Thursday, May 31, 2012

"The Wild Mountain Thyme/Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?"

The summer time indeed is coming, and the trees in most of the U.S. have already bloomed sweetly, one major exception here in southern California being the jacarandas*, whose delicate and light violet blooms are only now making their appearance. The many and varied beauties of spring across our continent all possess their own special charms - the first pale green dusting of buds across the still-black branches of elms and hickorys and oaks in the Illinois of my boyhood; ice floes and break-ups in northern rivers and high mountain lakes; cherry, peach and pear blossoms swirling like snowflakes across lawns and fields.

It is, however, the evanescent nature of spring - the very transient time of its loveliness - which lends an edge and an urgency to its charm. "Death is the mother of beauty," wrote poet Wallace Stevens, and by that he intimates that it is impermanence that gifts all things with both beauty and worth. Without darkness, philosophers tell us, the word "light" would have no meaning. Without the burning inferno of summer to come, spring's brief and light-footed dance before our winter-weary eyes would pass us unnoticed and unvalued.

In poetry and art, spring is a worldwide and universal metaphor for youth, which is a time of both romance and hope. That accounts in large part for the number of love songs that are set in spring, from "Barbara Allen" ("It was in the merry month of May / When green buds they were swelling / Sweet William came from the west country / And he courted Barbara Allen") in the fourteenth century through "When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano" (in March) in the twentieth. It is also the season of "The Wild Mountain Thyme," surely one of the loveliest of all Celtic tunes that celebrate youth and love.

The grandparent song for "Thyme" is naturally Scots, what with the "blooming heather" and all. The earliest published version is credited to Robert Tannahill (1774-1810), a contemporary and admirer of the rather more famous Robert Burns. Like Burns, Tannahill was an ardent Scots nationalist who believed that in the traditional tunes and tales of Caledonia there existed a treasure trove of artistic expression every bit the equal of the high literary culture of neighboring England. Also like Burns, Tannahill freely adapted traditional airs and lyrics to his own purposes, the greatest of which was to insure that British political dominance over his country never led to the amalgamation of the Scots identity into that of Giant Albion to the south.

Tannahill's proto-"Thyme" song is called "The Braes Of Balquhidder," or the hills around this small town:

If you already know "Wild Mountain Thyme," you can hear easily the number of similarities in the lyric and the rudiments of the more famous later tune. This version is from the Kells, which is an Argentinian group committed to performing Celtic music. Their command of both accent and feeling for this song is astounding.

The more modern song that we know as "The Wild Mountain Thyme" and "Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?" is attributable to a single source, Belfast folk performer and collector Francis McPeake. In about 1957, McPeake re-wrote Tannahill's lyric into contemporary English and altered the tune to suit his words. This relatively recent birth of the song (and McPeake's copyright) accounts for the similarity of the lyrics sung by the groups in the videos below.

You just have to give the Scots first crack at this gem, so we start with one of Scotland's greatest solo folk performers, Dick Gaughan:

And yes, that is Emmylou Harris in the backup vocal group and singing the second verse, along with the McGarrigles and Rufus Wainwright.

Next, Scotland's equivalent of Ireland's Clancys or America's Kingston Trio - The Corries:

The Corries were a national treasure in Scotland; their career stretched from the early 1960s to the early '90s. Note that they do not have to ask the audience to sing along.

I first heard the song around 1962 from the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, who included it on their wonderful The Boys Won't Leave The Girls Alone album:

This performance is from late 1984, when the quartet was on a reunion tour after a nearly 20 year split. The CB&TM are joined in the audience by John Sheahan (pennywhistle), Ronnie Drew, and the recently and lamentably departed Barney McKenna on tenor banjo - all from The Dubliners.

For something a tad different, The Byrds gave the tune their trademark folk-rock treatment in 1965:

Roger McGuinn is riding that jingle-jangle instrumental sound as usual, though I think the highlight of this cut is the harmony between McGuinn and David Crosby, whose voice you can clearly hear at the top of the mix.

One of the most popular recent versions is by Scotland's folk-rockers The Silencers:

Sounds to me a bit like the Corries meet the Byrds and produce some New Age offspring.

The New Christy Minstrels did a rather free adaptation of McPeake's version:

This is thus an adaptation of an adaptation. Lyrics were rewritten by NCM founder Randy Sparks; the musical arrangement is by my friend and radio co-host Art Podell - we used this one in our St. Patrick's Day show on KPFK.

Finally, an interesting combination that somehow works wonderfully - U.S. traditional country singer Don Williams backed by Ireland's greatest traditional music group, The Chieftains:

The Scots-Irish roots of much of the music of the southern Appalachians that gave birth to American country music is on display here, I think, in the natural and easy synergy between Williams and the Irish group.

There is, I think, a quiet urgency hiding behind the lyrics of "The Wild Mountain Thyme," one that is expressed whether consciously or not by most of the artists above. It is a kind of carpe diem or "seize the day" urgency - let us go now, my love, in the springtime of our lives and gather flowers, for summer follows hard upon, and after that.... We who are deep into autumn know well what comes after that.

*Jacarandas on a southern California street:


greenhawk46 said...

Nice article Jim, this is a really pretty song, either version and all the great groups are represented here-but the Corries sure are missed-thanks, Jim H.

Jim Moran said...

I agree completely, Jim - there's something about the burr in the Corries' voices that just makes the song perfect. The Tannahill Weavers also have a sublime version, but it's not on YouTube.


Linkmeister said...

I'm pretty sure the first version I heard was Judy Collins's on Maid of Constant Sorrow. I remember being surprised to hear the Byrds perform the same song. What can I say, I was young and didn't understand how music cross-pollinates.

Mike Cee said...

Hello Jim, Just found your site searching for info on 'Wild Mountain Thyme', glad to see the clarification on the celtic origin (Scotts/Irish). I met my wife (passed) in the Highlands of Scotland (Fort WIliam) where she was born and lived, and migrated to Australia in later years. I've just returned from a musical journey to the Appalachian region following Bluegrass and it's origins. Wild Mountain Thyme was a favourite of my wifes which want to learn to play, glad to see the Scottish version which I will now research. All the best, Mike