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VARIOUS ARTISTES 'The Songs Of Robert Burns' Vol. 10 Linn Records CKD199
VARIOUS ARTISTES 'The Songs Of Robert Burns' Vol. 11 Linn Records CKD200
VARIOUS ARTISTES 'The Songs Of Robert Burns' Vol. 12 Linn Records CKD201

These three CDs are just a final part of a very ambitious and commendable project to record all the songs of Robert Burns sung by present day singers produced by Dr Fred Freeman of Edinburgh University. The difficulties are enormous and have not all been overcome, but the results are valuable, although not always in the way that was intended. In his interview with Caroline Smith of the TMSA Dr Freeman reveals a wide knowledge of Burns and his songs and I fully support the emphasis he puts on reading Burns's diaries, letters and commonplace books. He has also picked the crème de la crème of Scottish singers and musicians to perform his arrangements of the songs. Here alarm bells start to ring in my head. Questions come to me based on more than forty years' involvement with folk singers during which I have had to explain to academics who, to begin with, intimidated me with their learning, that they have not the right to decide what singers should sing and how they should sing. That unfortunately is one trap into which Dr Freeman has fallen.

But tae oor tale! The three CDs which complete the series have given me quite a lot of pleasure, because the voices on them are good, natural Scots voices that do not cringe from singing in their mither tongue. That is what has kept Scots folk song alive for many generations during which hostile influences have threatened to silence it or bastardise it. But against this I have to set the fact that there is far too much instrumentation on these tracks. It is all too often instrumentation of a type that does not constitute accompaniment, which follows the singer, but one that tries to drag the singer into the mould of the tunes earlier use for dancing. Some of these dance tunes were themselves also song tunes. The result is some of the singers have been forced to gabble their words in a way that is hard on the listener's ear. That is not what Burns intended and to suggest it was is to insult the immortal memory.

It is notable that the singers chosen by Dr Freeman to sing these songs are all "professionals" so one is driven to the conclusion that "amateur" means "inferior" in his vocabulary. Since folksingers are by definition "amateurs" this poses a problem. A tradition has to be carried on by a mass of people loving, singing and passing on the songs that have been part of their lives. While it is good to have star performers, they are only part of the story. If well-known professionals are the only ones promoted, the rest will shut up and the tradition will die. That is what could happen in today's commercial climate. I don't think Dr Freeman is in favour of this, and Burns certainly wasn't.

This is a very comprehensive collection and Dr Freeman has conducted an interesting experiment in putting it together. I hope he has learned as much from it as he hopes other will do. He must know now that topical songs go out of date and lose interest, that the freedom to make your own version of a song is one that belongs to every folksinger and he must not attribute to Burns, songs which Burns himself attributed to others. Listened to selectively, like Dr Freeman's reading of Burns's writing, this collection is a fine tribute to Burns and to the singers and musicians who took part in it. I ask pardon for not picking out individual contributions because in most cases singers were constrained by the requirements of the project Dr Freeman had undertaken. Nevertheless, it is the singers who shine and it is they who should be admired. Let us hope they will remain free to sing the songs they choose to sing in the way they want to sing them.

Sheila Douglas

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This album was reviewed in Issue 55 of The Living Tradition magazine.