The national hero who sang of mice and men. This week, from Canada to New Zealand, men and women of Scottish descent will celebrate the birth of a `plowman poet.' His work has helped to save their dialect and their ancient music from destruction. Here, three well-known Scottish folk musicians assess his legacy.
THIS APPEARED IN THE 1/25/88 WORLD EDITION SINGER, songwriter, farmer, poet, excise officer, debater, philosopher, collector of ancient melodies, seducer and seduced, drunkard and tea-totaller, national hero, and self-educated man. Who are we talking about anyway? William Shakespeare? Leonardo da Vinci? James Joyce? All three at once?
No. The man who fits this description is Robert Burns, the 18th-century Scots poet, whose birthday, the 25th of January, 1759, is celebrated each year in feasts of haggis and flights of poetry by those of Scottish descent throughout the world.
It should be added that Burns did not do all these things well. Nor did he do all of them simultaneously. (He only abstained from drink in his last years.)
But he became Scotland's national hero because he was, above all, a man of the people. He came from a humble farming community in Ayrshire, and in spite of his popularity with the intellectual circles in Edinburgh, he ultimately remained within the sphere of the commoner. For this reason, literary critics have dubbed him a ``plowman poet.''
But the academics are not the only people who today maintain a working relationship with Burns. While many scholars treat his work with amusement or derision, Scotland's folk musicians take Burns' work very seriously - as was revealed in a series of interviews conducted during the bands' recent North American tours. I talked to Tony Cuffe of the band Ossian, Roy Gullane of the Tannahill Wea-vers, and Andy Stewart of Silly Wizard. Each of these bands perform Burns's songs, and each might, were Burns still alive, enjoy his approval. (He certainly could have used the royalties.)
But none of them shares the academics' amusement. Stewart, for instance, is a stony-faced man who can tie his audiences in knots with laughter (``Scotland is not for the squeamish,'' he says). But he discarded his levity when our talk turned to Burns; it was as if this were his chance to articulate things that had been eating at him for years.
``There's a lot more to Burns than nostalgia,'' he said fiercely. ``Burns was more than that. He was a socialist, a humanitarian. He cared about his fellow man.''
Where academics see earthiness in Burns, these musicians see graphic realism.
``Burns was a plowman, basically,'' said Tony Cuffe, who has researched Burns for a BBC radio program and a Japanese film on the poet. ``[Burns was] right down there in among all the problems that the poor people were experiencing. ... Burns is right down there in the gutter. He's in among the muck. That's what makes his stuff so real.''
This is not the orthodox view, perhaps. But what else can one say about a poet who wrote about a mouse (whose nest his plow turned up), and about a boiled pudding of mutton and suet, and about a man married (he says) to a woman with only one eye, whiskers, and ``five rusty teeth''? This is nothing like the Augustan poetry of leisure that preceded Burns's birth or the bucolic Romantic verse that Wordsworth began writing toward the end of Burns's short life. Burns was no hot-house orchid of a poet, rejoicing in secret beauty and sheltered from the mundane and inelegant.
On the other hand, Cuffe continued, Burns ``addresses all these cosmic ideals - liberty, the dignity of man, the dignity of labor.'' This plunks him down on the shelf beside writers of stature, pleading for the betterment of their fellow men. This makes him, despite his faults, a man of humble origin who became the voice for an entire people.
`A word on every note'
WITH the exception of ``Auld Lang Syne,'' perhaps the most celebrated of Burns's works are his love poems and songs. There are certainly enough of them.
``The gamut of his love poetry is staggering,'' said Cuffe, ``running from the romantic thing on to the physical thing to the remorse thing, when things went wrong and he got tempted. Okay, so he had a bad record.''
The best of these love poems capture the verity of experienced emotion and combine it with an idealized romantic vision, as in Mary Morrison, where he writes ``Those smiles and glances let me see, / That make the miser's treasure poor.''
Still, ``a lot of his love songs and poems started out lewd,'' says Roy Gullane, the wiry lead singer of the Tannahill Weavers, ``and in order to publish it, he rewrote it - made it pretty.''
Burns was dedicated to the preservation of Scottish folk music - an aspect of his work that is little acknowledged but often unknowingly appreciated. Many of his poems are lyrics that he set to old fiddle tunes for the purpose of saving the melodies by making them memorable - and he saved hundreds of them.
``By his travels round and round about, he seemed to have had many a good night in an old alehouse,'' is how Stewart puts it. ``He picked up songs that way, took them off, and saved them from being lost forever.''
He knew how to capture the essence of an emotion and match it to a melody's dips and rises. What other songs from the 18th century - with the exception of carols, hymns, and national anthems - are still popular enough to be sung around the world?
``He hung a word on every note in a way that was truly remarkable,'' says Gullane.
But they are by no means easy to sing. ``He was writing lyrics purely as a means of preserving dance tunes,'' explains Cuffe. Such melodies have ``an enormous range and to sing some of them is really a stretch. I think that's often why the operatic end up singing a lot of Burns, because they're the people who can handle his tunes.''
`De-Scoticizing the Scots'
LINGUISTS have said that a country's culture and its language are inseparable; destroy one and you stamp out the other. Burns wrote much of his work in a tongue called Lallans or Lowland Scots - a mixture of Middle English, old Scots, and Old Norse. It's a language that the English sought to suppress and even destroy from the mid-18th-century through the first half of this century.
But Burns's legacy has blocked this effort to ``de-Scoticize the Scots,'' as Cuffe puts it. If only because Wordsworth was influenced by Burns, British schools have been compelled to include the Scot on their syllibuses. In Scotland, this has created a paradox within a paradox: Burns is considered among the finest of Scottish writers, yet many Scots can't read him, because he wrote in their language - which many of them don't understand anymore. Stewart explains it by describing his own schooling in Perthshire in the late 1950s and early '60s.
``At the same time old Scots was being discouraged,'' Stewart says, ``his work was being taught in the schools. So you were getting a mixed message. You were reading Burns ... but a lot of kids wouldn't know what the words meant. ...
``I was fortunate to be raised in a home where [a mixture of old Scots and Lallans] was spoken, so I could read Burns. ... But the message in school was `That's the way peasants talk!' So if your parents spoke old Scots, you'd think, `Oh, they must be peasants.' Now, there are efforts to teach Gaelic and old Scots in the schools, so it's coming back. But then, our culture was really discouraged.''
How do these Scots musicians celebrate Burns's birthday? Well, Andy Stewart remembers the year when he and his chums ``dressed in tartan from head to foot'' in a parody of traditional Burns Supper dress. Roy Gullane predicts that Jan. 25 will find the Tannahill Weavers ``some place where they don't know Burns - like West Germany.''
But both men agree that the celebration should not be confined to one night. ``It happens,'' says Gullane, ``whenever someone sings one of his songs or reads one of his poems.''