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The Slave’s Lament

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Robert Burns’ song The Slave’s Lament is based on a late 17th century broadside ballad, The Trappan’d Maiden, or, the Distressed Damsel [ Roud V35791 ] about an English girl sold to Virginia.

Jean Redpath sang The Slave’s Lament in 1981 on her Philo/Greentrax album The Songs of Robert Burns Volumes 3. Serge and Esther Hovey noted:

The melodies that Burns most often selected for his songs were fine Scottish traditional tunes. There is an interesting minority, however, that utilizes tunes of far different origins. The melody for The Slave’s Lament has all the characteristics of a Jewish lamentation in the Ashkenazic Ahavoh-Rabboh mode. Nothing more is known of the origin of this tune which Burns contributed along with his lyrics to Scots Musical Museum. For the lyrics, Burns remodeled a broadside ballad, The Trapann’d Maid:

Give ear unto a maid
That lately was betrayed
And sent into Virginny, O (etc.)

Eliza Carthy sang The Slave’s Lament in 1994 on Waterson:Carthy’s eponymous debut album Waterson:Carthy. Martin Carthy noted:

I must say that when I heard The Slave’s Lament for the first time and was told that it was Robert Burns song I did think, “Oh yeah?” and was quite convinced that it was one of his “improvements”. However, Hamish Henderson of the School of Scottish Studies is adamant that it is, in fact, all Burns’s work, and he knows, so there it is. I did hear an America singer called Mary Eagle sing a traditional American song which had fairly solid echoes of it, but all that tells you is how close Burns remained to the music and poetry he grew up with. It’s an astonishing song, I think, the kind that can imprint itself on the brain on one hearing, which was what happened to me when I heard Jean Redpath sing it on record a few years ago. I sang it to Eliza who immediately got our collected Burns out, learned it and did this arrangement. Nice to know that people in the late 18th / early 19th centuries found slavery loathsome, and not to have to deal with those ‘they were men of their time’ thoughts for once.

Sheena Wellington sang The Slave’s Lament in a concert at Nitten (Newtongrange) Folk Club, Scotland, that was published in 1995 on her Greentrax CD Strong Women. She noted:

One of the most fascinating of all the songs of Burns, contributed to vol 4 of The Scots Musical Museum. It is believed that he wrote it after seeing an overcrowded slave hulk in the port of Dundee, remodelling a broadside ballad The Trepann’d Maid. Kinsley has traced the tune to a 17th century broadside in the Roxburgh Ballads but it may have roots in Jewish lamentation. I do not remember making a conscious decision not to repeat the last two lines of each stanza but it may be that the very brevity gives it added poignancy. 19th century slave-owners bought quantities of concertinas as pacifiers for their black slaves so Simon [Thoumire]’s accompaniment here is very apt.

Christine Kydd sang The Slave’s Lament in 1996 on the anthology The Complete Songs of Robert Burns Volume 1, and in 1998 on Chantan’s CD Primary Colours. She returned to it in 2009 on their duo with Barbary Dumock, Sinsheen’s CD Lift. They noted:

In 1786 William Wilberforce made his first speech against the Slave trade, a call which grew into a popular Scottish movement for freedom, peaking in 1792. Burns accepted a position as bookkeeper on a West Indian sugar plantation in 1786 but then reneged after his first book of poems was published and his fame spread. Over the ensuing six years he developed an understanding of the iniquity of black slavery and this song appeared in the Scots Musical Museum in 1792. The manuscript is in the British Museum. Cecil Sharp believed it was a make-up from a street ballad entitled The Betrayed Maid, popular in the West of Scotland in the eighteenth century. The original of this is a black letter broadside entitled The Trepan’d Maiden, or The Distressed Damsel, beginning:

Give ear unto a maid,
That lately was betrayed,
And sent into Virginny O.

Burns gave the tune with the verses. William Stenhouse, the editor of an early 19th Century reissue of the Scots Musical Museum suggested that the tune is of African origin.

Battlefield Band sang The Slave’s Lament on their 2006 CD The Road of Tears.

Jack Crawford sang The Slave’s Lament in 2008 on his WildGoose CD Pride of the Season. He noted:

I am grateful to my good friend Sylvia Watts for introducing me to this song.The Slave’s Lament was published anonymously in the fourth volume of The Scots Musical Museum (Edinburgh, 1792), an extensive collection of Scottish folk songs to which Robert Burns was an enthusiastic contributor. It is known that Burns was responsible for its inclusion and it is likely that he composed the text himself, though it resembles an earlier blackletter broadside entitled The Trapann’d Maid.

I think it’s interesting to note that in 1792 Burns met and befriended Dr James Currie. As an impressionable young man, Currie had spent five years in Virginia during the social turmoil that led to the American War of Indepen­dence. He would have been no stranger to the condition of slaves there and his tales may have provided the inspiration for this haunting lament.

Wendy Stewart sang The Slave’s Lament on her and Gary West’s 2009 album Hinterlands. They noted:

One of Wendy’s favourite Burns songs. The sentiment has a certain irony as he almost emigrated to the West Indies to oversee a plantation. Coupled with the Grey Habanera written in a 19th-century Cuban dance style, this pairing links Scotland, Africa and the Americas.

Coope Boyes & Simpson sang The Slave’s Lament in 2010 on their No Masters CD As If.

Niamh Parsons sang The Slave’s Lament on her and Graham Dunne’s 2015 album Kind Providence. She noted:

Published in 1792 in the fourth volume of Scots Musical Museum by the engraver and song lover James Johnson who enlisted Robert Burns (1759-1796) as contributor and editor. Burns enthusiastically collected songs from various sources, often expanding or revising them, whilst including much of his own work. 1792 was the year that Denmark prohibited the Slave Trade, the first country to do so. Graham has brought a modern feel to the song.

Robyn Stapleton sang The Slave’s Lament on her 2017 CD Songs of Robert Burns. She noted:

A powerful reminder of man’s inhumanity to man.

Fiona Ross sang The Slave’s Lament in 2020 on her and Shane O’Mara’s CD Sunwise Turn. She noted:

In 1786, in a bid to escape the personal and financial difficulties surrounding him in Scotland, Robert Burns accepted a position on a slave plantation in the West Indies. Burns wrote this poem in 1792. It not only indicates the development of his own thoughts on slavery, but reflects the growing Abolitionist movement prevalent at the time. Burns’ work is based on a 17th century broadside entitled The Trapann’d Maid.


The Trappan’d Maiden, or, the Distressed Damsel

Give ear unto a maid, that lately was betray’d,
And sent into Virginny O:
In brief I shall declare, what I have suffered there,
When that I was weary, weary, weary, weary, O.

Eliza Carthy sings The Slave’s Lament

It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,
For the lands of Virginia, -ginia, O.
Torn from that lovely shore, I must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O.

All on that charming coast is no bitter snow and frost,
Like the lands of Virginia, -ginia, O:
Their streams for ever flow, and their flowers for ever blow,
And alas! I am weary, weary O.

The burden I must bear, while the cruel scourge I fear,
In the lands of Virginia, -ginia, O;
And I think on friends most dear, with the bitter, bitter tear,
And alas! I am weary, weary O.


See also the Encyclopedia Virginia article Indentured Servants in Colonial Virginia.