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Folk Music in Scottish Society



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Lady lutenist

Scottish poetry, as Stevenson suggests, is peculiarly rich in all that has to do with social life. In the 17th and 18th centuries it is taken up almost exclusively with that, but socialness of a kind very different from, say, the equally 'social' English poetry of that time. Dryden and Pope lived admidst and wrote for an upper-middle and upper class metropolitan world of coffee-house, town mansion, and country estate … The Scottish contemporaries, Allan Ramsey, Robert Fergusson, and, later, Burns, could hardly differ more. They inhabit the ordinary pubs and market places, centres of gaming, drinking, eating, small business deals, the coming and going of farmers, chapmen (pedlars), and lawyers looking for work—but not, apparently, of literary connoisseuring and the discussion of new publications which could seriously influence a central government. They write in the manner of popular wise-acres, masters of repartee, in a language little different from that of the mass of their countrymen, not in that of an educated upper crust. 18th-century Scotland is of course famous for such an 'elite': men of letters such as Hume, Adam Smith, Henry Mackenzie, and (a little later) Scott, and the cultured law lords (Kames, Hailes, and later Jeffrey). But as far as these men were concerned, at least in the 18th century, the creative literature of the country—the poetry of Ramsay, Fergusson, and Burns—was virtually underground, or in the backwoods. Its comedy embodied a social life beneath the dignity of the 'polite' class. Yet that stratum of social life—lived out in the howffs (pubs), street markets, and tenement stairs—was in fact shared, even in the capital city, by all classes, aristocracy, bourgeoisie, and working folk alike, to an extent unthinkable in any later age. The society was close-knit in its physical conditions of life, if not in education, property, and outlook.

David Craig
Scottish Literature and the Scottish People: 1680-1830
Chatto & Windus, London, 1961
pp 19-20

The Seventeenth Century
'Music of Castle, Burgh and Countryside'

When the Scottish Court moved south in 1603, a younger generation of Castalian poets and musicians was growing up in the northern castles. This generation, however, inherited a fragmented culture than lacked the focus of a royal court to give it direction and purpose. The result for music was the the art of composition declined. Interest in contemporary English and European music continued, but when a Scottish musician wanted something of his own he either turned to music of an earlier generation or to folksong. Kirk and song-school provided some measure of opportunity, but the former dwindled to vanishing point by the mid-century, and the latter offered only fitful support throughout the whole century. Rather, this is the century of the gifted amateur and the collector. Manuscript anthologies of music were compiled throughout the country, some recording art music, some folk, and a few both. One of the fascinating things about seventeenth-century Scottish sources is the interest they display in folk-music. This had obviously existed in oral tradition long before, and there are many early references to it, but the seventeenth century saw the first attempts to record the tradition. Those musical amateurs could almost be described as Europe's first folk-song collectors. Curiously, only the music of the older songs was recorded, and was arranged for instrumental playing on the lute, cittern, keyboard, violin or lyra-viol. Either the collectors assumed that in this traditional music everyone knew the words, or else the words were too frank to be recorded. It was not until the eighteenth century that texts began to appear along with the tunes; but, just as in the sixteenth century, new sets of words could be written to an existing tune. And the repertory of music in the folk style was continually being enlarged; alongside traditional and what must often be extremely ancient melodies we find that from this period onwards more and more new but still generally anonymous tunes were being composed in the folk-song style.

Kenneth Elliott & Frederick Rimmer
A History of Scottish Music
British Broadcasting Corporation, 1973
pp 41-42

I include the following to demonstrate that dances that, nowadays, are mostly considered Renaissance French court dances were also popular dances among ordinary people in Britain. Note that an example in the Scottish Skene MS has been preserved in the folk tradition.

Branle (Fr.)

(l) A step in the Basse Danse, in which the body was swayed from side to side (branlé).

(2) A round dance in duple measure, which was very popular in France in the l6th century. The music of many Branles, and other old dances, is given in Arbeau's Orchésographie (Langres, 1588), a copy of which is in the British Museum.

(3) A French dance popular in England during the 16th century. Its figure is now doubtful, but it has been stated to have been a 'ring' or a 'round' dance in which the dancers join hands as round a maypole. It is identical with the Bransle or Brangill, and probably also with the Brawl, supposed to be so named from its similitude to an altercation. Shakespeare plays upon the word in a dance sense in Love's Labour Lost, Act iii. Scene 1. A description of the measure is given in Morley's Plaine and Easie Introd., 1597, p. 181.

That the Brangill was a round dance may be inferred from the fact that The Brangill of Poictu from the Skene MS, is the tune of We be Three Poor Mariners, a song in which the sentence occurs: 'Shall we go dance the round, the round'

It is also curious that a traditional remembrance of these words is sung to a round dance by street children to-day.

Frank Kidson
Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. J A Fuller Maitland
London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1910
pp I:392-3

Reproduced at the Musical Tradition website

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Lutenist And a court poem entitled Old Long-Syne, very likely by Ayton, seems to have been matched with a native air towards the end of the century. The instrumental setting of it in the Balcarres Lute-Book of about 1690 is perhaps the earliest extant version of the music for this famous poem. Burn's reworking of the text to another tune ousted it from popular favour in the early nineteenth century to become 'the best known song of Scotland'.

Kenneth Elliott & Frederick Rimmer
A History of Scottish Music
British Broadcasting Corporation, 1973
pp 48

[ The tune Burns used was the old tune, not the one currently sung. It wasn't until the 19th century, well after Burns' death, that the new tune was adopted. Personally I rather prefer the old tune.]

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Because of the way Edinburgh had grown up on a narrow ridge of volcanic rock, it had had to build perpendicularly, squeezing lofty, narrow buildings (as in Manhattan) onto the slim pier of building space available. The main streets, High Street and Cowgate, ran east and west along the ridge, and the poorer streets were tunnel-like wynds and closes piercing the ground floor of the lofty tenements of 'lands' and dropping in slopes and steps down the cliff to either side… Thus Edinburgh was not quartered off between the classes until the end of the century. This Scottish town housing was until the 1780's unique in the way it mixed the classes. In England even the poor usually had separate dwellings, whereas old Edinburgh was the only important British town in which tenement dwelling had been normal time out of mind, a condition it shared at this time with other old walled towns such as Stirling, and also with Glasgow, where most of the well-known, well-off citizens lived in tenement flats.

David Craig
Scottish Literature and the Scottish People: 1680-1830
Chatto & Windus, London, 1961
p. 29

Sweeps or messengers and odd-job men from the Highlands lived in the cellars, aristocrats or professional people on the first floor, shopkeepers and clerks on the higher floors, and poor skilled workmen in the attics.

So conditioned by this small community were the townsfolk that their social life, even that of the cultivated, was very close…

Primitive conditions would by their nature throw people together. An Englishman observed of the narrow main street: "So great a crowd of people are nowhere else confined in so small a space, which makes their streets as much crowded every day as others are at a fair". There was no piped water until the '70's. Water was drawn from five public wells, which must have been great gathering points for the working-class. The gregarious habit was so strong that the modern Exchange, begun in 1754, was for some time little frequented because "the merchants always chuse standing in the open street, exposed to all kinds of weather"… Before the Bank of Scotland was founded, even important business would be done in little back shops or pubs and hardly any elsewhere.

Ibid.
pp 30-31

Scottish fiddle and cello duo If two parallel cultures can flourish in the same country without one dominating and absorbing the other, there must be some barrier which restricts their influence on each other. The common view as to how this occurs—at least among English readers who have been brought up on Cecil Sharp—is that the 'two species' are kept going by different groups of people, who are separated geographically (town-country) or socially (upper class-lower class) or possibly both. As these two groups of people never meet, their musics cannot come into conflict. This situation seems to have been true of England in 1900, when Sharp did his research. It is not true, however, of eighteenth-century Scotland, where to a considerable extent the same group of people ran both kinds of music simultaneously. One must assume since no assimilation took place that the two genres fulfilled different emotional needs, and so were not in competition with each other. The political and economic origins of these emotional needs may be left to a later chapter; but I shall here state as an axiom that the leisured and professional classes of Scotland, who were responsible for the propagation of classical music, were also very much in touch with folk music.

Selfconscious, wholesale documentation of the folk tradition did not begin until the 1780s; yet there is a certain amount of earlier evidence that the Scottish upper classes shared the folk culture with lower classes. A number of seventeenth-century manuscript books have survived which include transcriptions of folk-tunes; and there are several manuscripts in existence dated c. 1700, whose contents are an intriguing mixture of classical and folk pieces.

David Johnson
Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century
Oxford University Press, 1972
pp. 15-16

The arts, too, were carried on amidst the people's daily life. For example, Fergusson himself had fun seeing how many sheets of ballads he could sell in two hours in the High Street, plying as a street singer. Before the Musical Society was formed, gentlemen met weekly in a pub whose proprietor was a great lover of music, and a good singer of Scots songs, and played Handel and Corelli. In the great hall of Parliament House which was used as a common promenade, there were bookstalls against one wall, just as there were jewellers' booths against one wall of St. Giles's Cathedral.

David Craig
Scottish Literature and the Scottish People: 1680-1830
Chatto & Windus, London, 1961
p. 29

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Female lutenistIt also seems to have been common practice for upper-class ladies in Edinburgh to sing folk-songs after supper. In 1723 Allan Ramsay published a collection of fashionable verse set to pre-existing popular tunes, the Tea-Table Miscellany, which was an attempt to cash in on this custom. Ramsey printed no music, and his collection uses seventy-two different tunes; therefore one can suppose that the Edinburgh ladies had a large repertory at this time, which he knew he could rely on. ... Upper-class ladies also sang traditional ballads. In 1755 'Edom of Gordon', 'an ancient Scottish Poem. Never before printed', was brought out by the Foulis brothers of Glasgow: it had been supplied to them by Sir David Dalrymple 'as it was preserved in the memory of a lady'. An outstanding upper-class ballad singer was Anna Gordon, daughter of Professor Thomas Gordon of King's College, Old Aberdeen, and wife of Andrew Brown, minister of Falkland in Fife. … Mrs. Brown's ballads were taken down by a nephew, who sent them to Sir Walter Scott, who used them as a main source of material for his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border in 1802.

David Johnson
Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century
Oxford University Press, 1972
pp. 17-18

Here it will be enough to note how the native songs were taken up by contemporary taste. The beginnings of the fashion for folk-songs among the gentry are recorded by Ramsay of Ochtertyre (Scotland and Scotsmen, I, p. 19 and n.) and Chambers (the fashion for Scots songs in England as well as Scotland: Domestic Annals under 1718, pp. 473-5). Pinkerton mentions folk tunes which were fashionable as full of 'feeling' (Scottish Tragic Ballads, London: 1781, p. xxxi). The communication of songs also worked in the opposite direction socially. William Chambers describes Peeblesshire farmers at home in the evening telling stories and singing the songs of Ramsay and Hamilton of Bangour while the women spun (Memoir of Robert Chambers, p. 41).

David Craig
Scottish Literature and the Scottish People: 1680-1830
Chatto & Windus, London, 1961
p. 304

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It cannot always be said, strangely enough, that Ramsay made all the old themes more decorous, or even improved them at all; but he had a droll wit and, at his best, a jovial touch. There is every indication, too, that toleration of indecency at that time, was greater than it was over a century later. One need only notice some of the titles of the traditional tunes published for that market and consider how they would be received even today: 'Geld him Lasses', 'Piss on the Grass' (in J. Walsh's Caledonian Country Dances, c. 1744. The tune is later called 'Nancy Dawson'.), 'Maggie's wame is fu' I trow', "She's sweetest when she's naked' and so on.

George Emmerson
Rantin' Pipe and Tremblin' String: A History of Scottish Dance Music
J. M. Dent & Sons, 1971
p. 39

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The Penny Wedding Even professional classical musicians had strong roots in the folk tradition. Every single professional violinist in eighteenth-century Scotland, apart perhaps from some of the foreign visitors, had to earn his living part of the time by playing folk-fiddle music. ... The same roots are noticeable with music publishers. William Thomson, James Oswald, and William Napier all went to London and published collections of Scots tunes there. Each of them included in his collections folk-songs, or versions of folk-songs, which has not appeared in print before, and no one knows what their sources for this material were if not direct personal knowledge. It seems indisputable that they had learned the songs years before, and taken them to London in their heads.

The folk tradition in eighteenth-century Scotland was thus available to all classes of society; the reason why it was not documented earlier than 1780 must therefore have been, not that educated people were not interested in it, but that they knew it all already.

David Johnson
Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century
Oxford University Press, 1972
pp. 18-19

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