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Robert Burns Lives!


The Life of Robert Burns
By Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot

Part III

No longer a farmer, Burns spent his last years as a government employee, working as a tax collector. Although the pay was not much, only £50 a year, he was now able to provide for his family in a more responsible way than when he was a farmer. Burns was assigned ten Upper Nithsdale parishes, riding on horseback 50 miles a day. With a fixed income to rely on, the poet now turned to the love of songs and song writing instilled in him by his mother as a lad. Robert T. Fitzhugh, in his most remarkable book, Robert Burns, The Man And The Poet, puts it as well as I have ever read: “Song – verse married to music – was Burns’ earliest, his latest, his strongest, and his most enduring poetic interest.”

Some people often make the mistake of assuming everything Burns wrote was poetry. Not true. Many songs by Burns may appear to some as poems. Yet, Burns never intended for his songs to be considered poetry. He wrote them as songs. They were written to specific tunes.

Burns has been severely criticized by some who should know better for not being musically talented. Nonsense! In a well written little epistle called Burns and Folk Song, Alexander Keith points out that Burns (1) was a proficient dancer with a discriminating ear for time and rhythm; (2) could play strathspeys and most of the simpler melodies on the violin which he taught himself to play as a young man; (3) supervised the general editorship of The Scots Musical Museum; and (4) was a master song writer. He could take an old song that was rough and irregular and make it more charming, tuneful, emotional and endearing. The old songs looked inward but backward. When Burns finished a song, it still looked inward but also forward.

In his own words, he describes his thought process regarding songs – “Untill I am compleat master of a tune, in my own singing, (such as it is) I never can compose for it.” Note the humor in the “such as it is” quote. He would compose songs on horseback as he made his rounds of 200 miles per week. In a letter to his friend James Johnson he mentioned he had “all the music of the country”, except one.

That brings us to the two men in Burns’ life responsible for the world knowing of Burns’ great talent in music and songwriting – James Johnson and George Thomson. Johnson published The Scots Musical Museum, and Thomson printed A Selection of Original Scotish Airs for the Voice. The two men were as different as night and day. Johnson was grateful for any song Burns gave him and published them without changing anything. Thomson, on the other hand, was always urging Burns to change the songs to the way he wanted them to sound. Thomson considered as “silly” some of the Scottish lyrics while Burns held fast that they were “simple” and necessary. They disagreed on a lot of things. Thomson “was for English elegance, English words, and propriety.” Burns replied, “These English songs gravel me to death”. Yet, in all fairness to Thomson, Burns had to defend his songs and, in doing so, could look at them more critically. Unfortunately, Burns gave in to Thomson all to often.

Many critics, including some today, think that Burns wasted away the last years of his life “fooling” with songs, thus neglecting his poetry. They forget two things – Robert Burns wrote his greatest poem, Tam O’Shanter during this time and, secondly, Burns is as well known for his songs as he is for his poetry. Many think the latter are better than his poetry. In my opinion, there is no waste of time or talent when you work through his songs.

It comes as a shock to some that the greatest single body of his work was his songs. At the age of 15, Burns wrote his first song, having been inspired by Nelly Kilpatrick. Some say  he would write approximately 400 songs during the course of his life, the majority during his last years, and he never accepted a penny for them. In a recent phone call, Dr. Ross Roy, our imminent Burns scholar and dear friend from the University of South Carolina said that Burns could be credited with 312 songs plus another 39 that some are by Burns and some are not. For instance, Ramsay has “Auld Lang Syne” way before Burns but the one we sing each year at New Years Eve belongs to Burns since “he did so much” with the song until “we have to attribute it to him”. 

You have to marvel at the artistic talent displayed by Burns - whether he wrote the entire song, rewrote a song (“patched it”), added or subtracted from the songs, or left one as it was to begin with. They were meant to be sung to the tunes Burns tied them to. A classic example is My Love Is Like A Red, Red Rose with its beautiful words often quoted as poetry when it’s actually a song. I cannot over emphasize that a good student of Burns will do well to remember that Burns wrote them as songs and, if quoted, they should be referred to as such and not poetry.

One area of songs cannot be overlooked or pushed under a rug or bed. Much has been written about a wee volume of songs entitled The Merry Muses of Caledonia, which James Mackay reminds us in his monumental work A Biography of Robert Burns was clandestinely published three years after Burns’ death. Without the time and space to do justice to the songs of Burns, particularly these, suffice it to say that they were written and collected by Burns to be used among his male companions in the taverns frequented by so many of his friends. The Merry Muses were, according to Kirsteen McCue in Robert Crawford’s book Robert Burns and Cultural Authority, his personal songs. The Muses volume “shows that Burns’ interest was in all songs, not only ‘acceptable’ ones.” Its songs were intended for private use by Burns, his friends, and the Crochallan Fencibles (Scottish military volunteers).

Buried among Burns’ letters is a note regarding a part of Scotland that is cherished by Clan Shaw. In a letter to George Thomson, he writes: “For instance, I am just now making verses for Rothemurche’s Rant, an air which puts me in raptures…” From his deathbed in another letter to Thomson, he says, “O I tryed my hand on Rothiemurche this morning. The measure is so difficult, that it is impossible to infuse much genius into the lines.” Thomas Crawford writes in Burns, A Study of the Poems and Songs that this particular song was “…written for dance-tunes which were purely instrumental…” He goes on to say, “Lassie wi’ the lint-white Locks” (was) intended for the reel-tune Rothiemurchus Rant.” I am particularly proud that the old Shaw land played a part, be it ever so small, in the course of Burns’ song writing.

In closing, I refer to McCue again who quotes Eliza Cook’s Journal of 1852, “It may be truly averred that the heart of the Scotch people is written in their songs. They are the vehicle of deepest emotion, of playfulest humour, and of most passionate love.” Nobody, in my opinion, did it better than Robert Burns! (FRS – 7-5-05)


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