Reflecting this “Day After Robert Burns Birthday,” I realize that his poetry of has always been a part of me, perhaps even before I discovered it as an adult. Some of it is likely my Scottish ancestry. I hear my Grandmother’s voice in the cadence of a Burns poem (even though she did not have the thick accent or speak in a true Scottish dialect, but the rhythm was definitely there). Her father, my Great-Grandpa Scotty, jumped ship and (ahem) immigrated to the U.S. sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s. No one in the family seems quite sure if he ever formally became a U.S. citizen. But as the family branch was planted on U.S. soil, the flag with St. Andrew’s Cross was still a living memory.
Even today when I hear Burns’ poetry, I am transported back to age 8 or 9, visiting my grandparents in California. I can both hear my Grandmother’s voice and smell my Grandfather’s pipe as the words float in and out of clear understanding. Grandpa was Polish, so that is another story for another time. But he worked for Great-Grandpa Scotty and certainly picked up a lot of the feel of the people by hanging around the Leitch family much of his life. And yes, I remember my Grandmother, in true Scottish fashion, saying “Ach.” When she did, it wasn’t usually a good thing, unless you were playing opposite her in cards.
Robert Burns also represents the apex of my education in a very direct way. My doctoral research, dissertation document and lecture recital topic was on George Chadwick’s, Tam O’Shanter, an adaptation of the epic Burns’ poem. Although Chadwick was an American composer, the adaptation of Tam O’Shanter into a symphonic poem retained the flavor and feel of the original poetry. If you have a spare 20 minutes, give it a listen. It’s a remarkably good piece of music.
I’ve no idea if my magnetic pull to Burns’ poetry and to the Chadwick piece had something to do with the cadence and syntax that I heard as a boy. I’m certain my mother also picked up some of it, and there is a possibility that a skilled linguist would detect some of it remaining in my western drawl. Perhaps you cannot ever fully escape your ancestry. From bagpipes, to fiddle tunes to Star Trek’s chief engineer, I was hooked from an early age. The fact that the family also had a dog named Tam O’Shanter (Tammie) probably helped seal my attraction to all things tartan. Years later, my wife and and I named one of our dogs Tam as well, this time after the impending dissertation topic. It’s a wonder one of our children didn’t get the name, too.
So, enjoy your roots. Bask in the language, traditions, stories, and art of your ancestors. Together they make us all richer as a people. Together they make us a society capable of sharing, caring, daring, and when in a kilt, perhaps also staring!
No, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,
Ilk man and mother’s son take heed;
Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,
Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,
Think! ye may buy joys o’er dear –
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare
Robert Burns (last stanza of Tam O’Shanter)
Copyright, Robert Baldwin , Before the Downbeat, 2017
Photo credit: Wikipedia