Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"My Will-O'-Wisp Fate You Know..."

Facing and Title pages from the book Songs of Scotland
illustrated by Alasdair Gray, 
ed. by Wilma Paterson, Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, 1996.

This Trash Can Sinatras song "I Hung My Harp Upon The Willows" about Robbie Burns and his friend Richard Brown is really, really good.  Very little googling is all it takes to unravel the story within the song, sung in the voice of Burns.

Here's the lyrics: 

I hung my harp upon the willows
When I first made this harbour town
My broken heart by fair Eliza
Still fresh and raw when I came to town

I learned a trade from Alexander
A scoundrel of the first degree
And within the year I was so despondent
The doctor fleeming well knew me

Oh Eglinton floating on the water
Oh Eglinton the rose was there for me
I hung my harp high upon the willows
Of Irvine town by the sea

On Hogmanay I burned the work down
I found myself without a crown
Oh but I had more than any silver
Cos I had a friend in Richard Brown

In Eglinton Wood we'd wander
On the Drukken Steps I would recite
Take your harp down from the willows
Said Richard Brown, and he was right

Oh Eglinton floating on the water
Oh Eglinton the road is there for me
I took my harp down from the willows
Richard Brown, I bow to thee

(Trash Can Sinatras, 2009)

So Robert Burns lived about ten miles from Irvine, which is where the Trash Can Sinatras came from originally, I guess. At 22 years of age, Burns is a young farmer looking to expand his expertise. He goes to Irvine to learn about processing the flax he grows from a man called Alexander Peacock.

Burns didn't like Peacock much, nor flax-dressing (still by hand in 1781), but he became fast friends with Captain Richard Brown, an up-and-coming sailor from Irvine, which is a port town, and a busy one in those days. Brown had exciting sea-faring stories. Burns was dabbling with poetry.

Eglinton Woods and the Drukken Steps are places in Irvine, famous partly for Burns and Brown having walked and talked there, it would seem. While rambling in Eglinton, Brown suggested to Burns that he should submit his verses for publication.

Here's an exerpt from Burns's 1787 letter reminding Brown about it:
... My will o’ wisp fate, you know: do you recollect a Sunday 
we spent in Eglinton Woods? You told me, on my repeating 
some verses to you that you wondered I could resist the 
temptation of sending verses of such merit to a magazine: 
’twas actually this that gave me an idea of my own pieces 
which encouraged me to endeavour at the character of a Poet.

Other historical bits connected to the song:  

Of course, there was an Eliza...

Flax-dressing depressed Burns and he became extremely ill with a fever, during which time Irvine's Dr. Fleming (fleeming?) attended him. The doctor's day-book was discovered in 1952, and the entries about Burns were found there. Dr. Fleming is in the song too, either as a typo or pun. (Snarks look gravely at puns, you know...)

Burns's flax processing work in Irvine came to a fiery end when Alexander Peacock's wife knocked over a candle during the Hogmanay celebrations on New Year's Day and the whole business went up in flames. The song contradicts this, and says that Burns "burned the work down" himself.


Thanks to the Irvine Burns Club website and burnsletters.wordpress.com for happy reading and to the Trash Can Sinatras for a great song, beautifully sung at The Magic Stick in Detroit on June 8, 2010. (Check out the "Oranges & Apples" video on their myspace page.  Seriously.) 

The Snark playlist for TUESDAY, JUNE 15TH, 2010.
(Artist/SONG/Album, etc.)

Tackhead -- THE GAME (feat. Brian Moore) -- The Game (You'll Never Walk Alone) 12" single (1987, 4th & Broadway)
The Gaturs -- GATUR BAIT -- New Orleans Funk (2008, Soul Jazz) [orig. 1970]

Trash Can Sinatras -- I HUNG MY HARP UPON THE WILLOWS -- In The Music (2010, Lo-Five Records)
Polska Roots -- JOINT VENTURE INNA VILLAGE (Activator Remix) -- Warsaw Village Band (2009, Eastblok)
U-J3RK5 -- U-J3RK5 WORK FOR POLICE -- Vancouver Complication (1979, Sudden Death Records)
Language-Arts -- COUGH DROP -- Where Were You In The Wild? (2009)
The Peels -- FUN -- Lux and Ivy's Favourites, Volume 10 (????)

The Desmonds -- BUREAUCRAT FROM HELL -- It Came From Canada #5 (1989, Og)
Viv Albertine -- IF LOVE -- Flesh E.P. (2010, Ecstatic Peace!)
Aztec Camera -- OBLIVIOUS -- High Land, Hard Rain (1983, Rough Trade Records)
The Kingstonians -- SINGER MAN -- History of Trojan Records, 1968-72 (2002, Sanctuary Records) [orig. 1970, Song Bird]
Tara Watts -- CHUBBY MAN SONG -- About Love (2009)
Ian King -- JOVIAL BROOM MAN -- Panic Grass & Fever Few (2010, Fledg'ling Records)

The Ripcordz -- LONG DARK TRAIN -- Dead or Alive in '92 (2006, Mayday) 
Willie Nelson -- DON'T BE ASHAMED OF YOUR AGE -- You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker (2006, Lost Highway)
The Budos Band -- AYNOTCHESH YERERFU -- Soulshaker, Vol. 3 (2006, Record Kicks)
The Tamlins -- BALTIMORE -- Darker Than Blue: Soul From Jamdown, 1973-80 (2001, Blood & Fire) [orig. 1983, Taxi]
The Offs -- HUNDRED DOLLAR LIMO (live) -- Can You Hear Me? Music From The Deaf Club (1980, Walking Dead Records)

Kassin + 2 -- HOMEM AO MAR -- Futurismo (2008, Luakabop)
Ron Leary -- LEGACY -- Dependent Arising (2010, Bootbrush Music)

Thanks for listening!

Thanks also goes to Martin for bringing in his vinyl of "The Game (You'll Never Walk Alone), featuring Brian Moore."

Now, one last thing -- I stumbled upon these teenage supernerds accidentally while clicking around the YouTubes.  Please watch the young hippies:  kid's playing drums with his hands!  They're so funny.  Also good!

From the book Songs of Scotland, ed. Wilma Paterson, 
designed and decorated by Alasdair Gray, 
Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, 1996.
(Alasdair Gray always says goodbye on the last page of the books he makes.)


  1. AnonymousJune 17, 2010

    So my friends took me to the forest one night with a sack and a racket. They said stand in the clearing and wait for us to make noise in the bushes when the snarks run out you grab them and put them in the sack. Well, minutes turned into an hour and I realized there was no such things as.....ummmmm.....wait that's snipes.
    Thankfully there is such a thing as a Snark!
    Great show.

  2. Great post! Just to clarify: "Fleeming" is the way the singer, Frank Reader, pronounces "Fleming". No pun this time.