Various Artists: The Complete Songs of Robert Burns in Twelve Volumes

cover art for The Complete Songs of Robert BurnsThis is one of the most ambitious recording projects I have encountered within the folk music world, covering all of Robert Burns’ 368 songs. It took about six years and twelve volumes to complete, with a great number of well known Scottish musicians and singers taking part. (As an appendix to this review you find a list of all participating singers and musicians and on what volumes they appear.) In total the series gives you almost 15 hours of music.

Burns, who was born on 25 January 1759, could be considered the National Poet of Scotland, the only real rival being Sir Walter Scott.

The first book by Burns, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, with 44 poems and songs, was published in 1787. This was a time when the Scots were regaining their sense of being Scottish, after the horrible defeat in Culloden in 1746 against the English, after which items like the bagpipe and the kilt were made illegal. With his writings Burns made a great contribution to Scottish national pride.

And he contributed a lot. In the space of about than years, from the publication of his first book until his death in 1796 he published a number of books, and in Poems and Songs, published by Oxford University Press, there are 632 poems.

368 songs is an enormous production from one man. His span as a writer was only nine years; he did not write most of the tunes, his poems are mostly sung to traditional airs, and a few of “his songs” were in fact re-workings, with sometimes very few changes, of old traditional songs. Burns was an early collector of folk songs, and thus helped to preserve the Scottish musical heritage.

The recording project came to life in 1996, as part of the bicentenary celebrations commemorating Burns’ death. The producers have opted for the folky side of Robert Burns, trying to get the performers to deliver the songs in a simple but effective way, accompanied only by acoustic instruments. There has been no room for dramatic reworkings of Burns’ songs within this project; neither have there been any ambitions to modernize the songs. The first priority is the songs, the second the performers. In this way the collection can be seen as an encyclopaedia of Burns songs, a companion to the collection of his poems, and a gold mine for singers looking to broaden their repertoire of Burns material or for people who, like me, think that poetry sung is superior to poetry read.

In a quick run through of the 12 volumes in the collection. I have picked a few of my favourite songs and performances from each record. In the appendix I have details on which volumes you’ll find some of Burns more widely spread songs.

Volume 1 is a very much a showcase for the talents of Rod Paterson and Tony Cuffe with seven and five appearances respectively out of the 23 tracks. One of Paterson’s contributions is “The Lea-rigg,” a slow ballad and one of my all time favourite Burns songs. He also delivers “Oh, Rattlin, Roarin Willie” with a clever arrangement for two whistles in the background (performed by Norman Chalmers and Jack Evans). Billy Ross shines on “The Winter it is Past,” another slow ballad, this time with lovely fiddle playing from John McCusker.

With 28 tracks and more than 78 minutes of music Volume 2 is one of the longest in the series. It can be used as an example of how to treat some of the shorter songs, often with just one verse or with 2-3 very short verses.

On “Leezie Lindsay” Arthur Johnstone gets to sing the entire song twice, with a very nice instrumental interlude between the two performances of the only verse. “Hey Ca Thro'” and “The Deil’s Awa wi the’Exciseman” are put together in a medley, performed a capella by Janet Russell and Christine Kydd. Instead of singing one song first and the other after they mix the songs with each other to great effect.

Once again Rod Paterson is the champion for me, after all his own CD with Burns’ songs is one of my favourites, especially on the slow “My Nanie O” and the more rythmic “Willie Wastle.” Ian F Benzie also provide a fine reading of “How Cruel Are the Parents.”

There are two novelties on Volume 3. The first is the introduction of the harpsichord into the backing instruments. It is used to great effect on a few songs, “She’s Fair and Fause” being the prime example. The harpsichord gives the song a slight chamber orchestra feeling. But it does not feel out of place; after all Burns lived in an age when it was a popular instrument.

Wendy Weatherby makes her first appearance on Volume 3. She gets five tracks to show her vocal talent. Three of them are medleys of two or three songs. The policy seems to be to join up the faster songs into medleys, while the slow ballads are sung one by one. At least that is what Weatherby has done.

My favourite moments of Volume 3 are Ronnie Browne’s masterful interpretation of “Auld Lang Syne,” using the original melody, and Dougie Pincock’s haunting flute introduction to “Cauld Blaws the Wind frae East to West”, giving it a chilly, wintery feeling.

Without having any statistical proof I would say that Volume 4 is a more lively CD than the first three. There are seven medleys on it, usually made up of rhythmic short songs. Some of the backing musicians shine, especially fiddlers Charlie McKerron and Catriona MacDonald, and guitarist/bodhran player Tony McManus.

Volume 4 raises the question of what is really written by Burns and what is not. One track, “Hey, How My Johnie Lad,” is said to be “attributed to Burns” and “The Shepherd’s Wife” is a Scottish version of “Oh Shepherd” found in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. Melody-wise “Robin Shure in Haist” is sung to the tune usually used for “Cam Ye Oér Frae France.”

Some of the best tracks are the slower ones. Davy Steele performs a slow, moving “My Luve’s Like a Red Red Rose,” Corrina Hewat’s voice in “Thou Gloomy December” is set to a trio with lovely cello playing by Wendy Weatherby and some chilling flute harmonies from Rory Campbell, and John Malcolm’s ” Small Birds Rejoice” is a jewel.

If someone would ask me to pick my all-time-favourite Burns song I think I would settle on “A Man’s a Man for A’ That,” a poem that must have been considered quite revolutionary in its time. Ian F. Benzie gets the honour to open Volume 5 with that song, and performs it very well.

The volume once again raises the question of what is written by Burns and what are merely interpretations of folk songs. There is a version of the great ballad “Hughie Graham” on it and to my surprise a quite different version of “John Barleycorn” as well. I have always thought that to be a typical English song, but somehow Burns must have decided to do a reworking of it.

My favourite performance on the album is “Caledonia,” a celebration of Scotland as a nation. James Malcolm sings it, accompanied only by his own guitar. As he performs the song it could well have been written by some contemporary Scottish songwriter, it sounds timeless.

The first track on Volume 6, “O, Mirk, Mirk Is this Midnight Hour,” is a superb opener. Corrina Hewat’s harp and Marc Duff’s whistle paves the way for a haunting ballad sung by Mae McKenna. It is a lovely example of Burns’ ability to showcase both sadness and beauty.

Volume 6 also shows proof of the producers not belonging to the purists of the folk world. In between the verses of “Awa, Whigs, Awa” the singer James Malcolm treats us to some rather bluesy harmonica, an instrument that was not invented in Burns time. But the same could of course be argued about the accordion, present on many of the record, on Volume 6 performed by Sandy Brechin on songs like “Bonie Wee Thing,” where he plays a delicate solo.

Mostly showcasing lesser known songs (at least to me) by Burns, Volume 6 still is very listenable. A novelty is that the medleys, a total of nine of the 21 tracks, are sometimes made up of a mixture of slow and faster songs, and singers like John Morran and Alistair Hulett do very well on the record.

John Morran gets both the first and last song on Volume 7. The first is a forceful, rather modern interpretation of “The Captain’s Lady.” The closer is one more of those slow, sad ballads of which Burns has written so many. It is given a simple arrangement, showing you do not have to be complicated to be good.

My first real acquaintance with Burns was through the shortlived folk rocking Five Hand Reel. Therefore it was with great joy I discovered Bobby Eaglesham, a member of that group, on Volume 7. He contributes three songs, of which “My Girl She’s Airy” is a standout track on the album, a fast tongue-twisting ditty with rather dirty lyrics.

“Charlie, He’s My Darling” is one of the more well known songs on the album. Aimee Leonard gives us a good reading of it, backed by a nice guitar and a mandolin. “Geordie” is familiar, but more as the Child ballad of the same name and with basically the same story. In his treatment of the ballad Alistair Hulett shows he is more that just a little influenced by people like Martin Carthy and Nic Jones.

Volume 8 has more of the well known songs. It includes classic “Green Grow the Rushes, O,” “Wandering Willie,” and “Ae Fond Kiss,” though the last one is performed with a rather unusual tune attached to it.

Bobby Eaglesham is back again, this time performing four songs. I like “The Groves of Sweet Myrtle” the best. It contains dramatic instrumental interludes, performed by Shaun Craig and Gavin Pennycock.

The volume has its fair share of political and historical songs. Mae McKenna performs “Mary Queen of Scots Lament,” Karine Polwart sings “O, Cam Ye Here the Fight to Shun” about the battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715, reported to end in a draw, and Ross Kennedy gets to tackle “Wha Will Buy My Troggin,” an alternate version of the much sung Buy Broom Bezzoms.

“The Sun Is Sunk” shows the combined talents of George Duff and Tony McManus. Duff’s voice and McManus’s guitar handles the tricky time signatures in the song very well.

Most of Burns songs are poems set to popular folk tunes of his day. The evidence is in the books with his collected works. When the music is printed it is always with a name on the tune separate from that of the words. But some poems that were apparently written to be sung have no melodies printed. For the series, Dr Fred Freeman, the mastermind behind the whole operation, has set them to tunes. One of the best examples of this is on Volume 9, where “Oh, Why the Deuce” and “I Murder Hate” with new settings are teamed up with “Carl and the King Come.” Niall Kenny sings and the bagpipes are heavily featured on the track.

Ross Kennedy makes some fine appearances on Volume 9. He opens with a medley of “O Were My Love Yon Lilac Fair” and “Ye Jovial Boys,” the first with congas giving it a good push, and the second letting an accordion do the same. “Corn Rigs are Bonie” also gets a rocking, modern treatment, this time with Kennedy’s own guitar playing a prominent role.

Another favourite of mine is a medley performed by Kirsten Easdale, “Your Friendship” and “Oh How Can I Be Blithe.” It has some striking contrasts on the second song. Easdale’s gentle and soft voice and a tender guitar picking against some almost majestic accordion chords, played by Angus Lyon.

And “My Heart’s in the Highlands” is given a most appropriate arrangement. Karine Polwart sings to Ian Hood’s clarsach. Fraser Fifield’s whistle in the intros and interludes reaks of longing to be somewhere else. A lovely setting of a lovely song.

There are some nice examples of Burns’s patriotism on Volume 10. My favourite is “Here’s a Health to Them”, sung at a breath taking pace by Gordon Kelly. “It’s guid to be merry and wise/It’s guid to be honest and true/It’s guid to support Caledonia’s cause.” With both Tony McManus and Angus Lyon backing it is the track on the CD I like the most.

Another patriot song is “Wham Will We Send”, set to the same tune as “A Man’s a Man for A’ That”, and using some words from that famous song. Jim Reid sings it in a powerful voice with a quartet of instrument driving him on.

On the beautiful side there is Mairi Campbell performing “The Lazy Mist” to clarsach and flute. It is a pity it is hidden away as the second part of a medley, which makes it difficult to programme on my CD player.

And then there is an interesting dialogue between husband and wife “Husband, husband,” sung by Lesley Hale and Tich Frier.

Volume 11 is a bit different from the rest. I have two theories about this. The first is that Linn Records is trying to avoid having a Volume 13, maybe for the same reason that some hotels do not have a floor 13. The other is that the people responsible for the project, having come this far, realized that 12 CDs would not give space enough to keep the promise of delivering all the songs of Robert Burns. So volume is a double-CD, with a Volume 11b added.

On the first of the two I have three favourites. “Farewell, Thou Fair Day” is the second part of a medley. It is superbly sung by Kirsten Easdale to just an accordion. It is a short, but dramatic song, where Easdale gets to show her vocal dynamics. A song that really grips you.

“My Father Was a Farmer,” sung by Steve Byrne, sound a bit autobiographical. It has a carpe diem-theme about it. “The past was bad and the future hid/its good and ill untried; O/ But the present hour was in my po’er/and so I would enjoy it, O” “I live today as well’s I may/regardless of tomorrow, O.”

There is also a ballad that seems to be about William Wallace, telling of a short episode from his life, “O For My Ain King.” Ross Kennedy does a fine job with it.

The second CD in Volume 11 has quite a few “dirty” songs on it, among others a “bawdy version” of “Green Grows the Rashes-O.”

Without saying anything on it is not good I must say there are two brilliant moments on it, among the best tracks in the whole series. The opening track, “Heard Ye o’ the Tree o’ France” is about the French revolution. It is an epic song glorifying the freedom of the republic, as opposed to the terrors of the monarchy. Burns would not be Burns if he did not include a few not so positive lines about England as well. It is sung by Rod Paterson, who makes a welcome to series on volumes 11 and 12.

That is a brilliant track, but Kirsten Easdale’s performance “Oh I Forbid You” is even better. The word breathtaking has never been more in place. Over 45 verses she unfolds the story about Tam Lin. While listening you almost forgive Burns for claiming to have written that story himself. Being the longest track in the whole series, occupying more than 8 minutes, it is also in my mind the best.

And then you could wonder about the “Parental Guidance Explicit Content” sticker on the cover. Burns, like other poets, sometimes uses what could be thought of as dirty language, and there are quite a few examples of it on these two CDs, but it seems quite ridiculous putting a sticker like that on a CD like this. Or maybe they are just trying to attract teenagers…

The first third of Volume 12 is occupied by “Love and Liberty,” a cantata, which Burns wrote sometime in 1784-1785. On the CD we get the whole cantata, with the additions Burns made a couple of years later.

The eight songs of the cantata are performed by four singers, Tich Frier, Mairi MacInnes, Rod Paterson and Ian Bruce, taking two songs each. On each track there are backed by two or three accordions, nothing else. In between songs there are recitations, with Fred Freeman performing Burns’s words.

It is a brilliant suite to put on the last CD. Funny, storytelling songs, set to simple, but memorable tunes. Both the singing and the playing add to the songs and all the way through you really feel the piece as an entity, in spite of different tunes and songs. You get a feeling that Fred Freeman and his cohorts have been thinking along the lines of saving the best for last.

There are 16 more tracks on the last volume, some of which would have been considered standouts if they had not been overshadowed by the cantata. But let me mention two of them. “Now Spring Has Clad” is a celebration of spring and nature’s re-awakening sung by Gordon Kelly. It is not known which tune Burns had in mind for it, but Freeman has coupled it with the original tune for “Auld Lang Syne,” which works very well.

“Go On Sweet Bird” is a slow, moving song performed by Christine Kydd, who does a marvellous job with it. Wonderful song, wonderful voice.

And it seems quite appropriate that Tich Frier tags on a few lines from “My Luve’s Like a Red Red Rose” to the last song of the series: “And fare the weel, my only love/O fare the weel a while/And I will come again, my luve/Tho’ it were ten thousand miles.”

There are many ways to treat this collection of CDs. Myself I will keep it as a kind of encyclopaedia, CDs to go back to when looking for a certain song or poem. And it has also served a purpose in helping me discover a few singers I had not heard of before.

But I would not recommend anyone not keenly interested in Robert Burns and/or Scottish music to buy all 12 volumes at once. Instead buy one or two to start off with, and if you like them slowly build up your collection. You can choose the ones to buy from what singers or musicians are on them or to get certain songs. To help you with this I have enclosed an appendix telling on which volumes you find the participating singers and musicians and on which ones you find certain, more widely spread Burns songs (to be honest some of those I had heard before listening to the whole series).

But if you want just a “greatest hits of Robert Burns” or a more modern approach to the man’s music you should look elsewhere. Rod Paterson’s “Songs from the Bottom Drawer” or Eddie Reader’s Burns-CD are both recommended starting points to discover the greatest songwriter of Scotland.

On critical note I must say I miss notes and comments on the songs and a Scottish dictionary to help me understand the lyrics better. It would also have been much appreciated if the notes had included the names of the original tunes the songs are set to, like they do in the book Poems and Songs, which is a complete collection of everything the man wrote. But these are minor points that do not affect the joy you get from the music in this series.

(Linn Records, 1996-2002)


Featured singers:

Ian Anderson, vol 8; Ian F Benzie vol 1,2 and 5; Ronnie Browne, vol 3; Ian Bruce, vol 2-4, 8 and 12; Steve Byrne, vol 11 and 12, Mairi Campbell, vol 8-10, Tony Coffe, vol 1 and 2; Elspeth Cowie, vol 5 and 6; John Croall, vol 10 and 11; George Duff vol 7 and 8; Bobby Eaglesham, vol 7 and 8; Kirsten Easdale, vol 9-12; Gilliam Frame, vol 10; Fred Freeman, vol 12; Tich Frier, vol 10-12; Leslie Hale, vol 3, 4, 10 and 11; Corrina Hewat, vol 4 and 5; Alistair Hulett, vol 6 and 7; Arthur Johnstone, vol 2; Gordon Kelly, vol 10-12; Ross Kennedy, vol 8-12; Niall Kenny, vol 9; Christine Kydd, vol 1, 2 and 12; Aimee Leonard, vol 7; Lionel McClelland, vol 10 and 11; Gordeanna McCulloch, vol 2 and 3; Gillian MacDonald, vol 6 and 7; Mairi Mac Innes, vol 12; Mae McKenna, vol 6 and 8; Jamie McMenemy, vol 4 and 5; James Malcolm, vol 4-6; Brian Miller, vol 3; Ed Miller, vol 6; John Morran, vol 5-8; John Nichol, vol 10-12; Rod Paterson, vol 1, 2, 11 and 12; Karine Polwart, vol 7-9; Alan Reid, vol 1 and 2; Jim Reid, vol 9-12; Billy Ross, vol 1, 2, 10 and 11; Janet Russell, vol 1, 2, 10 and 12; Davy Steele, vol 4 and 5; Wendy Weatherby, vol 3, 4 and 12; Mick West, vol 3 and 4

Featured musicians

Ian Anderson, bouzouki, banjo, vol 2 and 3; Sandy Brechin, accordion, vol 5 -8 and 10-12; Brian Byrne, harpsichord, vol 3; Steve Byrne, bouzouki, guitar, bodhran, vol 9-11; Neil Cameron, double bass, vol 3; Rory Campbell, whistle, vol 4; Davy Cattanach, percussion, djembo, vol 1, 2, 11 and 12; Norman Chalmers, concertin,a bodhran, whistle, shakers & mbira, vol 1 and 2; Duncan Chisholm, fiddle, vol 7; Pete Clark, fiddle, viola, vol 6, 7 and 9-11; Shaun Craig, guitar, bouzouki, vol 7 and 8; Ivan Drever, guitar, vol 7; Marc Duff, whistle, bodhran, bouzouki, recorder, vol 5-8 and 10-12; Ben Edom, guitar, vol 12; Jack Evans, mandolin, guitar, whistle & flute, vol 1, 2 and 4; Fraser Fifeld, whistle, vol 7- 9; Dagger Gordon, mandolin/cittern, vol 10-12; Phamie Gow, clarsach, vol 8; Lesley Hale, guitar, vol 11 (also singer); Jonny Hardie, fiddle & guitar, vol 1, 2 and 5; Corrina Hewat, harp, vol 6 and 7; Ian Hood, clarsach, vol 9 and 10; Billy Jackson, whistle & harp, vol 1-3 and 8; George Jackson, cittern, vol 1 and 2; Aaron Jones, cittern, vol 6 and 8-12; Ross Kennedy, guitar, cittern, mandolin, vol 10-12 (also singer); Chris Koren, cittern, guitar, vol 10 and 11; Stevie Lawrence, bouzouki, log drum, vol 8 and 9; Henry Lawson, uillean pipes, vol 7; Gregor Lowrie, accordion, vol 11 and 12; Ian Lowthian, accordion, vol 3-5 and 7-12; Angus Lyon, accordion, vol 9-12; Catriona MacDonald, fiddle, vol 3 and 4; Leo McCann, button box, vol 10 and 11; Alistair McCulloch, fiddle, vol 10-12; John McCusker, fiddle, volumes 1, 2 and 5; Iain MacInnes, small pipes, vol 9; Catriona McKay, clasach, vol 10 and 11; Charlie McKerron, fiddle, vol 4; Frank MacLaughlin, guitar, small pipes, vol 6, 7, 11 and 12; Tony McManus, guitar, vol 3-5, 8 and 10; Jamie McMenemy, bouzouki, vol 5 (also singer); Buzzby McMillan, bass, cittern & whistle, vol 1 and 2; Ewen McPherson, mandola, vol 11 and 12; Eddie Maguire, flute, vol 9-12; James Malcolm, guitar, harmonica, vol 5 (also singer); Claire Mann, fiddle, vol 6; John Martin, viola, fiddle, vol 2, 3, 6, 7, 11 and 12; Gavin Marwick, fiddle, vol 8; Brian Miller, guitar, vol 2; John Morran, octave mandolin, vol 10 1112 (also singer); Fred Morrison, whistle, vol 4; Findlay Napier, guitar, vol 12; Aidan O’Rourke, fiddle, vol 4-6; Rod Paul, mandolin, vol 10 and 11; Gavin Pennycook, fiddle, vol 7 and 8; Gary Peterson, banjo, mandolin, vol 7 and 9; Dougie Pincock, small pipes, whistle, flute, bodhran, shakers, vol 2 and 3; Jim Reid, guitar, vol 10 (also singer); Charlie Soane, fiddle, vol 2; Frasier Speirs, harmonica, vol 11 and 12; Malcolm Stitt, bouzouki, whistle, vol 4-7 and 10-12; Chris Stout, fiddle, vol 9-11; Simon Thoumire, concertina, vol 5; Ewen Vernal, double bass, vol 10-12; Wendy Weatherby, cello, vol 3 and 4; Chris Wright, mandola/cittern, vol 9-12

More widely spread songs

Ae Fond Kiss – vol 8; A Man’s a Man for A’ That – vol 5, alternate lyrics vol 10; Auld Lang Syne – vol 3; Ay, Waukin, O – vol 1; Braw, braw Lads of Yarrow Braes – vol 5; Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes – vol 3 alternate version vol 11; Charlie He’s My Darling – vol 7

Geordie – vol 7; Green Grow the Rashes, O – vol 8, bawdy version vol 11; I Hae a Wife o’ My Ain – vol 2; I Maun Hae a Wife (Buy Broom Besoms) – vol 4, alternate version vol 8; It Was A’ for Our Rightfu’ King – vol 3; John Anderson, My Jo – vol 6; John Barleycorn, a ballad – vol 5; John Come Kiss Me – vol 7; Lea-rigg, The – vol 1; Leezie Lindsay – vol 2; Long Long Night – vol 7; MacPherson’s Farewell – vol 10; My Heart’s in the Highlands – vol 9; My Luve’s a Red Red Rose – vol 4; My Nanie O – vol 2; Now Westlin Winds – vol 2; O, Gude Ale Comes – vol 4; O Mirk, Mirk is This Midnight Hour – vol 6; O, Rattlin, Roarin Willie – vol 1; Scots Wha Had wi’ Wallace Bled – vol 2; Sir John Cope – vol 4; Such a Parcel of Rouges in a Nation – vol 3; Sweet Afton – vol 1; To the Weaver’s Gin Ye Go – vol 1; Wandering Willie – vol 8; Winter it is Past, The – vol 1; Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonie Doon – vol 3; Ye Jacobites by Name – vol 2

Lars Nilsson

Lars Nilsson is in his 60s, is an OAP and lives in Mellerud in the west of Sweden. He has a lifelong obesession with music and has playing the guitar since his early teens, and has picked up a number of other instruments over the years. At the moment he plays with three different groups, specialized in British folk, acoustic pop and rock, and, Swedish fiddle music. Lars has also written a number of books, most of them for school use, but also a youth novel, a couple of books about London and a book about educational leadership. He joined the Green Man Review team in 1998.

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