Saturday, January 25, 2014

Burns, Modernity, and the Folk Process

We've seen examples many times before of artists who rework folkloric material in a literary manner, to suit their own preferences. I myself have done so many times, both in condensing the longer ballads I translate into performable versions and in taking things I know from multiple sources and deriving a version which I eager to perform. On this blog, we've seen at least two examples of one of the most prolific poets to make extensive use of this tactic: the 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns.

Burns is best known for the things he wrote in their entirety, such as the ever-popular "To a Mouse" (1785), written in reaction to turning up a mouse's nest with his plow. But precisely because of this fame as a composer of novel poetic works, many of the things he adapted from folkloric sources have eclipsed their antecedents. The refrain of "for a' that an' a' that" as part of words set to a particular melody, for instance, is so strongly associated with the Bard of Ayrshire that it is hard to tell whether the bawdy example collected in his "The Merry Muses of Caledonia" is an example of an earlier tradition or a parody of Burns' own classic "A Man's a Man for A' That." Another classic Burns poem, "Ye Jacobites by Name," is a reworking of a Whig song; the familiar version shows signs of Burns' hand in its more general anti-war outlook, using the Jacobite risings to critique the justification of violence in general. (Burns himself was apparently a strong supporter of the Jacobite cause, but an equally strong proponent of peace.) Burns' version asks, "What is Right, and what is Wrang? A weak arm and a strang?" where prior versions listed, in standard English, the criticisms the Whigs had of the Jacobite rebels.

Burns is far from alone in favoring this approach. The Newfoundland folk-rock band Great Big Sea, who mix original songs with traditional Atlantic Canadian material, have recorded several examples. For instance, they rewrote the comic Scottish song "Twa Recruitin' Sergeants," originally about the hard-sell tactics of military recruiters during the Napoleonic Wars, into their own "Recruiting Sergeant," which deals with the tragic fate of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in the first World War. The twentieth-century labor activist Joe Hill found that using familiar tunes helped him transmit the lyrics of his protest music. Sometimes this means using the tune with no particular reference to its original lyrics (as in "Fifty Thousand Lumberjacks," which has since eclipsed the original "Portland County Jail" in fame and then itself faded from popular awareness), while in other instances the rewrites border on parody, as in "The Preacher and the Slave" ("You will eat, by and by / In that glorious land up in the sky / Work and play, live on hay / You'll have pie in the sky when you die"). Francis McPeake took Robert Tannahill's "Braes o' Balquhidder" (itself likely adapted from traditional material) and reworked it so extensively it required a new tune and gave us the Scottish standard "Wild Mountain Thyme," while one Will Handy did the same to a version of "The Darby Ram" and created a song we now know as "Didn't He Ramble?" And Ralph Vaughan Williams and Bela Bartok are both best known for the artful things they did with traditional melodies.

Other famous rewrites are subtler. Woodie Guthrie adapted "Worried Man Blues," collected from the oral tradition by the Carter Family, to include the repeated uses of the number twenty-one, a motif heard in most modern versions. The Tannahill Weavers (named for the great Scottish poet who wrote "Braes o' Balquhidder"), or perhaps another performance before theirs, shortened some descendant of "The Famous Sea-Fight Between Captain Ward and the Rainbow" into a version that fits modern audiences' attention spans, in the process removing the English patriotism that marks Ward's self-justification in the original while keeping the story of a pirate who defies the king who spurned his aid. Steeleye Span rejected the documented 18th-century tune for "Tom o' Bedlam" and set it to a traditional Breton melody. And in all three of these cases, it is the version with the innovations by identifiable persons which are now best known in the oral tradition.

There's only one thing anomalous about these artists' adaptations of older material: the fact that we know who made the changes. In truth, this is always how folk music has passed from one singer to the next. Words are forgotten, holes filled, clunky lines replaced with more streamlined ones, archaicisms replaced with lyrics the audience will understand, memorable phrases borrowed from other songs, unfamiliar place names relocated to the singer's own region. We have Burns' version of "John Barleycorn," and there are closely related versions which predate it, but those versions themselves were changed far more radically from their first known predecessors long before Burns got his hands on the text. We know many local variants of "Spanish Ladies," and while the Great Big Sea recording of "We'll Rant and we'll Roar" is condensed from other Canadian versions (often given the title "The Ryans and the Pittmans") and has less of a clear plot than most, this change is far smaller than the more anonymous differences which separate Canadian versions of the songs from the earlier English ones from which they derive.

When a folksinger presents a variant clearly derived from Burns' version of one of the pieces he reworked as being traditional, we should not say "no, that was the work of a famous literary poet" - rather, we should recognize that the chain of transmission of versions of any piece of oral lore has always involved changes, and the widespread publication of Burns' texts simply gives us a glimpse into a moment in that process when some of the decisions that went into those changes can be observed. Burns was a writer and a collector, both an extraordinary bard and a pioneer of folkloristics, and when he participates in the folk process of adapting songs with each step in the chain of transmission, he does so with a master's hand; continuing that process down through the subsequent centuries is a fulfillment of a cultural enterprise in which the Bard of Ayrshire was an enthusiastic participant. The changes he wrought are, perhaps, unusual in their quality (and it is this great skill which leads to Burns' versions often becoming part of a fixed canon that sometimes pulls them out of the very oral tradition from which he liked to collect his inspiration), but many talented poets who came before him remain anonymous, their great contributions to our modern oral tradition forever unattributable.

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