Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Greater Atlanta, GA, USA
John Anderson My Jo, John
John Anderson My Sweetheart
John Anderson My Love
When we were first acquainted,
Your bonnie brow was unwrinkled,
But now your brow is wrinkled, John,
Your locks are like the snow;
But Blessings on your frosty head
John Anderson, my sweetheart.
John Anderson my love, John,
We climbed the many hills together
And many a cheerful day, John
We’ve had with one another.
Now we must totter down, John
And hand in hand we’ll go;
And sleep together at the foot,
John Anderson, my sweet love.
This is another look at one of my favorite
songs of Robert Burns. It is named John Anderson My Jo and was
originally a honky-tonk song, sung in bar rooms or houses of ill-repute,
many times by the coarse voice of a bar maid, to the enthusiastic crowd
imbibing the whisky of the establishment, and thus it became a favorite
drinking man’s song. The song was reworked or reworded by Burns who
changed it from a drinking man’s song to that of a couple married early
in life and now facing the last years of their lives.
The wife is singing softly and sweetly to her husband, John Anderson,
about their long married life together. Burns took a bawdy song and
turned it into a beautiful tune by changing its lyrics. What had been
trash became a thing of beauty! Raunchy words from inebriated women who
plied the world’s oldest profession were converted into words of
faithfulness and affection and provoked memories of youth and innocence
between decent and married couples. These were the people in the
communities who tried to do the right things making their communities
stronger. Reminiscences of younger years of the couple are now featured
in the song. The song becomes a magic one about true love shared over
the years between John Anderson and his wife, both faithful to each
other over long lifetimes. Too often this aspect of Burns is overlooked
today by men and women. But, we must remember that this poem shows Burns
writing at his best, and it is a great example of Burns speaking out on
behalf of women and in their defense. Burns is writing from the recesses
of a woman’s heart and from a woman’s perspective. On a manuscript out there somewhere, I’m told he wrote “This Song is Mine” and, until I see proof otherwise, I will believe he did so because he was writing about women. He was smarter than most of us!
There was a ten-year period in the last years of Burns life when his
attention was, with a few exceptions, given over to Scottish songs as he
set out to save the songs of Scotland, both musically and lyrically.
These songs became the gift of Burns to the Scottish nation. One method
was to update some of the songs and, in the case with John Anderson, to
rework it entirely with fresh and good words that good people could sing
proudly. I am not talking about the Holy Willie’s among us but the
average man in the pew and in the communities. This song, which was a
tasteless song, now becomes a song of joy.
I have even undertaken to change some of the words of Burns of this
piece knowing that there are none among us to rival Burns but knowing
that he would urge us onward while we were doing so. I have done as
Burns did, and this is the best illustration of my doing so:
Robert Burns…Jo = affection or faithfulness
Frank Shaw…Jo = sweetheart or love
Thus, I come out with “John Anderson my sweetheart” or “John Anderson my
love” and to me the song becomes more beautiful and can even be
dedicated to a young love, even a first love. We tend not to pay much
attention to the youngsters who have sat at our tables for the first
fourteen or fifteen years of their lives, and when they breakup with
their first love we tell them that was not a true love but a youngster’s
love and therefore it is not a real love. We tell them it is puppy love.
But what we forget is that our early teens know what we don’t know since
HIS OR HER LOVE IS REAL TO THE PUPPY, and they hurt inside in their own
Therefore I believe the song can be dedicated to one experiencing puppy
love or to an older couple experiencing their 50th wedding anniversary
or even longer. So tonight I dedicate this song to all of the married
couples present and in particular do I dedicate this song to Susan, my
wife of 42 years - my sweetheart and love for all these years who turned
my life around for the better!
Frank and Susan Shaw from a few years ago
The Burns Club of Atlanta dedicated the renovated addition of their 104
year-old cottage this past Saturday, August 22, 2015. A good crowd of
members and guests were present for this festive celebration. I was
asked to deliver a reading from Burns and chose to speak on John
Anderson My Jo. It was an honor to be chosen for the reading by
President Woody Woodward and a privilege for me to present my modest
presentation to the members of our Robert Burns Lives! family as well.