‘A Red, Red Rose’ is one of the most famous of all Scottish love songs, collected by Robert Burns in 1794. Burns originally intended to publish it in A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice, a five-volume compendium compiled by George Thomson; but Burns told his friend Alexander Cunningham that he and Thomson disagreed about the value of the song. Burns felt the song was ‘simple and wild’, and thought that Thomson would think it ‘ludicrous and absurd’. Subsequently Burns gave the song to Thomson’s rival song-publisher Pietro Urbani, who published it in Scots Songs with his own tune, noting that the lyrics had been given to him ‘by a celebrated Scots poet, who was so struck by them when sung by a country girl that he wrote them down and, not being pleased with the air, begged the author to set them to music in the style of a Scots tune, which he has done accordingly’. Elsewhere, Burns referred to it as a ‘simple old Scots song which I had picked up in the country’.
How does Burns indicate how the piece is to be performed?
In a note in the margin Burns wrote ‘once thro the music takes all the words to this mark + so that [yt] more must be added, or these four lines left out’; and at the base he wrote ‘The tune of this song is in Niel Gow’s first Collection + is called there, “Major Graham” – it is to be found page 6th of that collection.’ Overleaf the sheet is marked ‘Major Graham’. The lyrics are now usually sung to the tune ‘Low Down in the Broom’, the words being set to this tune first in 1821. The song’s mixture of hyperbole and slow paced tenderness has made it a lasting favourite.