Monday, May 09, 2005

Steeleye Span: "Cam Ye O'er Frae France"

Don't believe the hype: in spite of what SOME people would have you believe (I'm looking meaningfully at here), Span's fifth album, Parcel of Rogues, is not overall one of their stronger efforts--certainly the least of their oringal seventies albums. There are some undeniably some good tunes there, but there's also a disproportionate amount of stuff that's just...kind of boring. The highlight is undoubtedly Cam Ye O'er Frae France. It's a really interesting piece of music. Per the link, the song is meant to mock King George I in a rather risque manner, so you'd expect it to sound kind of light or silly...but actually, when you listen to it, you find that that's not at all the case: in fact, it's extraordinarily eerie and mysterious-sounding. Of course, this is aided by the fact that the lyrics aren't at all easy to understand: as you can see, there's a lot of archaic vocabulary, but just reading the lyrics is misleading, since Maddy Prior affects a vaguely Scots English-sounding accent, so even common words are often hard to understand. And when you do understand a phrase here and there, it tends to reinforce the impression of drama ("There they'll learn to dance: Madam, are ye ready?") In any case, even reading the lyrics and looking at the definitions, I still don't totally know what's being said. You probably had to be there. But in large part the impression is created music itself, I should say. I have a great deal of trouble describing music, but listen to it yourself and you will see.

I had to take a document design class this semester. It was not what one would call a good experience; not only do I have little affinity for visual design, but the instructor wasn't really so much on the competent side. But the point is this: she had these concepts she came up with for her doctoral thesis regarding documents, and how visual and verbal elements interact with one another and goddamn, I can't believe I was able to write a phrase like that. "Contradictory interplay" is--rather obviously--what you get when the images and text contradict one another, and I feel like applying that to this song. It's so striking that I must assume it was intentional--the marriage of low subject matter to high music. And so I must congratulate Hart, Prior, and company--it has to take real vision to see the dramatic potential in an eighteenth-century equivalent of the National Enquirer.


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