Faur distant: Burns, MacColl & the Spanish Civil War.

Painting of Robert Burns by Alexander Naysmith

Robert Burns by Alexander Naysmith

The power and influence of a poet

A kind of madness breaks out in unexpected places across the world on the 25th of January. People gather in Edinburgh, London, Moscow, and Washington D.C., among other places, to eat, drink, and remember the words and works of a long dead poet from a small northern nation on the north-west fringe of Europe. Robert Burns has been dead for over two hundred years, and remarkably his poetry is still read and his songs are still sung. Bob Dylan, no less, cites Burns as his biggest influence. Burns’s legacy is even more remarkable when you realize that he only lived for 37 years. Arguably, his real strength came in his reinterpretations of older songs and poems. He was a genius at re-working songs, twisting them with a modern take. He would write new words to old tunes.

Burns traveled around Scotland discovering songs, tunes, and stories that interested, inspired, and motivated him. He wasn’t the first poet/wordsmith to do this, but he surely was one of the best. Robert Burns lived in a very interesting time politically. He was deeply inspired by both the French Revolution and the American War of Independence. Anyone sharing a positive view of these revolutions were viewed suspiciously by the British government. This desire to support radical political changes through his poems and songs is part of what makes Robert Burns a hugely influential figure. One of his most dangerous poems was “The Tree of Liberty.” In it, he praises the French revolution and seriously risks his life. The poem was published anonymously for the sake of his safety. The first stanza is below. To read the rest of it, and to hear it read by Robbie Coltrane click here.

“Heard ye o’ the tree o’ France,
I watna what’s the name o’t;
Around the tree the patriots dance,
Weel Europe kens the fame o’t.
It stands where ance the Bastile stood,
A prison built by kings, man,
When Superstition’s hellish brood
Kept France in leading-strings, man.”

So, in that spirit and to celebrate the immortal memory of Rabbie Burns, this post will highlight one of my favorite modern re-workings of an old Scottish song – “Jamie Foyers.” The re-working here was done by the late great Ewan MacColl, taking the song away from its 19th century origins in the Napoleonic wars, and placing it in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. It’s an adaptation that I think Burns would have approved of and enjoyed.

A brief introduction to “Jamie Foyers”

I am really telling the story of two songs. The original “Young Jamie Foyers,” tells the true story of a young man from the village of Campsie in Stirlingshire who enlists in the British Army, and ends up fighting against Napoleon in Spain. Young Foyers is killed when he is struck by a bullet from a French gun as he was climbing up a ladder to storm Spain’s Burgos Castle. The song celebrates the bravery of young Foyers charging ahead, leading the way for his fellow soldiers. As he lays dying, young Foyers laments all the things he will miss about his life back in the village of Campsie. He will miss his family and of having a “drink of Baker Brown’s well.”

My main focus, though, is the Ewan MacColl song. MacColl was one of the 20th century’s towering figures in folk music. He was a prolific songwriter, and had a huge influence across the decades. His “Jamie Foyers” is one of my all time personal favorites. It’s a song that fits the Burns legacy perfectly. MacColl’s reworked song tells the story of a shipyard worker who leaves Scotland to go to Spain to fight for the democratically elected government against the fascists of General Franco.

Tanks stored in the Glasgow Cattle Market ready for action in 1919.

Tanks stored in the Glasgow Cattle Market ready for action in 1919.

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