Friday, November 27, 2009

"Bonnie Heilan' Laddie"/"Highland Laddie"

Roots and branches - that's what these sixty-odd posts have been about - where songs come from, and how they morph into a variety of often very different versions over vast stretches of time and place. Additionally, I've been able to rediscover for myself both the richness of the Kingston Trio's versions of these songs (and sometimes have noted the limitations of the same) as well as some wonderful, original, traditional, funny, or in some cases outright bizarre versions of those same tunes.

Well, this week's selection, "Bonnie Heilan' Laddie," embodies quite literally all of the above. The benchmark performances belong IMHO to the KT and Pete Seeger (a fine pedigree indeed) but extend as well in the videos below to some startlingly original arrangements, a go at the song by one of the greatest musician/composers who ever lived, and perhaps the weirdest video I have ever offered here.

"Bonnie Heilan' Laddie" is a Scots number of course, and I'm guessing that most of us figured out fairly early that "heiland" was Scots for "highland." It's just as clearly a sea chantey, though what connection our highland boy has with all the places named in the tune is obscure, or even why the singer is asking if the lad has ever been there.

The song seems first to have been a piper's number, and it remains in its original form of "Bonnie Laddie, Highland Laddie" the regimental march of about two dozen military units both in the UK and across the Commonwealth. It's a stirring and inspiring piece, a dramatic reminder that in Celtic countries what we refer to in English as "bagpipes" were known in their original languages as "war pipes," the purpose of which was not only to rally one's own soldiers but to inspire fear in the enemy through the eerie sound of the pipes (the exact effect accomplished according to veterans of the Battle of New Orleans as General Edward Pakenham's Highland Infantry charged Andrew Jackson's emplacements through a thick fog - to no avail, of course, though the sound of the pipes scared the bejesus out of Andy's men).

Now I know that the pipes do not excite the same thrill in everyone as they do in many of us who claim Celtic ancestry, so here is a short clip of massed pipers doing the song - the melody is a bit different from "Bonnie Heilan' Laddie," but you can clearly hear the "bonnie laddie, highland laddie" section repeated at the end of each musical phrase:

It is easy to infer that a memory of this tune inspired some nameless Scots sailor boys to adapt the basic music into a song that could be accompanied by a fiddle or pennywhistle, which were by far the most common instruments brought onto 18th and 19th century sailing ships, whose voyages could last for months at a time and on which music and dancing were the only forms of genuine recreation. Dave Guard of the KT and respected music archivist Joe Hickerson arranged the sailors' folk song into this version, adding a fragment of another song ("This Boston town don't suit my notion...") that exists only as - well, a fragment:

I love this version from the "dark" album Make Way - but I felt that the Trio was holding back a bit on it, that it could have benefited from a bit more of the full-steam-ahead enthusiasm that Pete Seeger demonstrates below. Nonetheless, even crusty old traditionalist and banjo master Billy Faier, who finds little to like in the Kingston Trio at all, approves of their treatment of "Helian Laddie."

Billy Faier On The Kingston Trio

Seeger essentially owns this song, having rescued it from folk obscurity and promoting it as a concert sing-along, which he tries to do in this video from Australia in the early 1960s, albeit without a whole lot of success. It's a great solo effort even if it wasn't intended to be:

Note: The cited video was taken down for CopyVio, but a fragment of Seeger doing the song can be heard around 4:22 in the video below -

Now the result would have been very different had Mick Coates been in that hall!

In the last few years, there have been a number of internet polls conducted trying to ascertain who the greatest of Irish folk singers is/was. The winner is invariably one of three men - Luke Kelly of the Dubliners, Liam Clancy, or my own favorite, Tommy Makem:

There are a number of pretty good amateur versions on YouTube, though only the Brothers of Through here have posted a full version of the song - rough-edged but enthusiastic:

Finally - like many other classical composers, Ludwig von Beethoven occasionally turned to folk music for musical phrases and themes and occasionally complete airs. In 1818, he debuted his "25 Scottish Songs For Voice With Piano, Violin, and Violincello" with lyrics adapted by James Hogg (Hogg's Lyrics As Sung In The Video Below). Beethoven's tune is recognizably the same as the pipers' number and is a favorite of leider singers. But Robin Hendrix is an opera singer, here recorded doing the number in France earlier this year. I am not sure what was going through Ms. Hendix's mind - but this is certainly the strangest interpretation of a folk song I have ever seen:

Well. I think I'll stick to my own version, one that I play for myself often, which cross-pollinates the KT with Seeger and Makem. Seems like everyone else has had a run at adapting the number, so I have as well. Feel free....


Benoît said...

Il existe une version française chantée par les marins français autrefois : Matelot mon bel ami...
Je possède une version originale de cet air, et une version harmonisée par un compositeur moderne.

Jim Moran said...

Merci, Benoit - et s'il vous plait pardon mon francais mal. Avez vous un .mp3 de la version de votre ami Matelot? Je voudrais inclure cette version en mon article.

Benoît said...

Yes. Mais elle n'est pas de très bonne qualité. Comment je peux vous l'envoyer ? Adresse email?
Je peux aussi envoyer le texte des paroles.

Jim Moran said...

Est-ce qu'il y a possible par email? Pouuvez-vous attacher le .mp3? Mon address est

C'est possible que je peux améliorer le bruit.