Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond

"It all started at the Temple of Apollo In Delphi.  One of his friends approached the oracle with the question: "Is anyone wiser than Socrates?" The answer was "No." Socrates was profoundly puzzled by this episode. He claimed to know nothing of any importance, so Socrates set off in search of someone wiser than himself. He interrogated the politicians, the poets, and the craftsmen. The first group turned out to know nothing of any account but believed themselves the wisest of men; the second could move men with powerful words but were unable to explain their meaning; the third group displayed expertise in their specialities but erred in claiming a more general wisdom. These conversations led Socrates to conclude that the oracle may have been correct in its riddling way: Socrates was wise in that he knew that he knew nothing, whereas others were unaware of their own ignorance."

Dr. Morris B. Kaplan
Foreword to the Socratic Dialogues by Plato

A favorite time of mine in music history is during the turn of the 20th century when there was a massive interest in the preservation of European folk songs.  This is of course well before the advent of any sort of reasonably portable or even remotely useful recording technology such as we have today.  Today, most of us have a relatively reliable recording device in our pockets at all times.  Just 100 years ago, recording technology was limited to mechanical means with equipment such as the phonograph.  100 years prior to that, musical notation was it.  Humans have been perfecting the system for the transcription of music since prehistory, but the ability to record in reasonable fidelity and reproduce a close facsimile has only been available to the average person for less than a century.

So as we've talked about before, you've got a few composers in the late Romantic/early Modern era who began capturing these folksongs and using them as centerpieces for their arranging work.  Now this is music that has been transferred down through the lineage of particularly families and communities though the aural tradition- one generation singing it to the next, over and over again.  So here comes Grainger, and Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

With a jawline that made men weep and women pregnant.
An interesting side-note on Vaughan Williams is that he hated being called "Ralph" as you probably just read that.  He insisted on the pronunciation "Rayf" which I can only determine was a preferred means of pronunciation among the upper crust of English society.

Despite this propensity for the finer things, Vaughan Williams was not a stranger to hard work and grave danger.  He enlisted in the Royal Army during World War I as a private in the Medical Corps, ending up becoming a stretcher carrier and eventually working his way up to higher levels of command.  He would eventually come to be reassigned as director of music and would transition back into civilian life as a conductor and composer.

He has been described frequently as quintessentially British in his composing, capturing the spirit, nostalgia and essence of the British people in musical form, and Loch Lomond, despite having origins set in Scotland, espouses much of this "Britishness".  

So Loch Lomond, like so many other folk tunes of it's type, has a muddy history that has long since been eroded and intertwined with various, believable possibilities.  A lot of them have to do with a group known as the Jacobites and an uprising they held in 1745.  The Jacobite Uprisings span a portion of history 1688 to 1746 and involves England, Ireland, and Scotland and Protestants, Anglicans, and Catholics. Essentially, you have a King named James (the Latin of which is Jacobus, hence the Jacobite bit) who is Catholic and trying to keep the Anglicans and other Protestants from going nuts.  

He ends up getting deposed from the throne of the UK by his daughter, Mary, who was pissed that she had been bumped out of succession to the throne by her new baby brother who James had fathered with his second wife, Mary's stepmother.  So she gets hitched with a guy named William of Orange who then is coerced by some of the Anglicans to use her birthright and new husband to stake claim to the throne of England, Scotland, and Ireland. As you might imagine, this did not sit well.

So the Jacobites sought to restore James to the throne to secure their interests in the Catholic church overseeing the rule of the thrones and it pretty much didn't work out, again and again.  Now, here comes the part where I explain our reference to Socrates up there- I've spent about 3 weeks on this entry.  I vacillated on which angle to really take.  "Should I go full bore on Vaughan Williams?" "Should I try and tackle the history of Loch Lomond the tune?"  Both were daunting.  

As I began researching both angles I discovered a rabbit hole of side stories and parallels that consumed my thoughts and flooded any rational train of thought I could summon for this entry. Imagine- a simple folk tune could have such depth!  It was frustrating to the point where I almost scrapped the entry altogether and as a result this entry went unwritten, blowing well past St. Patrick's Day (where I had originally intended it to be the start of a three-part series on Irish/Scottish/Celtic music).  

So two things come to mind today.  First and foremost, I failed. I had a goal, I set out to do it, and fell short of what my intentions were.  The other being that there is no possible way to be sure anything we say is the absolute truth.  It's proven that our brains  soften our memories over time, massaging away the little bits that suck and salving on some sweet, sweet lies of nostalgic bliss.  History has often be attributed to the winners.  And here we don't even know who wrote this song we're talking about today.  So, for Socrates to go around and determine that everyone is pretty much shooting from the hip and the only sensible thing to do is say hang it all gave me the impetus necessary to plug forward and polish this turd up shiny.

The truth of the matter, kids, is this- everyone fails.  Our world needs failure as contrast for the stars in the sky to shine a little bit brighter.  Without the constant and perpetual motion of failure, success wouldn't hold nearly as much meaning.  

Today marks two full years of that Listening Friday has been in existence online.  I just paid my $10 to secure the domain name for another full year, putting me $28.97 in the hole on this little venture (minus the few months I tried out Google Ads- which sucked). I started writing this blog at a point in time where I was coming to grips with the fact that I would be leaving something behind that I had dedicated a great deal of my life to and that meant I had to acknowledge defeat.  

I had to come to terms with being a failure on a relatively massive scale.  

It is, surprisingly, not something I come by easily.  To quote John McClane, "I don't like to lose."  It's just not in my nature, but walking away from teaching was necessary for me to survive and to get to that understanding took a lot of time and a lot of grief. 

So all of that is a roundabout way of getting back to the core message of this blog. This is not a space to find well-researched, exhaustive studies of history and musicology. I don't have that kind of time on my hands. This is a place where I take music that has had an impact on my life and means something to me and I find something that I can write about it.  As well as put up stupid pictures.

So, the text of Loch Lomond is thought to have been inspired by a Jacobite rebel having come to the realization that he will never return to see Loch Lomond (which incidentally is a lake in case you were wondering) where he said farewell to his love.  He then tells his friend who is not dying that he'll take the low road back to Scotland, implying that his soul will be returned to his homeland following his death.  There are a handful of interpretations as to which road (high or low) might actually be the path most preferred by the recently deceased, but the nevertheless the impression is given.  

By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes Where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond Where me and my true love were ever wont to gae On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.
Chorus: O ye'll take the high road, and I'll take the low road And I'll be in Scotland before ye but me and my true love will never meet again On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.
'Twas there that we perted in yon shady glen On the steep, steep sides of Ben Lomond Where in purple hue, the highland hills we view And the moon coming out in the gloaming.
The wee birdies sing and the wild flowers spring And in sunshine waters lie sleeping But the broken heart it kens, nae second spring again, Though the waeful may cease frae their greeting.

So, in the acknowledgement of knowing nothing and embrace of failure, today we celebrate the 2nd birthday of this project.  

Here's to many happy returns of the day.

See you next Friday.