WC: Guest blogger Dai Bando takes us to the bridge between song and poetry, and we skip merrily across.
In celebration of Scotland’s favorite holiday, “Burns Night,” I give you the beloved British contralto Kathleen Ferrier singing “Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes,” recorded in 1950.
Many performers have recorded this beautiful traditional song, including Scottish folklorist Jean Redpath (1967) and American indie-label princess Joanna Newsome (2006.)
“Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes” is usually attributed to Scotland’s favorite son Robert Burns, whose birthday we celebrate on January 25th. However, music scholars believe the song was composed by a contemporary of Burns named Isabel Pagan. Burns “revised” Pagan’s song by removing some of the more sensual lyrics. Some preferred Burn’s rewrite, but then again, some liked Pat Boone’s “Tutti Frutti” better than Little Richard’s original.
The offending stanza from the Pagan’s original, “Ca’ the Yowes”, goes like this:
“As I gaed down the water-side,
There I met my shepherd lad:
He row’d me sweetly in his plaid,
And he ca’d me his dearie.”
“Row’d me sweetly…” Christ, how can anyone object to that?
Come On-a My Howfff
Isabel “Tibbie” Pagan was born in Ayrshire, Scotland in 1741. She was lame from birth, having been born with a deformed foot. Abandoned by her well-to-do family early in life, she received almost no formal education. Remarkably, she began earning her own living at the age of fourteen all the while composing poetry and songs. She never married, though she had a child fathered by a man named Campbell who deserted her on the eve of their wedding.
Pagan’s tiny cottage in the woods became what the Scots refer to as a “howff” – a gathering place for hunters, shepherds and drunken wags. At the howff, Pagan would offer visitors a mug of whisky, warmth from a crackling fire, and always her songs, which were now gaining in popularity throughout the countryside. Said a visitor to the howff, “she was unapologetically promiscuous, habitually drunk, and irreverent toward religion.”
Tibbe, you had me at “As I gaed down the water-side,”
–And by the way, let me be the one to call you dearie.
As well as being lame, historians note that she developed a “squint” later in life (“thanks for adding that in,” I can hear Isabel say from the grave). She was known for her biting sarcasm.
As a boy, I lived near an old man also named Campbell, who I doubt ever row’d anybody, sweetly or otherwise. But he did walk six dogs at once nearly every day (including strays), all held together by an Iditarod-style gang-line, made with clothesline rope.
Though this Campbell seldom spoke or made eye contact, he would repair the broken bikes of the neighborhood kids. For that, he didn’t require even a nickel in compensation, or a thank you. When Campbell wasn’t walking dogs or fixing bikes, he mostly raked. In summer, when leaves were still on the trees, he’d rake the dirt. He kept a tidy lawn.
One day, I witnessed some neighborhood jackass purposely plow his junker car into Campbell’s trash cans filled with leaves and sticks he’d gathered. This mayhem caused the man to release a string of obscenities I had never heard the likes of. In truth, that may have been the only time I heard Campbell speak at all. I helped him collect his dented trash barrels and the scattered yard waste while neither of us spoke a word. The entire episode nearly left me with squinting.
Burns Night is the annual celebration held on or near January 25th, to honor the birthday of Robert Burns. A Burns Night Supper features serving plates of haggis, neeps and tatties, reciting Burns’ poetry and singing his songs, and of course the drinking of Scotch whisky.
Putting aside Burns’ slight-of-hand with “Ca’ the Yowes,” he surely wrote some classics, including the lovely “Ae Fond Kiss,” and especially “Auld Lang Syne,” which might be the most oft sung song aside from “Happy Birthday” and that haggis of singalongs, “Margaritaville.”
Here I must apologize to Burns for mentioning Pat Boone and “Margaritaville” in his presence, for he was brilliant – a literary giant whose poetry and songs will live forever.
That said, on this particular Burns Night, I suggest instead of toasting Robert Burns with our first tumbler of Glenfiddich, we raise our glass to both Isabel Pagan and the dog-walking, bike-fixing Mr. Campbell.
Both, I’d say, were dearies who deserved better.
“And there’s a hand my trusty friend,
And give me a hand o’ thine
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for Auld Lang Syne”
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