EdRLS

The New Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson

Wandering Willie Changes His Tune

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This post is contributed by John F. Russell, author and editor of The Music of Robert Louis Stevenson.

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Summary: In this post, John F. Russell shows that Stevenson’s poem ‘Home, no more home to me’ (Songs of Travel XVII) with its subtitle ‘To the Tune of Wandering Willie’ was not written to the tune generally known by that name and used by Burns for ‘Here awa’, there’s awa’, Wandering Willie’ (the words of which clearly inspired Stevenson for his poem).
Stevenson used a different tune given the title of ‘Wandering Willie’ in a music book he possessed—the tune of ‘The Cooper O’ Dundee’, used by Burns for his song ‘Bonie Dundee’.

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Common Ground

“To write with authority about another man, we must have fellow-feeling and some common ground of experience with our subject,” Stevenson writes at the very beginning of “Some Aspects of Robert Burns” (1879). This common ground is revealed throughout the essay and is first evident in a description of Burns’ appearance as a young man:

Already he made a conspicuous figure in Tarbolton church, with the only tied hair in the parish, and his plaid, which was of a particular color, wrapped in a particular manner round his shoulders. Ten years later … we shall find him out fishing in masquerade, with a fox-skin cap, belted great-coat, and great Highland broadsword. He liked dressing up, in fact, for its own sake.

In The Quest for Robert Louis Stevenson (2004), John Cairney quotes a fellow-student of RLS as saying,

His whole appearance was a shock to a puritan neighbourhood. His chestnut hair fell in limp strands over his shoulder. He did not hesitate to dress as a Bohemian; he wore a velveteen jacket like a workman and a grey, flannel shirt to hide his thin arms. And to warm his thin body, he swathed himself like his claimed ancestor, Rob Roy Macgregor, in a dramatic mantle with flowing folds.

According to Rosaline Masson in I Can remember Robert Louis Stevenson (1922), he delighted in dressing up for the Jenkin theatricals:

 I play Orsino every day, in all the pomp of Solomon— splendid Francis-the-First clothes, heavy with gold and stage jewellery. I play it ill enough, I believe ; but me and the clothes, and the wedding wherewith the clothes and me are reconciled, produce every night a thrill of admiration. Our cook told my mother (there’s a servants’ night, you know) that she and the housemaid were “just prood to be able to say it was oor young gentleman.” To sup afterwards with these clothes on, and a wonderful lot of gaiety and Shakespearean jokes about the table, is something to live for.

Burns and Stevenson declared their individuality and altered their identities with their clothes, and this is also reflected in their name changes. At the age of eighteen Stevenson went from Lewis to Louis, and he says of Burns,

 His father wrote the family name Burnes; Robert early adopted the orthography Burness from his cousin … and in his twenty-eighth year changed it once more to Burns.

Both had unconventional views on religion and both died young, Burns at 37 and Stevenson at 44.

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Fellow-Feeling

RLS was a whistling vagabond, not a fiddling philanderer, but Burns and he were both tone poets and it is their songs that demonstrate their fellow-feeling. Those who are familiar only with Stevenson’s original lyrics to  Over the Sea to Skye or To the Tune of Wandering Willie should know that he also wrote verse to at least 25 other tunes, even supplying original words to Auld Lang Syne. This is nowhere near Burns’ 361 lyrics, but he wrote over a twenty year period, while Stevenson only began in earnest to put words to music at the age of 37.

Burns always associated music with his songs and never wrote a lyric until he could sing the melody. Stevenson was a modern poet, so not all his songs were meant to be sung, and he made it a challenge to find the ones that were by generally not identifying the music at all.

Although Burns was competent on the violin, an instrument that requires an excellent sense of intonation and relative pitch, biographer James Currie said the poet’s voice was “untunable, and that it was long before he learned to distinguish one tune from another,” while Evelyn Blantyre Simpson in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Edinburgh Days (1898) makes a similar comment about Stevenson:

Many of the artists were musical, but Louis Stevenson took no part in their impromptu concerts. He liked their songs and rattling refrains, but he was no singer, nor had he much of an ear for music.

In Songs of Robert Burns (1903) James C. Dick says,

His songs are the epitome of Scottish music, still known and still admired. Considering this it is the more remarkable that Burn’s biographers should with one accord have ignored or omitted a description of his musical perception and his treatment of music.

If Stevenson’s biographers mention his music at all it is limited, as Simpson’s remarks indicate, to a sentence or two about supposed poor musicianship. Stevenson wrote more than 120 short pieces, almost 1/3 of which were original. His compositions consisted of songs, dances, instrumental works, counterpoint exercises and at least ten pieces that used piano. He wrote in 19 different keys, including five modes. Using six different meters he wrote at least 65 solo pieces, 27 duets, 14 trios and two quartets for various combinations of flute, flageolet, clarinet, violin, piano, guitar, mandolin and voice. He frequently transposed pieces and knew how to modulate from one key to another. He played piano, Boehm flageolet and penny whistle. Never having studied music or any musical instrument as a child, and never having studied music formally in any way as an adult, he accomplished all this in about six years. This is not a description of someone who, as Graham Balfour wrote in his biography, “failed to master the rudiments” and whose “knowledge of music was not very profound.”

Although RLS did all that, his music was completely ignored until  Robert Murrill Stevenson’s essay “Robert Louis Stevenson’s Musical Interests” (PMLA, 72.iv (1957), 700-04) nothing has appeared in print since.

Dick says Burns “never heard a symphony or a string quartette” and his musical education began in his youth during church music rehearsals. For Stevenson, “wealth is only useful for two things: a yacht and a string quartette,” and as a young man he went to concerts at the Edinburgh Choral Society and heard music in friends’ homes but only studied theory and harmony when he was 36. Burns destroyed the music for the single song he composed at 23 because it displeased him so much, but a third of Stevenson’s works are original and accessible.

Both their lyrics were written to fit the music, but Burns only used popular airs. Stevenson’s verses in this genre include:

1.     Come Here is Adieu to the City (Rosin the Bow)

2.     Early in the Morning  (Early One Morning)

3.     Fine Pacific Islands (British Grenadiers)

4.     Madrigal (The Harp that Once)

5.     Nous n’ron plus au bois (children’s song)

6.     Over the Sea to Skye (Scottish folksong)

7.     Over the Water wi’ Charlie (Scottish folksong)

8.     She Rested by the Broken Brook (Drink to Me)

9.     Song of the Road (Over the Hills and Far Away)

10.  Stormy evening (Oldfield)

11.  Student Song (Auld Lang Syne)

12.  Topical Song (Poor Old Joe)

13.  Wandering Willie (Scottish folksong)

More broadly educated than Burns, Stevenson also wrote to European art music:

1.     Air de Diabelli (Diabelli Sonatina)

2.     Come My Little Children (anonymous gavotte, 1700)

3.     Ditty (Bach keyboard suite)

4.     Early in the Evening (Rinaldo, Handel)

5.     Infinite Shining Heavens (Bach, Pentecostal Air)

6.     Home from the Daisied Meadows (Beethoven piano variations)

7.     I Will Make you Brooches (Schumann, Ländliches Lied)

8.     In Lupum (Schumann, Happy Farmer)

9.     Tempest Tossed (Beethoven piano variations)

10.  To You Let Snow and Roses (Mozart, Clemenza di Tito)

11.  Vagabond (Schubert)

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Wandering Willie

Since Stevenson rarely indicated what music inspired his verses, the fact that he occasionally did must mean something special. Number XVII in Songs of Travel has the subtitle To the Tune of Wandering Willie in parentheses, so there should be no doubt about what music inspired it. The standard lyrics to the tune, more properly known as Here awa’ there awa’, are by Burns, so in boldly naming the song, Stevenson implies that he is not afraid to be compared.

To the Tune of Wandering Willie was written in 1888 at Tautira, Tahiti, where Stevenson suffered a long illness. He sent the poem to Charles Baxter in a letter that explains his motivation:

image 01 my dear charles

That he is familiar with the music called Wandering Willie is assumed from his references to it in his writings throughout his life. He first mentions it in a letter to his mother in 1874 while staying at Mentone.

image 02  i have a great pleasure

Booth, Bradford A. and Ernest Mehew. Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. Letter 236, 5 February, 1874.

Willie reappears in the essay “A Night in France” (1875):

image 03 to these airs

It is sung in Deacon Brodie (1888):

image 04 brodieFinally it appears in The Master of Ballantrae (1889), where Stevenson quotes his own lyrics.

image 04a mr mackellar

With so many references to Wandering Willie in his works, we must believe that RLS had no doubt he was referring to the version made famous by Burns, especially since he challenges him outright in his letter to Baxter.

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The Real Willie

Every major source of Scots songs, Wandering Willie shows some variation of the tune found in James C. Dick’s Songs of Robert Burns. An arrangement by Haydn can be heard by clicking here, and a portion of a recording from the Linn edition of complete songs by clicking here.

image 05  tone poetry

Probably as a reference for his own poem, RLS wrote out what he assumed was the music. Click here to listen to a recording.

New York Public Library, Robert Louis Stevenson collection of papers, [1873]-[1944] bulk (1881-1917), Berg Coll MSS Stevenson

New York Public Library, Robert Louis Stevenson collection of papers, [1873]-[1944] bulk (1881-1917),
Berg Coll MSS Stevenson

A comparison of the first four bars of both tunes shows they are not the same. The difference is clear when both melodies are in the same key.

image 08   here a wa home no more

Burns’ song is in waltz time, while Stevenson’s has a two beat measure. The pitches and the shapes of the melodies are different. Even though he mentions the song many times throughout his life and seems to be thoroughly familiar with it, Stevenson is obviously not using the same tune as Burns.

RLS wrote Wandering Willie while recovering from a severe illness. It is easy to believe he was not always in his right mind. The simplicity of the melody he notated indicates he may have written it from memory and this could also have led to mistakes, but the inconsistencies in the two songs are greater than what would be caused by illness or bad memory.

This is not the first time RLS has mistaken a piece of music. In Hammerton’s Stevensoniana (1903) J. Cuthbert Hadden quotes Stevenson as remarking,

He never could remember the name of an air, no matter how familiar it was to him.

Proof of this assertion is found in a letter he wrote to his mother in 1872:

Booth, Bradford A. and Ernest Mehew. Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995: Letter 105, August 1, 1872.

Booth, Bradford A. and Ernest Mehew. Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995: Letter 105, August 1, 1872.

Unfortunately Lang, lang ist’s her is not the German version of Auld Lang Syne but of Long, Long Ago.

Deutsche Weisen

Deutsche Weisen

In Stevenson’s defense it should be noted that in German, English and Scots the words “lang” and “long” sound alike and the association could easily have misled his hand in a hurried letter.

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Beauties of Caledonia and the Caledonian Companion

However, it is not because of illness, a faulty memory, or a confused hand that Stevenson worked from the wrong melody.

Probably in June of 1888 when he was in San Francisco preparing for his journey across the Pacific on the yacht Casco, he bought a music book called Beauties of Caledonia, first published in Boston by Oliver Ditson in 1845. Stevenson’s Library Database identifies it as part of his personal library and says that,

According to the Journal of the Robert Louis Stevenson Club (London), no.15, (Feb 1954), pp.9-10, this has the stamp of Gray’s Music Store, 623 & 625 Clay Street, San Francisco, and is one of the nine books previously in RLS’s library at Vailima that were returned to Samoa in celebration of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Beauties of Caledonia contains all but one of the tunes Stevenson said he knew and loved in his letter to his mother in 1874; Auld Lang Syne, My Boy Tammie, Jock  O’ Hazeldean, and Scots wha’ hae. Wandering Willie was listed in the table of contents both as Here awa’ there awa’ and under the title:

image 11  wandering willie

The note in small print reads,

The beautiful air of ‘Here awa’, there awa,’ is preserved in Oswald’s collection of Scots tunes. Burns, who was fond of the melody, wrote the following fine verse to it.

The collection referred to is James Oswald’s Caledonian Companion, and the tune appears as the first piece in volume eight.

image 12  here awa willie

One glance at the melody called Wandering Willie in Beauties of Caledonia shows they are different. The tune in Caledonian Companion is the same one referenced in every major source of Burns songs, but the one in Beauties of Caledonia does not appear in any source as Wandering Willie.

Below is a comparison between the melody Stevenson used, the melody from Beauties of Caledonia (BOC), and the tune Burns used from the Caledonian Companion (CC).

image 13 home no more

Stevenson’s rhythmically simplified melody is the same as that in Beauties of Caledonia. Burns’ tune from Caledonian Companion is completely different not only in rhythm but in melody.

As previously mentioned, the note under the title of Wandering Willie in Beauties of Caledonia reads, “The beautiful air of ‘Here awa’, there awa,’ is preserved in Oswald’s collection of Scots tunes. Burns, who was fond of the melody, wrote the following fine verse to it.” Although it is the inappropriate melody for Here awa’, there awa, it is in Oswald (CC), it is still a beautiful air, and in fact Burns was fond of it because he wrote lyrics to it called Bonie Dundee (first version, 1792), which appears in volume one of Scots Musical Museum:

image 14 bonie dundee

O whar did ye get that hauver-meal bannock?   [oatmeal cake]

O Silly blind body, O dinna ye see?

I gat it frae a brisk sodger laddie,

Between Saint Johnstone and Bonie Dundee.

O, gin I saw the laddie that gae me’t!

Aft has he doudl’d me on o’ his knee.

May Heaven protect my bonie Scots laddie,

And send him safe hame to his babie & me.

Because the lyrics hint at illegitimacy, the Boston music publisher Oliver Ditson may have found them offensive and so substituted the words of Here awa’ there awa, or he may have known the music from another version called The Cooper O’ Dundee in the Burns collection Merry Muses of Caledonia, shown below in a transcription by MacColl in Folk Songs and Ballads of Scotland (1965).  A few moments spent reading the lyrics will explain why Ditson would never have used them.

image 15 cooper o dundee

Why Ditson did not use the appropriate tune for Wandering Willie remains a mystery, but it must have been unthinkable in 1845 to include the scurrilous text from The Cooper o’ Dundee. Perhaps he felt that even though the lyrics were changed, the tune would remind people of the The Cooper o’ Dundee and he decided to disguise the melody too. He did this by changing the meter from 6/4 to 2/4, altering some pitches, and imposing characteristic Scotch rhythms.

image 16 bonnie dundee

The result was that in Beauties of Caledonia Ditson fitted Burns’ text from Wandering Willie to a highly altered version of the melody of Bonie Dundee. For mistakenly writing his poem from a memory of this corrupted music while recovering from a severe illness, Stevenson deserves understanding.

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The Texts

Although written to a different melody, RLS’s poem is still related to Burns’.

image 17 rls burns

      [roof-tree=ridgepole, highest horizontal timber in a roof]

The similarities between the two lyrics include:

image 18  rls burns similarities.

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The principle technical differences between the works are the rhythm and language. Burns’ poem is in Scots and a four beat triplet rhythm (dactylic tetrameter) that gives it a feeling of warmth and the effect of Nannie rocking Willie in her arms or of a boat swaying on the water.

Stevenson’s work is in an eight beat, duplet rhythm (trochaic octameter) and in English. The lines are twice as long as Burns’, many begin with monosyllables, and there are pauses at the middle and end of each, resulting in a hesitant, plodding feeling and an appropriate sense of wandering, weariness and desolation.

RLS never mentions Willie in his poem, but Burns repeats the name six times. Stevenson’s wanderer narrates while the loved ones are absent; Burns’ lover narrates and the wanderer is absent.

By their titles the two lyrics indicate some association with Sir Walter Scott’s poem Wandering Willie (1806) or  Wandering Willie’s Tale in Redgauntlet (1824). In the story the blind fiddler Wandering Willie recounts the inability of tenant Steenie Steenson to prove that he has paid his rent until he is given the receipt and is guided to the money by the ghost of his former landlord Sir Robert Redgauntlet. Stevenson knew Redgauntlet, and though not a ghost story, his poem has its own eeriness and a theme of loss.

Scott’s poem is essentially a longer version of Burns’ with similar themes and description. A woman’s heroic lover goes to sea to do battle, but her natural doubts about his faithfulness are resolved when he returns.  The similarities of Scott’s and Burns’ poems emphasize the difference with Stevenson’s. His bleak, unnamed wanderer never leaves land, never performs any heroics, never unites with his loved ones, and is finally left hopelessly alone amongst the desolation of his house.

Both poets read themselves into their verse. Burns is Willie, and Bonie Dundee, Here awa’ there awa’ and The Cooper o’ Dundee are all about unfaithfulness, the particular Burns trait of “professsional Don Juan” that Stevenson objected to most in his essay.

Stevenson is the wanderer in his poem, although in real life illness and hunger for adventure drove him from home. The poem was written in “the most beautiful spot,” warm, luxuriant Tautira, yet he repeatedly longs for the hills, heather and moorland of Scotland. In Scott’s story Steenson is threatened with the loss of his home, while Stevenson is in fact homeless, ill and stranded in Tahiti, pitifully regretting the loss of his former friends. The prophetic last line defies any hope of a return,

But I go for ever and come again no more.

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Though their poems were written to different music and different stories, Stevenson and Burns shared common ground in their conspicuous clothing, individualism, conversational ability and writing. They shared fellow feeling as amateur musicians, collectors of melody, and in their devotion to molding words to the music they loved.

Their lives were entangled in their texts, but while Burns was consistently the Wandering Willie, Stevenson not only changed his tune but altered his identity from that of an unfaithful, absent lover to a lonely, pining, remorseful adventurer.

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Written by rdury

26/09/2014 at 2:39 pm

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  1. […] John F. Russell in his recent post Wandering Willie Changes His Tune establishes that Stevenson’s ‘Home no more home to me, whither must I wander?’, […]


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