The Lighting the Past team share their highlights from the ‘M’ section of the Copyright Deposit Collection. You can see the previous posts in the series here.
While cataloguing the ‘M’ classmark (music) of the Copyright Deposit Collection, Lighting the Past discovered 5 volumes from The Scots Musical Museum, a 1787-1803 Edinburgh publication attempting to capture all Scots folk music and verse, amounting to 6 volumes once complete.
Robert Burns took a keen interest in the planned compilation project whilst in Edinburgh in 1787, writing ‘An Engraver, James Johnson, in Edin[burgh] has, not from mercenary views but from an honest Scotch enthusiasm, set about collecting all our native Songs and setting them to music.’ With Burns as the principal editor of vols. 2-4 (he died prior to the publication of vols. 5-6), his songs accounted for one-third of the 600 songs across all 6 volumes. However, only vol. 1 gives his name; Burns’ songs in the later volumes are marked only with a ‘B’. Here in the Museum, ‘Green Grow the Rashes O’ is the earliest Burns poem printed with music.
By calling his collection a Museum, Johnson was highlighting his intention to collect and preserve ancient songs as relics from the past. The Burns additions, however, highlight the inconsistency between this and the reality of producing new cultural touchstones as Johnson and Burns curated and updated the material.
The Museum has a complex bibliographic history since Johnson was a trained engraver, not a printer, so the compilation was engraved on pewter, not printed with moveable type which would need to be redistributed after each print run. This allowed Johnson to make changes to earlier versions and reprint on demand. Pewter was also a notable departure from the more traditional process of engraving on copper plates as it was cheaper, but softer.
Johnson hoped to create a comprehensive but affordable collection of songs, and using the cheaper metal was one method of achieving this goal. Unfortunately, despite the historical importance of the work and the frugal process, Johnson died a pauper in 1811 and his widow was later consigned to a workhouse. Most of what is known about the engraver is from his correspondence with Robert Burns, with whom he appears to have had a friendly and respectful relationship.
The St Andrews copy of volume 1 of The Scots Musical Museum has the imprint of Johnson & Co. at Lady Stairs Close, while other impressions (and the introduction to Vol. 1) place him at Bell’s Wynd. Likely the title page was updated to account for Johnson’s changing business partners and premises while the prefatory material was not. The St Andrews copy has the same imprint on vols. 1, 3, 4 and 5, with a very different one on vol. 2.
Using examples from other libraries to compare and contrast with the St Andrews holdings, it becomes clear that most sets contain variable title pages which do not match up across institutions. Establishing the order of impressions is complicated by the fact that all the title pages are undated.
This beautiful and important set of Scottish songbooks may be viewed at the Martyrs Kirk Napier Reading Room by making an appointment with Special Collections.
Catalogue record for The Scots Musical Museum: http://library.st-andrews.ac.uk/record=b2448346~S5
Rare Books Cataloguer