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Robert Burns Lives!
Robert Burns’ Songwriting Prosody – Why His Tunes Matter by Andrew Calhoun


Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Greater Atlanta, GA, USA
Email: jurascot@earthlink.net

Born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1957, Andrew Calhoun is a Chicago singer-songwriter, folksinger, author and founder/operator of Waterbug Records, an artists’ cooperative folk label since 1992. At age seven, Andrew memorized W. B. Yeats' "Song of Wandering Aengus," thus earning a nickel from his mother. He got his first guitar in 1967 and began writing songs at twelve. By the late seventies, he was performing in the Chicago folk scene. He has toured internationally, performing at folk clubs and festivals, pubs and house concerts. Andrew is passionate about Robert Burns and his songs, not just his poetry. His recordings have been released on Hogeye, Flying Fish and Waterbug Records. Recent projects include Rhymer’s Tower, Ballads of the Anglo-Scottish Border, a double CD of historical ballads on Waterbug Records, and Warlock Rhymer, an English Translation of Robert Burns’ Scots Poems, published by Artemis Books. In addition to several releases of his own songs, his revival of traditional call-and-response folk spirituals is represented on the Bound to Go CD. He is at work on a Robert Burns songbook, Glorious Work, a selection of 173 songs with guitar chords, TABS, translations and background. He performs solo and in a duo with daughter Casey Calhoun. In October 2012, Andrew was given the Lantern Bearer Award for twenty-five years of service to the folk arts in the Midwest by the Folk Alliance Regional Midwest. In 2014, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Woodstock Folk Festival in Illinois. He lives in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, with his nonagenarian father.

It is indeed a pleasure to welcome Andrew and his writings to our website. Hopefully he will notify us when his new book on the songs of Burns is published.

Robert Burns’ Songwriting Prosody – Why His Tunes Matter
by Andrew Calhoun

… untill I am compleat master of a tune, in my own singing, (such as it is) I never can compose for it. — My way is: I consider the poetic Sentiment, correspondent to my idea of the musical expression; then chuse my theme; begin one Stanza; when that is composed, which is generally the most difficult part of the business, I walk out, sit down now & then, look out for objects in Nature around me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy & workings of my bosom; humming every now & then the air with the verses I have framed: when I feel my Muse beginning to jade, I retire to the solitary fireside of my study, & there commit my effusions to paper; swinging, at intervals, on the hind-legs of my elbow-chair, by way of calling forth my own critical strictures, as my pen goes on. — Robert Burns, letter to music publisher George Thomson, September 1793

Robert Burns wrote his first song lyric, “Handsome Nell,” at the age of 15, to the favorite fiddle tune of Nelly Kilpatrick, his partner in the harvest field. Burns danced, played fiddle, field-collected songs and tunes, and acquired every song and tune book he could find: James Oswald’s Caledonian Pocket Companion; Patrick MacDonald’s Collection of Highland Vocal Airs; Allan Ramsay’s Tea-Table Miscellany, etc. He did not write melodies, but wrote to melodies. His level of mastery in matching lyrical imagery to melodic figures is unsurpassed by any poet in history.

Yet it’s possible – even likely, for a casual listener to encounter several famous Burns songs yet never hear a single one sung to the tune to which he composed it. The following songs are currently in circulation with tunes which have nothing to do with their author’s intended melody:

1. A Red, Red Rose
2. Flow Gently, Sweet Afton
3. Silver Tassie
4. Song—Composed in August (Now Westlin Winds)
5. Ae Fond Kiss
6. My Heart’s in the Highlands
7. A Rose Bud By My Early Walk
8. Auld Lang Syne
9. Rantin Rovin Robin

Imagine if you’d heard a half dozen Joni Mitchell songs in your life, with none sung to her melody. Imagine musicians had replaced the tunes to “Both Sides Now,” “Amelia,” “River,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Coyote” and “Woodstock,” and performed and recorded them without acknowledging this. That’s what we have done to Robert Burns.

If you haven’t heard his songs to their tunes, Robert Burns is an exponentially greater song artist than you know. A Van Gogh. A Bach. I’m going to make a case for a revival of Burns songs’ original tunes here, illustrating how Burns is working with what the songwriting field now terms “prosody” – or image matching. He was centuries ahead of us.

Burns’ choice for “A Red, Red Rose,” is a Neil Gow tune called “Major Graham.” It features a surprising octave skip eight notes in. Here’s what the poet does with it: “O, my love’s like a red, red, rose”. The rose leaps an octave, then: “that’s newly sprung in June.” The octave spring of the rose does not occur with the commonly sung melody, in which the rose droops - a shadow of its former self. With “Major Graham,” the melodic shape of the lyric’s beginning is echoed by its ending in the most incredible way. Burns begins by stressing “My,” rather than “love,” an emphasis running counter to common practice. Why emphasize “My”? It sounds possessive. But he has a reason: “O,” begins on the 6th, dropping the interval of a second to “my,” which is held for a full note, followed by “love.” This brings out the sound of “mile, contained in the words, “my love.” The lyric ends with “ten thousand mile,” with the word “mile” dropping the interval of a second to the keynote. Thus the ending sound of “mile” formally echoes and suggests a return to the beginning, of “My l…”! Love is portrayed as an infinite circle. That’s the level of engagement at which Burns is working; so much is lost to his lyric when it is parted from Gow’s tune. There is yet more purely lyrical prosody at work in these ecstatic lines: “My love’s like the melody.” “My love” is like, and sounds like, the word “melody.” The sounds of “So fair art thou, my bonie lass” return in the last phrase – “ten thousand mile.” Thou’s and my love is like a red, red rose.

My family had “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton” in our Fireside Book of Folk Songs, as well as William Cole’s Folk Songs of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. As I child I disliked the song, thinking it a sentimental idyll. The melody with which it was printed, composed by American composer J.E. Spilman in 1837, reduces its message to bathos. Perhaps in reaction to this, Chris Thile made up a more appropriate tune for it; he likely never heard the original. Thile’s tune does not approach its quality. Burns wrote his lyric to a violin air called: “Afton Water.” A piercing flat 7th note entering at the top of the third line breaks each verse’s tranquility, lending the scenes a penumbra of terror: by this we sense that the love held in these beautiful moments is too fragile to last. With “Afton Water” as the vehicle, when “noon rises high,” noon hits the melody’s highest note, emphasizing not the verb, “rises,” but the subject; noon; as with the rose, it creates a striking prosodic effect that is distinctively Burns. “Thou green-crested lapwing, thy screaming forbear” takes the “lapwing” on notes rising from the 5th to 6th scale steps to a repeated high octave note for “thy screaming.” The high sung “eeeee” sound enables us to feel the apprehension caused by that screaming. This singular, flowing melody provides the framework for a meditation on mortality. Listen to the “w”s flow like the waves through this last verse:

Thy chrystal stream, Afton, how lovely it glides,
And winds by the cot where my Mary resides,
How wanton thy waters her snowy feet lave,
As gathering sweet flowerets she stems thy clear wave.

This imagery was inspired and influenced by the very tune to which it was written.

Burns wrote “My Bonie Mary,” (also called “Silver Tassie”) to James Oswald’s “The Secret Kiss,” which features a brisk sixteenth-note run at the top of the tune’s B part; in the first pass, it matches “the boat ro-o-o-ocks at the pier o’ Leith”; in the second, “it’s not the ro-o—o-oar o’ sea or shore.” The boat rocks. A wave crashes and recedes. With “the glitt’ring spears are ranked ready,” we see the “glitt’ring spears” raised and held in place with a walk up the scale’s 3rd to 5th to 1. The lyric’s imagery is thus fitted to the shape of a unique melody. In most cases, singers have no idea the original tune even exists. “My Bonie Mary” was first published in The Scots Musical Museum. Later Burns sent the lyric to George Thomson’s Select Melodies of Scotland, suggesting he put it with the tune “Waes My Heart That We Should Sunder.” James C. Dick (Songs of Robert Burns, 1903) and Thomas Crawford (Burns: A Study of the Songs and Poems, 1960) have argued that this implies Burns was unsatisfied with his original choice. Burns’ publisher was more concerned with music than with lyrics; that Burns suggested putting “Bonie Mary” with another tune in no way implies that he was not happy with his original choice. There are no image matches illuminating the imagery of “My Bonie Mary” when set with “Waes My Heart That We Should Sunder.” It was just a way to get a lyric that would fit a tune which Thomson wanted to publish.

Scholars have made the same mistake with “Song—Composed in August,” or “Now Westlin Winds.” Burns wrote the first draft at age 17, to the tune of a humorous Ayrshire ballad, “I Had a Horse, I Had Nae Mair,” later published as #185 in The Scots Musical Museum. A decade after its composition, Burns indicated “Horse” as the tune in both versions of his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. He later sent the lyric to James Johnson for inclusion in the Museum, suggesting the harp air “Port Gordon” for it. James C. Dick, Donald Low and Carol McGuirk have all printed the song with the “Port Gordon” melody, concluding that Burns had come to prefer it. James Johnson and Burns preferred not to reprint melodies in The Scots Musical Museum; that’s the reason for the switch. There is simply no evidence to conclude that, because Burns could be flexible, he was unhappy with the first melody – the one to which he composed it. And now we come to an interesting problem.

Caterina Ericson-Roos wrote an exceptional doctoral thesis called The Songs of Robert Burns, A Study of the Unity of Poetry and Music, University of Uppsala, 1977. She notices several instances of image-matching in the songs, though her focus is more on the emotional expressiveness in the unity of lyric and melody. She has trouble with “Song—Composed in August,” complaining of prepositions and conjunctions occurring on the emphatic high notes. We have achieved a critical mass of agreement, spanning a century, against using Burns’ original choice. Perhaps the seventeen-year-old Burns didn’t really know what he was doing.

Then again, perhaps he did. There is no other example of such clumsiness in his work. In his submissions to the Scots Musical Museum, Burns would at times suggest adjustments in “crochets and quavers” (dotted 8th notes paired with 16th notes) to get the tunes to match his lyric; or would trust musical director Stephen Clarke to do so. It takes only a minor adjustment – simply hold the second syllable for a quarter note, combining the first crochet and quaver - to have every internal rhyme in the stanzas’ first two lines fall on the melody’s “feature notes.” “Song—Composed in August” when paired with “Horse” offers the earliest examples of Burns’ artful image-matching: a double grace note serves to illustrate “now waving gra-a-ain, wide o’er the plain.” Notice again, it is the subject, “grain,” and not the verb, “waving,” that gets the match (First Commonplace Book version has it as “now waving cro-o-ps, with yellow tops”).

Avaunt away! the cruel sway,
Tyrannic man’s dominion;
The sportsman’s joy, the murd’ring cry,
The flutt’ring, gory pinion.

“The flutt’ring gory pinion” flutters down four sixteenth notes to the ground note and lingers on “gory,” and then rises briefly before it falls to the minor third below tonic for “pinion.” This image, highlighted by its thoroughgoing unity with the melodic shape, becomes central to the song’s feeling only when this tune is applied to it. With the feature notes matched to the internal rhymes, the moorcock truly “springs” on whirring wings. “Port Gordon” is an exquisite tune that can be mated to the syllables of these lyrics; yet it does not integrate with them to create pictures or suggest kinesthetic effects. We learn from “My Bonie Mary” and “Song—Composed in August” that even Burns could not part a lyric from the tune for which he composed it without losing essential moments from its prosody. Could Paul McCartney compose another tune for “Yesterday” that would be more fitting than the one the lyric was written for? The version of “Now Westlin Winds” revived by the great folk artist Dick Gaughan and now in circulation is the rare alternate tune to a Burns song which serves its message, if not as specifically as the original – which has yet to be recorded.

I learned “Ae Fond Kiss” in my youth and sang a lovely one-part melody to the lyric for thirty years. When I heard the original sung by Mae McKenna (Linn Records Complete Songs of Robert Burns, Volume 8), I fell on the floor. With the two-part harp tune, “Rory Dall’s Port,” the repeated first verse comes back at a higher pitch of intensity. It is a greater song than I knew – with the familiar melody currently in circulation, the song is poignant; with the original, transcendent. McKenna’s definitive recording proves both note-perfect and soulful. A thousand more singers will learn the familiar version, as I did, not knowing of Burns’ intent, and none will match the power flowing from Mae McKenna’s fidelity to the source. It is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.

“My Heart’s in the Highlands” presents a stiff vocal challenge – it makes a showpiece for a fine singer. The tune is “The Musket Salute,” whose large range with high and low trills, wandering runs and skips portrays complex emotion. Dotted eighth notes alternately rise and fall as they step jaggedly down the pentatonic scale tracing the shape of “the hills of the highlands” before jumping to “forever I love.” With “Farewell to the forests, and wild-hanging woods,” “hanging” walks down eighth notes from the 6th to the 5th, then to a grace-note down to a dotted eighth with a trill all on the word “woods,” where it lingers on the low 3rd before dropping to the 2nd – the woods are pictured hanging from the low 3rd. A rare, vocally demanding musical effect reflects the surprise we feel when we see a clump of trees thriving in the side of a cliff.

“A Rose Bud By My Early Walk” was written to a melody called “The Rosebud,” by a friend and running mate from Burns’ youth, David Sillar (recipient of the “Epistle to Davie”). Critics have denigrated the melody; the lyric is now commonly sung to a different tune. “The Rosebud” does seem a plodding, dull air on the page; but when harmonized in the Dorian mode (natural minor scale with sharp 4th – the mode of “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme”) it brightens into the perfect vehicle for the song’s message of a child’s blossoming. I have it on youtube:


Published on Apr 25, 2016
Arranged in the Dorian mode and performed by Andrew Calhoun. Burns composed this tribute to Janet Cruikshank and her parents, his hosts for four months in Edinburgh in 1787-8. The tune is "The Rosebud," by Burns' friend David Sillar - recipient of two verse "Epistles to Davie" from Burns. The lyrics were composed specifically to fit this melody. Andrew Cahoun performs web concerts regularly at Concert Window, including an annual Burns concert. Click the link to follow: https://www.concertwindow.com/11396-a. ..

"corn-enclosed bawk" - grain (oats, wheat or rye, not American maize) enclosed balk, an unploughed strip of land between crops.

A Rose-bud by my early walk,
Adown a corn-enclosed bawk,
Sae gently bent its thorny stalk,
All on a dewy morning.
Ere twice the shades o' dawn are fled,
In a' its crimson glory spread,
And drooping rich the dewy head,
It scents the early morning.

Within the bush her covert nest
A little linnet fondly prest;
The dew sat chilly on her breast,
Sae early in the morning.
She soon shall see her tender brood,
The pride, the pleasure o' the wood,
Amang the fresh green leaves bedew'd,
Awake the early morning.

So thou, dear bird, young Jeany fair,
On trembling string or vocal air,
Shall sweetly pay the tender care
That tents thy early morning.
So thou, sweet Rose-bud, young and gay,
Shalt beauteous blaze upon the day,
And bless the parent's evening ray
That watch'd thy early morning.


A beautiful tune which has come to replace Mr. Sillar’s “The Rosebud” fails to draw the dramatic contrast between brooding and blooming expressed in each verse pair that Sillar’s music was specificallyl chosen to depict.

“Auld Lang Syne” had the tune of another song collected by Burns, “O Can Ye Labor Lea,” applied to the lyric by the Select Melodies of Scotland publisher George Thomson after Burns’ death. The warmth of the original tune better reflects the meditative nostalgia of the verses. As well, it’s an easy sing. The last “syne” of the chorus has a wee affirming leap back to the key note.

“Rantin Rovin Robin” was written to a tune called “Dainty Davie.” It’s currently set to a different melody, which had been set to the words of another song called “Dainty Davie.” That tune is “The Gardener’s March,” the air to which Burns wrote “The Gardener Wi’ His Paidle.” “The Gardener’s March” is prettier, the “Dainty Davie” tune more bouncy and rambunctious.

Its chorus drops below the pitch of the verses for six measures before rising up for the last repetition of “rantin rovin Robin.” “But ay a heart aboon them a’.”

In addition to tunes being discounted and replaced wholesale, we also have occurrences of essential moments of prosody missing from songs due to the adoption of simplified melodies:

1. A Man’s a Man for A’ That
2. Willie Brew’d a Peck o’ Maut.
3. Their Groves o’ Sweet Myrtle

My introduction to Robert Burns songs came in early childhood when my parents acquired Ewan MacColl’s Songs of Robert Burns, a 1959 Folkways LP with research by Ralph Knight, accompaniments by Peggy Seeger. It’s a brilliant rendering of twenty-three Burns songs, if not a representative one, as it avoids all of the battle and Jacobite songs. Each note of every song is expertly sung with one exception: a low sixteenth note run in the last line of each verse of “A Man’s a Man For a’ That” (as printed in Scots Musical Museum #290) was omitted. MacColl’s version – probably taken from James Aird’s Selection of Scotch, English, Irish and Foreign Airs (1782), which leaves out the run - is everyone’s version now. It makes each last line sound like a pious summation. The low run effectively punches each verse’s climactic idea —

The man’s the gowd for ‘a that .
Is king o’ men for a’ that.
He looks and laughs at a’ that
Are higher rank than a’ that.
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

— with a flurry and a couple of belly blows. With the downward run to the 5th below tonic, these lines are heard not as pronouncements but as fightin’ words. It is the most interesting part of the melody.

“Willie Brew’d a Peck o’ Maut” has been afforded a cartoon melody which well adapts it for performance by amateurs at Burns Nights. This is all in good fun, but sadly, there is nowhere for people to go to hear the real thing; every version you hear now is of the ringer.

O Willie brew’d a peck o’ maut,
And Rob and Allan cam to see.

That’s Willie Nicol, Rob Burns, and Allan Masterton - the man who wrote the original tune. Violinist/composer Masterton also co-wrote “Strathallan’s Lament,” “Bonie Ann,” and “The Braes o’ Ballochmyle” with Burns. The verse tune for “Willie” survives, albeit without its wonderful strathspey snaps, but in the currently circulating version we lose the original effect of the cock crowing, which is matched to the melody. A sixteenth note an octave and a fifth above the root, dropping swiftly to a dotted 8th note 10 steps up, gives the sudden strike and decrescendo of a cock’s crow. A characteristic effect of Burns, the musical action occurs again on the subject – “the cock may craw.” It is the only instance in the 370-some Burns songs in which the highest note in the tune is a sixteenth note. This ingenious effect has become too much trouble even for professional singers. Unknowing audiences, assuming they are getting the real Burns, are served with “Willie Brew’d a Peck o’ Maut for Dummies.” Look for it on youtube – even among the recordings by professionals, you will not find one singer who’s taken care to master the eloquent strathspey that Allan Masterton contributed to his sterling co-write with Robert Burns.

One of the loveliest lines in Burns is in “Their Groves o’ Sweet Myrtle”:

Far dearer to me yon lone glen o’ green breckan
Wi’ the burn stealin under the lang yellow broom.

A pair of unusual low sixteenth note runs in the broom line underscore the beauty and enduring influence of humble, hidden things – the song’s theme. Burns keyed on the tune’s unique moment and matched it – the melodic line winds lowly, like the burn (brook). Folk and even some classical singers have, inexplicably, omitted this run.

Such moments of sublime beauty stream from Burns’ songs like sunlight. The angel is in the details. There’s freight of meaning held in a seemingly insignificant note value in “Ay Waukin, O”:

Simmer’s a pleasant time, (summer)
Flowers of every color;
The water rins o’er the heugh (runs o’er the crag)
And I long for my true lover.

I’ve heard this phrased, as is sensible by anyone wanting to emphasize the action word, with the whole note on the verb, as: I long for my true lover. But that’s not the given melody, which gives the whole-note emphasis thusly: I long for my true lover – emphasis on the subject, not the verb.

An emphasis on “long” relegates the first three lines to mere scenery. With the tune’s indicated stress, the “I” is set as parallel to the water; the water does what it does, I do what I do. The unity with nature, the oneness with the blooming flowers, is felt.

A different sort of prosody occurs in the “Queen Mary’s Lament of the Return of Spring.” Its one-part melody ends each cadence on the fifth step of the scale, an effect whose sameness and lack of resolution becomes as repetitive and dull during fourteen grieving, raging verses as – Mary’s day in the Tower. Burns risks boring us in order to bring us inside of Mary’s experience.

Burns also employed prosody in his revisions of existing folk material. Here’s the first verse of “The Ploughman” in the folk version published in David Herd’s Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs (1776):

The ploughman he’s a bonny lad,
And a’ his wark’s at leisure,
And when that he comes hame at ev’n,
He kisses me wi’ pleasure.

Burns’ first verse:
The Ploughman he’s a bonny lad,
His mind is ever true, jo,
His garters knit below his knee,
His bonnet it is blue, jo.

Using the existing song’s melody, Burns matches an unusual downward nine-step melodic skip in the third line to the phrase “below his knee” (skip down to sing low note on “knee”) in his first verse, directing our mind’s eye to the Ploughman’s strong legs. The legs appear again in Burns’ verse 5:

Snow-white stockins on his legs,
And silver buckles glancin;
A good blue bonnet on his head,
And O but he was handsome!

Here is the verse Burns added to “The Dusty Miller”:

Hey the dusty Miller,
And his dusty sack;
Leeze me on the calling
Fills the dusty peck:
Fills the dusty peck,
Brings the dusty siller;
I wad gie my coatie
For the dusty Miller.

Here’s a translation:

Hey the dusty Miller,
And his dusty sack;
How I love the driving
Fills the dusty peck:
Fills the dusty peck,
Brings the dusty silver;
I would give my coatie
For the dusty Miller.

Wed to this barely disguised copulation metaphor, the tune goes through repeating figures which rise in pitch until, like the Miller, it climaxes on the word “Brings.” So there’s a prosodic match on a verb – which modifies the later occurring noun, the “dusty siller.” “Jumpin John” does this on the chorus: The word “Jump” starts with a quaver on the 6th and “jumps” to the crochet on the octave, the highest note in the tune. “The lang lad they ca’ Jumpin’ John beguiled the bonie lassie.”

“To account for the great compass of many of the Scottish melodies, it is necessary to know that the “falsetto” voice was used much among the peasantry.” –James C. Dick

According to his teacher, John Murdoch, Burns did not have a good musical ear as a child. He developed one by steady application, due to his love of music. He worked his songs out with singers: his wife Jean Armour Burns; Janet Cruikshank, the twelve-year old “rose bud” in Edinburgh, “my Jeany fair, on trembling string and vocal air;” Kirsty Flint, the mason’s wife with the strong pipes in Dumfries; and Jessie Lewars, his last muse, sang. With rare exceptions, Burns did not compose lyrics to tunes that couldn’t be sung. Nor did he publish them expecting people not to bother with the tricky parts; as we’ve seen with “Their Groves o’ Sweet Myrtle,” that’s where the gold is. There is no reason why singers ought to be less capable in the 21st century than they were in the 18th. The original tunes do take some time, but with some deep breaths, even I can sing “My Heart’s in the Highlands” on a good day. With the occasional falsetto burst, a competent singer can deliver almost any Burns song. You don’t need to belt out the octave spring on “A Red, Red Rose;” it’s actually more effective to sing it quietly. In these days of studio and live mics, you can add a fifth to your range by singing entire songs quietly. This makes songs like “Again Rejoicing Nature Sings” and “Blue-Eyed Lassie” singable by those of us with average vocal ranges.

People have felt entitled to replace Robert Burns’ song tunes ever since his Thomson thought he could find a better tune to “Auld Lang Syne” than “Auld Lang Syne.” Perhaps it has to do with Burns’ peasant background. We make a cult of the Ayrshire ploughman even as we undercut his artistic authority. Two centuries in, no one has yet improved on the prosody of the original connections. You don’t make Burns songs your own by replacing or altering the tunes. Make them your own by learning them. The field is wide open for young singers to interpret Burns, as even his famous songs remain uncharted territory. For a fine singer to record the first dozen songs discussed here with their authentic melodies would be a radical breakthrough.

Many Burns masterpieces have escaped popular notice: “Bess and Her Spinnin Wheel,” to its circular melody; “The Auld Man’s Winter Thought,” with its shifting time signatures; “The Wren’s Nest,” a melody redolent with bird-calls; the somber portrait of battle-ready patriots in “The Song of Death.” The well is deep.

There is a need for a site where there are accurate recordings of the original melodies (including possible variants) and scores with the lyrics beneath them, to provide ear musicians with reliable models from which to work. I know of no reliable reference source for the song tunes other than musical notation – which is tricky enough. The Linn Complete Songs of Robert Burns has alternate melodies to several of Burns’ better-known songs, including “A Red, Red Rose,” “Silver Tassie,” “A Rose Bud By My Early Walk,” “Now Westlin Winds,” and “Rantin Rovin Robin.” Jean Redpath recorded nearly a hundred Burns songs on three CDs on her own label, solo, with admirable fidelity; simply called Songs of Robert Burns, look for the flowers on the covers. Singers and arrangers who seek to engage Burns’ song legacy need tools, and access. It should be possible to check on whether a tune one hears is the one Burns intended with a search and click. I’ve found James Johnson’s The Scots Musical Museum to be the most reliable source for accuracy and that it also provides the best versions of tunes for the Burns songs even when they are presented as the music to other writers’ songs. For example, the tune to “Again Rejoicing Nature Sees” is “Jockey’s Grey Breeks;” some publishers have printed a variant which suits Mr. Burns’ lyric less well than the tune as published with song #27 in the SMM, “The Gentle Swain.” However, as James Johnson, Burns and musical director Stephen Clarke preferred not to repeat melodies, several Burns songs were printed in SMM with melodies different from the ones to which he’d written the songs: “Robin Shure in Hairst,” “The Rantin Dog, the Daddie O’t,” “Now Westlin Winds,” “No Churchman am I,” and “The Bonny Banks of Ayr”were all printed there to alternate tunes. James Chalmers Dick (Songs of Robert Burns, 1903) did a great deal of research to match the tunes with the poet’s intentions. Dick tracked down and published several missing tunes with their lyrics for the first time. He also made some mistakes. His notion of what to do with “A Red, Red Rose” compromised the song’s unity. He dropped the pick-up note’s “O” to improve the phrasing of the first line, thus marring the larger prosodic effect Burns was after, and made a cockamamie suggestion about repeating verses to fill out the tune’s structure. It is a typical Burns structure, four verses to a two-part tune, which was misprinted using only one ‘A’ part in the Museum, leaving a dangling verse. The lyric lays out exactly as Neil Gow printed the tune; Serge Hovey publicized his discovery of the correct form in the 1970s. James Dick marks “Elegy on Peg Nicholson” as “tune: Chevy Chase (adapted).” All publishers since have used his one-part melody; the “B” part, taken from William McGibbon’s Collection of Scots Tunes (1768) is searchable, and adds considerable drama and musical interest. Again, with “Peg Nicholson,” we have four verses to a two-part melody – a standard form for Burns. You have to go out of your way to mess this up. I don’t blame JC Dick for having a bad day; I do resent subsequent scholars who make him an authority and don’t take the trouble to look at the legacy with fresh eyes. The Scots Musical Museum remains the most reliable source for tunes (other than the tune books Burns is know to have owned), and it is available both in a reprint edited by Donald Low, and online. Many songs missing from that can be found in James C. Dick’s work, Songs of Robert Burns, now published with their original melodies: A Study in Tone-Poetry (1903), also online, with extensive notes. The task of sourcing and publishing all of the tunes from the likely sources Burns was working with remains to be done. I would be surprised if there were one case in which prosody did not tell us which variant Burns was humming to spark his Muse. A hint on “Corn Rigs are Bonie”: it’s never been published with the lyric, but the variant in James Oswald’s Caledonian Pocket Companion sets up the song much better than the one commonly printed. My ninety-year-old father, who has heard me sing three other variants, heard me sing this for my daughter earlier today, and walked in from the other room: “That’s a better tune.”


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