April Tune of the Month: Johnnie Cope

We eked in the video for April, but unfortunately travels and performances have delayed the writeup until now! Without further ado, here’s “Johnnie Cope”:

This is an old song about the Battle of Prestonpans in the ‘45, where Hanoverian troops under General John Cope were badly defeated by a Highland charge through the marsh at 4 o’ clock in the morning.

Our setting is based on David Johnson’s reprint from the McLean collection, with the bass line theoretically reconstructed by myself and in practice made up brilliantly by Jeremy. Johnson confirms folk legend by attributing the lyrics to Adam Skirving, the farmer who owned the fields marched across by the armies. Skirving likely composed the ground tune as well, but this is less easy to prove. Johnson considers the typesetting of the tune clear evidence that McLean himself didn’t come up with the variations, but until I see a facsimile of the original I’m withholding judgment. To my mind it could just as easily have been a mistake by the engraver. It’s also possible that McLean’s role was less as a composer and more as a collector curator of the best variations floating around at the time. If you have a PDF of the original collection I’d love to see it, but for now we must make do with Johnson’s edited, bassless reprint:

Modern playing usually transposes the tune into a more fiddle-friendly key (such as A minor) and renders it as a reel. The 16th-note variations suggest a more relaxed, “sticky” tempo to me, though, which is backed up by the relative ease in singing at that tempo. And the haughty arrogance of the lyrics themselves—Jacobites aren’t ones to rush through an opportunity to mock the English. I used the tune as a march to win the US Nationals, but without the constraints of competition I prefer letting the feel and tempo go where it will rather than enforcing a metronomic, marching quality.

Copyright © 2017 Tim Macdonald