Ye Banks And Braes – Robert Burns in John Martyn style

The banks of the river Doon

Following my post about  John Martyn I was thinking about where I’d used his guitar style most, and it was probably this Robert Burns song.

I’m using the thumb-slap technique that was the mainstay of Martyn’s acoustic work, the most celebrated example being May You Never. In this song I’ve dropped the E string down to D, and I’m playing with a capo on the second fret so I sing it in E.

Here are the chords in D for the first two sections, which are repeated for the rest:

D            A7
Ye Banks and braes
D        G6
O' bonny Doon
D        G6
How can you bloom
D             A7
Sae fresh and fair?
D           A7
How can you chaunt
D         G6  
Ye little birds
D         G6
And I sae weary
A7      D
Fu' o' care

Ye'll break my heart
Ye warblin birds
     D       D7
That wanton through
Em          A7
The flowery thorn
D          A7
Ye mind me o'
D         G6 
Departed joys
D        G6
Departed never
A7   D
To return

Robert Burns and me

I have my parents to thank for my love of Burns, as well as being brought up in the heart of the Burns legend. This song finds the poet, let’s face it, feeling sorry for himself and complaining about why the birds and trees can be happy when he’s been dumped by his girlfriend.

I experienced the same thing as a fourth-year schoolboy on the very same banks of the Doon, pining for a fifth-year girl. So yes, I’ve suffered for my art. (Now it’s your turn, as the saying goes.)

This recording of Ye Banks And Braes

This recording was made in 2013 by Daniel Davis, who added some lovely trumpet.

Here’s a Soundcloud audio link where you can download the free mp3. If you like it, please share it on Facebook, Twitter and whatever means of production you currently occupy.

The video

The video was shot on my phone in 2012, before I learned that you shoot video in landscape not portrait. It’s not the river Doon, but the river Ayr, pretty close by most standards. I grew up very close to the river and it’s a place of childhood wonder for me.

Thumb slap guitar technique

If you’re new to the thumb slap technique here’s the first of a series of tutorials by Gareth Evans. The rest are here.

(This is an update of a post from 2013 which didn’t have the chords)

Songstories #22 – History

Clinton supporters on night of US election

Not a political song as such, but one arising from the current state of play.

On the drive home from a rehearsal I was chewing over an explanation I’d read of why I and so many friends have been so shaken by Brexit and Trump and all that. The article (not in the public domain) looked at the idea of the ‘progressive’ as someone who believed in progress, i.e. that over the span of history things will get ‘better’. Better as in more liberty, more democracy, more compassion, more equality, less conflict etc – so ‘better’ in the aspirational vision of those who believe in it. It’s not just a hope or a dream, it’s where history is ultimately heading.

I remember discussing with a Marxist friend many years ago her belief that Marxist economics was a science as ‘hard’ as physics or biology, and that a state I could only describe as utopian was as inevitable as the law of gravity, except that there would be a lot of suffering on the way. There was no question of human nature messing it up, as ‘human nature’ was a construct that didn’t exist – people will be what they are educated to be, so once the right people are in charge of education … you get the picture.

I think for some, the arrival of Trump and Brexit, and the popular surge that created them, challenge the very idea of progress that they’ve built their belief systems on.  That’s what I had the stupid idea of trying to shoehorn into a pop song.

Mixed up in there is the Norwegian story of the Lindworm Prince, another tale of how the world turns out not as we thought it should, but interestingly, is redeemed when we look honestly at what it is without the layers of stories we build.

ZagdThat particular weekend I’d practically lost my voice, so I realised I’d have to either record it in a ‘talking’ voice or record teh backing and put the completion off till later. I was afraid I’d go off it so I did a hasty recording. It turned out way too long, so I’ve edited out a verse. The main instrument, apart from various drum loops from, is the Zagdrum, which I’m spending more and more time playing. I’ve made lots of instrumentals with it but not used it much in songs till now.

Songstories #8 Come With Me

Come With Me was written from my memories of a very hot summer in Edinburgh in 1976, when I’d moved here for the first time (the second time was in 1990). I lived near the Meadows and had a part-time job stacking boxes in a fruit shop before opening time. I’d finish my work by 8:30 and walk home across the Meadows, sometimes stopping for a nap. The weather was that good.

It was also at that time I encountered serious practitioners of Zen Buddhism. I’d always been interested in the general meditation area, but by that time it was emerging from the association with psychedelics and ‘freaks’ with their head shops, man, but the beginnings of the twee, sentimental New Age infatuation were becoming apparent. Zen seemed to counter both those tendencies with its emphasis on discipline and its dismissal of the ‘be nice to yourself’ culture (“It’s not enough to be a freak, you’ve got to be a strong one” and “It’s not enough to be set free, you’ve got to love the jail” still sum it up for me).

I wrote the song in the early 2000s, and recorded it for the Roadblock album in 2005. At the time I recorded it, I was using the Robert Fripp tuning CGDAEG on my acoustic, and the basic track uses that, but I layered another guitar in conventional tuning with it, in the background. I’ve noticed that not many people use that thumb-slap picking style I use. Mary Robbs sang the harmonies and Nelson Wright played some percussion. Daniel Davis said it was my one of my best recording jobs, and it’s certainly one I can still enjoy listening to.

Inspirations: Desert Island Discs

Some months ago, a discussion on the Out of the Bedroom board invited readers to choose their Desert Island Discs – the albums they would take with them if they were to be marooned on a desert island with the best sound system available (so that’s plausible, eh?). It’s a fun exercise, so I picked albums that aren’t necessarily favourites or most influential, but ones that I could live with and come back to for an extended time. For some reason, classical music, compilations and live albums were not to be included.

Revisiting the exercise now (November 2004) I’ve only changed one of my original list. Most of them have Amazon links where you can listen to snippets and – if you want – buy them!

Smiling Men with Bad Reputations Mike Heron
Innervisions Stevie Wonder
Catch Bull at Four Cat Stevens
U The Incredible String Band
Ten New Songs Leonard Cohen
Bel Gabriel Yacoub
Abbey Road The Beatles
The Equatorial Stars Fripp and Eno
Rhythm of the Saints Paul Simon
Time out of Mind Bob Dylan


Smiling Men with Bad Reputations: Mike Heron

Smiling Men cover.

I’ve said enough about this album elsewhere. An early 70s superstar session featuring John Cale, Richard Thompson, Pete Townshend and Keith Moon among others, plus the some of the best material Heron has committed to album. Smiling Men on Amazon


Innervisions: Stevie Wonder

Innervisions cover.

From the initial charge into Higher Ground through the gruff choirs of Living for the City to the sublime title track, the whole album proclaims the sheer joy of singing. The friend who introduced me to it, however, said at the time, ‘Never mind the singing, feel the rhythm!’ It’s all there. Innervisions on Amazon


Catch Bull at Four: Cat Stevens

Catch Bull at Four cover.

This was the album in which Stevens began to leave behind his more innocent-sounding acoustic ditties and get into some more complex arrangements. His voice also got harder and more soulful. Even listening to it now I find new touches of percussion or backing vocal I hadn’t noticed before. I never fail to get a thrill from the surging arrangement of Eighteenth Avenue. Catch Bull on Amazon


U: the Incredible String Band

U cover.

With my lifelong association with the ISB it’s hard to pick an album but I have to pick one. The trouble is I know most of them so well, there’s little left to hear in them. This is the one I think I could listen to for a few years more. It has two of Robin Williamson’s finest songs Queen of Love and Invocation plus the feel of all the different periods of the ISB’s development up to that time, with sitars, shanais, comedy songs, challenging poetry and Mike Heron just beginning to explore his ‘rock’ voice. U on Amazon


Ten New Songs: Leonard Cohen

Ten New Songs cover.

I select this over other favourite Cohen albums for the obvious Zen influence, the unified and consistent mood and the wonderfully-recorded deep voice. It’s a long way from his early stuff, which I also love, but it conveys more than its explicit message, and seems to change the atmosphere of the room in which it’s played. Ten New Songs o n Amazon.


Bel: Gabriel Yacoub

Bel cover.

An album of traditional-influenced original songs by a French folk-rock pioneer of the 70s (with his band Malicorne). Biting acoustic guitar complemented here and there by pipes or a string quartet. This came out in the early 90s, followed by a couple of albums which I found bombastic and over-arranged. This simple collection of short, emotional songs leaves you wanting more. Bel on Amazon. ( There are no audio samples on Amazon but you can hear Bel here. )


Abbey Road: the Beatles

Abbey Road cover.

I wanted some moptop in my collection but it was a tough one to call between this, Revolver and McCartney’s Ram. In the end I picked this as the final flowering of the partnership with such wonders as I Want You, Something and the ‘side two medley’. Abbey Road on Amazon


The Equatorial Stars: Fripp and Eno

equatorial stars cover.

This is the only one I’ve changed since my first list, reluctantly bumping the Handsome Family’s Twilight. This came out in the summer of 2004 and is a series of tentative, exploratory guitar solos against crystalline backdrops. Sounds cold? It isn’t – Fripp’s phrasing has a yearning quality that reaches to the heart. This album is  available from EnoShop where you can hear a couple of samples.


Rhythm of the Saints: Paul Simon

Rhythm of the Saints cover.

Simon’s follow-up to Graceland, working with African and Brazilian musicians to make what must be his most musically and lyrically complex work. It would take years of satisfying listening to tease out all the strands of The Coast, Further to Fly or the title track. A masterpiece. Rhythm of the Saints on Amazon


Time Out of Mind: Bob Dylan

Time Out of Mind cover.

Sure, it’s not as well-written as Blood on the Tracks or as exultant as Desire, but again I’ve almost drained them dry from listening, and this album, while flawed, has the advantage of those crepuscular arrangements and a great grumbling-old-man vocal. Plus it’s got Highlands! And the cover picture sums up the music perfectly. Time Out of Mind on Amazon

© Norman Lamont 2004