Bairnsangs

Children’s rhymes and such can be nicely called “Bairnsangs” in Scots (or indeed in Northern English, which shares some linguistic history). I made a collection a long while ago of such as I could find, from my own recollection and printed sources, the idea being that it would rival the English rhyme books of Peter and Iona Opie, particularly The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, first published in 1951, and long a standard, as the second edition (1997) still is. Mind you, the Opies didn’t attempt to give the tunes, and the second edition merely has a chapter of nine pages on “The Singing Tradition of Nursery Rhymes” by Cecily Raynor Hancock, which is distinguished by scholarship but quotes no music and seems designed to show the interested reader where to look, like libraries.
I never thought this was satisfactory, and my own collection would give tunes where found, like the Scottish collections of William and Norah Montgomerie, and the collection that inspired them, Nicht at Eenie: the Bairns’ Parnassus*. But how, you may ask, to deal with variant versions of the rhyme, and different tunes? By giving all the texts, as Professor Child did with the ballads, and the tunes too, as Bronson did to supplement Child, and as the great edition of the Greig-Duncan song collection does. A song is not complete without its music, although you can argue that some songs have perfectly awful tunes, while the text may be sheer magic. Generally speaking, I think the folksinger treats a tune as a mere vehicle for the more important words that tell a story, but in the case of bairnsangs it’s at least fifty-fifty, since the tune can be hummed without any words.
Anyway, a wee while ago I got a nice present from some good friends of mine, a little book called – yes – Bairnsangs, Nursery Rhymes in Scots, by Sandy Thomas Ross, charmingly illustrated by Charles Summers (Macmillan, 1955). This contains some good stuff, though I doubt it has had much exposure in the nursery, or at school. Ross can occasionally catch the real traditional feeling:

                                             A-LEARY!

                              A zeenty teenty timmourie fell,
                              A clover leaf, a heather bell;
                              A zeenty teenty haligalum,
                              A Japanese chrysanthemum;
                              A zeenty teenty lillibalu,
                              Forget-me-not an I’ll be true.

Ross is writing in a noteworthy genre, some of which is poignantly memorable, though few have equalled Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, unless it be the late William Soutar’s Seeds in the Wind or, more simple and bairnlike, the charming rhymes of J. K. Annand, Sing it Aince for Pleisure, 1965. Still, the old and anonymous lines have their own magic.

                              I heard a cow low, a bonnie cow low,
                                  An’ a cow low down in yon glen,
                              Lang, lang will my young son greet,
                                  Or his mither bid him come ben.

                              I heard a cow low, a bonnie cow low,
                                  An’ a cow low down in yon fauld,
                              Lang, lang will my young son greet
                                  Or his mither take him frae cauld.

This is in C. K. Sharpe’s Ballad Book (edition of 1880), 169, a portion of a ballad from the seventeenth-century Skene MS.; whence the Montgomeries’ Scottish Nursery Rhymes (1946), 129 (no. 166).
Likewise the melody can be memorable, to stick with you all your life, for some reason. One can meet it again in a different context, perhaps quite serious and unbairnlike, and one greets it like an old friend. My grannie sang us the eighteenth-century nonsense song about Aiken Drum, and I was pleased to hear the tune again years later used for a Scottish country dance. It actually belongs to what you can call a complex of tunes, or tune family, all based on an old bass line called the passamezzo moderno, going do’ fa do’ soh do’ fa do’soh d. Other tunes that share the bass include Portsmouth, The Keel Row, and oddly enough the main melody of The Tennessee Waltz.

* Nicht at Eenie: the Bairns’ Parnassus. With wood-engravings by Iain MacNab. [Warlingham], Samson Press, 1932. [Limited ed. of 170 copies.] [Repr.: Norwood, Pa., Norwood Editions, 1974.]
At the end the anon. compiler names Dr. A.A.W. Ramsay, “who suggested the enterprise and supplied the nucleus of the collection” among the contributors. There is some music, done from line-blocks, imitated later by the Montgomeries. 37 pp. (+ 1, as above). 72 items.

aiken drum

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Folksongs, Music

2 responses to “Bairnsangs

  1. You should publish those Bairnsangs, or blog them out in chapters for money. Kristin

  2. Sammy Rich

    Kristin:
    I agree. I encourage. I will help, in any way possible. ‘Twould be a wonderful complement to any one studying Scottish Music or childrens music.
    Sammy Rich

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