Wednesday, April 29, 2009

intersections: words, music, and Robert Burns

Intersections, it seems to me, is one really good word to describe how words and music come together in song. Writing lyrics, writing songs, is not usually setting poetry to music, or fitting music to poetry, though written poetry and sung word do have much in common. One person who worked across, around, and through those intersections was the Scottish poet and song collector Robert Burns. It’s been two hundred and fifty years since Burns was born, and through the year, Scotland especially is marking his work and his lasting influence with a range of musical, literary, and other sorts of celebrations. Burns understood that the rhythms and emotions of word and those of music, may connect and illuminate each other, and that it’s also possible for them to stand separately.

If you're asking yourself just who is Robert Burns anyway? you’ve very likely heard his songs even if you don’t know his name -- think Auld Lang Syne, My Love is Like a Red Red Rose, My Heart’s in the Highlands, Comin’ Through the Rye. The photograph there at the left is a statue of the man in George Square in Glasgow. I happened to be there on Burns night this past January, and it seemed only right to take his picture.

Another sort of intersection occurs when you take songs that are usually sung in clubs and pubs and around the kitchen table and put them in context with an orchestra. That’s a subject I’ve had the chance to think about a bit in print for the folk music magazine Dirty Linen and the classical music magazine Symphony, and I’ll have ideas on that to share here along the music road as well. For the moment, though, here’s a video that brings all these ideas together. Eddi Reader sings one of my favorite Robert Burns songs, John Anderson My Jo, with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra

The Muslim poet Rumi was another who understood the intersection of music and words. Here is a conversation about his work, from Speaking of Faith

you may also want to see
eddi reader: peacetime
Music Road: Eddi Reader sings more of the songs of Robert Burns
patrick season: far from home

Through the month of April, I’ve been considering the intersections of poetry and music, lyrics and melody, as it is national poetry month in the United States. You may see some of these thoughts here, and here, and here.

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posted by Kerry Dexter at


Anonymous Vera Marie Badertscher said...

Robert Burns was a very popular poet in the United States in the 19th century and early 20th, when it was popular to teach poetry by having the students memorize it. The songs you mention are all familiar to me from my mother and father's love of them. Thanks for the reminder.

4:19 PM  
Blogger About the book said...

This post helps me understand something about poetry that I have been thinking about -- a clunky translation from another language may give the LITERAL meaning of a poem but just as important is the musicality of the original. That's what is often missing in badly done translations...

4:07 PM  
Blogger kerry dexter said...

glad to have brought back happy memories.

6:22 PM  
Blogger kerry dexter said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6:27 PM  
Blogger kerry dexter said...

I'd agree. translating song lyrics is tricky, too. but it's the combination of meaning and musicality which has to be respected in both poetry and song.

then there are songs with lyrics in two languages -- perhaps the subject of future posts...

6:31 PM  

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