. Enclosure and new advancements in farming encouraged a system of contract labour over short periods of time with no security. The separation between landowner and labourer widened as the rich became richer as new systems of exploitation were explored and the poor became more desperate and dispossessed. These new mysterious and irregular melodies reflect the increasing insecurity of the singer’s world – thus the great age of transportation and poaching songs began.

Yet a surge of protest rose in the winter of 1830 – a culmination of poor harvests, enclosure and starvation wages. Recently discharged soldiers from the end of the Napoleonic wars increased the number of unemployed. The usually patriotic countrymen were pushed to the very edge of toleration with the invention of the threshing machine. Traditionally, agricultural workers found winter employment by threshing the wheat by hand. The winter of 1829 was particularly harsh. Deep resentment set in as the spoils of the forest which had always provided extra food for their grandfathers in lean times was denied them. The protestors would send a threatening note before committing arson on a landowner’s property. These notes were signed by a ‘Captain Swing’. Initially the authorities thought this was a real leader. It was already an established tradition to name the leader of uprisings a Captain, or occasionally General, [5]but this was the first time a fictitious leader was used by many protestors up and down the country. ‘Captain Swing’ was far too exciting to ignore and this ambiguous character earned his place in my title.

This uncertainty and fear of an unknown future perhaps mirrors our own rapidly changing society. Religion and politics have been turned on their heads. A yearning for an imagined pastoral existence – the very pastures that we are rapidly destroying – brings a temporary peace. A renewed interest in folk music is a reflection of this anxiety as these songs were created in an era, arguably, of similar viciousness and instability. A story about an abandoned pregnant girlfriend became so much more. Sue’s determination to survive became a metaphor for a greater struggle; the dogged resistance against greed and exploitation that is continually needed in order to maintain a humane society. Captain Swing and the Blacksmithis not a historical document. It is a work of historical fiction that has taken its primary source material from traditional song lyrics. There is precious little left behind from the people who toiled the hardest. The songs that they sang are perhaps the closest we have to their voices, if we wish their voices to be remembered.

Appendices

Song lyrics mentioned in the text

The Blacksmith

A blacksmith courted me, nine months and better.

He fairly won my heart, wrote me a letter.

With his hammer in his hand, he looked so clever,

And if I was with my love, I’d live forever.

 

And where is my love gone, with his cheeks like roses,

And with his big black billycock on, decked with primroses?

I’m afraid the scorching sun will shine and burn his beauty,

And if I was with my love, I’d do my duty.

 

Strange news is come to town, strange news is carried,

Strange news flies up and down that my love is married.

I wish them both much joy, though they don’t hear me,

And may God reward him well for slighting of me.

 

‘What did you promise when you sat beside me?

You said you would marry me, and not deny me.’

‘If I said I’d marry you, it was only for to try you,

So, bring your witness, love, and I’ll never deny you.’

 

‘Oh, witness have I none save God Almighty.

And he’ll reward you well for the slighting of me.’

Her lips grew pale and white, it made her poor heart tremble

To think she loved one, and he proved deceitful

 

I Wish, I Wish

 I wish, I wish, but it’s all in vain,

I wish I were a maid again;

But a maid again I never shall be

Till apples grow on an orange tree.

 

I wish my baby it was born,

And smiling on its papa’s knee,

And I to be in yon churchyard,

With long green grass growing over me.

 

When my apron-strings hung low,

He followed me through frost and snow,

But now my apron’s to my chin,

He passes by and says nothing.

 

Oh grief, oh grief, I’ll tell you why –

That girl has more gold than I;

More gold than I and beauty and fame,

But she will come like me again.

 

Go from my Window

 Go from my window my love, my dove
Go from my window my dear
The wind is in the West and the cuckoo’s in his nest
And you can’t have a harbouring here

 Go from my window my love, my dove
Go from my window my dear
The weather it is warm, it will never do thee harm
But you can’t have a harbouring here

 Go from my window my love, my dove
Go from my window my dear
The wind is blowing high and the ship is lying by
And you can’t have a harbouring here

 Go from my window my love, my dove
Go from my window my dear
The wind and the rain have brought him back again
But you can’t have a harbouring here

 Go from my window my love, my dove
Go from my window my dear
The devil’s in the man that he will not understand
He can’t have a harbouring her

 

One Night as I lay on My bed

 

One night as I lay on my bed,

I dreamed about a pretty maid.

I was so distressed, I could take no rest;

Love did torment me so.

So away to my true love I did go.

 

But when I came to my love’s window,

I boldly called her by her name,

Saying; ‘It was for your sake I’m come here so late,

Through this bitter frost and snow.

So it’s open the window, my love, do.’

 

‘My mum and dad they are both awake,

And they will sure for to hear us speak.

There’ll be no excuse then but sore abuse,

Many a bitter word and blow.

So begone from my window, my love, do.’

 

‘Your mum and dad they are both asleep,

And they are sure not to hear us speak,

For they’re sleeping sound on their bed of down,

And they draw their breath so low.

So, open the window, my love, do.’

 

My love arose and she opened the door,

And just like an angel she stood on the floor.

Her eyes shone bright like the stars at night,

And no diamonds could shine so.

So in with my true love I did go.

 

Salisbury Plain

 As I walked over Salisbury Plain,

Oh, there I met a scamping young blade.

He kissed me and enticed me so

Till along with him I was forced for to go.

 

We came unto a public house at last,

And there for man and wife we did pass.

He called for ale and wine and strong beer,

Till at length we both to bed did repair.

 

‘Undress yourself, my darling,’ says he.

‘Undress yourself, and come to bed with me.’

‘Oh yes, that I will,’ then says she,

‘If you’ll keep all those flash girls away.’

 

 

‘Those flash girls you need not fear,

For you’ll be safe-guarded, my dear.

I’ll maintain you as some lady so gay,

For I’ll go a-robbing on the highway.’

 

Early next morning my love he arose,

And so nimbly he put on his clothes.

Straight to the highway he set sail,

And t’was there he robbed the coaches of the mail.

 

Oh, it’s now my love in Newgate Jail do lie,

Expecting every moment to die.

The Lord have mercy on his poor soul,

For I think I hear the death-bell for to toll.

 

Bibliography

Hobsbawm, E.J. and Rude, G, Captain Swing (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1970)

Ed. Lodge, D and Wood, N, Modern Criticism and Theory: Umberto, E, ‘Casablanca: Cult movie and Intertextual Collage’(London: Pearson Education Limited 2000)

Ed. Lloyd, A.L. and Williams, R.V., The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, (London: Penguin, 1959)

Lloyd, A.L, Folk Song in England, (London: Faber and Faber 1967)

Young, J, The Pentrich Revolution, (Derbyshire: Eebygum books 2016) 


[1]Umberto Eco, Casablanca: Cult movies and intertextual collage (London: Pearson Education Limited, 2000) p393, hereafter CB

[2]Beatrice Parvin, Captain Swing and the Blacksmith p.151

[3]In 1845 Andover Workhouse was investigated for the abuse towards its inmates. They suffered from severe malnutrition and neglect. It was discovered that they crushed bones to make fertiliser which was sold for the profit of the corrupt and vicious master, Colin McDougal. It was also found that the men fought over bones to suck in order to get any bone marrow for extra nutrition.

[4]A.L Lloyd, Folk Song in England (London: Faber and Faber, 1967) p169, hereafterFSE

[5]Arguably General Ludd, served a similar purpose for the Luddites. Yet this name has its origins in the real Ned Ludd, a youth who smashed two stocking frames. The name became emblematic of machine destroyers and evolved into an imaginary General, sometimes known as King Ludd. In 1817 Jeremiah Brandreth known as the ‘Nottingham Captain’, lead the ‘Pentrich revolution’ inspired by the words of Tom Paine.

 

 

 

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