I write lots of songs but I share almost none of them. This is not conducive to getting better.

I wrote this song called Seafarer which I  have attempted to record. I wanted to share it here and make some comments about the process and the source material.

The Concept
I’m giving myself a project that I’ve dubbed “Loaned Lyrics”. The idea is to respond to some of my favourite poems (or potentially other works) with music. The inspiration to do this came from my adventures in my university’s choir. After singing a text, you don’t read it the same.

Seafarer is originally an Old English poem that presents a beautiful image of a man who has lost his companions and his king. He now is a sailor and wander. This is a common trope in Old English texts called ‘Ubi Sunt’, Latin for ‘Where are they [now]?’ You’ve seen this trope in Lord of the Rings when Théoden (in the movies) asks ‘Where is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?‘ In this instance he’s almost directly quoting another Old English poem, The Wanderer.

The Text
Most of the text in the verses of my song is adapted from the Seafarer poem.

From Seafarer:

“Pinched with cold
were my feet, bound by frost
in cold fetters, while cares seethed
hot around my heart, and hunger gnawed
my sea-weary mind. That man does not know,
he whose lot is fairest on land,
how I dwelt all winter, wretched with care,
on the ice-cold sea in the paths of exile,
deprived of dear kinsmen,
hung with icicles of frost while hail flew in showers.”
(Lines 8b – 17)

I took a lot of lines from this passage, comprising most of the first verse:

“Frost crests my forehead and colds pinch me feet.
My head’s hanging heavy, my heart’s filled with heat.
A feeling long foreign to those rich on dust
Are icicles growing from gunwales of rust.”

I’ve obviously taken several liberties. I thought “Rich on dust” was clearer outside the context of the original than “Whose lot is fairest on land”. Also, it had to rhyme.

My least favourite of my own lyrics is “I have no ring, no girl to hold, but the crests of waves shine bright as gold.” I wanted to adapt the part of the original that reads,

“He has no thought of the harp or the taking of rings,
nor the pleasures of woman nor joy in the world…”
(Lines 44, 45)

The rings here actually don’t refer to wedding rings, but the treasure shared between a lord and a warrior, the ‘Lord-Retainer Relationship.’ I wrestled with these lyrics and found no better way to portray those words. Kinda shameful.

Why the archaic language? Much of it comes from the source material. ‘Whale-Road’ and ‘Sea-Flood’ are examples of kennings, devices in which words are combined to create metaphorical meaning. These examples both refer to the sea. It sounds much more interesting when you call it a whale-road. The ‘O’ers’, over other overs, just sounded better.

The chorus and bridge are my own invention, my claim to the poem as applying to myself. “I am his ward he is my bearer,” ended up sound curious as it sounds like “he” is the sea (usually attributed as feminine). Understanding the source material (the loss of the speaker’s lord and companions) illuminates what’s actually going on here. The Seafarer poem portrays the life of a Christian in the world, not belonging to it and finding no home in it. The lord, in this case Christ, is departed but the speaker is on his way back to him.

“The sound of the waves breaks with sounds of the choir.” What choir? The choir invisible, perhaps. There is a morbid tint to the song, but it’s optimistic morbidity. If that’s a thing. It is now.

The Music
“Isn’t this like the same four chords over and over again?”

…Kinda. First of all, this is the second song I’ve ever shared publicly and the first was performed live. So I’m trying to figure out equipment and programs and all sorts of stuff. And I aint no music student so I do what I can!

In truth, I wanted to evoke something of the feeling of a sea shanty. I had “What Will We Do With A Drunken Sailor” running through my mind while putting this together. I hope its simplicity evokes something of that culture.

Mixing multiple tracks of yourself and singing in key is hard! And, again I stress, I’ve never done this before! I’ll do it again if people like it, though.

“What key is this in?” It is in F# Minor! Why? Because it’s E Minor with the capo moved to where my strings don’t buzz as much. My guitar is a bit cheap.

Well, I hope you like something. If not my song then perhaps you can like the sunshine or yourself or something.

Read Seafarer!


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