There’s more than one Robert Burns.
The person, the myth. The religious man, the carouser. The excise man, the poet. The stubborn traditionalist, the revolutionary.
Perhaps that’s why he’s become so rooted in the popular imagination. Sure, Burns’ work remains best known in Scotland – the man isn’t the national poet for nothing, you know – but his impact can be felt on a global level.
Heavily informed by the folk and popular songcraft of his day, Robert Burns’ work remains a continual inspiration to musicians of all backgrounds. With tonight being Burns’ Night, ClashMusic decided to track down a few of them.
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'Ae Fond Kiss' - nominated by Rachel Sermanni
This is brilliant. Robert Burns and this lady called Agnes write to one another under secret names: Sylvander and Clarinda.
They are letters of most passionate content. Then, due to brilliantly difficult circumstances- her being part married, him leaving Edinburgh, marrying Jean Armour and -this is brilliant- having an illegitimate child to Agnes’ maid, they part.
He wrote 'Ae Fond Kiss for Agnes'. I bet if Rabbie was alive today, and I met him, things would be difficult to appreciate for the probable fact he’d have broken my heart. But from a distance of about 300 years, it’s safe to let his romantic notions take a hold. I love reading Burns. His words are so tender and truthful. And in any stanza, there’s always a hint of his good, and sometimes dark, humour.
It feels great to sing his words. They are still as alive and authentic today as the day he inked them.
'Comin' Through The Rye' - nominated by James Yorkston
I used to sing his 'Comin' Through The Rye', but I always kept to the clean version, until one day I was doing a session for a regional BBC session in England. Mostly, when one turns up to radio sessions and the like, one receives a warm welcome, but this time, for whatever reason, both the engineer and the presenter were richt auld wazzocks, rude and dismissive.. As a treat to them, and guessing they wouldn't listen through before broadcast, I subsituted one of the original verses for Burns' own bawdier take -
Gin a body meet a body, comin' thro' the grain, gin a body fuck a body, cunt's a body's aim
I didn't listen in to see if it had been broadcast, but they never came down to the gig the next night, I know that.
'Epistle to John Lapraik' - nominated by Rick Redbeard
The first Epistle to John Lapraik is an elegant letter of support that Burns wrote in 1785 to his friend and struggling fellow poet Lapraik. I came across it at University which is slightly ironic given that the main thrust of the poem is to decry a University education (‘They gang in stirks, and come out asses’). Lapraik was suffering a severe run of bad luck that had resulted in him losing his farm and going to prison and Burns is writing to encourage him to keep his chin up, follow his muse and to forget critics who claimed you needed formal education to be a poet - cheekily managing to show off his own learning in the process through various classical references. Then he gets serious and asks him out for a beer. The famous line ‘Gie me ae spark o Nature’s fire / That’s a’ the learning I desire’ is about the only Burns I can confidently quote - grand advice, but perhaps best not remembered when you see your outstanding student loan balance.
'Holy Willie's Prayer' - nominated by Rose McConnachie (Kid Canaveral)
I love Burns; for a national treasure that has been dead for over two hundred years, his work remains distinctly vital. A particular favourite is to be found in the contorted religious and social hypocrisy that he so deliciously parodies in Holy Willie’s Prayer. As well as its current salience in satirising influential members of society who are oblivious to their hypocrisy in dispensing harsh judgements on ‘sinners’ whilst wallowing in their own corruption and vainglorious arrogance (see Welfare Reform Bill), it is also rich in the language for which Burns is so well known. This includes the memorable phrase ‘pish’d wi’ dread’, with which I’m sure we can all identify. He was anti-slavery, against corruption and hypocrisy, and he had a great sense of humour, and it’s all these virtues which make his work relevant still.
'Rattlin' Roarin' Willie' - nominated by M.C. Taylor (Hiss Golden Messenger)
How do we rank and rate the work of Robert Burns? I leave that to the experts, or at least to the Scots, and celebrate the natal day Mssr. Burns with one of his smaller works. Smaller in the sense that no blood nor tears are shed (though nearly). So while we raise a toast and fiddle to Rabbie, let us also consider that shambling thru-line from his work to that of our own righteous agricultural visionary, Wendell Berry, and our great American mystics like Michael Hurley (who was surely conjuring the Bard in his own “Whiskey Willie”) and Moe Bandy, whose Here I Am Drunk Again—the cover of which is adorned by a miniature Moe sunk like a diving duck in a frosty mug of beer—would have almost certainly have been appreciated by the Ploughman Poet.
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Rachel Sermanni recently recorded a special version of 'Ae Fond Kiss', with all profits going to the Nordoff-Robbins charity - more information HERE.
Kid Canaveral recently confirmed a full UK tour - dates here.