Category Archives: Folksongs

The Year of Jubilo

I apologise to any who are out there panting to read more words of wisdom or diatribe – things have got in the way as things do, busyness combined of course with laziness and its handmaid procrastination. Not that there haven’t been a lot of things worth commenting on. In Canada here the evil Harper pursues his destructive course, British Columbia has its own economic and environmental disasters looming, and I sometimes think this tight little island I live on is a rare haven of more-or-less tranquil sanity. Let’s not think about the so-called United States; but what about the so-called United Kingdom?
It’s ironic maybe that furore about the Independence Referendum is becoming more strident at this period when Britain is set to celebrate the Olympics in London and the Queen’s sixtieth year on the throne. It’s a sort of bittersweet occasion when some are waving flags and others stifling yawns, while yet others are thumping tubs and calling for abolition of an outmoded and outrageous piece of mediaeval privilege imposed on a nation too meek to resist. Myself, I suppose I go along with the position (at present!) of the Scottish National Party, which says that an independent Scotland will retain the sovereign, at least until the people (who in Scotland are sovereign) decide otherwise, by a plebiscite I suppose.
I used to be an anarchist, and to be honest I still am, though I think I’ve mellowed with the years (like fine wine? or an aged cheese?). At one time I was even a member of the Scottish Labour League, a Trotskyite organisation that held little meetings where diehards lectured as many of an audience as could be mustered about the sins of capitalism and the glorious socialist future. Well, that future is still a long way off, and after fifty years the sins are even more blatant. It is true that laws have been enacted in the course of my cognitive life (I mean since I began to notice things) that have improved the lot of a good deal of humanity, but naturally there’s a lot of other things that have been forced on the people quite deliberately to lessen freedom and to improve the condition not of the poor old working class, or even the long-suffering middle classes, but the elite, the moneyed classes, the privileged two percent at the top. It’s very easy for legislators to make things comfortable for their friends, and it’s very easy (and expected) that friends in business and finance will reciprocate. So what else is new?
But can we salvage any pleasure out of contemplating the country right now? The Queen, God bless her royal socks, is celebrating a sexagesimal stamina, and we should treat the occasion with the the respect it deserves (no rude laughter at the back!), for Elizabeth really has tried hard and should be given due appreciation. She has been, naturally, tied down by her position, her upbringing, her court and advisers (I’m remembering Verdi’s bit in Rigoletto, “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata!”), so she can’t help herself too well. She is however in the same tradition as her predecessor Victoria, who also had a Diamond Jubilee in 1897 (just a couple of years before my father was born). The country at that time was in settled imperial mood, and so the occasion was marked with due loyal solemnity and popular enthusiasm.
They wrote songs about it: I collected one about 1957 from a grand old man, Mr Stopper of Aberdeen, then living in Bellshill in Lanarkshire. I have predictably mislaid my tape recording, which after all this time is probably rather unplayable anyway, and oddly enough I never did write it down, but as far as I remember it went like this:

A very good evening my Jubilee friends,
Please forgive me for being so rude,
But a Jubilee song in this Jubilee year
I will sing if you do not intrude.

[Chorus]
I’m out on a Jubilee spree,
I’m full up on Jubilee ale,
I was locked up last night in a Jubilee cell
And I’m out upon Jubilee bail.

* * *
All the things in our house have got Jubilee names;
These are my Jubilee clothes;
We’ve a cat that’s got Jubilee kittens – in fact
I’ve a Jubilee wart on my nose.
[Chorus]

It’s a jolly song from the music hall of the time, and Mr Stopper sang it with panache. It shows maybe the way the ordinary folk looked at the occasion, with good-humoured affection. There is therefore a marked difference to notice in the way the populace is acting now. The number of events like street parties being planned in Scotland is about 200 I think, dwarfed by thousands in the rest of the country. England is going mad with concerts and specially written songs, a banquet or two and beacons up the length of the country – the last lit (by a button I assume) by Elizabeth herself, triggering a (surely enormous) firework display over Buckingham Palace. One item that might be quite watchable (if I had TV) is a procession down the Thames in a specially built royal barge, serenaded by many musical ensembles on other boats, and the whole thing should be quite a display.
Yet there is a quite remarkable groundswell of popular opinion that sees the monarchy as an anachronism in a modern age, and the Green Party in Scotland is in favour of a republic. They are not numerous, compared to the “mainline” parties, but they are by no means alone. The approaching referendum on independence in 2014 is a good excuse and a good opportunity to raise the question. Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, has assured anxious royalists that the Queen will be kept after the great liberation, though there are many I’m sure within his party that would balk at continuing the institution after her death. William and Kate seem nice enough young folks, though Harry seems a night-clubbing joyrider; and immediately do we want Charles and his second wife on the throne, for all their well-meaning involvement in good causes?
We live in “interesting times”, right enough.

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The Stane

Tom Harris’s mock video has Alex Salmond preparing for the coronation, and they say “the stone of Scone will be widened and strengthened” for the event, since AS will have to sit on it and he is famously chubby due to all the curry and similar swanky food he eats. I find the video quite amusing in a dire kind of way, but it’s really not that good, and Harris should have been scolded for his lack of aesthetic integrity. As it is, he resigned and is now a footnote in the history books. But I thought it a good idea to bring in the Stone of Scone, particularly since it has become (I think) something of an icon in Nationalist history. I was a late teenager when the stunning news came out that some rabid fanatics had stolen the sacred stone from its cherished place in St Edward’s cherished chair in cherished Westminster Abbey. As I remember my feelings at the time were a mixture of elation and anxiety, the latter for the miscreants who were the subjects of a massive manhunt. [For the record, their names were Kay Matheson, Ian Hamilton, Gavin Vernon and Alan Stuart. Hats off, gentlemen!] As it was, my worry didn’t last long, they were never arrested, and the Stone was hurriedly taken back under the protection of the Establishment. That “theft” was on Christmas Day 1950, and it can still evoke a good deal of chauvinist glee at the discomfiture of the high heid yins in London, including poor King George, who said he was “most distressed” by the whole business. I’m reminded by that that in some comment about the case someone claimed it was recovered (by divine grace no doubt) in time for the Coronation of Elizabeth. Anyway, at the time there was an explosion of comment, and as is the custom songs were written to express the feelings of nationalists (of all stripes). A collection appeared from the Scottish National Congress in a little pamphlet called Sangs o’ the Stane, contributed to by many poets of distinction, including my own favourite Sydney Goodsir Smith, who contributed :a “Ballad o the Reivin o the Stane” to the tune of the obscene classic The Ball o Kirriemuir. Note that all these songs (14 in all) were to be sung to specified or recognisable tunes, in the manner of the ballads of old. There was also a bit of intro by Hugh Macdiarmid, “On the Asportation of the Scone Stone”, which happens to be in English. They were all anonymous, deliberately, and the compiler, Morris Blythman (“Thurso Berwick”), never claimed copyright.
It appeared on the 13th April, 1951, the same month the Stone (or a similar sort of rock) was left in Arbroath Abbey. It’s a mean little thing, I suppose, but I treasure my copy, and from time to time leaf through it and shake my head at the enthusiasm that produced some very marginal poetry. It’s rather like many songs in James Hogg’s Jacobite Relics, which are interesting historically but scarcely memorable or worth singing more than just a few times. Still, one song has survived, “The Wee Magic Stane”, by Johnny McEvoy, a regular at the Bo’ness Rebel Ceilidhs of the time, who later emigrated to Canada and finally retired to Scotland in 1989. It goes to the tune of the Cockney song “Villikins and his Dinah”, or (as the original tells us), “The Ould Orange Flute”.

The Dean o’ Westminster was a powerful man
He held a’ the strings o’ the State in his hand
But wi’ a’ his great business it flustered him nane
Till some rogues ran awa wi his wee magic stane.
Wi’ a too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay

Noo the Stane had great pow’rs that could dae sic a thing
And withoot it, it seemed, we’d be wantin’ a king
So he called in the polis and gave this decree–
Go an hunt oot the Stane and return it tae me
Wi’ a etc.

So the polis went beetlin’ up tae the North
They huntit the Clyde and they huntit the Forth
But the wild folk up yonder just kiddit them a’
Fur they didnae believe it was magic at a’
Wi’ a etc.

Noo the Provost o’ Glesca, Sir Victor by name
Wis awfy pit oot whan he heard o’ the Stane
So he offered the statues that staun in the Square
That the High Church’s masons might mak a few mair.
Wi’ a etc.

When the Dean o Westminster wi this was acquaint
He sent fur Sir Victor and made him a saint,
“Noo it’s nae good you sending your statues doon here”
Said the Dean, “but you’ve gied me a right good idea.”
Wi’ a etc.

So he quarried a stane o the very same stuff
An he dressed it a’ up till it looked like enough
Then he sent for the press and announced that the Stane
Had been found and returned tae Westminster again.
Wi’ a etc.

When the reivers found oot what Westminster had done,
They went aboot diggin up stanes by the ton,
And fur each wan they feenished they entered the claim
That this was the true and original stane.
Wi’ a etc.

Noo the cream o the joke still remains tae be telt,
Fur the bloke that wis turnin’ them aff on the belt,
At the peak o production was so sorely pressed
That the real yin got bunged in alang wi the rest
Wi’ a etc

So if ever ye cam’ on a stane wi a ring,
Just sit yersel doon and appoint yersel King,
Fut there’s nane wud be able tae challenge yir claim
That you’d croont yersel King on the Destiny Stane
Wi’ a too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay.

The Lord Provost at the time was Sir Victor Warren (Progressive, which roughly meant Conservative), who held the post from 1949-1952. He was an implacable foe of the Scottish Nationalists, and some fanatics daubed the front of his house with the words, “in very large letters, LONDON’S OFFICE BOY, SCOTLAND’S QUISLING, and in even larger letters underneath the word TRAITOR.” (- Harry Diamond’s fascinating memoirs.) You see today’s invective I mentioned last time has a long history.
The Attorney General, Sir Hartley Shawcross, made a statement in the Commons on April 1, 1951 – a significant date, surely, for the reivers had made fools of the authorities – saying that no action would be taken against them, his reason being that he did not think it was in the public interest that he should direct criminal proceedings to be taken:”I have no desire to provide these individuals with the opportunity either of being regarded by their followers as martyrs if convicted or as heroes if they are not convicted.”

The Dean was Alan Campbell Don, KCVO, D.D. (1885–1966), ironically a Scot, born in Dundee, where he served from 1921 to 1931 as Provost of St Paul’s Cathedral. He broadcast an appeal for the return of the Stone, and I’m sure there were many who believed that had some effect. The Square is George Square, home to the Council Chambers and many statues, including an 80-foot-high column in the centre featuring Sir Walter Scott, which was erected in 1837. Others (Wiki tells us) include the only known equestrian statues of a young Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert, poets Robert Burns and Thomas Campbell, inventor James Watt, chemist Thomas Graham, generals Sir John Moore, Lord Clyde and politicians William Ewart Gladstone, Robert Peel and James Oswald (1779-1853). That should have kept the masons busy for a good while.

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Flodden Field

That referendum I mentioned last time has been promised for 2014. In the autumn, and not June (the anniversary of the famous victory), which may surprise people who thought a vote on the actual day of the resounding defeat of the Auld Enemy would be very appropriate for dealing another smack in the goolies. It might be thought however that the great anniversary could overshadow the political decision in an unexpected way; besides, oh horrors if the vote were no, such a defeat for national aspirations would do something to taint the blessed day.
Bannockburn Day is celebrated with some pomp and circumstance, skirling and speeching, as may be expected. Some think there’s a bit too much of that. Take a look, though, at the preserved site of that other battle in 1513. There’s a simple monument erected in 1910 inscribed with words I find quite moving: TO THE DEAD OF BOTH NATIONS.
The rights and wrongs of the event can be argued over – was James a warmongering tool of the French? Was perfidious Albion just defending its home? And what about Henry, eh? Well, no one can deny that the battle, the last great mediaeval battle maybe (the Scots used the old style, the wily English the new), changed history and had a dreadful effect upon Scotland. Look up the list of the fallen – great names and small, lords and lairds and knights and gentlemen from all over the kingdom, not to mention the poor bloody infantry and all who are not named in the history books. The loss in sheer manpower to the country was immense, and the king himself slain. It was in remembrance of the disaster that Jean Elliot of Minto wrote “The Flowers of the Forest” lamenting the sudden decimation of the manhood of Scotland:

The Flowers of the Forest

I’ve heard the lilting, at the yowe-milking,
Lasses a-lilting before dawn o’ day;
But now they are moaning on ilka green loaning;
“The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away”.

At buchts in the morning nae blythe lads are scorning;
The lasses are lonely and dowie and wae;
Nae daffin’, nae gabbin’, but sighing and sabbing,
Ilk ane lifts her leglin, and hies her away.

In hairst, at the shearing, nae youths now are jeering,
The bandsters are lyart, and runkled or gray;
At fair or at preaching, nae wooing, nae fleeching,
The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away.

At e’en, in the gloaming, nae swankies are roaming
‘Bout stacks wi’ the lasses at bogle to play.
But ilk ane sits drearie, lamenting her dearie,
The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away.

Dule and wae for the order sent our lads to the Border!
The English, for ance, by guile wan the day:
The Flowers of the Forest, that focht aye the foremost,
The prime o’ our land are cauld in the clay.

We’ll hear nae mair lilting, at the yowe-milking,
Women and bairns are heartless and wae;
Sighing and moaning, on ilka green loaning,
The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away.

I put up the words, even though they’re very available in umpteen books, and the Net of course. The above set is mostly as the song is given in the Stenhouse notes to The Scots Musical Museum. The tune is given in volume one, no. 63, to “Adieu ye streams that smoothly glide”, verses by Anne Home (Mrs John Hunter), whose main claim to remembrance is penning the words to “My mother bids me bind my hair”, a favourite canzonet by Haydn.

flodin

Henry VIII’s poet laureate John Skelton wrote a triumphant sneering sort of poem about the event, “A ballade of the scottysshe kynge”, which doesn’t say much except pour scorn on James (whose death was still in doubt) and his presumption. It was published in black letter that year, just after the battle, and ends

God saue kynge Henry and his lordes all
And sende the frensshe kynge suche an other fall,

Amen, for saynt charytë
And god saue noble.
Kynge Henry
The viij.

This is nicely reproduced with lots of background by John Ashton, 1882.
FLODIN a
There is another “Ballad of Flodden Field”, composed much later, which is quite long and detailed, ending with the lines

                               Thus have you heard of Flodden fight.
                               Worthy of each to be commended :
                               Because that then Old England’s right
                               Was bravely by her sons defended.

In the great collection of English and Scottish Popular Ballads of Francis James Child, “Flodden Field” is no. 168, from a 17th-century copy of a 16th-century ballad: “in disgrace of the Scots, and in remembrance of the famous atchieved historie, the commons of England made this song, which to this day is not forgotten of many.”
I wonder what ceremonies are planned for the quincentenary next year? The Selkirk Common Riding will remember it of course. Tradition says that after the battle a lone man, the Town Clerk, came to town with a captured flag, let it be known that all but he had been killed, and promptly died.
2013 marks 60 years since the coronation of Elizabeth Queen of Scots. This year marks the 60th since good king George died. Poor man, he didn’t live to see all the shenanigans of after time, which is maybe just as well. What would he make of his grandchildren? But that’s another blog…

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Yule Blog

Scotland has not been awfully enthusiastic about Christmas for quite a while, ever since Cromwell at least, and before that under the Calvinists. But the sheer pagan enjoyment of the turn of the year has deep roots, and so in recent times Scots have joined in the festivities quite eagerly. Still, one index of the lukewarm reception of Christmas is the lack of carols. I can only think offhand of one, namely the Christ Child Lullaby (Tàladh Chriosd), which is of course in Gaelic. [I refer you to the URL http://singyourfavoritelullaby.blogspot.com/2009/03/christ-childs-lullabytaladh-chriosd.html%5D. There’s quite a few similar things in other cultures, as e.g. “Away in a Manger”, which is not initially addressed to the baby Jesus, and in Polish there’s quite a few, called kołysanki (cradle songs), such as this, which I got from an old friend of mine, the late Jan Freyman, who pointed out that the theme was used (or appropriated) by Chopin:

LULAJŻE JEZUNIU (LULLABY, JESU MINE)

song 1

I admit a better rhyme in the first verse would be “greeting”, which is good Scots but maybe a bit confusing for Sassunachs.

German has, among many others, “Schlaf, mein Kindelein”, found in the Strassburger Gesangbuch of 1697, and still sung in the Rhone region.

song

It continues (with “Singet” etc after each verse):

“Komm, mein Kindelein, schau dein Bettelein,
das für dich bereitet ist!”
“Komm mein Söhnelein in dies Krippelein,
das mit Heu gestreuet ist!”

“Schliess die Äugelein, deck deine Händelein,
den es braust ein scharfer Wind!”
“Schlaf, mein Kindelein, dich das Eselein
wird erwärmen mit dem Rind!”

“Schlaf, mein Ziere, meine Begiere,
schweig, dass sich dein Leid nicht mehr!”
“Schlaf, mein Sohne: von seinem Throne
schickt dein Vater Englein her.”

Each two lines are sung by mother and father, alternately. It’s a bit difficult to render this accurately with the tenderness of all those diminutives, but:

“Sleep, my little one, sleep, my little son”
Sings the mother, purest maid;
“Sleep, my little dear, darling, have no fear,”
sings the father to the babe.
[Chorus:]
Sing all for the little child,
Honey-sweet wee Jesus mild.
Sing, all cherubs in the skies,
A thousand lovely melodies.

“Come, my sleepyhead, see your little bed
That is now all ready made.”
“Come, my little dear, into the manger here
That has hay within it laid.”

“Close your eyes now, cover your hands now,
For a wind that’s sharp does blow.”
“Sleep, my babykin, the manger all within,
Ox and ass will warm you so.”

“Sleep, my pretty one, sleep, my little one,
Hush, and have surcease of care!”
“Sleep, my son, and from his throne
Your Heavenly Father sends angels here.”

That’s my Christmas contribution. A Merry Christmas [and Happy Hannukah, Joyous Kwanzaa and so forth] to all my readers! Nollaig Chridheil agus Bliadhna Mhath Ur!

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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

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