One of the most difficult tasks when delivering an Immortal Memory is to say something new, something unique. After all, Burns has been honored in events like this dinner since 1801 and now in over 200 countries. The man was only 37 years old when he died, so it does give a rather limited field of study. It’s not that there’s not much to say about Rabbie and his many poems and songs, but it’s difficult not to say the same things over and over again.
If you’ve been to even a few Burns Suppers, you will have heard about how he wrote poems that appeal emotionally and viscerally rather than cerebrally. You might have heard about how he was the common man rather than some effete noble. No doubt you will also have heard about how he loved women. Many women. And often. That is true. In fact, considering how popular the HBO series “The Tudors” has been, I’m surprised they haven’t made one entitled “Rabbie.” Henry the Eighth was an amateur lover compared to Rabbie. I must say, considering that by the time Henry beheaded Anne Boleyn, he looked like a dump truck while Rabbie was a Ferrarri, you’d think “Rabbie” would make a great series. However Rabbie never executed the women he bedded, so there’s probably not enough violence to add to the sex for HBO. But let’s get away from Hollywood and look at Robert Burns in a different way. Hopefully one you have not already heard.
While you may think of Burns as the Ploughman Poet, he was mainly a lyricist. The Sod-buster Songwriter, as it were. In fact, 368 out of his 559 writings were songs. Although a singer and a fiddler, he was primarily a wordsmith and arranger, rather than a composer of music. Often he put new lyrics to existing Scottish traditional and folk melodies, including favorites such as A Man’s a Man for All That, Scots Wha Hae, A Fond Kiss, My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose, and Auld Lang Syne. Actually, that is not so uncommon. Consider these examples: the Irish-American favorite Danny Boy was written by an English lawyer and adapted to Londonderry Air, Elvis Presley’s Love Me Tender is to the music of the Civil War song Aura Lee, that patriotic air, America, is ironically sung to the tune of God Save the Queen and finally the Kingston Trio’s folk hit, M.T.A. was originally a campaign ditty written to the tune of the railroad lament The Wreck of Old 97, which itself was written to the melody of a song I’ve never even heard titled The Ship that Never Returned. All used existing melodies, yet their words are the ones we remember and love best. And Rabbie’s words are what have touched the heartstrings of people and are remembered though the years.
But Rabbie has been dead and buried for well over two hundred years, so how would he fare on the modern music market? I have heard him criticized for writing in Scots-tongue, a dialect that was not standard, accepted English. Although he was an educated man who could have written in proper English, or even French, he chose to write in language even the illiterate crofter would understand. It was his way of thumbing his nose at those who looked down on the Scots and making his works accessible to all of his countrymen, even those poorer, less educated ones.
Would writing in a dialect doom his music today? I did in-depth research on Wikipedia regarding this. My answer is definitely not. I offer as proof, this urban dialect song that went Platinum in 2012 and is currently #1 on it’s 15-week stretch on Billboard’s R&B/ Hip Hop chart and #2 on their chart for all songs. Entitled Thrift Shop, it is by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. Since this is a family-friendly event, I will bleep out some of the most offensive words. Feel free to hum along if you know it.
I’m gonna pop some tags
Only got twenty dollars in my pocket
I’m hunting, looking for a come-up
This is (bleep) awesome
Now, walk into the club like, “What up, I got a big (bleep) !”
I’m so pumped about some (bleep) from the thrift shop
Ice on the fringe, it’s so (bleep) frosty
That people like, “(bleep)! That’s a cold (bleep) honkey.”
Rollin’ in, hella deep, headin’ to the mezzanine,
Dressed in all pink, ‘cept my gator shoes, those are green
Draped in a leopard mink, girls standin’ next to me
Probably shoulda washed this, smells like R. Kelly’s sheets
Okay, this ah, . . . song goes on a lot longer, but you get the idea and I’m tired of this (bleep) bleeper. Like Rabbie’s works, it is in a dialect meant to appeal to the common man, not the elite of society. But let’s compare it to Rabbie’s song for the common man, A Man’s a Man for All That.
Is there for honest poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave – we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The man’s the gowld for a’ that.
What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a’ that?
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,
A man’s a man for a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that,
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.
Again, there is more, but you have a taste of each. Let’s compare each song’s words to see which song is likely to endure the ages, dialect or not:
I’m gonna pop some tags Only got twenty dollars in my pocket versus Is there for honest poverty That hings his head, an’ a’ that. Dressed in all pink, ‘cept my gator shoes, those are green Draped in a leopard mink, girls standin’ next to me versus Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine. A man’s a man for a’ that. Probably shoulda washed this, smells like R. Kelly’s sheets versus The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor, Is king o’ men for a’ that.
I will let you be the judge of which will stand the test of time and still be sung in the far future, the one over 200 years old or the one that is less than a year.
Now let’s compare a couple of love songs to see which has the right stuff for romance and endurance. We’ll start with one that was that was listed as #18 in the top 100 love songs of all time by the New York Daily News, a 1980 song by the late Freddie Merc-ury of Queen that went Gold and was #1 on Billboard for four weeks, entitled Crazy Little Thing Called Love.
This thing called love I just can’t handle it
this thing called love I must get round to it
I ain’t ready
Crazy little thing called love
This (This Thing) called love (Called Love)
It cries (Like a baby)
In a cradle all night
It swings (Woo Woo)
It jives (Woo Woo)
It shakes all over like a jelly fish,
I kinda like it
Crazy little thing called love
There goes my baby
She knows how to Rock n’ roll
She drives me crazy
She gives me hot and cold fever
Then she leaves me in a cool cool sweat
I will not finish the whole song, but that should suffice for our analysis. So let’s contrast Crazy Little Thing Called Love to Rabbie’s lyrics in My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose, which won no awards and topped no charts.
O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry:
Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.
And fare thee well, my only Luve
And fare thee well, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.
When I think of my own true love, it is to a slow and romantic melody, not one that has been described as rockabilly, but let’s compare the lyrics themselves. It swings (Woo Woo) It jives (Woo Woo) versus O my Luve’s like a red, red rose. It shakes all over like a jelly fish versus my love’s like a melody, sweetly played in tune. She gives me hot and cold fever Then she leaves me in a cool cool sweat versus I will come again my love, though it were ten thousand mile. Which is more romantic? It’s a close call, but I’m going to give it to Rabbie. And my money is on A Red, Red Rose to be remembered by future generations and not Crazy Little Thing Called Love.
I admit that I am “old school.” But Rabbie Burns himself is neither old nor new school. He is all school. While time only permitted two examples, I could have talked about that all night. Hopefully, I have made my point. It isn’t using or not using a dialect that determines whether or not song will endure. It isn’t having such a universally-adored topic such as love that makes a song memorable. It is the quality of the writing, the way it appeals to listeners now and for years to come that determines its worth. And, in that, Rabbie excells.
So let us honor Robert Burns tonight for his lyrics. He is, and ever will be, the epitome of the Scottish poet and a great lyricist. Let us be upstanding for the toast.
To Robert Burns, the Scottish poet and song writer.
Now I pray your indulgence as I present my one and only true love a red, red rose. For she is my bonnie lass, till all the seas gang dry.