Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

Whose Thyme is it Anyway?

I have been singing the song commonly known as ‘Will Ye Go Lassie Go’ or ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ or ‘Purple Heather’ for many years as it was one of my favourite songs on an Irish Music compilation that I picked up back in 2001 (The Ultimate Irish Ballads, here on ebay for $50!). When I went to make this recording for my YouTube channel, I found out some interesting and annoying things.

This song was first published as a poem by Robert Tannahill, The Braes of Balquither (also Balquidder), in Henry Longfellow’s Poems of Place in 1876. Robert’s life fitted the tragic archetype of the poet, just without all the women and drinking. He gave up his working life as a traveling weaver to care for his elderly parents while all six of his siblings departed. He burned a large portion of his work before drowning himself in 1810.

Thanks to the wonders of copyright lapses, the full text of The Poems and Songs of Robert Tannahill, published in 1874 with notes by David Semple, is available here. Including the Braes of Balquither. In the notes by the editor, it is mentioned that Robert probably grew up hearing this song sung by his nurse, Mary McIntyre, who had been born in the parish of Balquither. Balquither is around 60 miles from Paisley (yes, where the pattern comes from), near Glasgow, where Robert spent most of his life. So it isn’t really clear whether Robert just heard this song and wrote it down, or whether he developed it from what Mary had sung to him.

The discussion at Mainly Norfolk talks about the fact that when the industrial revolution started to destroy the towns, it was common for lovers to flee the cities to the cleaner air and prettier skylines of the highland heather in the Summer.

So this is a beautiful song that has been popular for over 200 years at least. Here is a rare version by the Dubliners.

Now to why I am annoyed.

Wikipedia says that Wild Mountain Thyme is “a Scottish folk song that was collected by Francis McPeake the First, who wrote the song himself for his wife”. If I was Francis’ wife I would be asking for my money back.

Some would say, “but if I take someone’s idea and put it to my own tune, then it is a new song”. I say rubbish. I couldn’t find a YouTube recording that claimed to be the original, but fortunately this book (Songs of Scotland, 1854) is available and I transcribed the tune into MuseScore to confirm the direct similarity between the original tune and the new tune claimed by the McPeakes. While it isn’t 100% the same, the McPeake’s wouldn’t be winning any lawsuits.

There is a Bob Dylan connection in all of this, as he recorded the song himself. Here are Bob and Joan Baez playing to a rowdy crowd using a melody which relates to neither song. This book, discussing the copyright of Dylan’s songs, notes the McPeake family (Francis McPeake the Third) claimed copyright under all three song names in 1996. It also suggests that there are versions as early as 1742. As the industrial revolution didn’t really kick off in Scotland until 1790, this date would question the whole basis of the song.

I have to say that this makes me very annoyed, when people three generations on are claiming money for work that their great grandfather borrowed (or if you are less generous, plagiarised) from a poet from the 1800s, who himself was probably only writing down what he had heard.

Bodleian also comes to the rescue with this broadsheet from the early 1800s with the Braes o’ Birniebouzle suggesting that at least the theme and some of the lyrics were in common circulation as a song when Robert was writing his poem.

I guess that back in the 1950’s, before the advent of the internet, instantly searchable databases of 1700-1800’s broadsheets and freely available copies of tunes, poems and songs from the 1800s were not a thing. It was much easier to find a copy of a rare old book, steal a few lines, match them up with an equally obscure tune and pass the whole lot off to your wife as your own song. Then your nephew can record it and start charging copyright royalties for the next 60 years.

To be honest, I like my recording of Tannahill’s original words much better. And don’t even get me started on people who misplace ‘tower’ for ‘bower’. Who has time to build a tower in the summer?

Errata: Thanks to Jack Campin for pointing me to this mudcat post where it is mentioned that a shorter version was published by John Hamilton in 1792. To be honest, I don’t think the Hamilton song resembles the Tannahill song enough to claim direct decent via the folk-process, but the subject matter is the same. 1876 was not the first published version of Tannahill’s song, just the one I referenced.