Did Boswell (Johnson's biog) play music?
Lyrics & Knowledge Personal Pages Record Shop Auction Links Radio & Media Kids Membership Help
The Mudcat Cafeawe

Post to this Thread - Sort Descending - Printer Friendly - Home

Did Boswell (Johnson's biog) play music?

Bonnie Shaljean 03 Aug 11 - 01:34 PM
greg stephens 03 Aug 11 - 02:05 PM
Bonnie Shaljean 03 Aug 11 - 02:29 PM
Matthew Edwards 03 Aug 11 - 02:53 PM
Max Johnson 03 Aug 11 - 03:02 PM
Bonnie Shaljean 03 Aug 11 - 03:52 PM
Jim McLean 03 Aug 11 - 04:07 PM
meself 03 Aug 11 - 04:23 PM
Matthew Edwards 03 Aug 11 - 05:01 PM
Bonnie Shaljean 03 Aug 11 - 06:29 PM
Jack Campin 03 Aug 11 - 07:04 PM
Bonnie Shaljean 03 Aug 11 - 07:24 PM
Jack Campin 03 Aug 11 - 08:37 PM
Matthew Edwards 04 Aug 11 - 04:50 AM
Bonnie Shaljean 04 Aug 11 - 04:57 AM
Matthew Edwards 04 Aug 11 - 06:30 PM
Bonnie Shaljean 18 Aug 11 - 01:56 PM
GUEST,leeneia 18 Aug 11 - 10:42 AM
Bonnie Shaljean 19 Aug 11 - 12:24 PM
GUEST,Working Radish 12 Mar 12 - 08:44 AM
Share Thread
Lyrics & Knowledge Search [Advanced]
DT  Forum
Sort (Forum) by:relevance date
DT Lyrics:

Subject: Did Boswell (Johnson's biog) play music?
From: Bonnie Shaljean
Date: 03 Aug 11 - 01:34 PM

This is a question I've recently posted in a site dedicated to James Boswell (Samuel Johnson's famous biographer - I hadn't realised just how good his writing is). The following is actually a combination of two posts, but I've had no answers so far. Here goes:

I am interested in what, if any, connection Boswell might have had with music - did he play an instrument? I'm trying to find out as much as I can about his musical activities (if there were any) and related interests. He writes in his Hebridean journal about singing a verse of a song in Erse, but that seems to be more focused on his abilities in the language (or the determination of a lady to teach him some) than the music itself. There are assorted other references to music, but I've seen nothing that indicates he played it himself.

I'm asking this question because there's a tune in the Gow Collection (c.1796 though it could also be later) which is supposedly "composed & communicated by Mr James Boswell" and another one in the John French Collection (1801) titled "Mr James Boswell's Jig". These are both Scottish sources, more or less contemporaneous with JB's lifespan, so I was wondering if they could have come from the Boswell, or else his son (for whom I can't find any hard evidence or references either).

But I've seen nothing substantial so far. It's always possible that the jig-playing James Boswell is someone else entirely: Publishers of that period were certainly not above being ambiguous when crediting their music if the contributor had the same name as a famous person - it helped them to sell more books. Normally they gave no attributions at all in these old collections, so to have something flagged as being composed and communicated by a specific individual is unusual, and smacks a little of advertising.

But it's beginning to look less and less likely that Johnson's Boswell is the originator of these pieces. Surely when he was discussing the playing of musical instruments with Johnson, he'd have made some mention of his own experience in that field? Or some scholar would have commented on it by now? I'm going to keep looking anyway, and will be grateful for any findings.

I still have this nagging half-memory of reading somewhere about Boswell playing a (?) violin, though this may be a mis-conflation with something else. Stranger still, when I asked my partner Michael (no mean historian himself) about it, he said he had the same impression. Folie deux, perhaps? Any help out there? Thanks!

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Did Boswell (Johnson's biog) play music?
From: greg stephens
Date: 03 Aug 11 - 02:05 PM

Well I've spent a good proportion of my life looking for references to traditional music in whatever I happen to be reading, and I can't say I've ever noticed anything about Boswell's musical activities. Mind you, it's a long time since I read the life of Johnson.

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Did Boswell (Johnson's biog) play music?
From: Bonnie Shaljean
Date: 03 Aug 11 - 02:29 PM

I see that the French Collection also has Mrs Boswell of Auchinleck's Reel (which makes a nice air too, though a rhythmic one rather than slow) so this tune at least refers to the right family and is around the relevant period. But neither of the titles in French's anthology actually claims to be BY Boswell, whereas the piece in Gow ("Shelah O'Neal" in 6/8 time) does. But then, we know that Nathaniel Gow played fast & loose with the truth on more than one occasion.

So maybe these are written for the Boswells instead? Still interested to know more, if more is to be had.

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Did Boswell (Johnson's biog) play music?
From: Matthew Edwards
Date: 03 Aug 11 - 02:53 PM

I think a useful book to consult, if you can find it in a library, would be David Johnson's 'Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century'. I have got a copy of his excellent later book 'Scottish Fiddle Music in the Eighteenth Century' which has no mention of Boswell in its index.
Boswell certainly wrote some songs; 'Cut him down, Susie' is one which I've come across.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Did Boswell (Johnson's biog) play music?
From: Max Johnson
Date: 03 Aug 11 - 03:02 PM

I would say not.
E. H. Shepard's 'Everybody's Boswell' makes reference to Boswell's comments on the effects of music, but none at all to his playing.

"In the evening our gentleman-farmer, and two others, entertained on the fiddle. Johnson desired to have 'Let Ambition Fire Thy Mind' played over again and appeared to give a patient attention to it, although he owned to me that he was very insensible to the power of music. I told him that it affected me to such a degree as often to agitate my nerves painfully, producing in my mind alternate sensations of pathetic dejection, so that I was ready to shed tears; and of daring resolution, so that I was inclined to rush into the thickest part of the battle. "Sir", said he, "I should never hear it, if it made me such a fool".

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Did Boswell (Johnson's biog) play music?
From: Bonnie Shaljean
Date: 03 Aug 11 - 03:52 PM

Blimey. Not only does French give us the aforesaid two tunes for Mr James Boswell and Mrs Boswell of Auchinleck, I see there's also a Mr Boswell of Auchinleck's Reel and a Miss Boswell's Reel. Wait hours for a bus and then four come along at once...

Not sure what to make of this - the Auchinleck Boswells are the right family at the right time. Perhaps some local muso was trying to curry favour with them by immortalising them in melody?

Thanks for the good suggestions, everybody. Matthew, can you tell me any more about "Cut Him Down, Susie" (cut him down from where, I darkly wonder)? I don't have either of the books you mention, and a cursory Googleabout yields nothing illuminating. Do you happen to know if JB fit words to an existing trad tune, as people often did, and if so, which one it was? I'm certainly interested to know of any songs he wrote, particularly the airs used for them.

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Did Boswell (Johnson's biog) play music?
From: Jim McLean
Date: 03 Aug 11 - 04:07 PM

"Alexander, eldest son of Johnson's biographer, inherited his father's love of literature. Some of the songs, such as Skeldon Haughs or the Sow flitted, Jenny's Bawbee and Jenny Dang the Weaver, and the singularly realistic domestic quarrel and reconciliation detailed in The East Neuk of Fife. Also included is his The New Whig Song, which after being published in The Glasgow Sentinel, led to a challenge from James Stuart, of Dunearn. In the ensuing duel Boswell was fatally wounded".

Some of these songs are traditional but Bosweel's son is accredited with quite a few Scottish songs.

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Did Boswell (Johnson's biog) play music?
From: meself
Date: 03 Aug 11 - 04:23 PM

I recall no mention of Bos. as a musician from my spotty reading. In James Boswell the Earlier Years 1740-1769 by F.A. Pottle, there is nothing listed in the index under 'music', 'fiddle', 'violin', 'tune',
'dance' (except as a surname), or 'song'....

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: Lyr Add: CUT HIM DOWN, SUSIE (James Boswell)
From: Matthew Edwards
Date: 03 Aug 11 - 05:01 PM

by James Boswell

Cut him down, Susie:
Haste ye wi' your gully knife -
Ye'se get him for your ain gudeman,
Gin ye contrive to save his life.

Cut him down and tak him hame
And send for folk to dance and sing,
And pit your arms about the neck
That on the gallows tree did hing.

These verses are quoted in Love, Labour and Liberty: the eighteenth-century Scottish Lyric ed. Thomas Crawford, Carcanet Press, 1976 and they come from the Boswell MSS in Yale University Library but Crawford doesn't assign any date to them. No tune is indicated, and it may be more a poem than a song although it does look very like a song.

It could possibly refer to the very difficult trial of John Reid a sheep-stealer in 1774 which Boswell, as his defence lawyer, expected to win, as he had done for him in his first criminal case in 1766. He was devastated when he lost this time, and John Reid was hanged still protesting his innocence. (See DNB entry for James Boswell.)


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Did Boswell (Johnson's biog) play music?
From: Bonnie Shaljean
Date: 03 Aug 11 - 06:29 PM

Thanks so much for posting the song, Matthew. Those words are utterly intriguing. On first reading I thought Boswell was being ironic and satiric, sort of a Brecht-before-his-time. But interest in the story caused me to dig around for a bit of background info, and after reading the book review below*, made me rethink my initial reaction. I would love to know at exactly what point in the saga he wrote those verses - after the execution was a fait accompli, or beforehand when he still entertained expectations of reprieve/revival? Each interpretation throws the song - and Bozzy himself - into a completely different light. Fascinating.

* [Bear in mind that this piece was written in 1960 when the book came out - in any case, its price gives it away]

BOSWELL FOR THE DEFENCE: 1769-1774 (396 pp.); Edited by William K. Wimsatt Jr. and Frederick A. Pottle; McGraw-Hill ($6.95)

"I have a constant plan to write the life of Mr. Johnson," noted the young man. "I have not told him of it yet, nor do I know if I should tell him."

The remark calls up many an obligatory movie scene about the crucial creative moment in the lives of great artists (Wench: "What's troubling you, Will?" Shakespeare: "Oh, nothing, I'm just a little sicklied o'er ... I think I shall go home and write Hamlet"). But in this instance, the offhand remark is real; it was set down by James Boswell in his journal on March 31, 1772.

The latest volume of the delightful Yale University series, The Private Papers of James Boswell (seven published, eight or ten to come) opens in 1769, when Boswell is a fast-rising, 29-year-old Edinburgh lawyer. Thanks to his bestselling book, The Account of Corsica, he is also a writer perhaps better known on the Continent than Sam Johnson himself. Bozzy's vagarious search for a wife, described in the previous volume, has succeeded, and for the moment at least he is well-behaved. When he visits London in 1772 without his wife, he is tempted by "a variety of fine girls, genteelly dressed, all wearing Venus's girdle, all inviting me to amorous intercourse." But with a heroic mustering of conscience, he resists the flourish of strumpets and confines himself to conversation and claret.

During various other jaunts to London and his famous ramble through the Hebrides with Johnson, Boswell is at his best. The pictures he draws are wine-smeared and flecked with spittle, but they catch a brilliant likeness: Oliver Goldsmith fuming because he cannot break into a conversation dominated by Johnson; Johnson himself, with his "robust and rather dreadful figure, lumbering in attendance to a beautiful dinner-partner"; Mrs. Boswell trying hard to be polite to Johnson despite his "irregular hours and uncouth habits."

Bozzy's law practice prospered. Most of his cases were civil matters, but generosity and a liking for publicity prompted him to defend a succession of penniless thieves and murderers. His most notable case gives the volume a somber ending. With great eloquence, Boswell defends John Reid, who is accused of sheep stealing. The man is condemned to the gallows, apparently more because of poor reputation than any commanding weight of evidence. Boswell fights hard for a commutation but gets only a short stay of execution.

Lawyer Boswell gets roisteringly drunk when the sentence is passed and brags about "the admirable appearance which I had made in court." The humanitarian lawyer, the reader sees, dwells in the same skin as a grimy little boy gleefully obsessed with a hanging. Boswell plagues the condemned man with questions about how it feels to be condemned, chats with him of a woman who is called "half-hangit Maggie" because she survived the gibbet, and happily plans an experiment to revive Reid's corpse.
Boswell for the Defence is, inevitably, drawn in darker shades than the earlier volumes, but is no less fascinating. The author, as usual, shows himself stark naked, and fully justifies his boast: "I have really a genius for particular history, for biography."

- Time Magazine, February 1st, 1960,9171,826105,00.html

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Did Boswell (Johnson's biog) play music?
From: Jack Campin
Date: 03 Aug 11 - 07:04 PM

Those Boswell tunes were for James Boswell the lawyer/biographer. There is more music for his son Alexander, who was rather better known.

I have a lot of stuff about various Boswells in my "Embro, Embro' pages. Mrs Boswell's tune has a rather twisted story behind it.

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Did Boswell (Johnson's biog) play music?
From: Bonnie Shaljean
Date: 03 Aug 11 - 07:24 PM

Cheers, Jack! (Assume the twisted story about Mrs B is in there somewhere?)

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Did Boswell (Johnson's biog) play music?
From: Jack Campin
Date: 03 Aug 11 - 08:37 PM

Somewhere in the section about the law.

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Lyr Add: Cut Him Down, Susie
From: Matthew Edwards
Date: 04 Aug 11 - 04:50 AM

This site ABC notation gives the tune as it appears in The Athole Collection:-

T:Cut Him Down Susie
B:The Athole Collection
B|AF E>FG>B|AF Add:|
|:B|Ag f>dc>A|Ag gf|g>ef>d e>dc>A|B>c e/d/c/B/ Add:|

Nigel Gatherer's notes on
Kerr's Collections state that the tune, a strathspey, is also known as Knock him down Susie, Cut him down Shusie, or even as Susie (Cut him down).

The online Fiddler's Companion comments that according to the Glen Collection of Scottish Dance Music, 1891 the tune was first printed by Neil Stewart in 1761. This would presumably be A Collection of the newest and best reels or country dances, printed in Edinburgh by Neil Stewart c.1761-1765. Can anyone confirm this early source for the tune?


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Did Boswell (Johnson's biog) play music?
From: Bonnie Shaljean
Date: 04 Aug 11 - 04:57 AM

A music manuscript from 1812 compiled by Elizabeth Ross of Raasay has just gone online as a free PDF download - I'm shortly going to flag it in a new thread where I'll give the link.

It is relevant here because Boswell & Johnson stayed in the house where this music was set down. It's probably easiest to let its Introduction speak for itself:

Compiled around 1812, this is the earliest unpublished collection of Highland vocal and instrumental music and unique in that it apparently represents the wide-ranging musical repertory known to Gaelic-speaking inhabitants of one Hebridean island, Raasay, including the aristocratic Highland home of James MacLeod, laird of Raasay. ...

We have little information on life in Raasay house during the time that Elizabeth Ross was living there but it was probably still the hospitable, happy and musical home about which both Johnson and Boswell had written so enthusiastically during their travels around Scotland in 1773, some forty years earlier. ...

Tune No. 27: Morag ['S i luaidh mo chagair Mrag - Morag is the theme of everything I say] This tune has evidently been popular since the mid-late eighteenth century though most published versions, while similar to ER's, have been modified to suit accompanying harmonies. The earliest known mention of the air is linked to an anonymous verse attack on Samuel Johnson in Gillies' 1786 collection, pp.173179, where the verse is there said to be "Eir fonn. 'S i laoigh mo chagair Morag, &c." Johnson's account of his visit to the Western isles in 1773 as well as that of his companion Boswell appeared in 1775.

For interest, I have copied out a portion of Boswell's account of their visit, in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, which really brings to life the environment that nurtured Elizabeth and gave rise to her musical collection. Afterwards there follows a description of the island itself, some local legends and customs, and more Johnsonian pearls. Here is how the house that this manuscript was compiled in, and the people who lived there, struck Boswell. Their journey over to Raasay is worth citing too, for the mention of the singing of the rowers and reapers, the description of Highland dress, and not least, the heroic image of the redoubtable Dr. Johnson poised on the stern of an open boat in a windy sea.


       When I waked, the rain was much heavier than yesterday; but the wind had abated. By breakfast, the day was better, and in a little while it was calm and clear. I felt my spirits much elated. ... Somebody observed that Sir Alexander Macdonald was always frightened at sea. Johnson: "He is frightened at sea; and his tenants are frightened when he comes to land."
       We resolved to set out directly [for Raasay] after breakfast. We had about two miles to the sea-side, and there we expected to get one of the boats belonging to the fleet of bounty-herring busses then on the coast. But while we were preparing to set out, there arrived a man with the following card from the Reverend Mr. Donald M'Queen:
       "Mr. M'Queen's compliments to Mr. Boswell, and begs leave to acquaint him that, fearing the want of a proper boat, as much as the rain of yesterday, might have caused a stop, he is now ... to convey him and Dr. Johnson to Rasay, where they will meet with a most hearty welcome, and where MacLeod, being on a visit, now attends their motions."
       This card was most agreeable: it was a prologue to that hospitable and truly polite reception which we found at Rasay. In a little while arrived Mr. Donald M'Queen himself: a decent minister, an elderly man with his own black hair, courteous, and rather slow of speech, but candid, sensible, and well informed, nay learned. Along with him came, as our pilot, a gentleman whom I had a great desire to see, Mr. Malcolm Macleod, one of the Rasay family. ... He wore a pair of brogues, Tartan hose which came up only near to his knees, and left them bare, a purple camblet kilt, a black waistcoat, a short green cloth coat bound with gold cord, a yellowish bushy wig, a large blue bonnet with a gold thread button. I never saw a figure that gave a more perfect representation of a Highland gentleman. ...
       We got into Rasay's carriage, which was a good strong open boat made in Norway. The wind had now risen pretty high, and was against us; but we had four stout rowers, particularly a Macleod, a robust black-haired fellow, half naked, and bare-headed, something between a wild Indian and an English tar. Dr. Johnson sat high on the stern, like a magnificent Triton. Malcolm sung an Erse song, the chorus of which was 'Hatyin, foam foam, eri', with words of his own. The tune resembled "Owr the muir amang the heather". The boatmen chorused, and all went well. ...
       In the confusion and hurry of this boisterous sail, Dr. Johnson's spurs, of which Joseph had charge, were carried over-board into the sea, and lost. This was the first misfortune that had befallen us. Dr. Johnson was a little angry at first, observing that there was something wild in letting a pair of spurs be carried into the sea out of a boat. ...
       The approach to Rasay was very pleasing. We saw before us a beautiful bay, well defended by a rocky coast; a good family mansion; a fine verdure about it, with a considerable number of trees; and beyond it hills and mountains in gradations of wildness. Our boatmen sung with great spirit. Dr. Johnson observed that naval musick was very ancient. As we came near the shore, the singing of our rowers was succeeded by that of reapers, who were busy at work, and who seemed to shout as much as sing, while they worked with a bounding activity. ...
       I perceived a large company coming out from the house. We met them as we walked up. ... We were welcomed upon the green, and conducted into the house, where we were introduced to Lady Rasay, who was surrounded by a numerous family, consisting of three sons and ten daughters. The laird of Rasay is a sensible, polite, and most hospitable gentleman ... and so far is he from distressing his people that, in the present rage for emigration, not a man has left his estate. ...
       Some excellent brandy was served round immediately, according to the custom of the Highlands. ... On a side-board was placed for us, who had come off the sea, a substantial dinner, and a variety of wines. Then we had coffee and tea. I observed in the room several elegantly bound books, and other marks of improved life. Soon afterwards a fiddler appeared, and a little ball began. Rasay himself danced with as much spirit as any man; and Malcolm bounded like a roe. ...
       Dr. Johnson was so delighted with this scene that he said, "I know not how we shall get away." It entertained me to observe him sitting by while we danced, sometimes in deep meditation, sometimes smiling complacently, sometimes looking upon Hooke's Roman History... We had a company of thirty at supper; and all was good humour and gaiety, without intemperance.

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Did Boswell (Johnson's biog) play music?
From: Matthew Edwards
Date: 04 Aug 11 - 06:30 PM

Well I asked my brother in Edinburgh to check his copy of Boswell's Edinburgh Journals 1767-1786; several days later he has reported back that -

"got distracted by all sorts of interesting digressions in Boswell's Journals but no, nothing about him fiddling or playing any other instrument. Any spare time not spent drinking, womanising, theatre-going, conversing and corresponding, etc seems to dabbled a bit with writing poetry but not music. Though obviously he went to some pretty boisterous establishments where no doubt there was music."


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Did Boswell (Johnson's biog) play music?
From: Bonnie Shaljean
Date: 18 Aug 11 - 01:56 PM

I opened this thread with

> This is a question I've recently posted in a site dedicated to James Boswell

and what an answer I've just seen there, from what appears to be the owner of that site (, Thomas Frandzen. Turns out we're wrong. Boswell did play an instrument. The flute. The link to my thread is:

My own posts (which aren't in chronological order for some reason) are pretty much what I've written here, but scroll down to the reply after my initial message if you want some interesting and detailed information regarding this question. My thanks again to Thomas Frandzen!

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Did Boswell (Johnson's biog) play music?
From: GUEST,leeneia
Date: 18 Aug 11 - 10:42 AM

So, in being an indifferent flute player, I follow the footsteps of the famous Boswell. Good!

I enjoy thinking about Boswell forgetting about Johnson for a time and pursuing the flute on his own pleasure.

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Did Boswell (Johnson's biog) play music?
From: Bonnie Shaljean
Date: 19 Aug 11 - 12:24 PM

I'm going to refresh this thread because when I posted the link directly above, we'd just had the Great Mudslide of '11 and it never really got its chance at the top. Thomas Frandzen's message in that Boswell website is well worth reading for anyone interested in his musical connections.

The thread with the link to the 1812 Eliza Ross Ms. is here

Online: Scottish music manuscript 1812

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Did Boswell (Johnson's biog) play music?
From: GUEST,Working Radish
Date: 12 Mar 12 - 08:44 AM

Many thanks to the spammer who unwittingly refreshed this thread - I might never have seen it otherwise! Fascinating stuff, & good sleuthing all.

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate
  Share Thread:

Reply to Thread
Subject:  Help
Preview   Automatic Linebreaks   Make a link ("blue clicky")

Mudcat time: 18 April 11:35 AM EDT

[ Home ]

All original material is copyright 1998 by the Mudcat Caf Music Foundation, Inc. All photos, music, images, etc. are copyright by their rightful owners. Every effort is taken to attribute appropriate copyright to images, content, music, etc. We are not a copyright resource.