Friday 20 May 2016

Telling the Bees

Words and music by David Longdon
Telling The Bees is the 8th track from the album 'Folklore' by Big Big Train
Telling the Bees is the closing track on the album and is therefore the final episode in our series of blogs.

I wrote the music first which was inspired by the title. I find having a title helps to set the mood and instrumentation of the piece within my imagination. It's like having a final destination in mind. Telling the bees is a traditional bit of folklore surrounding bee keeping. There is also a notable poem with the same title written by John Greenleaf Whittier. My version is inspired by the folkloric tradition rather than Whittier's poem.  

I wrote Telling the Bees on a 12 string acoustic guitar, tuned to DADGAD with a capo on the 6th fret - which makes the tuning G#D#G#C#D#G#. The reason I used the capo was to make sure that my voice had a yearning quality to it. (Budding songwriters please take note - always make sure that the key of the song you're writing, shows off the singers voice to their best advantage!) Although be warned that guitarists may curse your name forever for doing so! I had also updated my DAW during the summer of 2014 and this was the first piece of music that I'd written with it.

I had the melody, the chords and the arrangement down quickly. The chorus words are simply the title of the song repeated over and over. I then lived with it for a few weeks and let the story of the song settle in my mind. Songs have a habit of being ready when they're ready to reveal themselves. Some songs happen quickly while others take their time to fully emerge. You can rush these things but in my experience, if you can, let them unfold as they will. It's good to have the external stimuli of a production deadline but make sure that you give yourself the time to think about the words thoroughly, or you may regret it later. 

When I began to write the lyrics for this song, I imagined the first verse being set towards the end of the First World War. Many events happened in the UK to commemorate WWI during 2014. We are all creatures of our time and so these life events either consciously or subconsciously impact upon the subject matter of the songs that Greg and I would write to make up Folklore

In the song narrative, a grieving war widow tells her son that he now must 'tell the bees' of his fathers death and also that he must pick up the mantle and become the next beekeeper. I like the idea that these traditions would keep on being passed down the generations. This of course is a very strong theme of the Folklore album and it also links back to themes of the English Electric recordings.

This song has a sense of the passing of time and of course, significant life events come and go throughout the years. Now the father is gone, the boy has had to become the man who carries it on. Years later he meets a girl, they marry, they have a son and so once the child has grown up - he too may choose to carry it on. It is a simple lyric about the human cycle of life, death and rebirth.

The "1,2,3,4..." count in is my voice being picked up by my 12 string guitar mic. We liked it and so it stayed in the final mix. Oddly enough this count in would have been the very first part that I recorded at the demo stage of the recording process. The initial moment captured and preserved.

When Greg and I were going through what we had and what we needed in terms of songs for Folklore, I played him my demo of Telling the Bees. He liked it and he instantly said that his initial thought was that it would make a strong final track for the album. As the music is written and recorded the final pieces start to be drawn together as a cohesive body of work, jostling for their final positions in the album running order. Telling the Bees has remained the final track.

Danny Manners brought the Prog to this song with his gorgeous Mellotron choir part at the end which makes the track lift as though being somehow exalted at the final chorus. He also slips in a cheeky little piece of Rimsky Korsakov's Flight of the Bubble Bee in the organ embellishments just before the end of the piece. 

Nick D'Virgilio plays the most audacious drum fill in the history of of audacious drum fills shortly before we enter into the middle section where Dave Gregory brings the beautiful slide guitar solo into soaring technicolour.

To conclude my post, I have included an old clipping [below] from a local paper which perhaps may go towards showing that there is more truth in the folklore of Telling the Bees than at first meets the eye.

We (Greg and I) hope that our 'Folklore' blogs have been a useful source of information in the build up to the release of Folklore. As always, there are more stories to tell and sure enough, we are currently working on a follow e.p which will be called Skylon, which is due for release in April 2017.

Thank you for the support that you have given us on our latest endeavour. It is greatly appreciated. Until next time... 

David Longdon
Nottinghamshire May 2016

Friday 6 May 2016


Words and music by David Longdon
Winkie is track 7 from the album 'Folklore' by Big Big Train

Winkie is the true story of a war hero.

To me Winkie most certainly has a 'from the makers of Judas Unrepentant' vibe about it. I think it takes some of the ideas present in Judas and extends them. Just as Judas tells the story of infamous art forger Tom Keating, Winkie tells the story of how a blue chequered hen saved the lives of her aircrew and would become the inaugural recipient of a PDSA Dickin Medal (the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross.) It is a fantastic story that I wanted to set to music and when Greg and I were discussing ideas for the album, Winkie was a no brainer. It had BBT written all over it and we had to do it.

When researching the background to the story, I have read and seen various accounts of what happened and there are some significant variations in the finer details. For instance, I saw Winkie's number being listed as NEU40 NSL but I have also recently seen it listed as NEUH40 NSL and there are other variations too. I went with the former. Another example is when an exhausted Winkie made it back home to her loft in Broughty Ferry. Although it says that she was discovered by her owner George Ross, I went with her being discovered by Sgt Davidson (the loft manager) because I liked the storytelling of it. The source of this information was a highly informative documentary called War of The Birds. I felt that this way was the right way to gave the lyric a solid, personal and realistic element. Although it states that George Ross was Winkie's owner, there are conflicting reports of who discovered her and who made the life saving call.

I have placed a link to the excellent documentary called "War of the Birds" in the last paragraph but here it is again, if you missed it. WAR OF THE BIRDS

There is also no mention of the magnificent team of people (or the brilliant individual) who pieced together the information gained from Winkie's epic flight home in order to work out an approximate location of the doomed aircrew.  This information rein-formed air sea rescue to go out again and look for the crew once more (having abandoned hope of finding them on an earlier search over an impossibly wide target area.) So I went with what scanned lyrically. If I am factually wrong then I sincerely apologise. I worked with the information that was available to me at the time. I went with what I had and what felt right. (Mea culpa - Poetic licence)

As expected, with the advent of easily accessible social media, Winkie's tale has inevitably entered into the realm of folklore. Albeit with specific details being slightly altered and retold and reinterpreted as her story is recounted (and I am no exception.) It is what we humans do when we pass our stories on and hand them down. Yes, I have taken poetic licence to make it work as a piece of music (as I usually do.) but I went with what I felt would make an interesting story become an engaging piece of music.

When writing and arranging Winkie, I wanted the size and scale of the music to be in proportion to the heroism of Winkie's act and in complete contrast to her physical size. I also wanted it to sound like the soundtrack to an adventure movie. The music follows and responds to what is happening in the story line. At times it is bombastic and at then at other moments it is fragile.

In comparison to beady eyed Grimspound (the crow) who fixes us all with his piercing gaze from the cover of Folklore, Winkie is a pigeon who is in no way any less determined. The gargantuan effort of her flying free from the wreckage of the downed aircraft and flying 120 miles back to her loft, heavy with salt water, covered in fuel and oil. Flying in awful weather conditions she arrived back at her loft in a bedraggled and exhausted state.

Picture bAngus McBride

Flying at night in harsh conditions. She was the only hope of survival for the four airmen. Their lives rested solely on her making it home.
A photograph of Winkie with her grateful crew.

Major W.H. Osman campaigned for the continued funding of the National Pigeon Service which had served the war effort well in WWI. Once the war was over, the funding was cut because the War Office believed that newly introduced radio communication technology was the way forward and pigeons were old hat. Major Osman was not convinced and he fought hard to keep the National Pigeon Service funded and active incase of breakdowns in radio communication. Major Osman also insisted that two pigeons would accompany each bomber crew incase radio communications broke down whilst on mission.

All very fine in theory but the NPS (National Pigeon Service) cost money to the War Office and the one thing that they needed to justify their expenditure was exactly the thing that the NPS was trying to avoid happening.

In order for the NPS to get funding, conclusive proof was needed. On February 23rd 1942, thanks to Winkie, the NPS would earn their justification and that is what this song is about.

Safely back at RAF Leuchars the grateful aircrew held a dinner in honour of Winkie in their mess. She was in her cage at the head of the table. In 1943 Winkie was the first to be awarded a PDSA Dickin Medal for saving the lives of her crew.
The veterinary Charity Founder Marie Dickin awarding Winkie [the inaugural recipient] her PDSA Dickin Medal. Winkie is being held by Wing Commander Lea Rayner:- 1943

By writing a piece of music about Winkie, she becomes a folk heroine and she is a very deserving one at that. I liked this subject matter because I thought that it was an extraordinary story and it cried out to have a song written about it. Winkie is without doubt a true heroine. And it only goes to show that heroes can be any size. 

David Longdon