When Northshield Sings of the Griffin

A long time ago in a Kingdom far far away there was a Bardic Colliegum. One of the people teaching that day was Baldwin of Erebor, and his class was a walk though of the writing of “Burden of the Crown.” Baldwin had kept all his notes, and had turned those notes into overhead slides (if you don’t know what those are ask your parents) Projected on the screen was a thing I’d never imagined seeing; the map of another persons creative process. It was an amazing experience for me, to be guided though the writing of a song that has become a part of the fabric of the SCA.

What follows is a breakdown of the lyric, and an explanation of the thought process, that informed the writing and subsequent performance of “When Northshield Sings of the Griffin,” my piece for the finial challenge of the Northshield Bardic Compititon. I hope that it will be as useful to those who read it as Baldwin’s explination was for me.

The finial assignment for the compitition was to write a piece that had three attributes.

  • The piece was to be upbeat.
  • The piece was to be inspirational.
  • The piece was to contain at least a small amount of humor.

We were also informed that the piece should be “less than ten minutes long,” but since I’ve never written anything ten minutes long in my life I didn’t find that restrictive. We were given the challenge a little before 11 AM, and our pieces had to be completed and ready for court that evening.

This type of contest, where one is compelled to write a piece in a short amount of time based on a set of words or some broad criteria, is among my least favorite. I like to tune my lyrics phrase by phrase until they say exactly (or at least as close as I can come) what I want them to say. More than that I like to have practiced and polished the performance. There is very little time for either in this type of challenge.

In “Abstract: The Art of Design ” Christoph Niemann relates a story of how, during his apprentice, he was told that “Inspiration is for armatures.” That idea had a big impact on my thinking leading into this challenge. I have, for most of my life, felt like I needed to wait for inspiration, for the muse to speak. But as I contemplated Niemann’s story I resolved that I would no longer allow the stricture of inspiration to be a factor in my writing.

When I’m casting around for a place to start I try to focus on themes that are relatable to the audiance I’m writing for. Who are they? What do they love? How do they express themselves? In the answers to these questions I hope to find an idea that will become a foundation that I can build on. What I’m trying to create, with every line, is a bridge between myself and the listener. Sometimes that starting place presents itself quickly, sometimes I have to hunt for it.

There are songs from the West that will thrill you
There are song from Caid that take flight

Those two lines, written as pure stream of consciousness, formed a thematic foundation that I could build from. Now I knew that my starting place was the different types of songs across the Known World. By following that train of thought then I could add the next line.

There are songs from the East that will kindle your blood
For battle and honor to fight

That’s ok, but not great. “For battle and honor to fight” is bit clumsy, but I was working on a deadline so I elected not to worry about it at that moment. Besides, I had hit on a thing I really wanted to say.

Atlantia’s muse sings of beauty

I was very pleased with that line, because it reminded me of Efenwealt’s beautiful “Fair Lady Atlantia.”

Calontir’s muse sings only of war

This is the humor in the first verse, based on the old saw that “Calontir sings everything in the key of war.” I did not know at the time that the King of Calontir would be sitting behind me when I sang this at closing court. Then again, it wouldn’t have made a bit if difference if I had known.

By now I knew this would be an eight-line stanza, so I knew I only had two lines left to build the first connection. This is the first and most important opportunity for the audience to buy in. What does Northshield care about?

One need look no further than the songs in Northshield’s informal “hymnal” for an answer. The North Star, the Griffin, the Three Words, Ice, and Snow. I dismissed the Three Words after very brief consideration as not a good fit for my opening. Next, I ruled out Ice and Snow as to obvious and overdone. For the North Star, I couldn’t come up with anything that hadn’t be tried, or become tired, a long time ago. All of which left me with only one good option.

But when Northshield sings of the Griffin
In the sound of the love in their soul

The quick reader will note that “soul” does not rhyme with “war.” Looking at the page I was not happy, and I knew it needed fixing. Worse, I had no tune, no idea where this narrative was leading, and a bardic workshop in the court pavilion that I needed to attend. I put the whole thing out of my mind went to meet my other obligation for the day.

I returned to my encampment feeling no better about my chance of completing this challenge in any credible way. I was looking at my eight lines, thinking that perhaps I should set them aside and try to find another approach when, on impulse, I showed my them to my wife. This is unusual, I almost never share works in progress with anyone.

Never, ever, underestimate the power of positive feedback. I was anything but in love with those eight lines but Angelina liked them, and because of that I chose to keep them and see what would follow. Ignoring the rhyme issues, I got out my guitar to see what kind of melody and accompaniment I could come up with.

Some people write music and then fit words to it. Others write words and then fit music to them. I tend to do both at the same time. Sometimes a song starts with a turn of phrase in the lyric, sometimes with a turn of phrase in the music. In this case the melody turned out to be the part that brought everything else together.

I started by finger picking my way through the possibilities for the accompaniment while humming some possible melody lines. I think it’s worth noting that I’ve written many songs that use this chord progression (C, Am, F, G) but also worth noting that so has everyone else. At first I was trying to get away from this comfortable pattern but then I remembered that I had less than two and a half hours left. After a few more minutes I realized that, while the music was lovely, it was not exactly “upbeat” so I switched to a flat pick and started working on a strumming pattern. Almost immediately I had the chorus.

They will sing you the song of the Griffin in war
And the song of the Griffin in love
As they raise up their voice to the Great Northern Start
That hangs in the heavens above

That chorus hits all the triggers I wanted to hit. It keeps the line of thought intact “these are the songs of these people” and added another Northshield icon, the North Star. Better still, it was a complete chorus in just four lines which I have learned is important. “I’m a Duke and You’re Not” has an eight-line chorus, which is the same length as the verses. This makes for a very long song and sometimes even I am board with it after we’ve done the first two or three verses. This is a mistake that I will not make again.

The use of the word “they” is important. “They” is separate, and distinct from the speaker. As soon as I saw that, I knew that the final chorus would trade “they” for “we,” and once I understood that I knew that the second verse would tell the listener about the “they” who are lifting their voices.

They can paint you a picture in black and in gold
Filled with snowflakes and fishes and light

In these two lines I’m alluding to the baronies of Nordskogen and Jararvellir, as well as Northshield over all, not by name but by heraldry.

Or spin you a tale of the Great Inner Sea
Or Rockhaven that sparkles so bright

It’s easy to call out large groups in the SCA. Kingdoms and Principalities, even events, get a lot of love but smaller groups get very little. I happen to know that the group in Inner Sea are in the process of reforming and starting to get out to things and I wanted to give them a bit of notice. The Shire of Rockhaven is also smaller group, located to the west of the 800-pound gorilla that is Nordskogen. They had invited me earlier in the year to their “Heads Will Role!” event and I wanted to give them a little love. Making “Rockhaven” fit in that space took a little bit of practice.

They can tell you the sound that a cow makes (moo BOOM!)
And they’ll laugh with delight and surprise

This happened long before I came to Northshield and I heard about it one the way back from Mid-Realm Bardic Madness in November of 2016. This line does two things. First, it provides the humor in the second verse. Second, and more important, it recalls an event that still lives in the memory of many of the longer-term residents in the kingdom.

Getting to this joke meant I was going to need to prep the audience. To that end I had spoken to a couple of friends and told them that when they heard the line “They can tell you the sound that a cow makes…” I needed them to yell “moo BOOM!” However, chance offered me another way to prime the audiance. I realized that our current Prince has been a part of Northshield for a long time, and would undoubtedly know the joke. Approaching the stage I said “Excuse me your Highness, but can you answer a question for me?” He nodded “Can you tell me” I asked, “What sound does a cow make?” He thought about it for no more than a second… “Moo BOOM!” Better yet, he got the audience involved by having them join him in a few more refrains. “Moo BOOM!” indeed.

Why? Because this phrase, this joke, is part of a defining moment for some of the older members of the Kingdom. By invoking it I recalled, for them, a moment from their past. Shaired experiences help to create a connections, and those connections can be leveraged to help create a connection between a song and an audience.

Better still, at that point the audiance was divided into two groups; Those laughing because they knew the joke, and those who wanted to know why the first group was laughing. Either way the entire audience was now engaged and wondering what I was going to do next, and the song had not yet started.

Now that we’ve had our funny it’s time to refocus on the love story

But it’s the song of the Griffin the stirs them
With a love you can see in their eyes

Verse three is where everything must come together. It’s the place where the emotional payload gets detonated. By now I know my theme, the transformation of the Other into Us.

There are days when I wonder where this road will end
Will I stay here or journey again
There are times I remember my distant homeland
Like the call of a long absent friend

The experience of moving, to a new school, or a new house, or a job, or a new town, is universal. I have now cast the “Other” in a story that the audience can relate to. At this point in the story the last four lines have all but written themselves in the imagination of the audience, because we all know how the story ends; It ends exactly as we want it to.

But when I hear the song of the Griffin
Filled with courage and love that’s so strong
I know that I’ve not traveled far from my home
But back to the place I belong

If you can deliver on that emotional resolution there is no possibility that the audience will not respond. We cement that emotional connection in the finial chorus

And we’ll sing you the song of the Griffin in war
And the song of the Griffin in love
As we raise up our voice to the Great Northing Star
That hangs in the heavens above

Yes, we’ll sing you the song of the Griffin in war
And the song of the Griffin in love
As we raise up our voice to the Great Northern Star
That hangs from the heavens above

And there in the chorus after the third verse is the “we” that was intended as the counter pint to “they” which I touched on earlier. Just as “They” is a seperator, “We” is an includer, in this context it denotes transformation, inclusion, and belonging.

The “Yes” in “Yes, we’ll sing….” is important too. It invites the audience to confirm the conclusion that the journey has come to, and to endorse the transformation and extend the membership of “us” to the speaker. Every act of inclusion brings the performer and the audience closer together. The art, indeed the magic, of performance is in taking them on the journey from “I’m the audience” to “this is our story.”

One thing about Northshield that I’ve always been amazed by is how well our populace does harmony. I knew that by this point the audience would be singing along with the chorus (that is, after all, the point of writing a chorus) and I knew that a fair number of them would be singing the harmony. Knowing this had given me an idea. At the start of the finial chorus I stopped playing, looked up, smiled at the audience and said “Bring me the harmony Northshield.”

And they did.

A few days later I sat down in my office and fixed all the broken rhymes and misremembered names. I fiddled with the music, tried out some variations and polished things up a bit. It is, in my estimation, a better song now than it was on the day it was first performed.

The live performance:  http://bit.ly/2vyseq1

The revised recording: http://bit.ly/2u2QEIB

The finial lyrics with chords: http://bit.ly/2vynfWo

Burden of  the Crown by Baldwin of Erebor: http://bit.ly/2iJXTDd

Fair Lady Atlantia by Effenwealt Wystle: http://bit.ly/2iLnwTV

Author: tmsbrdo

I've been a member of the SCA since 1984, lived in three kingdoms and writen some music you may have heard.

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