Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, February 2002)

Over the past few months, I've read several authors write about their first novels. Without exception, they said, "The plot was good, but the whole thing was just too complicated."

That, to me, is why the Big Ballads are so wonderful: there is no waste at all. They're short and to the point. Even if the original had excess, tradition has pruned them down so that what is left is the true and essential story.

And none more than Bonnie George Campbell (what Child calls Bonnie James Campbell). Indeed, if any song can be said to have been trimmed too far, it's this one. All that's left is the death and the mourning: George Campbell sets out in fine array, and while his horse comes home, he never does.

As best I can tell, not one version of this song has more than twelve distinct lines of text; eight is more typical. No one knows what it is actually about, though the most common suggestion is that it involves one or another of the Campbells killed at the battle of Glenlivet in 1594.

Now those of you who have looked at the music and seen the Scots dialect are probably thinking I'm pulling another fast one on you. I'm not. I put the transcription in Braid Scots because it flows best that way, but -- allowing for changes in accent -- this survives in almost that pure form in the old-time tradition. It's been recorded by, among others, Bascom Lamar Lunsford (whose text I print below, and which fits this tune) and Frank Proffitt.

The problem with both those latter recordings is that they're by banjo players (Lunsford played fiddle also, but you can hear the "banjoishness" in his playing). And the song is in triple meter in all the old and most new versions. Lunsford (as the transcription in Bertrand Bronson's Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads shows) hacked out a really complicated thing in which no two verses are the same, while Proffitt, or his sources, wormed it into 4/4 time. But if you're going to sing this as a song, as opposed to a complex recitation, you have to have a standardized tune. That's this. It's commonly sung (at least, I seem to recall at least three very similar recordings), though all such versions all seem to go back to the tune printed by Robert Archibald Smith in The Scottish Minstrel (1820-1824). I've printed that tune, correcting it slightly toward the version I've heard. It only has one other verse (though the text varies in the sources):

Oot cam' his mither dear, greeting* full sair
And oot cam' his bonnie bride riving her hair,
"My meadow lies green and my corn is unshorn,
My barn is to build, and my baby's unborn."

Lunsford said that this was a fiddle tune. I must admit that I've never heard it played that way, and it's not in the Fiddler's Fakebook. But it would make a good slow dance tune. Or, of course, you can sing Lunsford's words (he sang it as six short verses, but it fits the tune as three long verses).

George Campbell

Complete Lyrics:
High upon Highlands, low upon Tay,
Bonnie George Campbell rode out on one day.

All saddled all bridled and booted rode he,
And home came the saddle but never came he.

My barn is to build, my baby's unborn,
But Bonnie George Campbell will never return.

Well, high upon Highlands, low upon Tay,
Bonnie George Campbell rode out on one day.

All saddled all bridled and booted rode he,
And home came the saddle but never came he.

Home came the saddle all bloody to see,
And home came the good horse but never came he.

* greeting = weeping

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