‘Auld Robin Gray’ by David Kennerley

David Kennerley is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the School of History at Queen Mary University of London. He completed his doctorate at the University of Oxford in 2014 with a thesis on professional female singers in Britain, c.1760–1850. Since then, he has worked as a research assistant to Professor Kathryn Gleadle at Oxford, spent a year as a postdoctoral research associate on the ‘Music in London, 1800–1851’ research project at King’s College London, led by Professor Roger Parker, and completed a book manuscript provisionally entitled Sounding Feminine: Women’s Voices in British Musical Culture, 1780–1850. He has published and forthcoming articles in the Historical Journal and the English Historical Review, and, with Oskar Cox Jensen and Ian Newman, he is the editor of Charles Dibdin and Late Georgian Culture (Oxford: OUP, 2018). He is now working on a new postdoctoral project at Queen Mary, entitled ‘A sonic history of Chartism: Music, sound, and politics in mid-nineteenth-century Britain’.

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Whether they intend to or not, singers often become entangled with the songs they sing. In fact, they can end up so knotted together that it’s difficult to imagine one without the other. ‘I put a spell on you’ is Nina Simone, just as ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ means Freddie Mercury. It’s hard to put your finger on why this happens, but it seems to rely on a sense of a unique fit between that singer, that voice, and the mood of that song. Although they can become almost banal in their over-familiarity, such iconic performances reveal important aspects of the popular imagination of their day.

While the advent of sound recording certainly helped to solidify this phenomenon, it was alive and well much earlier on. Singers were already referring to aria di baule, or ‘suitcase arias’, from the earliest days of the international concert circuit: crowd-pleasing songs that would be packed up, like favourite dresses or cravats, and inserted into every performance of every tour. One such song was ‘Auld Robin Gray’, which, if you had played it to a British music-lover c.1820, would almost certainly have called to mind one particular singer: Catherine Stephens (1794–1882). Stephens’s success singing this song in concerts and theatre productions across the country in the 1810s and ‘20s rested on a particularly effective marriage between the song’s subject matter, its musical style, and the carefully-crafted persona Stephens portrayed for her public.

Painted by George Henry Harlow (1787-1819). Kitty Stephens, later Countess of Essex (1794 – 1882) playing a harp lute. Available from Sotheby’s.

The ballad was written in 1772 by Lady Anne Lindsay, a Scottish noblewoman, although for several reasons she hid her authorship for over half a century (for the full story, see Jane Millgate, ‘Unclaimed Territory: The Ballad of “Auld Robin Gray” and the Assertion of Authorial Ownership’, The Library, 8:4 (Dec. 2007), 423–441). Lindsay’s ballad is a blend of romantic pathos with unimpeachable feminine moral principle and familial duty: it tells a tragic tale of Jeany, whose true love Jamie goes to sea to raise enough money for them to wed. While he is away, Jeany’s father breaks his arm, her mother falls ill, and the family comes close to starvation, when the wealthy ‘Auld Robin Gray’ offers to save them, if Jeany will marry him. Acting out of filial devotion, and fearing Jamie’s ship has been wrecked, Jeany accepts Gray. Jamie returns, of course, with enough money to marry, and Jeany is heartbroken, but resolves to think no more of Jamie, ‘for that would be a Sin’. There were at least two tunes used for this song in Stephens’s day, but the one sung by her is appealingly simple, with a lilting melody and distinctive ‘Scotch snaps’ to give it that north-of-the-border feel. A printed version of the ballad similar to that sung by Stephens can be found here.

The ballad was almost tailor-made for Stephens. She had built her career as a singer and actress at a time when most women working professionally in the performing arts were subject to intense moral suspicion. To counter this, Stephens had carefully maintained a cast-iron reputation for respectability. The New British Lady’s Magazine declared: ‘on her private life, calumny has not dared to throw the slightest stain, and this eulogium is not a trifling one, when it is considered, that her situation is surrounded with temptations, which few have the fortitude to resist’ (‘Biography of Miss Stephens’, The New British Lady’s Magazine (Jan. 1818), 6). Equally, she avoided singing music, such as Italian opera, that was considered too showy to be compatible with British notions of feminine modesty. One critic pronounced approvingly that she possessed ‘a character of mind too strictly feminine to admit of a dazzling display of powers’ (‘Miss Stephens’, The British Stage and Literary Cabinet (June 1821), 162). There were some in early nineteenth-century Britain who consequently found Stephens a bit tame, preferring the exuberant vocal fireworks of Italian prime donne such as Angelica Catalani or Giuditta Pasta, but there were just as many—especially among burgeoning middle-class audiences infused with evangelical Christianity—who preferred Lindsay’s depiction of familial duty and Stephens’s brand of demure, gentle singing as more truly befitting their standard of feminine propriety.

This resonance between Stephens’s reputation and the mood of this song produced a strong impression on contemporary music-lovers. ‘This ballad is peculiarly Miss STEPHENS’s own’, wrote the Morning Post newspaper, ‘no one can sing it as she does’ (Morning Post, 7 Nov. 1826). The critic of Jackson’s Oxford Journal agreed, writing that Stephens sang the ballad ‘in a style peculiar to herself; it is impossible to hear her sing this without being at once enchanted by the native grace and feeling which she throws into her performance, producing a powerful and lasting effect upon the minds of the hearers’ (Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 3 Sept. 1825). Critics love to exaggerate, of course, but we needn’t rely solely on the press: the celebrated soprano Clara Novello, who knew a thing or two about good singing, recalled how as a teenager she had burst into ‘uncontrollable weeping’ and had to be taken out of the room to calm down when she had first heard Stephens’s ‘Auld Robin Gray’, such was the emotive force of the performance (Clara Novello, Clara Novello’s Reminiscences, ed. Valeria Gigliucci (London, 1910), 50).

While a large part of Stephens’s success must surely lie in the particular attitudes towards femininity at play in early nineteenth-century Britain, the appeal of ‘Auld Robin Gray’ also highlights the vogue for ‘Scottish’ culture that was sweeping not just England, but the whole of Europe. It was an age when Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels were flying off the shelves, and King George IV famously donned a tartan kilt, a garment that had been banned in Scotland following the Jacobite rising in 1745, during a royal visit to his northern kingdom in 1822, the first by a British monarch in almost two centuries. Having been a wild, rebellious backwater, Scotland was now viewed, through English eyes, as a loyal part of an increasingly confident British empire. What once seemed threatening now possessed an appealing air of romance. Scotland’s rural simplicity and magnificent landscapes were often contrasted with the grimy, man-made world of industrial England and its urban squalor and vice, often represented through the degraded figure of the female factory worker, abandoning home and family for the workplace, street, or alehouse. Amid the perceived threats posed by industrial society to female virtue, Stephens’s performance of ‘Auld Robin Gray’ offered audiences a glimpse back to a happier, simpler time, still imagined to exist somewhere in the mists of the Scottish mountains, where young swains were true to their loves, and young lasses did their duty to parents and husbands, even to the point of heartbreak. In this sense, Stephens and ‘Auld Robin Gray’ played its part in shaping the cultural myth of Scotland in the English imagination in ways that left lasting legacies from the nineteenth century to the present.

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