...if a man were permitted to make
all the Ballads, he need not care who
should make the Laws of the Nation...
Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun: An Account
of a Conversation concerning a Right
Regulation of Governments for the
Common Good of Mankind (1703)
There must be more and better guidebooks to Edinburgh than any other city of its size in the world. From the Scottish antiquarians and English tourists of the eighteenth century to the transnational map and guide publishers of the present day, writers and artists have documented the history of every stone, slate and floorboard of old Edinburgh over and over again for each new generation. This is another work in that tradition, but it follows the city's music instead; and the Edinburgh it describes is barely recognizable as the same place. Why?
There are three reasons. The first is that buildings are liars. The visible structures of a city are what nature and humanity have not yet managed to demolish; however changed a building may have been in its shape or use, the fact that it still stands is an assertion that no great catastrophes have happened around it. The musical monuments of a civilization can survive much worse disaster; songs and dances created to mark ephemeral dramas and moments of change can last untouched by centuries of fire, plague, war and economic ruin. The house where William Burke strangled and pickled his victims for the anatomist was demolished in the year of his execution to stop ghoulish tourists; the songs about him have been scaring children ever since.
Secondly, the musician has different priorities than the photographer, historian or travel writer. Edinburgh perceived through its music is a place where murderers get all the memorials, food riots count more than factories, statesmen are remembered only for scandals, wars and taxes, and locomotives give way to love tragedies. No-one raises granite obelisks to great acts of individual stupidity, but make a big enough public fool of yourself and someone will sing about it, whether you're a Lord Provost in the 1840s or a footballer in the 1990s. The urban structures music most often commemorates are scaffolding and demolition rubble; nobody wrote a tune about the Nether Bow until it was knocked down for the last time, and nobody wrote another tune for the South Bridge in the 200 years after the first. There is a lot of military music in this book, but the forces that made the most music were also the least effectual units ever to serve the British state, and music often marks the others at their most inglorious moments.
Lastly, you need wealth to erect a building, not to write a song. Urban architecture is never a democratic art form. Neither is music, always, but it represents more classes and varieties of people than stone ever can, and the music of Edinburgh reflects the whole society of former times as none of its monuments do. It also reflects political truths that those who can afford to hire stonemasons rarely wish to perpetuate: in several of the episodes here, the oppressed classes won, and they did so by foulmouthed satire, intimidation, mobbing, sabotage and violence. It is a rare historian even today who acknowledges that such tactics can be appropriate, rational and effective, or that the classes that employed them made history on their own terms; so these events usually vanish into the footnotes.
Much of the material in this book was composed or first written down within a small span of the city's history, centring on the late 18th century. For most traditional Scottish songs, this period has the earliest known source; very few were committed to paper before 1700, whereas the efforts of the collectors following the Union documented nearly all the anonymous melodies of lowland Scotland by the time Burns died in 1796. And the conditions were right for more. This period saw Edinburgh shaped into what it is today; a gigantic transformation of the urban landscape at a speed unparalleled anywhere before. The accompanying social changes and conflicts - the corrupt, dictatorial regime of Henry Dundas that oversaw it all; the immigrants thronging in from Lowland and Highland countryside; the influence of revolutionary ideas from America and France; armies passing through from the Highlands to the Continent and from England to the Highlands; the development of an urban leisured elite with a demand for regular supplies of dance music and pieces for private performance; an explosive growth in the number of places where music might be performed for a paying audience, from proliferating bars and brothels to the new theatres and Assembly Rooms and the reception rooms of the New Town houses - all these created a situation where music in a popular idiom was in unprecedented demand and could be translated from one function to another with unprecedented speed. As the Englishman Captain Topham wrote home from Edinburgh in 1774:
the degree of attachment which is shown to music in this country exceeds belief. It is not only the principal entertainment but the constant topic of every conversation, and it is necessary not only to be a lover of it, but to be possessed of a knowledge of the science to make oneself agreeable to society.
A bawdy song of yesterday could be a dance tune today, an art song tomorrow, a seditious ballad the day after and the quick march of the regiment that put down the sedition the day after that. Tunes changed in rhythm to suit different functions, changed key or range to suit different instruments, grew and lost extra sections or variation sets, swapped strains with each other, were plagiarized to gratify musicians' pockets and patrons' egos, and migrated between oral tradition, print and manuscript to a far greater extent than they do today. All the musical possibilities of an urban culture were fully exploited, save one: wealth. Edinburgh never had the resources for large-scale art music that the other great cities of Europe did. The small traditionally-based forms of dance, march, and ballad had the advantage of adaptability and a plethora of opportunities to adapt to, but they also had the even more basic advantage of affordability in a place where even trumpets were priced out of reach of the individual musician. You get a lot of strathspeys for the price of a symphony. In no other city of Western Europe or America did all these factors come together to give traditional, popular musical forms such scope for growth.
The tale told in these notes has no very logical plot. Edinburgh is a small city now, and used to be much smaller, but has a large and complex history; and while only a small proportion of its small population has been marked in music, they have been marked by a great deal of it. This arithmetic implies that both music and history record many different kinds of links between people, places and events. Not only is the image of Edinburgh in its music lurid and violent, it is conspiratorially tangled into a paranoid's nightmare. And up to a point, the paranoid would be right. Few cities have ever been run with more than a superficial veneer of democracy, and Edinburgh is no exception; personal connections displayed in this music do in fact reflect associations of power and influence. Songs or tunes may be linked by being about the same person, family or organization; about the same place; about the same event or historical process; written by the same composer or poet; performed by the same person; may parodize the same texts; or may use the same musical material. I have tried to pull together a clear historical story in each entry, but this multiplicity means there are many more stories in this book that have a ghostly existence scattered across several chapters and out beyond this text entirely.
Rather than simply select highlights, I have tried to show the processes of transformation that these words and music have gone through So I have included two kinds of song that few singers will be able to perform. One kind is unsingably tiny fragments, all that we know of the origins of this music, preserved as children's rhymes, quotations in trial records, notes in diaries or doodles in account books from the distant past. The other kind is what almost anyone who owns a guitar would label as the enemy's music. Some of this material is from political groupings far remote from those that have employed folk song in recent times. Antagonistic parody has been a recurring tactic in the urban soundscape of Scotland, still to be heard at any football match; to show only the songs of one side would be to make these struggles into incomprehensible shadow boxing. The result is likely to shock any folk musician who never before realized that Tories had songs at all, let alone good ones.
I have also tried to show more of the sound world of the past than a simple song or dance anthology, by incorporating many of the marches heard in Edinburgh's streets in former times. A complete picture of the musical world of Edinburgh would include many more of the hymns and psalm tunes that were a large part of almost everyone's musical experience up to my generation. There are only a few of them here, chosen because of a specific Edinburgh connection; as with the music-hall and later mass-produced songs that replaced much Scottish music in the public sphere from the middle of the 19th century, church tunes were rarely local to the city and are easy to find anywhere. But I have tried to give a better idea of the place of religion in the popular song of Scotland than any recent anthologist; religion has always been at the core of Scottish cultural identity, and still fires Scottish passions like few other issues, but the folk "revival" has so far been timid and squeamish about it.
The music here was created and adapted along paths that current stereotypes of Scotland's cultural history have difficulty with. There have been two rival class-based pictures of Scottish musical creativity. James Thomson, and James Oswald following him, attributed most of the repertoire of Scottish melody to David Rizzio, the lutenist-secretary of Mary Queen of Scots. Understandably that kind of history doesn't get many adherents today. Instead, a mechanical inversion of it dominates popular thinking: that all of it was created by the Scottish poor, with the ruling class playing no role, or only a parasitic one. (A particularly ugly variant would further restrict musical creativity to an ethnically pure "Celtic" subgroup, membership of which would be decided by the author's political tastes). But the music in this collection parallels the demographic facts: the rich had the leisure, the poor had the numbers. Some kinds of music take time and resources to create which only the relatively wealthy have access to - it took a European musical education to produce Lord Kelly's Reel. Others, like street cries, are made up of countless tiny fragments, each with an individual creator, or express extremes of desperation that only the poor can experience. Each class had access to each other's music. But contrary to another liberal stereotype, shared music does not necessarily make for peace, love and understanding. It can equally well make for better ways of chanting how much you hate the other class's guts. This is familiar in other kinds of history. In The Cheese and the Worms, a re-creation of the world-picture of an Italian miller burnt for heresy in the 16th century, Carlo Ginzburg describes the process as "circularity":
betwen the culture of the dominant classes and that of the subordinate classes there existed, in preindustrial Europe, a circular relationship composed of reciprocal influences, which travelled from low to high as well as from high to low.
Ginzburg is talking about subversive reinterpretations of such books as the lives of the saints in The Golden Legend: these had their origins in folktale, were codified by the Church, and were then turned round to attack everything it stood for. An old strathspey like The Miller of Drone, elaborated into a grand celebration of a reactionary politician and then used as the tune for a vitriolic satire against him, followed the same social path.
Often the situation that gave rise to a song was forgotten too soon and too thoroughly for oral tradition to absorb it. Folklorists prefer songs to have been passed on orally since their creation. I include many pieces at the opposite extreme, which could only have been sung by someone with the original broadside in their hand. Much of the time there's little more than historical accident to distinguish the two; the fact that it's been transmitted orally is one mark of quality in a song, but not the only one.
This collection is intended as a practical resource, to be sung and played from; and the commentary as a similarly practical form of history, to inform singers and players about the origin and meaning of what they're performing. Since there is no full-length accurate biography of any figure in the Scots musical tradition except for Robert Burns and Jimmy Shand, the information here is hard to come by, even though much of it is exactly the sort of cultural background any classical musician would expect to have available when approaching an old work; one reason there are so many dates in this book is that not even the years of birth and death of traditional musicians are often printed in folk collections. But I am also addressing non-musicians interested in the social history of Scotland. Many of these pieces are alluded to in history books but rarely in a complete enough form for their full force to come across. Even a recent study of the Treaty of Union confines itself to quoting the least offensive verse of The Metamorphosis, or the Royal Honours of Scotland - one which, on its own, would have achieved nothing - perhaps because all the author could find of it was what Walter Scott dared to print. And that full force depends on the music, something historians report on more often than they present; their colleagues would find a historical work laughable if it only mentioned the existence of texts or images without ever showing them.
I have given enough hints, if not always a direct reference, for anyone to find my musical sources. If I noted all the historical sources, this book would look absurdly academic; on average every sentence comes from a different place, ranging from 17th-century manuscripts to old newspapers to antiquarian reprints to football fanzines to legal encyclopaedias to histories of bridge engineering to nutritional medicine journals to company brochures from distilleries. It's big enough already without 300 pages of footnotes.
I have been deliberately inconsistent in both selection and editing. For very familiar tunes and songs available almost anywhere that Scottish music is known, I have often selected a less commonly performed and less accessible version; for items not as generally familiar but still part of the active repertoire of Scottish performers, I have usually gone for something close to what is generally played today. Where melodies have been taken from accessible sources, I have often simplified away detail like fiddle articulation, singers' rubato or pipe gracings; good performers will be able to supply this themselves, and I aim to get this music performed in as many different ways as possible. But for material taken from rare or unique sources, I have generally left all the elaborations of the original, since most readers will have no other way to find them. I have not often reproduced dynamic markings; and while I have reproduced repeat signs from the original sources, these are not to be taken at face value: in the 18th century a double bar often meant a repeat and a repeat sign often meant nothing. Common sense and the intended use of the music will suggest what to repeat. Where tunes are universally known and not of Scottish origin I've usually left them out. For the texts (song texts, titles and quotes from original sources) I have kept all of the original spelling, capitalization, emphasis and punctuation - this soon becomes familiar, and often gives an impression of the writer's personality that is lost with "modernizations". The frantic chaos in Daniel Defoe's mind as he reported on the Union of 1707, after facing a whole city in riot against everything he had been working for, would have been lost if I'd fixed his spelling for him. Besides, teaching remedial English to the dead is an unrewarding occupation. (I have sometimes used modern equivalents of old letter forms: "th" for ""y", "j" for "i", "u" for "v" and vice versa).
Burns and his collaborators often attached instrumental versions of tunes to vocal texts, and have frequently been condemned for it; such conglomerations are of course next to unsingable as they stand. I've often done exactly the same. What I expect singers to do, as 18th century editors also expected them to do, is simplify. It's easier for singers to cut the twiddly bits and transpose notes into their vocal range than it is for an instrumentalist to reconstruct the original of an elaborate dance tune from a singable adaptation. With limited space this is the only approach that works. Burns knew what he was doing. And since most of the songs here are taken from broadsides or manuscripts where the tune was named or implied but not written explicitly, there was no text underlay; the authors assumed their readers could do it for themselves. I've followed this practice in almost every song, though in some places where the tune is unusually tricky or unfamiliar I have added double bars to indicate text line breaks, following the practice of early hymn books.
But there is a lot here to exasperate fiddlers and pipers as well. Many of the pieces here are taken from original sources intended for the flute, harp or keyboard, and have inconvenient keys or impossible ranges for the fiddle. Fiddlers will just have to do what fluteplayers have had to over the last couple of centuries: transpose. (Since the tunes are in ABC, you can just ask the computer to do that for you). And pipe tunes are either given with no gracenotes, or else with the ornamentation they were first written down with; I make no concession to the orthodoxies of the present-day piping competition scene.
Edinburgh has expanded greatly over the centuries, and the geographic scope of this collection is larger than even its present size, stretching out into the villages, mansions and farms of the surrounding county of Midlothian. The boundaries I've set are roughly those of the former county of Edinburghshire; or in physical geography, the watersheds of the Almond, Esk, Tummel, and Water of Leith; or in contemporary terms, where you can get to on a Lothian Region bus, along with the nearby islands in the Forth.
Some kinds of music are underrepresented or missing entirely. Some old ballads, like those in Child's collection, have been found in versions with the placenames appropriately changed all over Britain and North America. I have only included local versions of these when there is historical evidence that the story they tell happened here. Much more of Burns's output could have been included; but his complete work is easy to find in many different forms, from facsimile reprints to elaborate and beautiful arrangements on record. Most of the songs of the Jacobite rebellions, wherever they might purport to be about, were written in Edinburgh; but again there are easily available sources for almost all of them. And many immigrant groups have arrived in Edinburgh over the centuries speaking different languages, and in large enough numbers that they might have made topical music about the city. This omission matters, but I am not familiar enough with many of the languages themselves or with the sources of material in them to locate the sort of songs I have found in Scots and English. I would like to hear from anyone who knows more. Edinburgh's considerable output of pop and rock since the 1960s is totally ignored. It's mostly ruled out by copyright, and is already well covered by Brian Hogg's The History of Scottish Rock and Pop.
Three books about cities have had a large influence on my approach: Donald Horne's The Great Museum, for showing how to look at the self-images of the past; Mike Davis's City of Quartz, showing how to see a single place as a continuing unity without getting parochial about it; and Guy Debord's In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni, for showing that nostalgia can look to the present and the future. Charles Gore's Scottish Fiddle Music Index has been invaluable. Two people long dead have made contributions that need special mention; Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe (1780-1851), whose scattered but deep investigations into Scottish traditional music, the religious culture of Scotland and the biographies of the Edinburgh elite have opened up countless new leads and saved me from many silly mistakes; and J. Murdoch Henderson (1902-1972), whose manuscripts and marginal notes reveal more about the interrelationships between different versions of Scottish melodies across the centuries than anyone else has ever known. Among the living, no book like this could ever be written without the efforts of library staff - those where I've been a daily fixture, the National Library of Scotland and the Edinburgh, Scottish and Music Rooms of Edinburgh Public Library, who must all have wondered why anybody would want to look at such eccentric combinations of material; and the staff at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, the Special Collections Department at Glasgow University Library, and Dundee Public Library; the School of Scottish Studies Library, Special Collections Department and Divinity Library at Edinburgh University (before that university's managers made the entire system inaccessible to the public by imposing prohibitive charges); the Scottish Poetry Library, the Scottish Mining Museum, the Supreme Courts Library in Edinburgh, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the United Services Museum Library at Edinburgh Castle and the Local Studies Department at Perth Library for making my brief visits so productive. Libraries at Brown University, the National Maritime Museum, and the Archives and Business Records Centre at Glasgow University were helpful with telephone or email enquiries. Jean Anderson, Ted Cowan, Caleb Crain, Neil Douglas, Howard Duthie, Alasdair Elders, Bob Fairnie, Monty Faithfull, Nigel Gatherer, David Johnson, Geraint Jones, Roddy Martine, Donald McKillican, Bruce Olson, Richard Robinson, Abby Sale, Richard Thomson, David Turpen and Michael Wade all helped in finding tunes, texts and historical information. For this subject matter, the Internet as a whole is about as reliable as a seventeenth-century witch-trial report, but the Mudcat Cafe's Digital Tradition database and Edinburgh University's "Scotland at War" website were islands of useful coherence. Rusty Aasheim, Jean Anderson, Rebecca Frank, Kaye Gilmour, Harriet Grindley, George Hawes, and Simon Taylor made encouraging remarks on early versions; Kate Dunlay made a detailed reading of the manuscript and gave many helpful suggestions. Phil Taylor's BarFly software for the Macintosh, modified at superhuman speed in response to my ever-enlarging demands, made notating tunes as easy as copying text. Above all this would never have happened without Marion's many months of support.
The title is from the refrain of Capernaum: Matthew xi, 23, the song that gave me the idea for this book when I heard it sung by Gordon Pearson one evening at Haddington Folk Club. The words are by the Scottish nationalist poet and folklorist Lewis Spence (1874-1955). The Biblical verse of the title is about the city in which Jesus did most of his ministry:
And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted into heaven, shalt be brought down into hell; for if the mighty works which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained unto this day.
The tune, a variant of the North-East of Scotland ballad Willie Mackintosh, is by Ed Miller and taken from the singing of Jean Redpath.
Andrew Fletcher, continued...
...But in this City the Dramatic Poet no less than
the Ballad-maker has bin almost wholly imploy'd
to corrupt the People, in which they have had
most unspeakable and deplorable success.
Back to Contents List
Embro, Embro Copyright © 2001, Jack Campin