BURNS AND THE FOLKSINGER
BURNS AND THE FOLKSINGER
Before I embark on this subject I think I had better arrive at some kind of definition of a folksinger,
as there are so many different connotations of it in people's minds. Obviously it is someone who sings
folk songs, but some sing for love and some sing for money. This isn't really satisfactory as a distinction because there are so many cross-overs from one to the other. Many full-time professionals have a passionate love of their songs, while many who sing for pleasure will seldom refuse payment if it's offered. I like to divide folksingers into those who say, "Listen to this wonderful song" and those who say, "Listen to me singing this wonderful song." There has existed in the Sixties and Seventies a dividing line between the traditional singers who inherited their songs from their family or community background and those who were drawn into the Revival and learned their songs from it. That dividing line has largely disappeared now. You would listen in vain in folk clubs in the 1960s for Burns songs, but now they are in most folksingers' repertoires.
To find out what the picture was before that, I will cite the first comment on the relationship between Burns and the folksinger that I recall seeing. It was made by the Aberdeenshire song collector, Gavin Greig, in his retiring Presidential Address to the Buchan Field Club in December 1905. Greig was himself descended from a branch of the same family as Burns, his great-great-great-grandfather and Burns's grandfather being brothers. Greig said :-
"Folksong by a kind of social gravitation always seeks the lowest level and keeps it. It is necessarily of the people and for the people, and all attempts to raise it are soon met with an invincible inertia, for it cannot transcend the average
lyric sense and sanction of the plebs. Every attempt to give folk song literary form and distinction fails beyond a certain point. Songs written for the people from the outside - from the outside laterally or vertically, are pretty certain to fail. The new claimants to popular favour and acceptance simply do not "catch on." There is no critical storm raised over the issue - no literary squabbles - for the folk-songist has no such word as literature in his vocabulary. He knows what he wants to sing; and there is an end of it..He has his own anthology and he wants no exotics. His flowers must suit the climate and do without attention... Yes, your folk-songist knows what is what - knows his own mind.; and if he wants
the daisy, the broom, or the heather, you cannot get him to take the rose or the lily. Absolute, instinctive, unreasoning
confidence may be decried, but it is usually the final note of relative truth. And the folk-songist is right. His daisy, broom and heather are the best for him ; and if he cared to think of it, he could set his superior critics a fairly hard task to how that his wildings were not per se as perfect as the rose and the lily. If Scottish folk song could have been raised Burns was the man to do it; but not even he succeeded. He has not given the people a new and higher type of folk song, he has only reinforced and enriched in meaureless degree a kind of song that, however it may have hung on the horizon, has never quite been folk song. The rustic knows his Burns and like on occasion to hear his songs rendered by those who can sing them. But they are hardly for him. He will sing about Burns, but it must be in lays that have got the folk song hall-mark, in ditties that have little literary kinship with the poet's own songs.Though he does not offer to sing-
Ye banks and braes and streams around
The castle o' Montgomery
he will throw all his heart into "Burns and his Highland Mary." And although "There was a lad was born in Kyle" is
not exactly in his line, he will declaim with infinite zest "The Cottage where Robbie was Born."
The most significant fact about this extract is not that it reveals that Greig was a thundering snob, with his talk of plebs and rustics, - (he seems to have forgotten that Burns himself was a man of the people) - but that this speech was delivered in 1905. That was before he and James Duncan had embarked on their song-collecting project for the Spalding Club which was to have such startling results his views reflected received opinion on folk song and folk singers, strongly influenced by the mores of his time and by the English Folk Song Society's formation which he refers to in this same speech, and of which he was a
member. Much of what he says does apply to folk song in many European traditions but it doesn't apply to Scotland, as he was to discover. He was regarded as something of an authority on Scottish song tradition even before he embarked on the collecting project, and gave frequent lectures on it, illustrated by singers who were no doubt of the drawing room variety. What he talked about were the songs of Burns, Hogg and Lady Nairne, which had found their way into print and were sung in concerts and recitals, by trained singers, hi-jacked as it were by the art-song world. Many of them had not been collected or written as art songs, but had come from the spring well of the oral tradition, which has
different criteria altogether from the more literary art song tradition. Nearly all our early song collectors
were literary men who misunderstood and misjudged the material they collected, constantly apologising for its crude and primitive nature and in some cases 'improving' or 'refining' to its detriment as oral literature and an authentic
legacy of the past.
Greig also didn't seem to know about the oral tradition that was all around him and which he was amazed to discover when he and James Duncan began collecting songs locally and found that after a short time they had found on the lips of living singers, hundreds of songs, many in multiple versions, which he had not known existed. This
undoubtedly opened Greig's eyes to the fact that there was more to Scots folk song and folk singing than he had supposed; that the folk who sang were not just representative of the humblest sections of society but were drawn from every walk of life; that their songs were not just so much doggerel; and that their art was not something to belittle or patronise. Like generations of Scots before him and since, he had missed something which Burns felt in the very core of his bones and which he expressed in many of his songs and poems and writings, most neatly encapsulated perhaps in "A Man's a Man for aa That" which owes its popularity to the fact that it strikes a universal chord in the human heart, particularly the hearts of Scots. In Scotland when we talk of the people, we mean all the people from king to beggar, from scholar to farm worker. This is something particularly hard to get over to people in the Glasgow area, I have found. But it does not need to be argued about; history proves it. Even today, if you go to any folk festival you will find every sort of person there: high and low, young and old, rich and poor, educated and
The idea that a song tradition which included the big ballads and a whole variety of lyrical and narrative song had any need of being "raised" as Greig called it, is absurd. He made the same mistake that almost all our song collectors have made of judging the songs of oral tradition by literary standards that do not apply to them. The work of
twentieth century folklorists such as Albert Lord and our own late lamented David Buchan has helped to establish the idea that oral culture has its own canons and standards that differ considerably from those of the literary world. Even in the age of computers, "word of mouth" has a quality that cannot be superseded. With hindsight Greig did revise many of his opinions and thought it worthwhile to make his collaboration with James Duncan the most important part of his life's work.
When he ran his column in the Buchan Observer for several years, Greig had song versions sent in to him from all kinds of people, from farm servants to ministers. Indeed, the family of the Rev, James B. Duncan were a rich source of songs for the collection. This highlights a misunderstanding that exists even today, and certainly existed in Greig's
time and in the time of Burns, as regards the nature of Scottish society. It has never been the case that people of humble origins cannot become literate and well-read, or even highly educated or go to University and enter the professions. Class distinction has crept in upon us along with all the other anglicisation we have suffered, but historically and instinctively, Scots have a more democratic outlook - which Burns gave expression to in excelsis - and our education system has never in the past been the preserve of the elite and the rich, but rather has the
connotation of the poor scholar with the poke of meal and a passion for learning. Glasgow University, when I as a working man's daughter attended as a student in the early 1950s, had an annual holiday called Meal Monday, dating from the days when when students were allowed time to walk back home to bring a new supply of meal to sustain them for another term. Burns's father couldn't afford to send him to University but, as many Scots have done, he did make sure his children were well schooled; and there was a respect and admiration for learning that is still ingrained in the Scots psyche at all social levels.
Every time I hear the phrase Ploughman Poet, I think of letters I read. that were sent to the late Arthur Argo, Greig's great-grandson, by a man called John Reid. They are written in the most elegant literary style, that made me think he must be a minister or a dominie. He was a ploughman; but also, in his own words, a book-lorist, a lover of
poetry and he became a successful writer himself under the pen-name of David Toulmin. Like John Reid, Burns was no unlettered rustic, and neither were many of Greig's informants. In fact, as Dr Ian Olson has observed, Aberdeenshire in Greig's day contained fewer illiterate peasants per square mile than anywhere else in Europe. This could very well apply to the whole of Scotland.
Certainly, in Burns's day and in Greig's most of Scotland was mostly rural but nowadays the great population centres are cities and towns. People go where the work is. Nowadays there is not so much work particularly in heavy industry, so the perhaps the population distribution will change again. But when the Folk Song Revival took place in the 1960s, folk clubs sprang up mostly in urban areas, and the revival singers were largely town-based. Even with the founding of the Traditional Music and Song Association, to make sure the urban revivalists were brought into touch with the largely rural based tradition-bearers, the folk clubs continued in an urban setting. The beginnings of the Folk Song Revival - and in those days the emphasis was on song - were from across the Atlantic, in the American skiffle craze, the political protest movement and the songs of Dylan and Baez, and artistes like The Weavers, Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary. But in Scotland, people like Hamish Henderson, the late Arthur Argo, the late Norman Buchan, Drew Moyes and others steered the movement towards the native tradition and made wonderful discoveries like Jeannie Robertson, the Stewarts of Blair and Willie Scott. Did Burns have anything at all to do with all this ?
At first it would seem that I would have to agree with Gavin Greig's words in 1905 and say folksingers like Burns
songs but don't sing them. Belle Stewart sings "Burns and Highland Mary" but no Burns songs as such. On the other hand, traditional singer Bobby Robb of Girvan told me that when he looked for Ayrshire songs in his own locality, all he could find were Burns songs. Like most Scots, he'd been put off Burns by having him pushed down his throat at school., so he didn't want to sing them in folk clubs. At the same time, there is another Ayrshire singer,
called Joe Rae, of Beith, who inherited his songs and stories from his grandfather who was a herd in Galloway and
whose repertoire includes versions of songs collected by Burns, such as Coming Thro the Craigs o Kyle and Under Her Apron.
In school, I can say, from experience, Burns is presented as the only Scots poet and only as a poet : his song collecting and song writing are never dealt with. Children are given Burns's songs to recite in the English class, with his Scots being regarded as a problem, as if it were a foreign language. Or they are taught them in classical style in the music class. Thus in the Folk Revival, which was in essence a rebellion, singers didn't asociate Burns with "folk."Another
reason the Revival singers did not sing Burns songs was because they were associated with the stuffed shirt Burns Supper scene and the clasped hands delivery that was exactly what the Revival was aiming to get away from. I must say I have always detested the rendering of Burns's songs with what I call the "simmer and mither" syndrome ; this arises when trained singers stick faithfully to Burns's Scots words but enunciate them in an anglicised way. I also
shudder at the semi-operatic treatment of Burns one is apt to hear that completely falsifies the beauty of the songs,
like hanging rhinestones on the branches of a bonnie birken tree. I recently heard Rod Paterson, one of our best folksingers, say on the radio that it took the singers of the folk revival to show people how to sing Burns's songs as they should be sung, and I must say I agree with that. Those who disagree, must disagree - I have no problem with that ; it's a free country after all, but I wonder how many of our folksingers such people have actually listened to.
Something that is never considered by almost anyone is that Burns himself must have been a singer, or he could never have written such songs. It should be pretty clear to anyone that songs are not written by non-singers. When I say he was a singer I don't mean that he was a Singer with a capital S, as on the concert platform or the variety stage. It's hard to imagine Burns singing with piano accompaniment or in art song style like an 18th century Kenneth McKellar. But he lived in an age when people provided their own entertainment and most people "didnae need muckle priggin tae sing" as one present day singer has put it to me. Singing was looked on as a natural human activity. In his social life, Burns obviously sang in his family circle, and with his friends in inns and taverns, and at social gatherings. He heard songs and stories all round him in his daily life and was a part of that tradition. He had a most acute ear for the rhythms and nuances of language, as well as the subtleties of music and was able to match the two so well that neither needed to be wrenched to make them fit in with each other. That is one of the secrets of good song-writing.
It's interesting to read in his correspondance with George Thomson how the two men frequently disagreed
about matters of taste and style. "What please me as simple and naive disgusts you as ludicrous and low", Burns wrote. He felt less at home with English than with Scots when it came to writing songs and on one occasion in an outburst of candour complained, "These English songs gravel me to death." Thomson preferred English words, which he thought more refined, but which Burns was well aware, did not always sit easily with the tunes or with the Scottish ear.
In describing how he went about writing a song, he described how he first made himself complete master of the tune, in his own singing. Then he considered the feelings that the tune evoked and chose a theme that suited that. Then he would compose his first verse, which he said was generally "the most difficult part of the business" after which he would walk out and look about him for suitable imagery to harmonise with his thoughts and feelings, all the time humming over the tune to the verses he had composed.". This seems an excellent and very practical plan
of action to be recommended to budding songwriters of whatever musical persuasion.
He would learn songs and write songs, and often made his own versions of songs, adding verses or changing existing ones or writing whole new songs for the collections of Johnson and Thomson. You would think from the way this is talked about in literary circles that this was something new and unique. But he was only doing what folksingers all over the world have done since the beginning of time, and are still doing today. Folksingers constantly recreate and remould songs, put new words to old tunes, or old weirds to new tunes. They tell the story as they feel
they want to tell it, create the mood the song evokes in them, whittle down or add to, as they feel appropriate. Continuing to sing the old songs need not be as some suggest boring and repetitive because of the very nature of folk-singing itself. No two singers sing the same song in the same way. This is one of the beauties of folk singing, which is a creative art - or perhaps, more correctly, a recreative art.
One reason why I still go to a folk club every week, when possible, is to hear this multiplicity of versions that is the sign of a living tradition. And believe me, it can still be heard, even including the present day songs, that are treated in the same way. For example, at my local folk club we recently had a Singers' Night, and I heard several old songs, including two versions of The Shepherd Lad, the Pace-Egging Song, Whistle and I'll Come tae ye my Lad, McPherson's Rant, I Aince Loed a Lass, The Lea Rig, By Yon Castle Waa, New York Girls, a setting of William Soutar's ballad Surely Ye Hae Seen My Love, as well as a sprinkling of modern songs, one written by a club member about his father's sea-going life. Four Burns songs three sung unaccompanied and one with guitar
suggests that Burns is now very much a part of the folksingers repertoire.
So instead of agreeing with Greig that Burns has little to do with folk song tradition, I believe he is at the heart of it. Greig did alter his ideas once he had had his Road to Damascus experience while engaged in his collecting project. I also think Scottish folk singers changed their attitude to Burns when they began to realise that many of his songs are
indistinguishable from other songs that have come down to us in tradition, and in some cases they are his versions
of some of these songs. For example, just about every folk song tradition has a song that corresponds to "My Love is Like a Red Red Rose" whose imagery is in fact archetypal. "Ye Banks and Braes" is a similar case. Songs like "Ae Fond Kiss", "A Man's a Man for aa That"and "Sic a Parcel o Rogues" have all come to be heard in folk clubs, sung by our best known singers including Archie Fisher, Tich Frier and Dick Gaughan, whose version of "Westlin Winds and Slaughtering Guns" is beautiful, moving and direct, in spite of the flowery poetic diction it contains One of the singers who has done more than almost anyone to popularise Burns on the folk scene is jean Redpath, although she hasn't been heard in a folk club or at a folk festival for a long time. I could also add many
other names, like Dougie McLean and the McCalmans. I must also mention a superb version of Who'll Mowe me Noo by Glasgow's Gordeanna McCulloch, who makes so much more of it than just a bawdy song; and an
equally poignant By Yon Castle Waa, by Kilmarnock's Heather Heywood. There are also many singers whose names are quite unknown, but who are nonetheless to be numbered as folksingers, whose repertoires include
Burns songs and who take pleasure in singing them. These nameless singers are just as important as the famous ones, because a tradition is not carried on by a handful of star performers.
But there is another aspect to the singing of, Burns's songs by present day folksingers. A new confidence in and understanding of the song tradition has led some singers to do more than that. Burns collected a song composed by Isobel Pagan, the proprietress of a local howff, and made it into Caa the Yowes tae the Knowes. Nowadays
the original version can be heard sung. Another singer, Tommy Blackball, took The Tarbolton Lasses and set it to the tune of the Earl of Errol, with a chorus from The Brewer Lad. There Was a Lad was Bom in Kyle is more often heard sung to the tune it was set to, that of Dainty Davie, which suits it infinitely better than the rather warbly one that becomes almost operatic on the lips of bel canto singers.. A present day songwriter, Ian Walker, has taken the words of the Selkirk Grace and used them as an ironic chorus in a song that protests about the state of affairs in a world where one part of the human race is surfeited with "food for breakfasts, dinners, teas and in between meals feeding" while the rest "spend their living, dying."
The singer-songwriter has been one of the main features of the Folk Song Revival and after. This is a mixed blessing of course, as not all our singer-songwriters have had Burns's talent. Song writing is a much under-rated art and also a very difficult one. If it is done well, in addition to being entertainment, it can also give expression to cultural identity.
You can tell a lot about a person from the songs he or she likes, even if they don't sing them. That man ahead of his time, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, around the time of the Treaty of Union in 1707, agreed with whoever said that if he was permitted to write a country's songs, he need not care who made its laws.
It is because folksingers recognised, perhaps unconsciously, in Burns's songs an expression of their own Scottishness and their democratic values, that they now sing Burns songs. There may also be other reasons for this. Perhaps I could outline my own, which are not necessarily typical. With family roots in Ayrshire, I grew up knowing that when I visited my grandparents in Dalry, I was very likely walking on ground that Burns had trod, and was looking out at the kind of landscape that would have been familiar to him. The Ayrshire doric of my relations
and their friends and neighbours filled my ears and became ingrained in my consciousness. For that reason, the language of Burns's songs and poetry strike a chord within me. I know Burns's poetic genius gives it a heightened quality, but it still to me has the authentic ring of Ayrshire about it. I was even told a legend about the ford near my grandfather's door being the very one where Jenny "draigled all her petticoatie comin thro the Rye" carrying travellers across- the Rye being the river Rye, a tributary of the Garnock.
I never had any aversion to things I was taught in school, however badly - except perhaps mathematics - so I retained a love of Burns songs and Scots songs generally, all through my childhood, along with classical and pop songs, music hall ditties and hymns. Among my party pieces as a child were Duncan Gray, Comin Thro the Rye, The Wee Cooper o Fife and Will Ye No Come Back Again?. As I grew up I came to appreciate the bawdy song tradition, in which Burns - if I may put it without intending a double entendre - looms very large, and my repertoire has for long included for example the earthier version of "John Anderson my Jo", "To the Weavers Gin
Ye Go" "We're Geyly Yet" "Laddie Lie Near Me" and "Hey for Houghmagandie." Of course I also love "The
Lea-Rig", "Mary Morison" and many other of the love songs.
That is just my personal account: there are many singers both well known and unknown, who sing Burns songs
now. To me the term folk singer applies to anyone who sings folk songs as folk songs; that is, with respect for the song For a good number of years, the word conjured up a picture in most people's minds of someone thrashing a guitar and singing through their teeth. Fortunately the Traditional Music and Song Association by promoting good unaccompanied singing provided a corrective to this. But just as it's now possible to hear folk music on the radio in amongst other kinds of music, it is possible to hear folksingers singing outside the folk ghetto which the folk clubs
tended to create. I think it has become better understood that many of Burns's songs can be regarded as traditional in the sense that they have been widely sung and passed on through generations.
Those people who try to make strictures about songs not being regarded as traditional because they have appeared in print fail to take into account the bookish nature of the Scots tradition, in which songs have gone in and out of print and yet still get passed on orally. In most countries of course literary tradition and folk tradition are at opposite ends of the spectrum; in Scotland they constantly meet and mingle. It is also inappropriate to regard them as belonging to the lowest social class, since our muse is a democratic one, as Ailie Munro has highlighted in the title of her up-dated version of her book on the Folk Music Revival in Scotland, soon to be published by the Scottish Cultural Press. I was told in the 1960s by a typical Glasgow revivalist - lapsed Catholic turned Communist, of course - that I had no right to consider myself a folk singer because I was a school teacher. Would the same person have tried to tell Burns he couldn't be a poet because he was a ploughman?
Three years ago I presented a paper at the International Ballad Conference in LA, on one of the themes of the conference, which was Ballads and Boundaries. In preparing that paper I became even more aware of the unique nature of Scots ballad and song tradition, which does not so much cross all boundaries of class, language, time and place, as behave as if they didn't exist. I believe that this is also the characteristic of Burns that has made him such an important international figure and endeared him to people the world over from a wide variety of cultures. It is also what the folksinger has recognised in him, once all the cumbersome paraphenalia of tartanry and kitsch had been cleared away. McDiarmid made a very good job of this in The Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, when he said :-
Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name
Than in ony's barrin liberty and Christ.
and the acute observation of how mediocre nobodies being invited to propose the Immortal Memory make this "an excuse for faitherin Genius wi their thochts." He asks, "What unco fate maks him the dumpin- grun/For aa the sloppy rubbish they jaw oot ?" What the folksinger recognises in Burns is someone who is a part
of the song tradition, who devoted much of his life to sustaining it and who wrote songs we can sing, songs that express what we believe in. If you have never heard some of our folk singers singing Burns's songs, let me recommend to you that you listen.
Another point I must make is that folksingers have drawn attention to the fact which many Scots don't bother
to consider : that all Scots songs were not written by Burns, which would have pleased Burns himself very much. His efforts in collecting and writing songs were very much the result of his own awareness of the existence of an on-going tradition, and it was the failure of those who made a cult figure out of him, to take account of this that nearly killed the tradition. He, on the other hand, was always ready to honour another poet or songwriter, whose work he admired. for example, Robert Fergusson, whom he thought so much of that he erected a stone
to his memory in Canongate Kirkyard. Fergusson was renowned as a singer and songwriter in the Edinburgh of his time, and like Burns, loving the convivial life as a break from the drudgery of a dreary job. But it was not just people like Fergusson that he respected. Burns collected the original version of "Ca the Yowes" from Isobel Pagan, and "Comin Thro the Craigs o Kyle" from Jean Glover, who gave up respectability to become a wandering entertainer. These two songs are attributed to Burns often without any mention of their origins, although he faithfully acknowledged his sources. The fact that it is often not easy to find the dividing line between what Burns collected and what he composed to me is proof, if proof were needed, that he is integral to the song tradition.
Back to Main Page