What makes a song ‘national’? William Shield and Thomas Holcroft’s “Down the bourn and thro’ the mead”, alias “Johnny and Mary: A favourite Scots song” by Amélie Addison

Amélie Addison is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds researching the life and music of Tyneside-born theatre composer William Shield (1748-1829) Her thesis argues that Shield’s familiarity with Northumbrian and Scots airs during his childhood and early career laid crucial foundations for his distinctive compositional approach, explores the political and cultural implications of his lifelong practice of ‘borrowing’ and imitating traditional melodies, and seeks to identify the elements of his style that facilitated the ready absorption of his own original tunes into collections of ‘national airs’. Drawing on both her current research and extensive experience as a cellist and chamber musician specialising in eighteenth-century performance practice, Amélie has given papers and recitals at Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering, the William Shield Festival (Gateshead / Newcastle), Leeds International Concert Series, the North East Eighteenth Century and Romantic Studies Forum, York Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies, and EFDSS ‘Traditional Tunes and Popular Airs’ conference. Forthcoming outputs in 2019 include an article on Shield for Folk Music Journal, and an essay investigating subscribers to Shield’s first publication for the collection Music in North East England, 1500-1800 (ed. Southey, Carter & Gibson; Boydell & Brewer).


William Shield (1748-1829) was born near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His early musical training came from his father, a singing teacher, who died when he was ten; following an apprenticeship to a local boat-builder, Shield became musician and composer for Bates’ touring theatre company (Addison, forthcoming). From 1774 his songs began appearing as inserts in the Lady’s Magazine; the June 1778 edition included ‘A New Song. Set to Music by Mr. Shield,’ which was reprinted multiple times in London and Scotland over three decades. Differences between the scores of later editions are minimal, except where the song has been arranged for other instruments; a 1798 American version alone includes additional ‘Scotch snap’ rhythms, slight melodic alteration and occasional substitution of different chords. New York’s New Theatre opened that year, with performers including several who had worked with Shield in London, so this version may have crossed the Atlantic by oral transmission, while British editions referred to the original printed source (Allston Brown, 1903; Schneider, 1979). From 1785 the words were also published alone, in song collections and as a broadside ballad performed by street-singers (Roud V7521).

The original lyrics (by Thomas Holcroft, an actor with Bates’ company 1776-1777) reflect pastoral romance tropes, with no explicit Scottish references. Yet within three years ‘Down the bourn’ was being marketed as a ‘Scots song’ by William Napier, a London-based Scottish publisher who would later commission twelve arrangements of traditional Scots airs from Shield for a substantial printed collection (Napier, 1790). Enthusiastic collection, appropriation, adaptation, imitation and even forgery of traditional Scottish music and poetry was widespread, so reinventing an original song with a national label could have been a ploy to increase circulation; but Holcroft’s memoir disclaims any such intention:


‘[Holcroft] also found time to write songs for Vauxhall…. Among these, the greatest favourite was the ballad, beginning, “Down the Bourne and through the Mead”…. This song, which is written in the Scottish dialect, has often been mistaken for an old Scotch ballad, and has been actually printed in a collection of Scotch songs.— Mr. Holcroft was one evening drinking tea with some friends at White Conduit-House, when the organ was playing the tune…. a person in the next box began to descant rather learnedly on the beauty of the Scotch airs, and the tenderness and simplicity of their popular poetry, bringing this very ballad as an illustration of his argument, neither the words nor music of which, he said, any one now living was capable of imitating. Mr. Holcroft…. turning to the gentleman, interrupted his argument by informing him, that he himself was the author of the song in question, and that the tune was composed by his friend, Mr. Shield, who I believe was also there present.— …
An Irish music-seller, at the St. Paul’s Head in the Strand, had procured the words and music, and had advertised them in his window to be sold. Mr. Shield was accidentally passing, saw the music in the window, and went in to demand by what right the advertiser meant to publish his property…. It was with difficulty that Mr. Shield by informing him that he was the author of the music, prevailed on the pretended composer to relinquish his claim’ (Hazlitt, 1816; 280-282).

Despite Holcroft and Shield’s attempts to defend their intellectual property against both outright piracy and spurious antiquarianism, contemporary listeners evidently accepted the song as traditional. The ‘Scottish’ characteristics they recognised probably owed something to Shield’s Tyneside roots: in his youth he had learned ‘Border Tunes’ from local musicians including fairground fiddlers and the Duke of Northumberland’s piper (Shield, 1817; 35-38). Shield’s own compositional voice naturally developed an accent which evoked the dialect, landscape and lifestyle associated with traditional airs, while he also showed an exceptional talent for sympathetically arranging and adapting them: ‘had I not been partial to their original simplicity, I should not have succeeded in those imitations of it, which have by many been denominated my happiest productions’ (Shield, 1817; 3).

Shield also acquired a valuable grounding in the form, harmony and orchestration of European concert repertoire through performing in subscription series and oratorio festivals in Newcastle, Durham, York and London. He developed the ability to combine composed and traditional influences, creating songs to please socially diverse theatre audiences. This is just one of many Shield songs that feature harmonic and melodic elements reminiscent of a traditional air, within a simplified ‘da capo aria’ structure:

Symphony orchestral introduction based on the air, with some expansion or decoration

resembles a national air in melodic shape (e.g. using ‘gapped scales’) and harmonic context (simple accompaniment, often drone-based)

B introduces development and contrast, e.g. modulation to the dominant key, sequences, chromatic chords highlighting emotions in the lyrics, vocal cadenza

A1 / AB recapitulation of A melody or contraction of both sections

Symphony orchestral coda

Shield’s gift for evocative melody and simple, subtle harmony kept the national air ‘feel’ to the fore, while the operatic ternary structure underpinning the song went unnoticed. His original compositions were readily adopted as national airs, because their character and atmosphere fulfilled listeners’ expectations of a national style.

Representative sources

‘A New Song. Set to Music by Mr. Shield’, The Lady’s Magazine, vol. 9, June 1778, facing p. 328. Full score and text.

‘Johnny and Mary. A Scots Song. Introduc’d by Miss Catley in Love in a Village’, A Collection of Songs, sung at Vauxhall by Mrs. Weichsell, to which is added Johnny and Mary, a Ballad introduced by Miss Catley in Love in a Village… (London: W. Napier, [1780?]), pp. 14-15. Full score and text.

‘Johnny and Mary. The favorite new Scotch song. Introduc’d by Miss Catley in Love in a Village,’ (London: [Jonathan Fentum], [ca. 1780]). Guitar arrangement.

‘Song CXXXVIII’, The Vocal Enchantress, presenting an Elegant Selection of the Most Favourite Hunting, Sea, Love & Miscellaneous Songs (London: J. Fielding, [1783]), pp. 278-279. Melody and text.

‘Song CCXIX. Johnny and Mary. Sung by Miss Catley’, The goldfinch, or new modern songster. Being a select collection of the most admired and favourite Scots and English songs, cantatas, &c. (Glasgow: [1785?]), pp. 195-196. Text only.

‘Johnny and Mary. A Scots Song. Sung at Vauxhall by Mrs. Cubitt 1782. Introduc’d by Miss Catley in Love in a Village’ ([London], [1785?]). Full score and text (reprint).

‘Johnny and Mary’, The Scots Musical Museum (Edinburgh: James Johnson & Co., 1787 [1788, 1790, 1792], 6 vols), vol. 1, p.100.

‘Johnny and Mary, A Favourite New Scots Song, introduced by Miss Catley, in Love in a Village’, The Billington: or, town and country songster: containing upwards of seven hundred of the newest and most approved songs, Duets, Trios, Cantatas, Catches, and Glees; In Which Are Included, All The Favourite Airs That Have Been Sung At The Theatres From 1760 To This Present Season, And The New Songs Sung At Ranelagh And Vauxhall This Summer…. (London: E. Wenman, [1790]), pp. 197-198. Text only.

‘Down the bourn, or through the mead’, The sky lark. Being an Elegant Collection of the Best and Newest Songs in the English Language. (London: [1791]), pp. 178-179. Text only.

‘Johnny and Mary’, Antient and modern Scotish songs heroic ballads &c in two volumes… (Edinburgh: Lawrie & Symington and Thomas Brown, [1791?], 2 vols), vol. 2, pp. 324-325. Text only.

‘Johnny and Anna’, The Cheerful Companion, in his hours of leisure: containing upwards of two hundred songs, catches, glees, &c. Selected from the best publications, Ancient and Modern, with many valuable originals, ed. G Cunningham (Bath: R. Cruttwell, 1797), pp. 88-89. Text only.

‘Johnny and Mary’, (New York: J. Hewitt; Philadelphia: B. Carr; Baltimore: J. Carr, [1798]) Full score and text.

‘Johnny and Mary, a favorite Scotch song for a voice & harpsichord, sung by Mrs Billington, in Love in a Village’, (London: Bland & Weller, [c. 1800]). Full score and text.

‘Johnny and Mary. A favorite Scots song’, (Glasgow: J. Stevens, [c. 1810]) Full score and text.

‘Johnny and Mary’, A Selection of the Most Beautiful Scotch Melodies, Including those Performed in Guy Mannering, Rob Roy and The Heart of Midlothian, 2nd ed. (London: W. Blackman, 1820), pp. 10-11. Duet arrangement for flutes, flageolets or violins.

Addison, Amélie. ‘National airs in the life and works of William Shield (1748-1829)’ PhD thesis (University of Leeds, forthcoming).

Allston Brown, T. A history of the New York stage: from the first performance in 1732 to 1901, 3 vols (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1903) vol. 1, pp.11-13.

W. Hazlitt, ed. Memoirs of the late Thomas Holcroft (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown, 1816), pp. 280-282.

Napier, William, ed. A Selection of the most Favourite Scots Songs chiefly Pastoral adapted for the Harpsichord with an Accompaniment for a Violin by Eminent Masters (London: Napier, 1790), vol. 1, pp. 2, 4, 6-9, 23, 33, 39, 42, 62, 76.

Schneider, B. R. ed. Index to The London Stage 1660-1800 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, c.1979).

Shield, William. Rudiments of Throughbass (London: Robinson, 1815), pp. 35-38.

Vaughan Williams Memorial Library online catalogue, www.vwml. org.uk/search, accessed 20 October 2018. Index no. V7521.

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