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  • Tender and Bawdy
  • Brendan White (bio)

Most people know Robert Burns through his songs. Donald Low, editor of The Songs of Robert Burns (1993), estimates that Burns collected, wrote, revised, and improved some three hundred and seventy of them. But Burns did not publish these works in collections under his own name. Rather, he volunteered himself as editor and contributor to two multivolume anthologies, James Johnson's Scots Musical Museum (1787-1803) and Thomson's Select Collection of Original Scotish Airs (1793-1818 and 1841).

When Robert Burns met James Johnson in 1787, Johnson had already announced a plan to bring out one or two volumes of Scottish songs, and was partway done with the first volume. When he told Burns about his plan, Burns responded so enthusiastically that, though the first volume included only one Burns song, Burns would become "effectively [the] chief contributor and editor for the second, third, and fourth" volumes of the work. By 1792, another editor, George Thomson, invited Burns to contribute to his own anthology, and in June 1793, the first part of the Select Collection of Scotish Airs appeared with six songs from Burns, out of 25 in total.

By his own account, Burns became "absolutely crazed" over the task of collecting and writing songs and "collected, begged, borrowed and stolen all the songs I could meet with." He not only "memorized all the folksongs he heard, but also wrote down the words from the singers' delivery; reserving a 'special compartment' in his 'capacious pocket-book or wallet' for 'hastily stowed away "Walkers",' as he is said to have called the principally bawdy songs he so collected on his trips to the Borders and the Highlands, on his rounds as exciseman in Galloway, and in the taverns he never denied frequenting."

He sent his editors original works as well, including a song that he considered to be "the best love-song I ever composed in my life; but in its original state, is not quite a lady's song." The piece was written "probably in 1790, after making love to Anne Park, niece of the landlady at the Globe Inn in Dumfries." Below is the complete song:

Yestreen I had a pint o' wine,A place where body saw na;Yestreen lay on this breast o' mineThe gowden locks of Anna.The hungry Jew in wildernessRejoicing o'er his mannaWas naething to my hiney blissUpon the lips of Anna.

Ye Monarchs take the East and West,Frae Indus to Savannah!Gie me within my straining graspThe melting form of Anna.There I'll despise Imperial charms,An Empress or Sultana,While dying raptures in her armsI give and take with Anna!!!

Unfortunately, Thompson didn't take the poem.

Most of the bawd that Burns treasured and collected includes a good amount of profanity and slang, and was generally jokey or satirical. This particular song, however, is a good example of the combination of tenderness and frankness that Lord Byron, among others, wound find so attractive. In his journal, in 1813, he notes, "Allen. . . has lent me a quantity of Burns's unpublished, and never-to-be-published, Letters. They are full of oaths and obscene songs. What an antithetical mind!—tenderness, roughness—delicacy, coarseness—sentiment, sensuality—soaring and groveling, dirt and deity—all mixed up in that one compound of inspired clay!" Even though his topic is an affair with a barmaid, it's Burns who does the all the swooning and sighing, and he's as eager to give as to take his share of "dying raptures."

Burns wound up contributing anywhere from 160 to 184 poems of his own to Johnson (including "Auld Lang Syne") and over 100 to Thomson (including "A Red, Red Rose"). It is difficult to determine exactly how many, because even songs that Burns collected 'from the field' and attributed to others would be tinkered with at least a little bit by Burns. "Some songs were his own newly written poems, but he also drew songs from Ramsay's [Tea-Table Miscellany] and elsewhere, improving, altering, and cutting as he felt appropriate—and then, quite often, suggesting different tunes. On other...


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