Last night I met the ghost of an old Scottish poet and songwriter. At least, maybe I did. He could have been from London.
I’ve been learning the song “Slave’s Lament” by Robert Burns. Many other people sing this song, but I’d only heard it once, ten years ago. For some reason this week I kept thinking about it and tracked down the melody and words. When I realized it was from the same time period as the old Irish songs I’ve recreated I decided to learn it the same way I learned them. That is, I avoided listening to other versions and created my own arrangement from the bare sheet-music melody and words. Once I could sing and play it in my own way (link to my version at the end of this blog) I started researching its origins.
First I learned that Burns had a real-life connection to slavery. He was going broke trying to farm and no one wanted his poetry. Before he starved to death, an acquaintance offered him a job helping to oversee slaves on a plantation in Jamaica. Burns accepted the job and sent his bride-to-be ahead to wait for him at the port where the ship “The Nancy” would take them to Jamaica. As in every starving writer’s dream, at the last minute before he went to join her, his poetry book began to sell. Suddenly he could afford to be choosier. He turned down the job and stayed in Scotland; sadly, his fiance died in the port city before he could retrieve her.
With his new literary success came other opportunities. For example, he helped compile a wildly successful series of songbooks (Scot’s Musical Museum) to preserve the Scottish musical tradition. For this task, he often edited or improved traditional songs that have come to be associated with him such as Auld Lang Syne.
Burns wrote Slave’s Lament in the late 1780s. Later, Joseph Hayden created arrangements based on several of Burn’s songs (including this one). This undoubtably helped the song survive. But there has been dispute over the origin of the melody. Did Burns use an older tune (which was a common practice) or did he adapt a traditional African tune (which was the story an editor proposed when he republished the collection long after Burns died)? There were similar songs by then, but which came first? Did Burns steal this melody or did those other songwriters steal from him? Within the last few years, several scholars have argued at length about this, probably to the dismay of their wives and friends who may wish they’d spend that time and enthusiasm inventing an app for the new i-phone.
I believe I solved that riddle this week, at least to my own satisfaction. Burns pretty much stole a song from a hundred years earlier called “The Trappan’d Maiden” that had been published in about 1685 by Charles Bates. Bates was known as an “obscure bookseller.” That alone made me identify with him. From the evidence I’ve collected, he was also a self publisher, novelist and song writer. He rewrote and published “The History of the Famous Exploits of Guy Earl of Warwick” for example. A verse in The Trappan’d Maiden mentions serving Master Guy. Bates published “The Devil’s Oak,” a humorous song which was to be sung “to a very pleasant new tune.” Therefore, I think he wrote both lyrics and melodies.
Bates hung out near “Pye corner” which is a section of London near the intersection of Cock Lane and Giltspur Street known in medieval times for legal brothels. It is also known as the spot where the Great Fire of London (1666) stopped. Bates used various printers in Pye Corner; one of his favorites was the “Sun and Bible” printers.
Charles paid the “Sun and Bible” to print up the broadside (a large sheet of paper with the words and an illustration) of Trappan’d Maiden. That’s how one made money as a song writer in those days. We know the song became quite popular, but it still might have disappeared except for a peculiar old character who liked to collect songs and literature.
Samuel Pepys worked for the navy and loved to sing and dance. He never thought of himself as a writer, but he’s now remembered primarily because his extensive diaries became our best window into the time period. He bought a copy of the Trappan’d Maiden for his huge, meticulously cataloged collection. Pepys’ library (including 3,000 broadsides) has been digitized, so I managed to download a copy of the Trappan’d Maiden. Yes, it fits the Slave’s Lament melody; beyond that, many of the words are nearly identical as well. I’m not sure anyone has really tried to play the two songs side by side until this week.
The Trappan’d Maiden is about a young woman from England forced to become a slave at a Virginia tobacco plantation in the 1600s. If you change the phrasing just slightly, you can move from a verse of Burn’s song to this one without anyone even noticing the difference. I chose three verses from Trappan’d Maiden that could be sung by either a man or woman, trimmed some of the repeated lines from Slave’s Lament and combined the two songs. In the middle of the night, I found myself playing the thing in my brain, going between the two phrasings.
Then I had a dream. I’d left something in the basement of a house and had gone down to retrieve it. When I reached the bottom of the stairs I realized that the thing had come alive and sort of possessed the house. The dream became disturbing and dark and I tried to say, “It’s alive! It’s alive.” But I can’t form words in my sleep. I thrashed around and groaned until my wife woke me.
I went back to sleep, but the dream repeated itself. This time, I was watching a guy sleep who was having the dream I’d just had. I knew he was going down the stairs, knew he realized that the thing was alive and wanting to say it out loud. He started thrashing and groaning. I tried to wake him from his nightmare. At that point, my wife woke me again. I’d been thrashing and groaning all over again.
This time, as I drifted off, it occurred to me that it was probably the ghost of Robert Burns trying to connect with me in some way. But I was a very strange character to him. We spoke so differently and had such different lives in different centuries. It was hard for both of us. So I introduced myself. I told him my name, and who my family was, and where I lived. It did not feel odd to reassure some apparition of my imagination in this way; I take my imagination very seriously. On the off chance that I was right, he had to be a lot more confused than me. Once I gently explained the situation, we both relaxed and went to sleep.
This morning, my neighbor called. She’d gotten up before dawn and saw that the dome light in my wife’s car was on. She thought it very strange because she’d just awakened from an odd dream about a car and its light. I thought it odd because we hadn’t driven the car for two days. The last time we did we had noticed the dome light wasn’t working. We had a long conversation about it. Had it suddenly repaired itself just to exhaust the car’s battery? I went out to check. The dome light was not on, the battery wasn’t dead, the car started fine. I let the car warm up. When I shut it off and opened the door, the dome light came on.
Of course, I had to google “the ghost of Robert Burns.” Yes, of course, there have been many sightings. Most interesting was a blog by Carrillee Collins Burke who took a photo of Robert Burns’ grave. A weird white glow showed up in the photo. The photo is in Yesterday’s Memories magazine.
An earlier ghost story had nothing to do with Burns. In 1762 (when Burns was a child of three) perhaps the most famous resident of Pye Corner was the “Cock Lane Ghost.” People were convinced that the ghost of Fanny Lynes made appearances and various noises. Because of the sounds it made, they nicknamed the ghost “Scratchin’ Fanny” which I’m sure got a snicker every time they said it. So many people flocked to seances in the area the streets became impassable. This was about thirty years after Charles Bates turned his business over to Sarah Bates, who I assume was his daughter. I only mention it because ghosts seem to show up near the places Bates haunted when alive.
This song has touched many people. Charles Bates probably wrote the original. Samuel Pepys preserved it. A hundred years later, Robert Burns updated it for his own time. Joseph Hayden arranged it for classical musicians. Thomas Jefferson, who claimed his first love was music and singing, may have sung it while Burns was still alive. I was startled to learn that Abraham Lincoln loved the poetry of Burns so much that, as a young man, he memorized all of it. Until just before his death, he’d recite Burn’s poetry to anyone who would listen. Therefore, it’s quite likely that he knew the lyrics to Slave’s Lament; perhaps he sang it fifty years after Burns died.
I’m not sure that I actually believe in “ghosts.” But I do believe that we leave our scent on the things we touch. Our fragrance (or stench) might be detectable years later on a song or poem, perhaps enough to conjure and connect the people who ran it through their fingers and voices. If Lincoln sang this song, perhaps some part of him survives in it. Pepys and Hayden and Burns might be in there somewhere. If a song can conjure a departed musician, it could be any of them.
But my money’s on Charles Bates. I bet it’s been a long time since anyone sang his original words to the melody he wrote. That might be just enough to stir a sleeping poet to say “it’s alive! My song is alive within a new home!” It now resides with another writer/self publisher who feels pretty comfortable near “Pye-Corner.” Especially “Pumpkin Pye Corner.” Perhaps Charles roused himself from a 300 year nap just long enough to disturb my own sleep.
Then, to demonstrate his approval, he fixed the dome light in my wife’s car.
I recorded my version of the song and uploaded it. The first three verses are Burn’s song “Slave’s Lament” The last three verses are from Bates’ song “The Trappan’d Maiden” ) LINK TO SONG)