Personally-Bound Song Collections: Combining Popular Trends with Nostalgia by Brianna Robertson-Kirkland

January 2019, Rory Cellan-Jones from the BBC posed the question ‘is this the end of owning music?’. In his article, he reported CD sales had ‘plummeted by 23%’, largely caused by the rise of streaming services. Even as early as 2013, Tom Junod from Esquire bemoaned the turn to online streaming, proudly declaring himself ‘a collector’ of digital music, downloaded to his computer. He regarded his collection as ‘as nothing less than a creation, though [he] created none of it’. Madeline Milton writing for Play Loud Reviews similarly described her love for collecting physical music though she was saddened by the constant judgement posed by her peers who criticised her outdated habit. In both cases, Junod and Milton declared their strong personal connection to their music collections, fondly recalling the first song downloaded, and the first CD purchased, which not only started them on their collecting journey but a life-long love for music more generally. While collecting music is slowly falling out of fashion for many in the twenty-first century, there are still avid collectors who are continuing the tradition. One could argue, the collecting tradition took route at the end of the eighteenth-century, when the commercialisation of art spurred the popular pursuit of print collecting (see Nenandic, 1997). When it came to music, the collections took the form of printed sheets with music notation, which required the ability to read and play music if the collector hoped to bring the notes to life. Still, in much the same way as a vinyl, CD or digital music collection, printed sheet music collection evidence popular trends, fashions, and perhaps even nostalgia for old music.

Agnes Burns’ 1801 Music Book, now owned by the Centre for Robert Burns Studies (CRBS) and housed at the University of Glasgow Library: Archives and Special Collections, is composite music collection consisting of seventy compositions, scored primarily for voice and piano accompaniment, published between c.1768-1800. It is a personally-bound sheet-music collection, mainly consisting of songs from the period, and it provides unique insights into Burns’s musical preferences and collecting habits; it is just one of many such collections found in archives and libraries around the world. There are many similarities between Burns’s collection and Haidee B. Harris’s sheet-music collection, housed at the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection (CSLRC), Sydney, Australia. This volume, dated 1864, was created by a Scottish woman (or her mother – explained in more detail below), whose family had emigrated to Sydney in the early nineteenth century. Indeed, the song sheets appear to have been printed, around 1800, and could have been brought to Sydney as a reminder of home.

As noted by Jeanice Brooks, these collections, typically compiled by women, exemplify the growing interest in collecting, listening, playing, and purchasing popular and traditional songs at the turn of the nineteenth century (Brooks, 2010). Within these bound volumes there is a clash between the commercial and the personal. The songs are often musically unsophisticated and cheaply produced, but the time taken and expense paid to pull together a large collection of carefully bound song sheets, demonstrates the personal affinity the collector had for their music. The following examples are also inscribed, further connecting the person to the collection. In many cases, researchers would not have had the capacity to find out anything about these people, had their collection not been preserved and inscribed.

Left: Agnes Burns’s Song Book, 1801. Courtesy of The University of Glasgow Library Archives and Special Collections.
Right: Haidee B. Harris Song Book, 1864. Courtesy of The Caroline Simpson Research and Collections Library, Sydney Living Museums

In this blog post, I will refer to two personally-bound sheet music collections: Agnes Burns’s and Haidee B Harris’s song books. Similar styles and tastes for songs are evident in both collections, but they also show evidence of multi-generational compilation.

Agnes Burns Music Book, 1801

Agnes Burns’s sheet music collection was found in Haddington, East Lothian, but it wasn’t until 2015 that it came to the attention of Professor Nigel Leask from CRBS. Having just edited Robert Burns’s Commonplace Books, Tour Journals and Miscellaneous Prose (vol 1 of the new Oxford Works of Robert Burns, OUP 2014), he immediately wondered if this Burns was a relative of the famous poet. While provenance doesn’t provide unquestioned evidence, she may well be Burns’s niece. Still the volume is a fine example of a song collection created by a woman in Scotland at the turn of the nineteenth century. She inscribed the front endpaper of her leather-bound music collection ‘Agnes Burns | her book |1801’ and within there is further evidence of her desire to keep the collection in good condition. Inside, several previously ripped song sheets have been delicately repaired by hand-sewing the paper together. These are not characteristic of auction house or book-seller repairs (and there are plenty examples of these throughout the volume). Rather they demonstrate a collaboration of feminine attributes: sewing and music. Further research will need to be carried out to date the delicate stitching, but it is not inconceivable Agnes may have carried out the repair work herself. Polite society ladies were expected to develop beyond their general education, becoming accomplished in ‘the ornaments’, which included music, sewing, dance and drawing (see Robertson-Kirkland, 2018).

Sewn repairs at the bottom of the page. Agnes Burns’s Song Book, Courtesy of The University of Glasgow Library Archives and Special Collections.

The songs are a mixture of popular theatre songs including ‘The Lullaby’ from Stephen Storace’s The Pirates, which premiered at Haymarket Theatre on 21 November 1792, ‘A Jolly Young Waterman’ from Charles Dibdin’s The Waterman, first performed at Haymarket Theatre in 1774, and ‘When the Hollow Drum’ form The Mountaineers by Samuel Arnold, first performed at the Theatre Royal on 3 August 1793. There are also popular Scots song such as, ‘Auld Robin Grey’, ‘Lass gin ye lo’e me, tell me now’, and a duet arrangement of the ‘Caledonian Hunt’s Delight’ better known as the tune for Burns’s ‘Ye banks and braes’. London theatre songs, particularly those by Charles Dibdin frequently appear in composite music collections and demonstrate that Agnes was interested in current, fashionable musical trends (for more on Dibdin, see Cox Jensen, Kennerley, and Newman, 2018). However, moving through the volume there are older and worn song sheets including ‘Lango Lee’ and ‘Jemmy and Nanny’ sung by Susannah Maria Arne (née Cibber) at Ranelagh (1770?). ‘Lango Lee’ especially stands out since its cheap, thin paper is inconsistent with the heavier, more expensive quality of the other song sheets in the volume. Furthermore, these older publications tend not to indicate place of publication and publisher, unlike the contemporary repertoire, which were mainly published in Edinburgh, London and Dublin. It is possible these older song sheets were passed down to Agnes by an elderly relative prior to binding. However, they are in keeping with thematic content of the volume and it is possible these pieces inspired Agnes’s love for music and her collection.

A couple of Scottish songs from Agnes Burns’s Song Book, from Thirty Scots Songs for a Voice and Harpsichord by Robert Bremner. Courtesy of The University of Glasgow Library Archives and Special Collections.

Haidee B. Harris volume of songs and music, circa 1790-1800

Haidee B. Harris’s song book is part of The Stewart Symonds Collection at the CSRCL, Sydney Living Museums. Dr Matthew Stephens has worked tirelessly to bring this collection to the fore, including curating the Songs of Home exhibition, which draws upon work by Sound Heritage director Professor Jeanice Brooks and consultant curator Dr Graeme Skinner’s extensive research on indigenous and immigrant music in colonial Australia. The are several song books in the collection, but Haidee B. Harris’s is particularly fascinating because it was a gift from her mother, thus perhaps evidencing collecting over several generations, while also illustrating the collecting of songs that remind the family of ‘home’.

The volume is inscribed ‘Haidee B. Harris, from her affectionate Mama April 8th 1864’; a gift from Mary Ann Thew (b. c. 1807) to her daughter Haidee Beatrice Harris (1848-1934). The family immigrated to Sydney on the 15 November 1852. Haidee was the younger sister of mezzo-soprano Flora Harris Sheridan Moore (1832-1905) who worked both as a performer and teacher in Sydney (see Skinner, ND). Unlike her sister, Haidee would never emerge as a professional singer, though she did perform in a few public concerts as an amateur vocalist as is evident from a newspaper review written in 1865:

‘The, duet ‘To the fair’ sung by Mrs. Cordner and Miss Haidee Harris (amateur), was so sweetly sung as to be encored; a compliment highly deserved by these ladies, the former of whom possesses a fine contralto voice), and sings with’ improved taste and style; and the latter is the young lady whose beautiful vocalisation, is always, so greatly admired–who owes much, however, to her sister, Madame Flora Harris, under whose excellent, tuition she has become so good a musician (1865: 2).

Much like Agnes Burns’s volume there are a number of well-known Scottish songs in this volume including ‘If a body, meet a body’ better known as Burns’s ‘Comin’ thro’ the rye’ and ‘Waly Waly’, but there are also a couple of printed Gaelic songs. One such song is entitled ‘Morag’ and there is only one other edition, which is on microfilm at the British Library. Most of the song sheets, including ‘Morag’, were printed by John Watlen (fl. 1790) who owned two premises at 24 and 34 North Bridge, Edinburgh between 1792-1798 (see Cranmer, 1991: 210). There are also several theatre songs, including songs composed by Dibdin and James Hook (1746-1827). Many of these songs have been recorded as part of the ‘Performing a distant heritage: Scottish music in early Australian collections, its materials and its practices’ project, funded by the The USyd-Glasgow Partnership Collaboration Award. Further details about album, titled Curious Caledonians is available here.

‘Morag’ published by John Watlen. Found in Haidee B. Harris’s Song Book, Courtesy of Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection.

The majority of the music was printed around 1800, and by 1864 would have likely been considered old-fashioned and outdated by 1864. However, there is evidence the volume was bound at a much earlier date, more in line with the printing dates for the song sheets. The flyleaves and the endpapers are watermarked 1797 and the binder has used the title page of ‘The Christian’s new and compleat family Bible, or, Universal library of divine knowledge /​ by the Rev. Thomas Bankes.’178?’ for the paste down (see Trove, ND). It is possible the collection was initially compiled and bound by Thew in her youth, before gifting it to her daughter. It is also possible, the volume was brought to Sydney by other means and purchased by the Harris family, who liked the mixture of Scottish and theatre songs (see Boehme, 2008). Though there is little evidence to suggest Haidee was directly responsible for compiling the collection, the genre theming and its inscription show a personal connection to the collection as a whole.


Though this blog has only focussed on two collections, the genre theming of the material and the personal inscriptions are remarkably similar. The material content is ephemeral, one might argue, but the collecting and binding is an act of preservation. Indeed, in these two cases, musical nostalgia is also a factor, a reminder of the music from a time and place physically unreachable. Though collecting music is more of a rarity in the twenty-first century, studying these personally-bound music collections can reveal more about sentimental and commercial value of music.


NA. (1865). Music and Drama, The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 January, Available from: Accessed 3 Aug. 2020.

Boehme, Almut, (2008), An Initial Investigation into The Early Dissemination Of Scottish Music In Australia. Fontes Artis Musicae, 55(2), 274–296. Available from Accessed 3 Aug. 2020. Accessed 3 Aug. 2020.

Brooks, Jeanice, (2010), Musical Monuments for the Country House: Music, Collection and Display at Tatton Park. Music & Letters, 91, 513–35.

Cranmer, John Leonard, (1991), Concert Life and the Music Trade in Edinburgh c. 1780-c.1830, Unpublished PhD, University of Edinburgh. Available from file:///C:/Users/breer/Downloads/Cranmer1991_redact.pdf. Accessed 3 Aug. 2020.

Cox Jensen, Oskar, Kennerley, David, and Newman, Ian (eds), (2018), Charles Dibdin and Late Georgian Culture (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Gardham, Julie, (2017), Your chance to see the song book of Agnes Burns, University of Glasgow Library Blog, Available from: Accessed 14 Sept. 2020.

McCue, Kirsteen & Robertson-Kirkland, Brianna, (2017), The Agnes Burns Song Book, Electric Scotland, Edited by Shaw, Frank R., Available from: Accessed 14 Sept. 2020.

Nenadic, Stana. (1997), Print Collecting and Popular Culture in Eighteenth-Century Scotland. History, 82(266), 203–222. Available from: Accessed 3 Aug. 2020.

Robertson-Kirkland, Brianna E., (2018), Music-making: a fundamental or a vain accomplishment?, Women’s History Journal, Spring Issue, 30-35.


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