Robert Burns and Halloween

Mentioned briefly by Englishman William Shakespeare in Measure for Measure, Halloween — the word, if not the celebration itself — is in actuality, distinctly Scottish. The contraction Hallowe’en is first recorded in the eighteenth century Scottish folk ballad Young Tamlane (https://tam-lin NULL.org/library/stories_from_the_ballads NULL.html).  Of course, the Catholic feast of All Saints’ Day is centuries’ old, dating, some believe, to the 4th century. And the earliest form of the holiday’s name does appear in print as early as 1556 (where it is spelled, ‘Halhalon (http://www NULL.wordorigins NULL.org/index NULL.php/site/comments/halloween/)’ in the Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London). Still, it’s the Scots that can be thanked for much of what we associate today with Halloween. And marking the traditions of that day? Mentioning the holiday in some substantive way in a well-known (when it was written) work of literature? That distinction definitely goes to a Scotsman: Robert Burns.

Although the minor Scots poet John Mayne attempted to write about the subject in 1780, his work had apparently not caught on in the public imagination. Had Burns not seen it published in Ruddimans Weekly Magazine, it — and the subject — may have been forgotten, or at least put off until the next century. Yet something in Mayne’s work inspired Burns in 1785 to write his own poem, simply entitled “Halloween (https://en NULL.wikisource NULL.org/wiki/Halloween).” It was published in 1786, and the rest, as is often said with such things, is history. Except, one wonders how this history influenced our celebrations of Halloween. Or did it merely reflect it?

Edward Scriven’s engraving of John Masey Wright’s illustration to Robert Burns’ Halloween

Written in Scots and English, Halloween is a long poem (252 lines!). It briefly addresses the supernatural, but is quick to celebrate the common man, and the simple country life (with activities like harvesting apples and removing the chaff from wheat). Alternating among the activities of many characters, it is an oftentimes confusing poem. But it’s opening and ending are easy enough to follow.

In a matter of a single stanza, Burns suggests a playfulness among things supernatural. “Upon that night, when fairies light,” he begins. Adeptly, he sets the stage for both a traditionally spooky atmosphere (“beneath the moon’s pale beams”) and a lighthearted, supernatural romp (as the faeries set off “to sport that night”) — one that quickly shifts from supernatural to the simply human.

The common folk, it seems, also sing merry songs and play cheery sport. But to that celebration, Burns adds something less for faeries and more for the men and women of the poem: good food and drink. The poem ends with “buttered scones” that “set all their mouths a’stirring.”

Then, with a social glass of liquor,
They parted off careering
Full happy that night.

Robert Burns

There are games. Flirtations. Libations. Indeed, the party of the simple, country folk not only mirrors the celebration of the faeries, it surpasses them. For this one night, at least, men and women can be much like those creatures of the supernatural.

Here, there is no lament for the dead or overtly religious sentiment. The celebration is one of life, and not afterlife. Party. Not prayer. Fun, not fear. Hormones, not gravestones.

An’ mony lads an’ lasses’ fates
Are there that night decided

For that common man or woman, there’s simply the joy that comes with being human: celebrating life’s bounty — its earthly pleasures.

Can a direct line be drawn between the poem and modern traditions of Halloween? Of course not. The influence of other parts of the British Isles combined with distinctly Catholic contributions made by immigrants to America in the nineteenth century (like the blessing and exchange of “soul cakes” leading to the modern-day practice of trick-or-treating), all combine to form the holiday as we know it today. Add in some costumes, scary movies, and candy, and you’ve got the mash-up of elements that make for Halloween as we know it.

Still, a Scots poet can be credited with being the first figure in literary history to produce a work of some merit that takes All Hallow’s Eve and explores that special celebratory space between the natural and supernatural world. The poem is, in essence, a true Halloween party. Sans Snickers bars.

This from the man who also gave us Auld Lang Syne. But that’s another story for another day.

 

Idolization of Generation X

Overshadowed by early MTV darling Billy Idol’s enormous success in the 1980s, his band from the mid to late seventies, Generation X, gets overlooked in the history of punk music. Many argue that the reason for this exclusion is simple: that Generation X was more of a rock and pop band than punk. Unconcerned for the most part with politics, not interested in being anti-establishment, and unwilling to reject the music that came before them, Generation X was a band forever in the process of becoming something, but breaking apart before they fully ever became anything.

Billy Idol and Siouxsie Sioux
Billy Idol and Siouxsie Sioux, part of the Bromley Contingent

Generation X began as many punk bands did: inspired by the Sex Pistols. William Broad, a 21-year-old guitar playing university drop-out  was part of the infamous Bromley Contigent (https://pleasekillme NULL.com/bromley-contingent-early-punk-attitude/). Along with drummer John Towe, he placed an ad in Melody Maker, and was fortunate to find Tony James, a bass player, and Gene October, a singer. They formed a band called Chelsea, but very soon thereafter encountered tensions when October thought the sound of the band too anemic and lightweight. October left, and Broad, now calling himself Billy Idol, dropped the guitar and stepped up to the mic. Guitarist Bob Andrews was hired, and the foursome began playing gigs late in ’76: first at London’s Central School of Art & Design and soon thereafter at the Roxy. Calling themselves Generation X, it was clearly Idol’s and James’ band, and they soon turned from playing cover songs to original material. Supporting bands like the Police and the Jam in the spring of ’77, it was only a matter of time before they gained the attention of the music press, and subsequently, record companies. The summer saw them record their first single, “Your Generation.” Some personnel changes later, they would soon find themselves that Fall on Marc Bolan’s television program, along with Granada TV and even (as the first punk band ever to perform on) Top of the Pops. It was a whirlwind of a year, as popular culture began to embrace the punk sound on both sides of the Atlantic.

But Generation X were distinctly different from their contemporaries. They had neither the raw energy of the Damned or the spirit of the Clash. Nothing so unique as The Ramones. No semblance of the derision of The Dead Boys. They didn’t inspire the worldwide love / hate of the Sex Pistols, and they were far from the “new wave” of music emerging from bands like the Police, the Cure, Talking Heads and Television.

Instead, they stood somewhat alone as a band of relatively popular pretty-boy press darlings with moderate sales success (their single Day by Day, for example, only charted at #36 in the UK).

Indeed, even their name showed a lack of identity and a distance from their contemporaries. Idol claims he took the name from a book in his mother’s house: a 1965 study (https://www NULL.bbc NULL.com/news/magazine-26339959) of popular youth culture by British journalists Jane Deverson and Charles Hamblett that contained interviews with mods — disaffected anti-establishment youth that took inspiration from bands like Small Faces, The Who, and The Pretty Things. Generation X would cover John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth,” and reference a love for the Beatles and the Stones in “Ready Steady Go.” Later in life, in his autobiography, Idol would write that “Tony and I increasingly looked to the Who as a guide when attempting to suss out our development.” It would seem Generation X was a punk band mostly by association, playing a blend of melodic pop and rock while using punk rock’s speed and heavily distorted bar chords. In that same autobiography, Idol reveals how Tony James played him Bruce Springsteen. His “Jungleland” would inspire the narrative style of Generation X’s “Kiss Me Deadly.”

Generation X (self-titled), 1977
Generation X (self-titled), 1977

Unlike most punk bands, arguments and drugs (though they played a part) didn’t do Generation X in. It was the music. The decline in the quality of their music did not sit well with the record company. They followed up a brilliant and successful initial release (self-titled, in 1978) with an inferior sophomore effort: Valley of the Dolls in 1979. A further fizzle would be their swan song: Kiss Me Deadly, in 1981. Renamed to Gen X in order to reflect a change in sound influenced by both Goth and the New Romantics, the band experienced more personnel changes, and lost whatever pop-punk magic they had. Even the album’s name was a throw-back to former glory, as the track appears on their first release, but not this last. This final, forgettable LP, however, did contain a song that Idol would later use to build his solo career: “Dancing with Myself.”

Was Generation X just a springboard for the juggernaut of rock, glam, and MTV-friendly punk that was Billy Idol? Without Tony James, the success that the band did have in that golden year of 1977 would arguably never had happened. Billy Idol might have never been. But the lessons he learned about taking the best of rock, pop, glam, new wave, new romantics, and, yes, punk, served him well into the eighties and beyond.

By Christopher Michael Davis