Dark Horse writes to BtP:
A Whiter Shade of Pale : what’s it all about?
On 12 March 1791 the Scots poet, Robert Burns, wrote a poem called Tam o’Shanter (A tale). The poem tells a story about a drunken, womanising man who witnesses a witches' party in an old church, whilst riding home after a serious drinking session. In an introductory letter to the poem it is mentioned that the poem is to be presented to Captain Grose. Mention is also made within the introduction, to another poem "To all ye ladies now on land" the night before an expected sea engagement … (prose summary in Modern English)
During 1966 / 1967 Keith Reid (full name Keith Stuart Brian Reid – a guid Scots label there by the way) modernised this poem, and Gary Brooker (and Matthew Fisher) added some of the most haunting music the last millennium has produced. Reid's type of song-writing was similar to another musical artist, David Bowie, in that he would cut up lines of text, mix them up then re-assemble the textual mix. I believe this is why the song starts about three-quarters of the way through the poem.
Consideration should be given to the fact that the two pieces were created 176 years apart. The same words and phrases take on different connotations over the centuries.
We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels 'cross the floor –
Fandango is an energetic Spanish dance. From the poem this refers to the witches' dancing in the presence of ‘auld Nick’ (devil) himself, inside the old church, Kirk-Alloway.
Warlocks and witches in a dance;
Nae cotillion brent-new frae France
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
The dancers quick and quicker flew;
They reel’d, they set, they cross’d, they cleekit.
We’re talking Russian gymnastics here, serious movements across the floor: whirling dervishes would appear as slow motion compared to this lot.
I was feeling kinda seasick, but the crowd called out for more –
There are many references to Tam having been drinking all night with his pal, Souter Johnny. I think this line could be about the crowd in the ale-house, or from the witches spurring the devil on to play the pipes faster.
Tam had got planted unco right;
Wi reaming swats that drank divinely
And at his elbow Souter Johnny,
His ancient, trusty, drouthy crony;
They had been fu for weeks thegither!
The old church:
The mirth and fun grew fast and furious;
The piper loud and louder blew
The room was humming harder, as the ceiling flew away
Back at the old church, wicked party warming up
Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl. –
When we called out for another drink, the waiter brought the tray
The night drave on wi’ sangs and
And ay the ale was growing better
And so it was later, as the miller told his tale
Miller is spelt with a small 'm' (see here), so it is not a name
That ilka melder, wi the miller
However this line appears in the poem (Tam’s pal)
The Souter tauld his queerest stories;
That her face, at first just ghostly, turned a whter shade of pale
This refers to Tam’s horse, a mare called Meg, and fondly referred to as Maggie.
But Maggie stood, right sair astonish’d
Till, by the heel and hand admonish’d,
She ventured forward on the light (whiter)
She said ‘There is no reason, and
the truth is plain to see'
But I wandered through my playing cards, and would not let her be
One of sixteen vestal virgins, who were heading for the coast
And although my eyes were open, they might just as well’ve been closed
I can’t see a connection for everything in this verse, but the vestal virgin could be this: in Robert Burns’s day, a cutty sark was a garment worn by a virgin – a young woman who may have had sexual experience, but was not a mother.
In modern times the Cutty Sark is a famous ship – a tea clipper (it stands in dry-dock at Greenwich and actually has a cutty sark, the garment, in a show-case on deck). That gets us the sea connection. The witch was dancing in the old church, hence the vestal …
The old church:
Tam "Weel done Cutty-sark!"
And how Tam stood, like ane bewitch’d
And thought his very een enrich’d;
The last two verses have references and connections to the sea and ocean, it’s all there in the poem – have a squint, see what you make of it, but you get the picture by now. I hope you have enjoyed my wee analysis of the subject matter, maybe now my pals will believe me down the ale-house; I’m seldom at church, especially old ones …