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Johnnie Sangster

[ Roud 2164 ; G/D 3:407 ; Ballad Index DBuch69 ; trad.]

Norman Buchan and Peter Hall: The Scottish Folksinger Ewan MacColl: Folk Songs and Ballads of Scotland John Ord: Bothy Songs and Ballads

This is a harvest song about binding sheaves, referring to Johnnie Sangster the bandster.

Ewan MacColl sang Johnny Sangster on his 1961 Folkways album Bothy Ballads of Scotland and on his and Peggy Seeger's 1977 album of traditional and contemporary songs and ballads, Cold Snap. He noted on the first album:

According to Gavin Greig who collected the first printed version of this fine song, Johnny Sangster was the work of William Scott who was born in Fetterangus in the parish of Old Deer, Aberdeenshire in 1785. Scott who began life as a herd laddie subsequently moved to Aberdeen where he was apprenticed to a tailor. Later, he worked, for a time, in London and after visiting America returned to Old Deer where he spent the remainder of his life

Learned from print: Miscellanea of the Rymour Club, Edinburgh.

Ray Fisher sang Johnnie Sangster in 1972 on her Trailer album The Bonny Birdy.

Lizzie Higgins sang Johnnie Sangster at the Royal Oak Folk Club, Lewes, on 21 March 1973. This recording made by Vic Smith was included in 2006 on her Musical Traditions anthology In Memory of Lizzie Higgins. Rod Stradling noted:

For a song still so widely sung in Scotland, it's very surprising to find only 12 Roud entries—only one of which was a sound recording; the 1951 BBC disc of a Mrs Mearns, from Aberdeen. Isla St Clair gives a spirited version on Tatties & Herrin': The Land (on which, interestingly, the male bandster's perspective is also given in Band o' Shearers).

Before the reaping machine transformed harvesting from the 1850/60s onwards (together with the later binder and the combine harvester) harvesting teams consisted of scythers, followed by gaitherers (such as the song's singer) who would lay out on straw bands the bundles of cut grain, which the following bandster would convert into sheaves to stook for drying. The teams (first recorded in 1642) employed by the larger farms were professional and paid by results—hence the need for speed and efficiency. Thistles made the life of such workers a misery—thus the need for finger protection. The singer appears so infatuated by her bandster that she says she is willing to work extra hard, by dunting the base of her bundles in order to make them easier for him to handle and stack. Wages were good for these teams and her dream of sharing a self-sufficient small holding with her intended was not unrealistic.

A song Lizzie learned from her great-uncle Geordie Mhor (‘Big Geordie’) Robertson of New Deer, himself a famous horseman, who was a frequent visitor to the house in the 1950s. Geordie had been a friend of Gavin Greig's, playing the pipes in Greig's highly popular stage plays Prince Charlie and Mains's Wooin'.

The Clutha sang Johnnie Sangster in 1974 on their Topic album Scots Ballads, Songs & Dance Tunes.

Corba sang Johnny Sangster at Forrest Hill Bar (Sandy Bell's) or Pan Audio Studios in Edinburgh for the 1977 album Sandy Bell's Ceilidh. It was later reissued by Greentrax on cassette and CD.

Drinkers Drouth sang Johnny Sangster on their 1984 album Bound to Go, which was re-released in 2001 on their Greentrax compilation A Tribute.

Isla St Clair sang Johnny Sangster in her BBC Radio 2 series and on the series' 1997 Greentrax CD Tatties & Herrin': The Land.

Jock Tamson's Bairns sang Johnny Sangster on their 2001 Greentrax CD May You Never Lack a Scone.


Lizzie Higgins sings Johnnie Sangster

O aa the seasons o the year
When we maun work the sairest,
The hairvest is the foremost time
An yet it is the rarest.

Chorus (after each verse):
For you, Johnny, you Johnny,
You, ma Johnny Sangster,
I'll trim the gavel o ma sheaf
For you're the gallant bandster.

We rise as seen as morning licht
Nae craiters can be blither.
We buckle on oor finger steels
An followed oot the scyther.

A mornin piece to line oor cheek
Afore we get the forder.
Wi cloods a blue tabacca reek
We then set oot in order.

The sheaves are risin thick an fast
An Johnny he maun bind them.
The busy group for fear they stick,
They cannae look behind them.

I'll gie ye bands that winnae slip;
I'll pleat them weel and thraw them
And sure they winnae tine the grip,
Hooever weel ye draw them.

“I'll lay ma leg oot ower the sheaf
An draw the band sae handy,
Wi ilka strae's as straucht's a rash
And that will be fine dandy.”

If e'er it chance to be ma lot
To be a gallant bandster,
I'll gar him wear a gentle coat
An bring him gowd in handfu's.

But Johnny he can please hissel;
I widdnae wish him blinket.
Sae aifter he has brewed his ale,
He can sit doon and drink it.

A dainty cooie in the byre
For butter and for cheeses,
A grumphie feedin in the sty
Will keep the hoose in greases.

A bonny ewie in the bucht
Would help to creesh the ladle
An we'll get ruffs o canny woo
Would help to theek a cradle.