Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Origins of Vernacular Scots Gospel Music? : The "Psalms of Dundee" or "The Gude and Godlie Ballates", Dundee, 1546

"...a little volume which, after the Bible itself, did more for the spread of reformation doctrines than any other book published in Scotland..."


As the Reformation began to take hold in Scotland in the early 1500s, the area around Fife, St Andrews and Dundee became a hotbed of Reformation activity. Patrick Hamilton was burned at the stake in St Andrews in 1528, aged just 24, and his successor, George Wishart, suffered the same fate in the same town in 1546.

The early Scottish Reformers in the area used what even today would be regarded as creative techniques to spread the gospel – street theatre and contemporary songs.

In the History of Dundee, Robert Small (first published 1792) wrote of satirical plays and dramas being written and performed in Dundee in 1540 – in conjunction with Wishart’s preaching they had a huge impact on the local people.

Much of this material was written by three local brothers named Wedderburn, who had been students at St Andrews University, and two of whom may well have been there when Patrick Hamilton was martyred. Two of their dramas included a satire about the beheading of John the Baptist, and a comedy about Dionysius " which also he handled the Papists severely...". The Wedderburns also turned their creative energies to writing and compiling popular songs, often using existing folk tunes but writing sacred and pro-Reformation lyrics for them. In essence, they hijacked the popular culture of their generation to spread the gospel. Reformers in Italy and Holland were already doing the same (see Laing’s preface in the PDF link below)

James Wedderburn was the oldest of the three; the middle brother John had to flee to Germany where he continued the work – there he “…changed many obscene songs and rhymes into hymns…” (Small, p 96). They “…turned the tunes and tenor of many profane ballads into godly songs and hymns, which were called the ‘Psalms of Dundee’, whereby he stirred up the affections of many…” (Small p 97). The youngest of the three, Robert Wedderburn, the Vicar of Dundee, ended up in Paris and joined with the leaders of the French Reformation. Robert had written a scorching document entitled "The Complaynt of Scotlande" (PDF link here), in which he stated that it was "...unpossible that Scottis men and Inglis men can remain in concord under ane monarchy or ane prince, because ther naturis and conditiouns are as indefferent as is the nature of scheip and wolvis....".

Robert had had been fined in 1543 for destroying images in the local monasteries. When the troops of Henry VIII invaded Dundee in 1547, they burned Robert's house to the ground as they retreated, with the English officer, Sir Andrew Dudley, writing to his superior to plead that they must send to Dundee "a good preacher and good books, for they desire it much here, and I think it would do more good than fire and sword". The creativity and dedication of the three Wedderburn brothers was having a revolutionary effect in Scotland.

According to Prothero's The Psalms in Human Life, the night in December 1545 before George Wishart was arrested, he and a group of friends sang Psalm 51 from the Wedderburn brothers' collection (see Prothero p 262 & 263)

The collection was first published sometime between 1542 and 1546, and was entitled A Compendious book of Psalms and Spiritual Songs Commonly Known as "The Gude and Godlie Ballates". The book contained 112 different pieces and was described as “Presbyterian propaganda”, with various editions printed up until 1621. It was reprinted again in the mid 1800s (PDF version available here - printed copies of even this later edition are rare and it took me a fair while to track one down at a reasonable price. The only one on Abebooks will set you back £65.00, but reprint editions are cheaper.)

The Wedderburn strategy wasn't to make the church worldly, rather it was the other way round - they seized hold of elements of the world's secular culture and turned them into powerful tools for Reformation and the gospel.

Their approach has been analysed in an article by Anne Geddes Gilchrist entitled 'Sacred Parodies of Secular Folk Songs: A Study of the Gude and Godlie Ballates of the Wedderburn Brothers' (Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, vol III no 3, 1938, pp 157-182).

Here's a great quote, reinforcing the importance of the Gude and Godlie Ballates, from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

"...It was about the year 1546 that there appeared a little volume which, after the Bible itself, did more for the spread of reformation doctrines than any other book published in Scotland. As no copy of this edition has been preserved, we can only conjecture its contents from the first edition of which we possess a specimen—that of 1567, apparently an enlarged edition of the original. The book generally known in Scotland as The Gude and Godlie Ballatis is, next to Knox’s Historie of the Reformatioun, the most memorable literary monument of the period in vernacular Scots..."

- The Wedderburns and their Work (1867)
- the image of the three Wedderburn brothers above is from this website)