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Esther Hovey retired from teaching at California State University, Long Beach. Editor of Serge Hovey's "Robert Burns Song Book" which include Serge Hovey's arrangements of every song Burns is known to have written.

The following article is one of the discussion papers from the pre-conference symposium & exhibit - "Robert Burns and America", (Edited by none other than Professor G. Ross Roy) and organised for The Robert Burns World Federation annual conference, held this year in Atlanta, Georgia, July 20, 2001. The symposium was sponsored by the University of South Carolina Libraries, in cooperation with the Department of Special Collections, Robert W Woodruff Library, Emory University, and the Burns Club of Atlanta. The project is supported by the Georgia Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities and through appropriations from the Georgia General Assembly.


Burns's Songs: An American Connection
by Esther Hovey

Robert Burns was Scotland's Bard and one of the world's greatest songwriters. In his brief lifetime, Burns created about 270 poems and more than 300 songs with indications for the specific tunes that he had selected for them. It is really impossible, however, to determine precisely how many songs Burns actually composed because of the different approaches he used in his effort to save Scotland's musical heritage. In the Preface to Volume 1 of The Robert Burns Song Book, Serge Hovey (1998) explained:

Burns did not always write completely new, original lyrics; on the contrary, he was more often interested in perpetuating an old song by remodeling it, by adding his creative energies to it, while preserving as much as possible of the traditional form and words. This remodeling process resulted, as one examines one song after another, in the most varied proportions of old and new, of traditional words and Burns words. In a number of songs, he retained only the chorus of the original model, or a traditional line or key-phrase, creating new lyrics to fill out the rest of the song-form. Often enough he left an old song basically intact, at most adding a touch here and there. It is only in a minority of the songs that he composed completely new lyrics. For some tunes, several sets of lyrics were written (polite and bawdy versions). (Foot note 1)

The question of Burns's authorship is further complicated by the fact that many of his songs were published without the melodies that the songwriter had in mind or without any music at all. James C. Dick, author of the ground-breaking work The Songs of Robert Burns published in 1903, reported that he could not "trace the tune - I am a man unmarried" for which Burns composed his first song "Handsome Nell" in 1774.(Foot Note 2). Fortunately, Robert D. Thornton found the melody that "Thanks to Professor (Thomas) Crawford" had been transcribed by George St J. Bremner from his grandfather's singing.(Foot Note 3) In August 1783 Burns included the song "Handsome Nell" in his Commonplace Book with these remarks:

For my own part I never had the least thought or inclination of turning Poet till I got once heartily in Love, and then Rhyme & Song were, in a manner, the spontaneous language of my heart. The following composition was the first of my performances, and done at an early period of life, when my heart glowed with honest warm simplicity: unacquainted, and uncorrupted with the ways of a wicked world.
(Foot Note 4)

Robert Burns met James Johnson during his first trip to Edinburgh in the winter of 1786. The young poet and the struggling music engraver apparently formed an immediate bond due to their common love of old Scottish songs and determination to preserve them. By the following year Johnson had completed the first volume of The Scots Musical Museum and was grateful for Burns's enthusiastic suggestions and additions. From that time onward, Burns became the virtual editor of this museum without walls. He was responsible for about two hundred of the six hundred songs that were published in this collection between 1787 and 1803. This was truly a labor of love. While attempting to support his expanding family with farming ventures that invariably failed or as a petty tax?collector riding horseback up to forty miles daily, the poet worked on his beloved songs without accepting any fees or even credit as author. Some of his songs were marked with the letter S, R, X, or Z after the last bar, but as Burns explained to his friend Mrs. Dunlop on November 13, 1788:

Those marked, Z, I have given to the world as old verses to their respective tunes; but in fact, of a good many of them, little more than the Chorus is ancient; tho' there is no reason for telling every body this piece of intelligence.
(foot note 5)

It was only a month before his death that Burns wrote to Johnson:

Your Work is a great one; & though, now that it is near finished, I see if we were to begin again, two or three things that might be mended, yet I will venture to prophesy, that to future ages your Publication will be the text book & standard of Scottish Song & Music
( Letters, II, 381?2)

So great was Burns's dedication to his nation's music that, in 1792, he accepted an offer to work on yet another collection of Scottish songs while continuing his collaboration with James Johnson. George Thomson, a government clerk and amateur musician, looked down upon the Museum and aimed to produce a more prestigious publication. He edited and published five volumes of A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice between 1793 and 1818. They contain more than one hundred Burns songs with piano, violin, and cello accompaniments by distinguished composers such as Haydn, Weber, and Beethoven. In his earliest correspondence with this editor (September 16, 1792), Burns naively expressed these thoughts:

As to any remuneration, you may think my Songs either above, or below price; for they shall absolutely be the one or the other.?In the honest enthusiasm with which I embark in your undertaking, to talk of money, wages, fee, hire, &c. would be downright Sodomy of Soul! ?A proof of each of the Songs that I compose or amend, I shall receive as a favor
(Letters, II, 149?150).

That Thomson did not share his songwriter's idealism is evidenced by the manner in which he secured the sole copyright to all of Burns's compositions that appeared in his Scottish Airs. He accomplished this feat by waiting until Burns had died to publish a revised version of an agreement that the poet had originally signed in 1793. Burns and Thomson disagreed on many aspects of the song materials, especially in regard to the poet's use of Scottish vernacular. Burns wrote to Thomson on January 26, 1793:

There is a naivete, a pastoral simplicity, in a slight intermixture of Scots words & phraseology, which is more in unison (at least to my taste, & I will add, to every genuine Caledonian taste,) with the simple pathos, or rustic sprightliness, of our native music, than any English verses whatever.?For instance, in my Auld Rob Morris, you propose instead of the word, "descriving,° to substitute the phrase, "all telling," which would spoil the rusticity, the pastoral, of the Stanza (Letters, II. 181).

And again on October 19, 1794, he wrote to Thomson:

These English songs gravel me to death.?I have not that command of the language that I have of my native tongue.?In fact, I think that my ideas are more barren in English than in Scottish.?I have been at "Duncan Gray," to dress it in English, but all I can do is deplorably stupid. (Letters, II, 318).

Thomson not only preferred English verses, but went so far as to alter some of Burns's lyrics and match them to tunes of his own choice instead of those intended by the songwriter. The most famous example of this editorial meddling is the international hit song known as "Auld Lang Syne." Burns sent his first draft to Mrs. Dunlop on December 7, 1788 with these comments:

Apropos, is not the Scots phrase, "Auld lang syne," exceedingly expressive. ?There is an old song & tune which has often thrilled thro' my soul. ?You know I am an enthusiast in old Scots songs .... Light be the turf on the breast of the heaven?inspired Poet who composed this glorious Fragment! There is more of the fire of native genius in it, than in half a dozen of modern English Bacchanalians (Letters, 1, 342, 345).

Dick (pp. 435?6) found that the idea of the lyrics had been expressed in an anonymous sixteenth?century ballad "Auld Kyndnes foryett" and in a song beginning "Should old acquaintance be forgot,/ And never thought upon," printed in James Watson's Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems both Ancient and Modern (Part III, 1711). The melody for which Burns penned his lyrics is also traditional and had appeared in Playford's Original Scotch Tunes (1700), Sinkler's MS. (1710), Orpheus Caledonius (1725), The Caledonian Pocket Companion (1751), and in the first volume of The Scots Musical Museum in 1787 with words by Ramsay. Burns sent his revised second draft to Johnson who printed it in the fifth volume of the Museum in 1796 with the tune as designated by the songwriter. The signature Z at the bottom of the manuscript indicates Burns's reshaping of this "old song" with his corrections and additions. Three years after Burns's death, Thomson included "Auld Lang Syne" in the second volume of his Scottish Airs (1798) with a different melody that he selected, previously known as "The Miller's Wedding" which was the air for a strathspey (a Scots country dance). Dick stated, "No tune was better known or more popular in Scotland during the last half of the eighteenth century, and it was published in numerous collections under many titles" (p. 439). And that is what was heard around the world to welcome in the new millennium!

It was Dick's contention that Thomson obtained the music for "The Miller's Wedding" from Vol. IV of the Museum where it had appeared in 1792 with Burns's polite version of a bawdy song entitled "O can ye labour lea." Burns used a variant of this tune for still another song, "Comin thro' the rye," which was printed in the same volume of The Scots Musical Museum as his song "Auld lang syne." Jean Redpath sings Burns's original version on the first CD recording in the series The Songs of Robert Burns as researched by Serge Hovey.

Interviews with songwriters always include the question: Which comes first, the words or the music? We can't interview Robert Burns, but we already have some of his responses in a letter written in early September 1793 to George Thomson. This communication contains Burns's reactions to a list of seventy?four song titles that the editor had sent him:

No 37. Laddie lie near me?must lie by me, for some time. ?I do not know the air; & untill I am compleat master of a tune, in my own singing, (such as it is) I never can compose for it. ?My way is: I consider the poetic Sentiment, correspondent to my idea of the musical expression; then chuse my theme; begin one Stanza; when that is composed, which is generally the most difficult part of the business, I walk out, sit down now & then, look out for objects in Nature around me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy & workings of my bosom; humming every now & then the air with the verses I have framed: when I feel my Muse beginning to jade, I retire to the solitary fireside of my study, & there commit my effusions to paper; swinging, at intervals, on the hind?legs of my elbow?chair, by way of calling forth my own critical strictures, as my pen goes on.
Seriously, this, at home, is almost invariably my way. ?What damn'd Egotism!

(Letters, II, 242).

In more than seven hundred letters, his Commonplace Book, and his interleaved copy of the first four volumes of The Scots Musical Museum, Burns left an informative and colorful paper trail indicating his sources, tune preferences, and observations concerning the songs of Scotland. Burns's interleaved notes in Volume III of the Museum (1790) contain this comment for the song "A waukrife Minnie": "I pickt up this old song and tune from a country girl in Nithsdale. I never met with it elsewhere in Scotland" (p. 51).

"The Mill, Mill O" is one of the bawdy songs found in Burns's special collection known as The Merry Muses of Caledonia (1799). With reference to the air for this song, Burns noted in his Commonplace Book:

There is a degree of wild irregularity in many of the compositions & Fragments which are daily sung to them by my compeers, the common people?a certain happy arrangement of old Scotch syllables, & yet, very frequently, nothing, not even like rhyme, or sameness of jingle at the ends of the lines. (p. 38).

The ancient Scottish melody, "The Mill, Mill O," was published in William Thomson's Orpheus Caledonius in 1733 (No. 20) with lyrics by Allan Ramsay. We can hear a late twentieth?century rendition of Burns's song on the third CD album as arranged by Serge Hovey and sung by Jean Redpath with Keith Jarrett at the piano.

In 1786, in a state of economic and emotional turmoil, Burns was planning to emigrate to Jamaica, but the successful publication of his First volume of poems in Kilmarnock and the birth of his twins to Jean Armour gave him ample reason to cancel his trip. Burnss songs, however, arrived in the New World on the lips and riddles of the early Scottish immigrants. Serge Hovey (1998) commented:

The Burns and Scottish tunes worked their way into the bloodstream of American music and had become an integral part of the very roots of our American musical heritage. Traditional Scottish ballads had settled and evolved new variants in the Appalachians. Burns's "Soldier's Job" became a fiddle tune. "Lord Ronald" became "Lord Randall" and "Billy Boy." The ancestry of "Sweet Betsy from pike" can be traced back to the English "Villikens and his Dinah" and from there right back to the ancient "Lord Ronald" again
(p. 12).

In his definitive work supplying the traditional tunes and variants (both British and American) for three hundred English and Scottish ballads collected by Francis J. Child at the end of the nineteenth century, Bertrand Bronson printed 103 variants of "Lord Randal" and an additional 29 of "Billie Boy." He stated, "The oldest copy with the ballad text is that recovered by Burns in Ayrshire, and sent to Johnson's Museum. Melodically, it is one of the comeliest, and closely allied to `Lochaber ... no More." (Foot note 6) The song appeared as "Lord Ronald, my Son" in the fourth volume of The Scots Musical Museum in 1792.

In a symbiotic fashion, Burns songs were transformed as they adapted to their new cultural environment and, in turn, became a basic component of the emerging American sound of music. To Hamish Henderson, poet, folklorist, and an outstanding leader of the current Scottish folksong revival movement, Hovey wrote (September 14, 1972):

When I hear a fine, slow lyric American melody by Charles Ives, or ... Aaron Copland, I think they are echoing old Gaelic airs. Many hymns and Negro spirituals have this haunting association, to my ear. There's no question of the strong Scottish musical heritage in the Appalachians (misnamed "English" by the otherwise capable Cecil Sharp). Whatever the exact musicology of it, I am sure of one thing, the Scottish melodies are organically, deeply related to the American musical scenery.

Serge Hovey was a classically?educated composer, born in 1920 in New York City. He studied piano with Edward Steuermann and composition with Hanns Eisler and Arnold Schoenberg. He had achieved some recognition and success in the concert, film, and theater worlds when he turned his attention to the question of the cultural roots of American music. Thus began a musicological journey that led to intensive studies of the rhythms and melodic patterns of various ethnic groups in our multicultural nation. Hovey described his early involvement with the songs of Robert Burns in the aforementioned letter to Henderson:

My interest in Burns's songs, from the musical angle, started about twenty years ago. At the time, I was living in New York, very much involved with Jewish music and off?Broadway theatre. I knew next to nothing about Scots songs. Then a friend, a Burns enthusiast, kept after me on a point of curiosity, i.e., what in the world were all these little tune indications under the titles of Burns's songs? He showed me, opening up the Barke edition to page 584: "The Tailor" and asked, what did that mean: Tune: "The Drummer?" Or page 600: "O, That I Had Ne'er Been Married," Tune: "Crowdie?" Did these notations refer to tunes that still existed? Or tunes that had disappeared? Were they folk tunes? Or what? ... Sheer curiosity led me to The Scots Musical Museum and Thomson's Scottish Airs but once I realized that the tunes were still extant, that they were mostly Scots folk songs and, above all, that they sounded marvelous in conjunction with Burns's lyrics, then I was hooked.

Hovey meticulously examined Burns's own sources, letters, and manuscripts. He carefully perused the works of important musicologists and Burns scholars in an effort to determine the origin of every tune and all the verses. This American composer attempted to fulfill Burns's intentions with regard to the match of his lyrics to specific tune variants to the extent that this was possible to do nearly two hundred years after the poet's death. In the course of this fascinating work, Hovey made some startling discoveries. The history of the song "A Red, Red Rose" is one example. Burns sent a letter to his close friend Alexander Cunningham in November, 1793 describing his composition as

... a simple old Scots song which I had pickt up in this country ... I would, to tell the fact, most gladly have seen it in our Friend's publication [Thomson's Scottish Airs]; but, though I am charmed with it, it is a kind of Song on which I know we would think very differently. ?It is the only species of Song about which our ideas disagree. ?What to me, appears the simple & the wild, to him, & I suspect to you likewise, will be looked on as the ludicrous & the absurd
(Letters, II, p. 258?9).

Burns sent "A Red, Red Rose" to Johnson for publication in the fifth volume of the Museum (1796) with this note: "The tune of this song is in Niel Gow's first Collection, and is there called Major Graham." While conducting further research in the National Library of Scotland in 1972, Serge Hovey was able to examine the fiddle tune "Major Graham of Inchbrakie" in Niel Gow's first Collection of Strathspey Reels, published in Edinburgh in 1784. He subsequently observed that Stephen Clarke, Johnson's sole music assistant for the Museum, in attempting to follow Burns's instructions for the tune, had simply omitted the repeat sign, i.e., two dots before the broad double bar lines, after the first strain in the song. As a result, Burns's second stanza was matched to the melody intended for the chorus instead of being sung to the same strain as the first stanza. On Hovey's first CD album Jean Redpath sings "A Red, Red Rose" as it was arranged by Hovey with the lyrics matched to the tune in the sequence it was intended by the songwriter.

Hovey's eclectic approach to his arrangements are indicative of another sort of American connection to the Burns songs. They represent a crossover of folk, pop, and classical musical styles. His Preface to The Robert Burns Song Book concludes with these thoughts:

There is ample room for a multiplicity of interpretations of the Burns songs. In fact, a diverse approach, rather than a narrow, dogmatic one, is the key to opening the door to the creation of fresh, contemporary settings. As long as Burns's intentions are well understood, alternative treatments may be equally valid .... The challenge of Burns accompaniment is to apply the highest possible levels of taste and musicianship to the songs that the poet created, thoroughly respecting the organic integrity of the melodies and the national values from which they spring, but not being afraid to experiment. Haydn brought the wondrous charm of old Vienna to Burns, creating hybrids of imperishable value; we can bring to Burns any musical idea we choose so long as it is of genuine interest and thoughtfully integrated with Scots tradition (p. 14).

Although all 324 songs that Hovey identified were arranged for voice and piano or small instrumental ensembles, there are a few a capella songs such as "Auld Lang Syne" and a composition requiring a full symphony orchestra and chorus. In 1958, Hovey composed a Robert Burns Rhapsody subtitled A Scottish?American Fantasy. It was per formed the following year by the Berlin Radio Orchestra and Grand Chorus in honor of the bicentenary of Burns's birth. The Rhapsody ends with a hymn?like arrangement of the song "Is There for Honest Poverty." The tune "For a' that" was a popular one and was associated with Jacobite lyrics from about 1750 onward. In January, 1795, Burns sent his song to Thomson remarking: "A great critic, Aikin on songs, says, that love & wine are the exclusive themes for song?writing. The following is on neither subject, & consequently is no Song; but will be allowed, I think, to be two or three pretty good prose thoughts, inverted into rhyme" (Letters, II, 336). J. De Lancey Ferguson, a renowned Burns scholar, stated: ... it is well known that "A Man's a Man" is "two or three pretty good prose thoughts inverted into rhyme" from the writings of a former Excise officer named Thomas Paine. (Foot Note 7)

The Burns songs that Serge Hovey wove into his Rhapsody were translated into German for the Berlin concert. The composer and his wife were surprised and thrilled to receive a professional tape recording of that performance. The work of Serge Hovey goes forward. Two volumes of The Robert Burns Song Book have been published; the two concluding ones are being edited and should appear before long. My son Daniel and I think that Serge would have been proud of them.

Esther Hovey
Pacific Palisades, CA


  1. Serge Hovey, The Robert Burns Song Book, ed. Esther Hovey [4 vols.] (Pacific, MO, 1998?), I, 11. Henceforth Hovey.
  2. James C. Dick, ed., The Songs of Robert Burns (London, 1903), p. 5. Henceforth Dick.
  3. Robert Burns, Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. Robert D. Thornton (Boston, 1966), p. 258.
  4. Robert Burns, Robert Burns's Commonplace Book 1783?1785, eds. James C. Ewing and Davidson Cook (Glasgow, 1938), p.3.
  5. The Letters of Robert Burns, 2nd edn., ed. G. Ross Roy, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1985), 1, 337. Henceforth Letters.
  6. Bertrand H. Bronson, ed., The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, 4 vols. (Princeton, 1959?72), 1, 191.
  7. J. DeLancey Ferguson, Pride and Passion: Robert Burns 1759?1796 (New York, 1939), pp.289?290.

© G. Ross Roy and contributors, 2001
The G. Ross Roy Collection of Robert Burns, Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC 29208, U.S.A.
Akros Publications, 33 Lady Nairn Avenue, Kirkcaldy, Fife KYl 2AW, Scotland.