Looped Fabric · Musical Instruments

The Cardin’ o’t

The following song appears in the The Works of Roberts Burns, by Allan Cunningham, published in 1834, vol. 2, p. 430.

        THE CARDIN’ O’T.
 Tune—“Salt-fish and dumplings.”
                       I
I coft a stane o’ haslock woo’,
   To mak a wat to Johnny o’t;
For Johnny is my only jo,
   I lo'e him best of ony yet.
      The cardin’ o’t, the spinnin’ o’t,
         The warpin’ o’t, the winnin’ o’t;
      When ilka ell cost me a groat,
         The tailor staw the lynin o’t.
                       II
For though his locks be lyart grey,
   And tho’ his brow be beld aboon;
Yet I ha’e seen him on a day,
   The pride of a’ the parishen.
      The cardin’ o’t, the spinnin’ o’t,
         The warpin’ o’t, the winnin’ o’t;
      When ilka ell cost me a groat,
         The tailor staw the lynin’ o’t.

The title expands prosaically to The Carding of it and ‘wat’ appears as ‘coat’ in other sources. The remaining Scots vocabulary is:

coft a stane = bought a stone (14 lbs.)
jo = darling
winnin’ = weaving (winding)
ilka ell = all else
groat = small coin
staw = stole (overcharged)
lyart grey = silvery
beld aboon = bald above


Beyond the significance of this edition to the study of Burns’s poetry, Cunningham follows the song with a commentary that is relevant to the histories of both textiles and music.

The little of this song to which antiquity lays claim is so trifling that the whole may be said to be the work of Burns. The tenderness of Johnnie’s wife can only be fully felt by those who know that hause-lock wool is the softest and the finest of the fleece, and is shorn from the throats of sheep in the summer heat, to give them air, and keep them cool.

Burns was born on 25 January 1759 and died on 21 July 1796. The song initially appeared in a manuscript from the latter year. Cunningham’s commentary proceeds with a description of the provisioning of Highland wool to the Lowlands at that time. If the present text were intended solely for inclusion in the facet of this blog relating to fabric production, I would cite it in full and then delve further into wool processing in Scotland when my perennial favorite, shepherd’s knitting (aka Scottish knitting), was in its heyday. However, one of the thoughts underlying this post is to see if a single essay can prove worthwhile both to readers with an interest in textile history and to those more focused on musical instruments.

I’ll therefore leave Burns and Cunningham to have spoken in the first regard and shift my attention toward the second. The song is widely known as The Cardin o’t, from the first line of its chorus. It appears in essentially the same form it has today in the fifth of the six volumes of James Johnson’s The Scots Musical Museum, published in 1798 (here from an 1839 edition).

The title page of this edition makes an important observation on how the song was performed: “… in this publication [of ‘six hundred Scots songs’] the original simplicity of our Ancient National Airs is retained unencumbered with useless Accompaniment & graces depriving hearers of the sweet simplicity of their native melodies.” The inclusion of “proper basses for the pianoforte &c.” suggests that the term accompaniment designated something other than harmonic underpinning.

Graces were grace notes, and if the eschewed accompaniment was not chordal, it would have been additional melodic embellishment. Johnson could only have felt need to free his transcriptions from the two forms of ornamentation if traditional musicians routinely applied them in actual performance. This remains a fundamental attribute of such practice notwithstanding the commonplace publication of Scottish and Irish tunes in their unadorned forms.

This editorial approach usefully places ornamentation in the realm of spontaneous individual creativity. It has the further advantage of reducing the subjective aspect of distinguishing between traditional elements in a transcription, and reflections of the transcriber’s personal musical taste or that of the intended audience. The disadvantage is that it leaves potentially invaluable information about earlier performance practice unrecorded.

The Cunningham edition indicates that Burns set his song to the tune Salt Fish and Dumplings. In his annotations to the individual songs in The Scots Musical Museum, William Stenhouse adds, “The words are adapted to a lively old Scotch measure, called ‘Salt Fish and Dumplings’.” It appears on p. 188 in the third volume of Aird’s selection of Scotch, English, Irish, and foreign airs. The publication date is uncertain but James Aird lived from 1748 to 1795. He presented the collection as “adopted for the fife, violin, or German flute,” obviously negating any expectation of lyrics. (The title is spelled “…Dumplings” in the index.)

The German flute designated in the 18th-century compilations was a conically-bored transverse flute devised between 1660 and 1680. It was initially characterized by a single key but that number had increased to six by 1760, which is likely to have been the prevalent type when the Aird collection appeared. The one-key design was still the standard in 1724, when John and William Neal published A collection of the most celebrated Irish tunes: proper for the violin, German flute or hautboy [oboe], in Dublin — generally regarded to be the first compilation of Irish traditional music to be published in its native country. The German flute is named explicitly in numerous compilations well into the 19th century. Simple-system flutes remain in production and retain a deep-rooted association with Irish traditional music.

Addressing another aspect of performance, in his commentary on a similar tune, The Flowers of Edinburgh, Stenhouse defines a “Scottish measure” as a “sort of hornpipe.” Earlier printed collections abound with them and the Salt Fish and Dumplings tune is currently performed as the closely related reel. The compilation Songs of Scotland, published in 1857, includes the melody named as The Cardin’ o’t but set with an earlier Burns song alternately designated The Lass of Cessnock Bank or On Cessnock Banks.

This song appears in a collection from 1808 where the indicated tune is If he be a Butcher Neat and Trim. Cunningham makes the same attribution in the volume cited above, pp. 265–67, adding commentary on the lyrics. A discussion in Songs of Scotland of the air’s origins reports a version named Queensbury’s Scots Measure in Margaret Sinkler’s Musick Book, a manuscript with tunes for the treble viol written in 1710 (transcribed here).

Nearly two centuries later, in 1903, James Dick published a compilation titled The Songs of Robert Burns; Now First Printed with the Melodies for which they were Written. It includes a song with the same lyrics as in the preceding illustration but set to a tune called The Butcher Boy. (The identical tune appears at the cited location but is set with entirely different lyrics; My Goddess Woman, by John Learmont.)

The same compilation includes a separate song titled I coft a stane o’ haslock woo set to the tune The cardin o’t. It cites the source as the 1796 volume of the Scots Musical Museum. Except for the variant title, it is a direct transcription of the song in the first of the illustrations above. The accompanying commentary states that, “The tune The Cardin o’t or Salt Fish and Dumplings, is a smooth flowing melody.”

The salient musical detail in the 1857 presentation of On Cessnock Banks is the metronome marking, ♩‍= 92, with the parallel tempo indication ‘Moderato.’ The 1903 version of the song set to The Butcher Boy changes this to ‘Slowly’ and the tempo prescribed in 1792 was ‘Slowish.’ Allowance is needed for the possibility of editors favoring their own notions of tempi over prevailing traditional ones. Nonetheless, it may be reasonable for a vocal rendition of the song On Cessnock Banks, regardless of the tune it is set to, being slower than an instrumental rendition of the tune The Cardin o’t, whatever lyrics it might appear with in the source.

Stenhouse’s remarks about The Cardin o’t suggest that its lively instrumental performance was commensurate with what is required for comfortable dancing. Current session speeds are significantly quicker — just how much so is illustrated in the following recording.

Here is the other end of the spectrum.

The key point about this vocal style is that it is totally unadorned. In contrast, the fiddle performance is ornamented idiomatically throughout with what Johnson regarded as “useless graces.” Another recording at a tempo suitable for dancing a reel may more closely reflect the musical aesthetic framing the 1903 collection.

One of my musical interests in this tune is incorporating it into my repertoire on both the tin whistle and the autoharp (the two instruments in what was once a broader range of candidates that my aging hands are still comfortable playing). There is no question about the well-established positions the tin whistle has in Irish and Scottish traditional contexts but I have a keen research interest in how it got there.

The autoharp cannot claim a similar niche in either the Irish or Scottish traditions. Tunes originating in them are mainstays of the instrument’s repertoire and a few recordings made by traditional Irish fiddlers include an autoharp as harmonic support. But it is a rarity in such things as cottage or pub sessions. Notwithstanding, the autoharp has a clear affinity with the music — as illustrated by the tune that is the focus of this post — and can produce even the most intricate of the characteristic Irish ornaments.

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