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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
Stewart Slave's Lament/Cant des Ocells (13) Origins: Slave's Lament (Burns) 17 Jun 17

Ever since I first heard Burn's "Slave's Lament" I was taken by the melody - was it original by Burns, from an earlier tune, or added much later? This thread "Slave's Lament/Cant des Ocells" got me to thinking again and doing more research.

Burns' copy of the song with melody was first printed in Scots Musical Museum, Vol. IV (1792) p. 398.

"No one has spread Scottish music around the world as successfully as Robert Burns (1759- 1796). In collecting and extending fragments of traditional verse for his five volumes of The Scots Musical Museum, and in preserving old melodies by using them for his songs, his bequest has had immeasurable impact. This is one of his less well-known songs. Visiting Dundee, he was troubled by the sight of a slave ship in the harbor, en route from Senegal to Virginia. Moved to write these words reflecting his abhorrence of slavery, Burns set them to a Sephardic tune ("Rachel's Lamentation for Her Children") found in another Scottish collector's tome. He no doubt believed that the melody was also known in Moorish North Africa. Singer, songwriter, and teacher Christine Kydd is renowned for her sensitive and imaginative arrangements of traditional songs. She sings here as part of the jazz-influenced vocal trio Chantan, with Corrina Hewat on clarsach (Scottish small harp)." from "Scotland the Real Music From Contemporary Caledonia" by Fiona Ritche

The lyrics seem to come from an English Broadside, "The Trappan'd Maiden" (The Distressed Damsel) - Pepys Ballads, Volume 4(mid 1600s).
Give ear unto a maid,
That lately was betrayed
And sent into Viginny O
In brief I shall declare,
What I have suffered there
When that I was weary, weary, weary O
This verse would fit nicely the tune used by Burns for Slave's Lament.

According to Sheena Wellington: "The American Music scholar Serge Hovey traced the tune back to a 15th century Eastern European Jewish song called "Rachel's Lamentation for her Children" but it was apparently also known in the 12th Century Spanish Sephardic tradition. The same tune is also know in North and West Africa with a different time signature." see here

Burns' melody is written in the harmonic minor or Ahava Rabboh Mode (Freygish)(Sephardic cantors call it the Tefillah ('prayer') mode) - this is a minor scale with the 7th note raised a half tone.

So I think it most likely that the song was adapted by Burns from a English broadside, with an ancient Eastern European or Sephardic melody.

What do you think?

Cheers, S. in Seattle

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