Singing all these love songs—songs of yearning, joy, loss—can leave one breathless.
As we worked on Robbie Burns’ “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose,” Maggie’s husband, Luke, passing through the living room, suggested that the deep breath of the accordion might sustain an E chord, against which the lyrics could be sung. I tried it:
My love is like a red, red, rose
That’s newly sprung in June
My love is like a melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.
The guitar floated in on
Oh you are my bonnie lad
(for Robbie it would have been a bonnie lass, but no matter)
And so deep in love am I
I will love thee still my dear
‘Til all the seas gang dry
(In Robbie’s brogue that’s “’til the seas go dry”)
Until I met my good friend, now ex-sweetheart Tom Taylor, I hadn’t known it was Robbie Burns who gave us “the best laid schemes of mice and men,” and “a man’s a man, for a’ that,” or, even, “my love is like a red, red rose.” My relationship with Burns—who lived, wrote, collected songs, and loved (all with abandon) in Scotland in the mid-1700s—began, of all places, in the Mexico City airport. Tom and I were en route to spend Christmas with my family in Oaxaca, and after reciting a number of Burns’ poems to me, in a garish pink and orange restaurant, he suggested that as a present for the parents we perform Burns’ ‘Tam O’Shanter.’ The poem comprises 20 minutes of lively narrative, the words of which Tom holds—in addition to other Burns’ poems, an astounding vocabulary, a multitude of shaggy dog jokes, the rules to a dozen card games, and a vast grasp of American presidents and politics— in that excellent of brain of his. Needless to say, the gift was a success.
Tom also introduced me to a group that for decades has gathered each January to celebrate Burns’ birthday. Poems are recited, songs song, scenes performed; efforts have been made to consume real haggis; eventually a vegetarian version showed up, which meant, among other things, that a sheep’s stomach wasn’t used as casing/cauldron. Much whiskey is consumed. For years, as this excellent company sang and recited ‘To a Mousie,’ ‘Address to a Haggis,’ and the marvelously ironic ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ I marveled at the collection of words bumping around the given living room in which we happened to gather. Sometimes I’d read a Burns poem (there are hundreds), join in the theatrics, sing back-up on a reggae version of ‘Corn Rigs and Barley Rigs,’ but for years didn’t create a contribution of my own.
And then, four years ago, taking on my duties as visiting professor of creative writing at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA, and looking for a poem to help teach simile and metaphor to my students. I remembered ‘Red Red Rose,’ and as I studied it, vaguely began to recall a tune, too, which I went online to confirm.
That concrete first simile—my love is like a rose—gives way to another one, more abstract: my love is like a melody. And then Burns drops all effort to liken love to some thing, and offers his first metaphor: I’ll love you till all the seas go dry.
Next verse, the metaphors grow even wilder, more beautiful:
Til all the seas gang dry, my dear
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun
I will love thee still, my dear
As the sands of life shall run
But suddenly, in a curious about face of mood and intentions, Robbie tells his sweetheart goodbye!
Fare thee well, my own true love
Fare thee well awhile
I will come again, my dear
Though it were ten thousand mile
As I taught myself the song, that last verse caused me to lift a sardonic eyebrow: “I love you thissssss much, but, oh well, sorry, got to go, see you later…” ???! Burns’ prowess with the ladies is legendary; was it that with all that love-talk he’d gotten what he wanted and reckoned it was time to move on to greener pastures, intending (truly intending) to be back? Or is it just a reflection of the kinds of goodbyes people often had to say in those days—off to America, heading into battle, simply the need to seek employment, elsewhere.
But after singing the song hundreds of times I’ve come to think it’s just what it is. I love you. I need to go. I’ll be back, no matter what.
I wanted to create an arrangement that would reflect Burns’ intensifying imagery, wanting those images to swirl one on top of the next, staying within the tune but adding to it, too. The first time I performed the arrangement was for a St. Paddy’s celebration at a Unitarian church—Luke and Maggie invited me to join them on a couple of tunes, and I thought I might offer ‘Red Red Rose’ solo. Randy McKean, an astonishing and adept horn player, was also performing that night; I’d played with him once or twice, enough to have nerve to ask him to join me. I told him the idea. He was game. In the anteroom being used as backstage/green room, we worked through the song just once before heading to the little stage. Quiet for the first verse, he then began to stir that beautiful sound through the lyrics. He took his clarinet for a lovely walk through an instrumental break, and as we came back to work our way a second time through the song, he dropped a bit below the melody, always with me, always with me, rising in volume as we approached the end, piling image on image, his clarinet augmenting everything the words are doing:
Til all the seas, ‘til all the seas gang dry,
I will love thee still
‘Til the rocks melt wi’ the sun, ‘til the sands of life shall run
Here’s a video of Randy and me performing ‘Red Red Rose’ from last December’s concert, 29th in D.
And now ‘Red Red Rose’ is on the Water Dragon set list. Maggie and I, incorporating Luke’s idea, started at the top several times, working on the way the voice would ride against that sustained E chord on the accordion. One of the held notes in the first verse lands as an unexpected 3rd below the E; another is a dissonant 2nd, but the clash of notes adds to the tune’s mystery and melancholy. As we played more deeply into the song, Luke’s suggestion grew to have its own logic and beauty. In addition to beautiful work on the accordion, Maggie adds her voice as we approach the climax of the song, echoing the imagery, making the pileup of them ever more clear:
‘til all the seas, ‘til the rocks, gang dry, melt wi’ the sun, I will love, I will love, til the sands shall run, my love is like a rose, is like a melody, the sands shall run, a rose, a melody, played in tune, sprung in June, I will love thee…
As we neared the end of the song, a walnut appeared to lodge in my throat. I could hardly take a breath, stunned by the lyrics, the emotion, the beauty of a song that’s offered its loving if difficult truths for over 300 years. Yet even as my voice was squeezed almost to a whisper by that thing in my throat, we twined our way to the end, wrapping and rewrapping phrase and tune, creating a juggernaut of sound and image—and then we slowed, quieted: I dropped out the plucked strings of the guitar; we returned to that sustained sighed E on the accordion, ending with the simplicity of
My love is like a rose.
“Goodness!” I said. “Not quite sure what that was about.”
Maggie smiled. “Maybe it’s that cold breeze blowing in through the door.” She moved past me to slide the door shut, and returned to her chair, picked up her accordion again and strapped it on. We both knew it wasn’t that. But it allowed us to laugh, and to dislodge whatever had hold of the inside of my throat.
“Let’s try it again.”