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Robert Burns and the Scots Musical Museum
by Cathy Sponseller
Readers of John Muir's writings frequently come across references to the works of Scotland's national bard, Robert Burns. Muir wrote, "On my lonely walks, I have often thought how fine it would be to have the company of Burns. And indeed he was always with me, for I had him by heart. On my first long walk from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico, I carried a copy of Burns' poems and sang them all the way. Wherever a Scotsman goes, there goes Burns."
Burns can be celebrated for his role in preserving the music and songs of his homeland. His mother passed on her love of Scottish music to her son through songs. Burns was not a composer, but collected fiddle and bagpipe tunes, which he put together with his poems. He also collected songs and sometimes re-worked the verses. In all, there are 327 "Burns Songs." Many books of his poems list the name of the tune associated with the song. A collection of Scottish fiddle or bagpipe tunes will solve mysteries for readers of Burns' poems. As with hymns, Christmas carols, and popular songs, "to the tune of...." can be enough to get you singing a Burns song.
Burns was a published poet by 1784. In 1787, he began collecting and editing songs for a series of books entitled, The Scots Musical Museum. Begun by James Johnson, another admirer of Scottish music and song, four volumes were printed between 1787 and 1792. Burns contributed three songs to Volume 1 and forty to Volume 2. Virtually everting Burns wrote for more than five years was sent to Johnson.
The words and tune actually called "Auld Lang Syne" were printed by Burns in 1796. The familiar tune known around the world for "Auld Lang Syne" is "I fee'd a Lad at Michaelmas." It was selected by George Thomson, editor of the fourth volume of The Scots Musical Museum, three years after Burns' death. More Burns' songs also appear in another multi-volume collection edited by Thomson. This is the Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice, published between 1793 and 1818.
Scottish singer Jean Redpath has released at least ten albums of Burns songs. Volume Two, Philo 1048, includes the 1796 Burns version of "Auld Lang Syne." Fiddler Ron Gonella's toe-tapping Burns' Night album uses the common tune. Both albums demonstrate Burns' contribution to Scottish music.
Exerpted from The View From John Muir's Window, December 1997,
Newsletter of the John Muir Memorial Association.