Robert Davidson, by Barbara Bell

Catriona Macdonald’s post, ‘Summer-time Serendipity’ (11 July 2016), highlighted the ways in which editors of Victorian anthologies selected materials which avoided any mention of politics. In particular she noted the six-volume Modern Scottish Minstrel (1855) edited by Rev. Charles Rogers and in Rogers’ treatment of a working-class poet from the Eastern Borders, Robert Davidson (1778-1855), it is possible to see him filleting out swathes of Davidson’s work to exclude not only political but also religious commentary to particular effect.

Davidson was a day labourer on the farms around Morebattle and through a long life probably never left the sight of the Scottish/English Border. He had a basic formal education, a strong non-conformist faith, a keen eye for the detail of rural lives and a shrewd sense of humour. Davidson self-published small collections of his work in 1811 (lost) and 1825 with a larger, more polished, edition, Leaves from a Peasant’s Cottage Drawer (1848) published at the behest of local philanthropists. It is this edition that Rogers seems to be working from. Whilst Rogers acknowledges that “[m]any of his poems are powerful, both in expression and sentiment; and several of his songs are worthy of a place in the national minstrelsy “(Vol.III,p.206) he selects for inclusion in the Modern Scottish Minstrel, three pieces, “Farewell to Caledonia”, “On visiting the scenes of early days” and “To wander lang in foreign lands”, all poems about emigration or the wanderer returned.

Davidson’s longer pieces such as “The Ordination”, the local humour of “The Gypsy’s Rant” and “The Constable’s Rant” or the quiet dignity of “The Shepherd’s Address to his Auld Dog” might not have suited Rogers, but the effect is to cast the rather narrow shade of a writer with a strong, sentimental, attachment to his country, but little interest in the grist of current events.
What is certain is that one piece, “The Song of the Patriotic Elector”, would not have fitted within Rogers’ overall plan for not only was it an acerbic assessment of political and religious corruption likely to offend Rev. Rogers but it also took as its form a popular entertainment phenomenon, the song “Jump Jim Crow” and the blackface performance of it by W.T. Rice, an American actor who brought his hugely successful act to Britain in 1836.

“The Song of the Patriotic Elector”
I’m an elector brave and bold, there’s none presumes to doubt:
The struggling parties of the state, I give them vote about;
I soon forsook the Radicals, because their cash was low,
And that’s enough to make me turn and dance Jim Crow.
‘Tis round about, and turn about, howe’er the wind may blow;
With Tories, Whigs, or Radicals, I’m still Jim Crow!

I thought the Whigs would lift me up, to catch a gauger’s name,
Or some snug berth, – but yet to me promotion never came.
They pledged and promised fair enough, but still perform’d but slow –
I turn’d me to the Tories next, and danced Jim Crow!
‘Tis round about, &c.

The Tory’s creed being sage and short, I learn’d it in a crack –
To bless the Corn-laws and the Kirk, and curse O’Connell black.
Our wildest war-cry is the Church, and that’s the note we blow
To make the Whigs start from the helm, and dance Jim Crow!
‘Tis round about, Etc.

But if the Tories can bestow nought on their friends but thanks,
Such pay will never make me dine, – I’ll soon desert their ranks.
My heart is sick with hope delay’d, and I have told them so;
I’ll turn me to the Whigs again, and jump Jim Crow!
‘Tis round about, Etc.

I’m none of those that are content with poverty and fame;
Like patriots now in modern days I mind my house at hame.
Wealth brings us fame, and brings us friends, and whiles disarms a foe,
And often makes the ills of life to dance Jim Crow!
‘Tis round about Etc

The remaining verses focused on corruption in the Kirk. Mention of O’Connell alongside Rice’s performance, places it around the mid 1830s when the song-and-dance was at the peak of its initial popularity and O’Connell’s agitation was bearing electoral fruit; however, it also demonstrates the complexities of context which can make political commentary tricky to unravel long after the event.

The first challenge for the contemporary reader is in associations conjured up by the name of the song. Challenging scholarship by W.T. Lhamon (1998) has revealed that the impact of Rice’s work on white working-class audiences, decades before the infamous ‘Jim Crow’ laws were enacted, had more to do with a shared appreciation by the poor of the traditional ‘trickster’ character, mocking and outwitting the ‘masters’, than with any particular stance on slavery. A Jim Crow’s Song Book was published in Newcastle (Fordyce: 1832-37?) which could easily have crossed the border.

Davidson, through his poetry and also his relationships with known anti-slavery campaigners, was clearly a voice for freedom and his poem not only utilises the popular song form, but also encompasses the doubled nature of the original stage performance. T.D. Rice, a white American actor, was performing in black-face, purporting to be what he was not in a capering caricature that echoes the cynical manoeuvres of the Elector who takes on the crude politicking of each party in turn.

1832 Playbill of Thomas D Rice as ‘Jim Crow’

Rice’s fakery is knowing, as paper-thin as the Elector’s commitment to party, and the cumulative impact of the familiar song-form and performance context set against the British subject matter is to create a distancing effect which challenges the reader to consider the political realities afresh.

In the end it’s plainly worth searching out poets’ lesser-known work. The multi-volumed Modern Scottish Minstrel was followed by a single volume selection, The Scottish Minstrel: The Songs of Scotland Subsequent to Burns in which Davidson’s contribution is further reduced to one song, ‘Farewell to Caledonia.’