FolkWorld Issue 39 07/2009; Article by Walkin' T:-)M

Folk Music on the Silver Screen (3)
Ae Fond Kiss, and Then We Sever - Robert Burns & Scotland

Robert Burns

Robert Burns (FW #38)

Freedom & Whisky
Gang Thegither

Tam O' Shanter - A Tale

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

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"Auld Lang Syne" is probably one of the most often sung songs in the world. Thus making it the most often sung song featured in any movie too. However, this is not the only connection of its author, Robert Burns, with the silver screen.

"Auld Lang Syne" (i.e. "long long ago" or "days gone by") had been written by Robert Burns in 1788. Some of the lyrics probably were collected rather than composed. There is some doubt as to whether the melody used today, possibly based on a strathspey called "The Miller's Wedding" or "The Miller's Daughter", is the same which Burns originally intended. The Tannahill Weavers (-> FW#33) wrote a new tune remarking: It is sad to say that the beauty and sadness of the lyric is usually forgotten, glossed over or, at best, never conveyed by the popular melody. It is to be hoped that this version carries the story line to the listener as much as it does to us.

The song is generally interpreted as a call to remember long standing friendships. In Scotland, it is often sung at the end of a céilidh or a dance, and is usually sung each year at midnight on Hogmanay (New Year's Eve). This custom has spread to other parts of the British Isles and everywhere where Scots emigrated around the world.

Scots Music on the Silver Screen

How many films must have "The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond" in it? A dozen at least, lately The Last King of Scotland [UK, 2006]. Mary of Scotland [USA, 1936], played by Katherine Hepburn, is welcomed to Edinburgh by a crowd in sporrans and plaids singing a version of the song that actually had been written c.1745. Bothwell in balmoral and claymore advances with a pipe band playing "Blue Bonnets over the Border". George MacDonald Fraser jokes: Bothwell was a Borderer, wouldn't have known a claymore if it fell on him, and never wore a kilt in his life. But then, to old Hollywood, presumably all Scotsmen wore 'kilts'; how else would Middle Western audiences have recognised them?

The empire adventure film is unthinkable without marching columns of Highlanders and establishing shots, one bar of 'Hundred Pipers' and the audience knew that the soldiers of the Queen were at it again. Almost no Scottish themed film without trademark kilts playing trademark Scottish melodies on trademark Highland bagpipes (e.g. Loch Ness [UK/USA, 1996]). Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe [UK, 1998] mocks this image with a scene involving a kilt-clad bagpiper playing the same three songs over and over for a group of tourists.

Scotland can provide the spectacular scenery of the Highlands, its mountains and glens, heathery moors, misty lochs, sandy beaches, ancient castles, and even the urban landscapes of the Clyde. The village of Pennan in Aberdeenshire, which is featured in Bill Forsyth's successful Local Hero [UK, 1983], did become a tourist attraction on that account. Burns country in southern Scotland with its mild climate and gently hillsides also offers much to film-makers (e.g. The Thirty Nine Steps [UK, 1978]): Brodick Castle on Arran (The Governess [UK, 1998]) and Culzean Castle, Ayrshire's premier tourist atraction (The Wicker Man [UK, 1973], featuring a version of the medieaval song "Sumer is icumin in" -> FW#37).

Though recently Scottish themed films were shot in Ireland, and Irish films were made on the Isle of Man. Even when Scottish Highland pipes are pictured, they sound like Irish uilleann pipes [e.g. Braveheart, 1994; Rob Roy, 1994]. At least, the latter had Karen Matheson of Capercaillie fame as a ceilidh singer (-> FW#38). If it has to be the real thing, you should seek out the 1960 version of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic Kidnapped [USA, 1960], directed by one Robert Stevenson. Instead of fighting with swords, Alan Breck Stewart (starring Peter Finch) and Robin Oig MacGregor (a young Peter O'Toole) choose to duel with a bagpipe set (-> FW Fiction).

The popular British comedy classic Whisky Galore [UK, 1949], filmed on location on the island of Barra, had part Gaelic dialogue and a folk music based score; e.g. the tune of Burns' "The Deil's Awa Wi' The Exciseman" sounds just as the villagers are looking for the wrecked cargo ship with 50,000 cases of whisky aboard. There is Gaelic mouth music, they are dancing the Highland fling, and bagpiping is good enough to convince your mother to let you marry the obnoxious girl.

Likewise Irish music, there is Celtic music from Scotland too (-> FW#37). The Last of the Mohicans [1992] features Dougie MacLean's (-> FW#36) "The Gael" and Phil Cunningham's (-> FW#24) "The House in Rose Valley"; Disney's Treasure Planet [USA, 2002] Alasdair Fraser's "Compliments to Lorna Mitchell"; and Chasing the Deer [UK, 1994] music by folk rock band Runrig (-> FW#24), while rock singer Fish plays a Jacobite rebel. Glaswegian fiddler John McCusker and singer Kate Rusby did not only wrote the entire soundtrack of Heartlands [UK, 2002], but appear in a folk club scene themselves (-> FW#26).

Timothy Neat's TV documentary The Summer Walkers [UK, 1976] about Highland travellers features singer Sheila Stewart singing "Jock Stewart" and "Go Move Shift" (-> FW#37). Neat's The Tree of Liberty [UK, 1986] is about the remarkable collaboration of Scottish singer Jean Redpath with American composer Serge Hovey on Robert Burns songs. It is claimed that this film was a major inspiration to Michael Ondaatje's famous novel "The English Patient".

Last but not least, let's not forget Glaswegian folk singer, comedian and subsequently film actor Billy Connolly. In the late 1960s he formed a pop-folk duo called The Humblebums with fellow musician Tam Harvey (later replaced by Gerry Rafferty). At their first gig, Connolly reportedly introduced them both to the audience by saying: My name's Billy Connolly, and I'm humble. This is Tam Harvey, he's a bum. Connolly wrote straight-forward songs with whimsical lyrics and played five-string banjo, guitar and autoharp. He entertained the audience with humorous introductions that became increasingly long in duration. When the Humblebums broke up in 1970, he followed the advice to drop singing and become a stand-up comedian.

Billy Connolly

Billy Connolly also became a film actor, claiming to be the only man to ever die in a Muppet movie (Treasure Island [USA, 1996]). He also joked: If you want to see me in a movie, you have to hurry to the theatre, because I usually die in the first fifteen minutes. I'm never in the sequel. However, he starred alongside Judi Dench in Mrs Brown [UK, 1997] playing the favoured Scottish servant of Queen Victoria, for which he was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Supporting Actor. In Still Crazy [UK, 1998] he plays the roadie of a struggling rock group; the film also features his song "Stealin'".

"Auld Lang Syne" was played to accompany the departure of the British troops from India as the British flag was ceremonially lowered in 1948. Similarly it was used at the British hand-over of Hong Kong in 1997. In Thailand, the melody is used with words with a similar meaning to the Scots, and is commonly believed to be a Thai traditional song. In Bangladesh and India, the melody was the direct inspiration for the popular Bengali song "Purano shei diner kotha" (About the Old Days) composed by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

Inevitably, the song has been used in a number of films. The International Movie Data Base lists a shipload of entries, and there are probably more. Its first use might be in the 1942 re-release of Charlie Chaplin's silent film The Gold Rush [USA, 1925] with added sound. The song is sung at a New Year's Eve party, of course. In the 1930s, the song is sung in many of Frank Capra's productions. Shirley Temple in the Kipling story Wee Willie Winkle [USA, 1937] sings it to Victor McLaglen, who passes away with a smile after having been shot.

In Samuel Fuller's The Steel Helmet [USA, 1951], Gene Evans requests the song to be played on a portable organ. A South Korean boy sings Korean lyrics to the tune, and the American soldiers are surprised to find out that the melody also serves as the South Korean national anthem "Aegukga." This actually is a factual error: the music to South Korea's national anthem was changed from "Auld Lang Syne" in 1948.

Only recently, Julia Dreyfus' cell phone ringtone in Kill Bill Vol. 1 [USA, 2003] is "Auld Lang Syne". Towards the end of Ghostbusters II [USA, 1989], the people of New York City sing it, which weakens the evil's power enough to be defeated. In Sex and the City [USA, 2008], a recording by Mairi Campbell and Dave Francis (known as The Cast -> FW#34) using a different melody is used during a montage depicting the characters' actions at New Year's Eve.

O Jenny's a' weet, poor body,
Jenny's seldom dry:
She draigl't a' her petticoatie,
Comin thro' the rye!

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?
In When Harry Met Sally [USA, 1989], Billy Crystal says that he haven't really understand what the song means: I mean, 'Should old acquaintance be forgot'? Does that mean that we should forget old acquaintances, or does it mean if we happened to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot? In a recent TV show, Garrison Keillor made his audience sing a humorous verse: I think of all the great, high hearts I had when I was young, and now who are these sad old farts I find myself among?

In the silent movie Auld Lang Syne [UK, 1925] actors appear live on stage with a full orchestra to present the song as a sing-along with the audience. In a film, rather oddly titled Auld Lang Syne [UK, 1929], Scots entertainer Henry Lauder plays a kilted, sour-dispositioned farmer. In the course of the film he sings several of his wee doch'n'doris-style comical ballads. Also filmed as a silent, the songs were added before release.

Other Burns songs featured in the movies include particularily "Comin' Thro' the Rye". John Ford's Mogambo [USA, 1953] is probably the best known film. Cecil Hepworth's Comin' Thro' the Rye [UK, 1923] is only named after the song, and there is a short cartoon also titled Comin' Thro' the Rye [USA, 1926].

Ae Fond Kiss

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I'll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I'll wage thee.

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"A Red, Red Rose" is featured in Journey to the Center of the Earth [USA, 1959], My Life So Far [UK, 1999] and Edge of Madness [CAN, 2002]; "Sweet Afton" in Pride and Prejudice [USA, 1940]. "A Man's A Man For A' That" is featured in Ken Loach's romantic drama Ae Fond Kiss [UK, 2004]. The latter borrowed its title from one of Burns' most popular poems.

Burns' "Ae Fond Kiss" itself is about the poet's parting in 1791 with his beloved Clarinda, the discrete pen-name of Agnes McLehose. His words were an adaptation of the poem "One Kind Kiss Before We Part" by Robert Dodsley, whose lines reportedly were set to music by James Oswald around 1756.

Oswald is said having titled the piece "A Highland Port by Rory Dall." It may refer to Ruaidhrí Dall Ó Catháin (c.1570-1650), an Irish harper who spent most of his life in Scotland, or perhaps to Ruaidhri Dall Mac Mhuirich (c.1656-1714), a blind harper from the Isle of Lewis who was the retained harper to the McLeods at Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye. However, it seems that the tune is already included in Robert Straloch of Gordon's lute book written in 1627-9, as well as in the Skene Manuscript for mandore (a forerunner of the mandolin) compiled between 1615 and 1650.

There also had been screen adaptions of Burns poems. Tam O'Shanter [UK, 1930] is a nine minute short of Burns' famous poem "Tam O'Shanter" (-> FW Fiction). Burns also penned an adaption of Tam Lin, a fairy legend originating in the Scottish Borders. Roddy McDowell's modern rendition Tam Lin [aka The Devil's Widow, USA 1970] shows an aging millionairess (Ava Gardner) who surrounds herself with young attractive people. When her latest favourite (Ian McShane) falls for the local vicar's daughter, she vows deadly revenge. Joseph Hislop

The life and times of Robert Burns have been dramatized several times. There is not that much known about The Life of Robert Burns [UK, 1926]. Edinburgh tenor Joseph Hislop played a singing poet in The Loves of Robert Burns [UK, 1930], one of the earliest British talking films. Auld Lang Syne [UK, 1937] features Andrew Cruickshank as Burns.

The Romance of Robert Burns [USA, 1937], featuring Owen King, is a 16 minute technicolor short which tells the story behind Robert Burns' famous song "Auld Lang Syne". The story has Robert writing the song after his relationship with Jean Armour goes wrong.

Comin' Thro the Rye [UK, 1947], starring Terence Alexander, tells the complete life of Robert Burns and the most significant events in mere 55 minutes, utilizing actual locations and non-professional actors. Walter C. Mycroft manages to squeeze in 19 songs for good measure.

Then there was silence - though there have been at least two Robert Burns projects in the pipeline for a couple of years. Producer James Cosmo (Braveheart [USA, 1995], Trainspotting [UK, 1996]) teamed up with director Vadim Jean and screenwriter Alan Sharp (Rob Roy [USA, 1995]). Clarinda / Burns is said to cover six years of Burns' life, roughly from 1785 to 1791, and the love affair with Agnes McLehose. Who should play the lead role? Should it be Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Johnny Depp or Gerard Butler? However, the greatest love story never told still seems difficult to finance.

So is The Bard: The Story of Robert Burns - Volume I which is announced for 2010, followed by a sequel which is in development. American director and writer Travis A. Jackson is a distant cousin of Robert Burns and his wife Jean Armour.

Folk Music on the Silver Screen:
(2) Period Movies! Period Music?

The reconstruction of historical authenticity is not aim but the means of the historical feature film. (Katharina Sykora)

The film is said to be in pre-production, no cast has been announced yet. However, there already are some tag lines: The passion in his heart pulsated with an audible rhythm. And: A voyage back to a time when words were spoken with unrivaled emotion. When life was sung to a tune of song, dance, and haggis. Well, we'll see ...

Photo Credits: (1) Robert Burns; (2) Atta Yaqub and Eva Birthistle in Ae Fond Kiss [2004]; (3) Joseph Hislop as Cavaradossi in Giacomo Puccini's Tosca; (4) Chris Tummings, Billy Connolly, Ringo Starr, George Harrison and Eric Clapton in Water [1985] (unknown).

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