Tunes, Songs, and Robert Burns

The article below is from Ed Pearlman’s music columns in Scottish Life magazine. If you’re interested in future publication of a book containing nearly 100 columns such as this one, please click here and check off your interests, to be kept in the loop.


For the 250th birthday of Scotland’s national songwriter, Robert Burns, Scotland sponsored a Year of Homecoming. His actual birthday, January 25, was the focal point for many exhibits, discussions and celebrations, including a world-wide Burns Supper which connected over 3,600 Burns Night suppers around the world. Throughout the year, there continue to be many Burns events, as well as longer term projects such as the construction of a new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.

Did I say “Scotland’s national songwriter”? Maybe I should have said “poet” or “bard”. After all, literature classes around the world, including in Scotland, teach Burns as a great poet, not a songwriter. Yet a majority of his work was conceived as lyrics for songs, not as poetry later to be set to music. The music was uppermost in Burns’s mind as he wrote many of his poems. “Until I am complete master of a tune, in my own singing,” said Burns, “I can never compose [words] for it.” As a result, his words seem to fit effortlessly with their melodies.

Music is the language of nature,” wrote Burns, “and poetry, particularly songs, are always more or less localised…this is the reason why so many of our Scots airs have outlived their original and perhaps many subsequent sets of verses.”

The evidence over the past 200 years is that the songs and poems of Burns rise above being “localised.” Even though he uses the Scots language, as when he speaks to a “wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie”, his keen thoughts turn to more general reflections. While pondering the destruction of a mouse hole in Ayrshire, he concludes famously that “the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” Thoughts about “hamely fare” and “yon birkie, ca’d a lord” lead to the uplifting conclusion that “it’s coming yet for a’ that, that Man to Man, the world o’er, shall brothers be for a’ that.”

It was a fateful meeting in Edinburgh that gave Burns the opportunity to direct the world’s attention to the richness of the music and song of Scotland, including his own work.

Escaping a dire situation in 1786, involving two women newly pregnant and a desperate attempt to raise money by locally publishing some of his poems, Burns arrived in Edinburgh to unexpectedly become the toast of society. He was the poor farmer revealed as genius. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of Burns’s arrival in Edinburgh, “such a revolution is not to be found in literary history.” One of the few poems Burns wrote during that trip was “Address to a Haggis”, and I sometimes wonder if Edinburgh society made him feel like the “Rustic, haggis-fed” who trumped the fancy foreigners with his “honest, sonsie face.”

While in Edinburgh at that time, Burns met James Johnson, who invited him to work on the Scots Musical Museum. Originally intended as a two-volume collection of the best of Scottish, Irish and English songs, the project ended up, with the energetic help of Robert Burns, as a six-volume collection of some 600 Scottish songs, with music printed for each song. More than 200 of the songs were written by Burns himself.

Of his work on collecting songs, Burns wrote, “I have been absolutely crazed about it, collecting old stanzas, and every information remaining respecting their origin, authors, etc.” He compiled  much of this information into notes about many of the songs. In one note, he comments that “I have paid more attention to every description of Scots songs than perhaps any body living has done.”

Many of these notes reveal fascinating perspectives about the songs and Scottish culture. About the song “Bed of Sweet Roses,” he writes that “this song, as far as I know, for the first time appears here in print. When I was a boy it was a very popular song in Ayrshire.” The song “There’s Nae Luck About the House,” Burns writes, is “one of the most beautiful songs in the Scots, or in any other language.” Wherever possible he comments on the origin of both music and words, including older versions where he found them: “This song is by Dr Blacklock; and I believe, but am not quite certain, that the air is his too.” Burns discovered that “The Lass of Livington” had an original set of verses which “have a very great deal of poetic merit but are not quite ladies’ reading.” About “The Flowers of Edinburgh,” he writes that its title “has no manner of connection with the present verses, so I suspect there has been an older set of words, of which the title is all that remains.”

In writing about the songs, Burns also reveals much about his own life and views. “I would always take it as a compliment to have it said, that my heart ran before my head,” he writes while discussing a song. Sometimes we’d like to know more, of course. Here’s what he says about one of his own songs: “The tune is by Oswald. The song alludes to a part of my private history, which it is of no consequence to the world to know.”

Probably the best representation of Burns songs is Linn Records’ landmark Complete Songs of Robert Burns. Begun at the bicentennial of his death in 1996, and completed in 2003, this 12-volume series of CDs captures all 365 of the songs identified with Burns. A treasury of music and song that we could only wish was available in every public library, this series gave us for the first time in history a chance to hear any and all of Burns’s songs. Over 100 of Scotland’s best contemporary musicians were involved, including well-known soloists and members of popular bands such as Battlefield Band, The Cast, The Corries, Deaf Shepherd, Malinky, and Old Blind Dogs, interpreting the music in straightforward and spirited renditions that must have set Burns to smiling in his grave.

Singer Jean Redpath, who for years toured as a leading exponent of Burns songs, has a number of important recordings available. One of her series of recordings features whimsical arrangements by classical composer Serge Hovey, and another series offers more traditional folksong recordings with simple voice and guitar.

Recordings of Burns by singer Kenneth McKellar, with his operatic voice and orchestral accompaniment, might not fit the image of the ploughman poet, but might well have pleased the Robert Burns who enjoyed being the toast of Edinburgh society in 1787. McKellar’s sincerity shines through his gifted and trained voice and his emotional arrangements.

Several compilations of earlier recorded songs were released in time for Homecoming 2009, and some had a new take on the traditional music. Eddi Reader’s free-spirited renditions of Burns songs found themselves into a refreshing, beautifully sung album with excellent accompanying musicians. Rod Paterson’s clear and expressive voice can be heard on his Burns CD entitled Songs from the Bottom Drawer.  A new Ayrshire group called Borealis offers Burns songs mixed with influences from classical music, blues, jazz and folk. There’s even a dance party album that cranks Burns songs up to the third degree, called Burn It Up! – Red Hot Rabbie Burns Dance Tracks.

This wild variety of styles for performing Burns songs reveals the continuing broad appeal of Burns’s keenly observed poetry, set to evocative music. Some might feel there is a correct way to present Burns songs, but I’m not sure Burns would have agreed. Time and again, he revealed a desire, reflected often in the Scottish experience, for acceptance and appreciation, and a passion for ignoring class distinctions. Burns embraced everyone as people and celebrated nature for embracing us all.

And for this reason, perhaps, the 2009 Homecoming to Burns’s Scotland was really a welcome “home” to all.  Whether Burns channeled or helped shape Scotland’s values, those values have created a culture with a long history of cutting through artificial barriers between people regardless of wealth, status, or whether people are immigrants or minorities.

A highlight of the opening in 1999 of the Scottish Parliament after centuries of disuse was the singing by Shona Wellington of Robert Burns’s famous song, “A Man’s a Man for a’ that” which ends this way:

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree [shall win out], an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

©2009 Edward Scott Pearlman

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