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'Comin' Through The Rye'
An article by John Hodgart

No 'Comin' Thro' the Rye'

It is a widely held belief in Dalry and beyond that Burns' famous song 'Comin' thro' the rye' refers to the River Rye,
a claim that features on several websites about the town. It is hardly surprising therefore that this claim has recently appeared
in the wonderful South West Scotland Collection of tunes for the pipes by Karen McCrindle Warren*,
along with the frequently used reference to the ford on the river, downstream from Ryefield House.

Unfortunately, Karen did not contact the Club before printing her notes about this tune, otherwise some of us might have advised her
that, sadly, this claim has no basis in fact. 'Comin' thro' the rye' has nothing whatsoever to do with Dalry's River Rye,
firstly as Burns was always very particular about using place names and, if he had been referring to the River Rye,
he would have used capital letters and been more likely to have used 'Comin' o'er the Rye'.

Thus 'rye' clearly refers to the crop, something supported by the 'grain' and 'wheat' mentioned in other versions of the song.
Above all, the song is much older than the Burns version, in fact only one of many, and even the version often sung contains
verses which did not appear in the version Burns submitted to James Johnson's Scots Musical Museum, first printed in 1796.

Johnson noted that Burns wrote it for his collection, but The Canongate Burns (2003) points out that this was not an entirely original song,
that it was partly taken from Thomas Mansfield's folksong collection begun in 1770 and that there was a bawdy version in
The Merry Muses of Caledonia which the editors claim to be the original of Burns' song of the same name.
There is even an English version which also appeared in 1796, and was used in an opera, which begins 'If a body meet a body / Going to the Fair.'

But where does the River Rye claim come from? Possibly it originated in a 19th century collection, The Songs Of Scotland,
where the editor, one Colin Brown, states in his introduction:

'The Scottish origin of 'Comin' Through the Rye' has been questioned, because it appeared in an English opera at the close of last century;
but Burns had previously contributed words for this melody to Johnson's Museum. His verses were founded upon the burden of an older song,
which is still familiarly known in Scotland, and refers to the ford at Dalry, in Ayrshire.'

Brown then quotes the chorus and verse one, while printing 'Gin a body meet a body' (the polite 'school' version) as the first song in the book.

Whether Brown really believed his 'Rye' version of the story or not, no one seems to know where he got it from.
It may have been Brown himself that invented it or maybe he had a Dalry friend or relation who assured him that was where the song came from.
The story also appeared in The Glasgow Herald in 1867 and it was soon disputed, with critics rightly referring to the older or alternative versions,
but this didn't prevent the myth becoming well established in Dalry.

Remember that this was a time when many Scots desperately sought a Burns connection, often exaggerating,
distorting or fabricating from the flimsiest of evidence, a claim that the poet had visited, passed through,
spoken to someone, done or bought something in their wee toon, (something the neighbouring town of Kilbirnie has long boasted of)
and it is quite possible that the River Rye story originated in a similar fashion.
But mibbie a Dalry man invented it jist tae get ane owre on the blasties for claimin that Burns actually visitit Kilbirnie
jist because he lists a daft cuddy bocht in Kilbirnie in his poem 'The Inventory'!

The Victorian age was also a time when many sought to sanitise Burns by trying to conceal his political views or remove any naughty' bits,
just as was done with Shakespeare's plays. Sex was of course something respectable Victorians didn't want to talk about,
even though they were extremely active, as evidenced by their very large families. The problem for them with this song
and many others, is that the older versions contain sexual and phallic imagery as they are really songs about fertility and 'houghmagandie',
something that becomes very explicit indeed in the version used in The Merry Muses of Caledonia.

These older versions can be seen as celebrations of fertility and about young people seeking more freedom in a very sexually
repressive society, as the song is basically saying that what they did in the fields of rye etc. was their own business and nobody else's,
thus defying the 'unco guid' and hypocritical kirk elders obsessed with fornication. I very much suspect that this was one of the songs
the Victorians wanted covered up or cleaned up and hence the Ryeside version, suggesting it was only about a girl innocently
chatting to boys when crossing a ford!

The original words of 'Comin' thro' the rye,' or 'Gin a body meet a body,' are difficult to establish as there were so many different
versions of the song. Some versions include the following:

Gin a body meet a body
Comin' frae the well,
Gin a body kiss a body-
Need a body tell?
Ilka Jenny has her Jocky,
Ne'er a ane ha'e I;
But a' the lads they look at me-
And what the waur am I?

Gin a body meet a body,
Comin' frae the toon, (or thro' the broom,)
Gin a body kiss a body-
Need a body gloom? &c.

Here is the version which Burns contributed to Johnson's Museum:

Coming through the rye, poor body,
Coming through the rye,
She draiglet a' her petticoatie,
Coming through the rye.
Oh Jenny's a' weet, poor body,
Jenny's seldom dry;
She draiglet a' her petticoatie,
Coming through the rye.

Gin a body meet a body-
Coming through the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body-
Need a body cry?

Gin a body meet a body
Coming through the glen,
Gin a body kiss a body-
Need the warld ken?

Oh Jenny's a' weet, poor body;
Jenny's seldom dry;
She draiglet a' her petticoatie,
Coming through the rye.

*Some of oor club members an guests were gey privileged tae hear Karen playin selections fae her collection
an tae listen tae her guidman, Paul, giein us a spiel aboot them in The Turf Inn, Dalry, on 11th July 2019.
An as for folk that wirnae there, yous aw missed yersels!

Karen wrote tae every Burns Club in Sooth West Scotland seekin siller tae help publish her collection, but Dalry Burns Club
was the only ane that bothert tae reply. Shame on the ithers, but we are gratefully thankit in her introduction for oor generous support
o this historic collection, wi its notes written in Karen's ain Sooth Ayrshire tongue.

July, 2019

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