Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Songwriting: My Bonnie Highland Lass

The sun has set, let's have a wet
It's time to raise a glass
To Annie of the ruby lips
My bonnie highland lass
My mood is dim and melancholy
This in turn will pass
As I ponder on the wonder
Of my bonnie highland lass

My bonnie highland lassie
Has left and gone way
I fear that all the bright lights
Have led her all astray
Her hair so black and raven
Her choc'late eyes so brown
Here I'll make a haven
For her coming from the town

The sun has set, the day is wet
As I stare into the grave
Of my bonnie highland lassie
The love I couldn't save
No more I'll pipe to please her
It's time to say a mass
My only goal to save the soul
Of my bonnie highland lass


This tune was written literally as fast as I could write it down, maybe two minutes for the lyrics and five minutes for the music. I share space at work with Anne Cowan, who was hired by former Crabtree owner Margaret McLean many years ago as part of an outreach program with the London Mental Health unit. Annie was an English teacher before being hit with schizophrenia, and works about 6 hours per week, when she remembers to show up. She is also a poet, having written 7 volumes of poetry (although she refuses to publish them).

Anyway, Annie and I chat about philosophy, science, literature, beer, music, and whatever topics amuse us. Her latest complaint was that I had never written a song for her. I agreed to write one on the spot. She wanted a Scottish song, with all the correct elements. Her hair, she said was raven black, not grey, and her lips were ruby. She wanted the song melancholy, and we needed to put bagpipes and the word 'bonnie' in it. I came up with My Bonnie Highland Lass. When she objected that she was a lowlands girl, I overruled her - not romantic! You're a highland girl now. Plus I decided to kill her off in the end, which she thought was appropriate. I had been contemplating putting Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar" to music, so the starting point of the lyric was easy, and the rest just flowed.

The tune was a mish mash of Loch Lomond, Coming Through the Rye, and The Northen Lights of Old Aberdeen, hopefully fused into something unique. I stole an idea from Chris De Burgh's "I'm Coming Home" off the Spanish Train album to help me get through the chorus. Working out the chords was the laborious part - I'm still not very good at finding the right chord to put behind a melody to convey the sound I want. The last consideration was I wanted this to be able to be played on a recorder (or any pipe) so I had to constrain the melody to make it fit into one octave. Anyway, it was fun to write.


Clare said...

Cool! I'll learn it on recorder and we can see how it sounds. What's the speed?

John said...

If you think of 6/8 time as having two beats, then 1 beat or 3 quarter-notes = about 60 on the metronome. When I sing it, I am very free with the time; with someone else accompanying I would have to tighten it up. With all the space in this song, there are ample opportunities for putting in those little trills that the Scottish do with their pipes.

John said...

of course I meant one beat or three eighth-notes = 60 (can't edit a comment once posted grr)