Wednesday 13 June 2012

Folk Numbers

This is just a little observation on how to write folk poetry. Louis Armstrong once observed that "All music is folk music, I ain't never heard no horse sing a song."* However, there is a certain style, a certain flavour that some poems and songs have, and that others do not. If we ignore, for the moment, the music; it is rather odd that some lines should be folky and others non-folky. Why?

Sing a song of pennies,
A pocket full of rye,
Lots and lots of blackbirds baked in a pie.

Lots of blind mice,
Lots of blind mice,
See how they run...

Yes, sir, yes, sir, several bags full

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er seven hills
When all at once I saw a crowd
Of four and twenty daffodils.

Let us go through seven half-deserted streets
The muttering retreats...

Do you see what I'm getting at? Precise numbers sound folky. Of course, that isn't an iron rule, but it is a standard ingredient in that folksy flavour. Indeed, the best imitators of folk use this all the time. Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a classic example. It's almost an exercise in enumeration. He starts it off in the second line:

It is an ancient mariner
And he stoppeth one of three

Why three? There's no particular point to the number. And Coleridge does not stop there. There aren't just lots of people on the ship, there are:

Four times fifty living men

Who are condemned when a pale lady "whistles thrice." Things don't happen in weeks, they happen in:

Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die.

Like one that hath been seven days drowned 
My body lay afloat;

The albatross accompanies the ship for precisely nine days, and the spirit follows the boat not "deep in the sea", as most poets would have put it, but exactly "nine fathoms deep".

The same trick is used by the great faker of folk songs, Bob Dylan. Here there are too many examples to name - seven sad forests, six wild horses, fifteen jugglers, five believers, fourth time around - once you start listening for them they're bloody everywhere.

So if you want to write something that sounds traditional and folky and magical - just chuck in some precise numbers. Simple.

Why this should be is a slightly odder question. And I have three different possible answers.

1) It reminds us of the Bible - the forty days and forty nights, the twelve disciples, the ten plagues, the four horsemen, the seven tongued angel etc etc etc. It could also, perhaps, remind us of magical spells in fairy stories where things often have to be repeated a particular number of times.

2) (And this is related) Numbers feel significant. When you read in the Ancient Mariner that the spirit was nine fathoms deep, you wonder what that means. It's as though there had been an ancient significance which is now lost in the fogs of time.

3) It's how folk actually talk. Poets and novelists will usually say that somebody stayed somewhere a long time. Actual people will say that they lived in Paris (or wherever) for three years. Nobody says "I work high in an office block." They say "I work on the eighteenth floor." Creation is vague. Life requires counting.

*Louis Armstrong lived before YouTube


  1. I wonder if (2) links with the use of isopsephy in the past in Greek, Hebrew and Arabic,
    where numbers sometimes meant words and so had extra meaning?

  2. I sometimes wonder about phrases like - the whole nine yards. Why yards? And indeed, why nine. A nine day wonder - why nine days? In our system days are dived into batches of seven - so why nine? I am sure Mark has the answer!

  3. The whole nine yards comes from WWII
    The ammo belt on the machine guns for the P59 Mustang was 9 yards long, so when a pilot used up the entire belt on a single target he gave them the "Whole Nine Yards"

  4. Well observed. Maybe this is why 'Green Grow the Rushes O' has survived 1500 years. How many songs last that long?

    It is solid numbers and many of them now very obscure. The apostles and commandments ok but some of the others, I have read, no one knows what they are about anymore.

  5. And don't get me started on imperial vs metric. I live in a metric country but imperial - hands and feet - that is what people are. The numbers make sense and sound right in a way metric never will. Imperial is way more user friendly.

  6. Ok, so hands not so much these days... but they should be brought back!

    1. Hands are still around, but usually just for horses. You never hear a horse measured in metres!

    2. ... nor its price other than in guineas!

  7. I had always believed the line from T.S. Eliot's "The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was - "Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, the muttering retreats...."

  8. The Mustang was the P51 and was the 'Cadillac of the sky' - There was also a twin-fuselaged version that saw service during the Korean War as a night-fighter. Known by its' nickname of The Black Widow, technically the F82 Twin Mustang.....

    Laurie -

  9. And the long tall Texan (with the 10 gallon hat) also rides a Honda 125 in the version of the song that I know.

  10. In Latvian folklore the number 9 seems to be a magic number. For instance if the hero rides over nine rivers it means he has gone to the ends of the Earth. And a popular folk song mentions songs being sung in nine regions - in other words everywhere.

  11. Ta, I have been wondering about other languages. It would be nice to imagine a place that has an alternative to 'The 12 days of Christmas'..

    Another number thing I have noticed is about the lives of cats. Mine have 9. Many Euro cats get just 7. I wonder if this is about assonance or just a terrible misunderstanding!

  12. [em]I made four garlands for her head,
    And bracelets two, and foxglove lone;
    She look'd at me as she did love,
    And made sweet moan.[/em]