As it was Burns Night earlier this week, I thought I’d share the following:
‘During the last eight years of his life, Burns directed most of his talents to the writing of songs. Though there are a few songs in the 1786 Kilmarnock and 1787 Edinburgh Poems, it may be doubted whether Burns ever thought very seriously of devoting himself to Scottish song literature; and, but for James Johnson, Burns’s songs, “which we reckon by far the best that Britain has yet produced,” might be died still-born … According to Snyder, whose account of the poetical work that Burns did for Johnson is very thorough, Burns seems virtually to have been the editor of the Museum almost from its beginning until his death in 1796’ (Egerer, A Bibliography of Robert Burns, pp. 26–7).
James Johnson’s ‘place in history is entirely due to his pivotal role in conceiving of, printing, and publishing the six-volume Scots Musical Museum between April 1787 and June 1803. Composed of six hundred songs, it remains the most substantive, valuable, and comprehensive collection of Scots song ever published. Although it became a work of enduring quality primarily through the contributions of Robert Burns, credit for devising the base for this seminal collection must go to Johnson. That he was on the point of publishing part one of his proposed two-volume book on Scots, English, and Irish song when he met Burns, and was happy to see his proposal evolve and develop its exclusively Scottish theme, reflects favourably on both his good taste and his commercial sense. His role has been sadly overlooked, as the collection resulted from his instant recognition and encouragement of Burns, combined with his wisdom in allowing his most important contributor a free hand in identifying, writing, selecting, and editing songs such as “Auld Lang Syne” and “Killiecrankie”’ (Oxford DNB).