The Folk in Folk-Rock’s “Wild Mountain Thyme”

I enjoy opportunities to merge my personal and professional interests, and the topic of folk music is one such opportunity since I regularly teach my students about folklore in the context of culture. One of the features of folklore – whether songs, tales, legends, jokes, or other forms – is that it cannot be traced to a single, identifiable author. It is a grassroots, cultural phenomenon that speaks to the concerns or events of the time. A good, contemporary example is a meme, like the “Bernie Sanders wearing mittens” one that arose soon after Biden’s inauguration. Someone took that photo, and people began to paste it into a wide array of backdrops as cultural commentary. In order for the meme to be funny, one has to be familiar enough with the culture to understand the context. Now let’s take this into the realm of song. One can imagine a scenario whereby someone composes a verse in response to a popular cultural topic. They sing it, and others like it and repeat it. It begins to spread, and others add to it over time. The song is not so much linked to a single person as their unique expression, but to a culture as its collective expression. In this sense, “folk music” as actual folklore must be differentiated from contemporary songs that are authored and played by artists who stylistically fall into the musical genre of “folk,” such as the early Bob Dylan who, for the most part, sang his own compositions.

A couple of years ago I began to wonder about the origin of the song “Wild Mountain Thyme.” Although the Byrds’ version is the one I grew up listening to, my favorite is the one by Marianne Faithfull, which is on her 1966 album “North Country Maid,” (released in 1965 on “Go Away from My World” in the U.S.). It wasn’t until I’d heard a few versions of the song that I realized it might be an actual folk song.

As it turns out, “Wild Mountain Thyme” enjoyed popularity throughout Scotland and Ireland in the 1800s. It can be traced to the Scottish poet Robert Tannahill’s “The Braes o’ Balquhither,” which was posthumously published in 1822. The song was then transformed into “Wild Mountain Thyme” by Belfast’s Francis McPeake, who recorded it with his family in the 1950s (Ferguson 246). However, if the song were no older and these men were solely responsible for writing and revising it, then it would not be a folk song. In his 2011 doctoral thesis entitled A Weaver in Wartime: A Biographical Study and the Letters of Paisley Weaver-Poet Robert Tannahill (1774-1810), Jim Ferguson cites an interview with a Pennsylvania man who learned the song from his grandfather, who first heard it circa 1776 (247). Clearly, this pre-dates the Tannahill poem. Furthermore, Balquhither is the burial place of Scottish folk hero Rob Roy MacGregor, who died in 1740. This introduces the possibility that the song is associated with MacGregor’s death and dates from that time period (Ferguson 247). Therefore, although Francis McPeake copyrighted the song, there’s a strong case to made that the origin of “Wild Mountain Thyme” lies in the folkloric traditions of Scotland.

The popularity of “Wild Mountain Thyme” is, obviously, not confined to the 1800s. There are multiple recorded versions of it under various titles, including “Purple Heather,” “Go Lassie Go,” “Will You Go,” “Will Ye Go, Lassie Go,” and “Blooming Heather.” Of the more folk-rock oriented ones, the Byrds’ version appears on their 1966 album “Fifth Dimension,” Van Morrison released it as “Purple Heather” on his 1973 album “Hard Nose the Highway,” and Sandy Denny recorded a version of it with her band Fotheringray in 1970, among others. This highlights another characteristic of folklore – it involves variations on a theme. Because it belongs to “the folk” – the people – folklore is often modified by the person presenting it. Prior to the age of mass media, a bard in one town may have performed a ballad somewhat differently than the bard in the neighboring town, perhaps putting their own twist on it or making it more relevant to the local culture. The result is different versions of the same ballad. This can be frustrating to the mentality of a culture that depends on the written word, as we often expect a single version. If there is more, we wonder which one is “correct.” However, a fascinating element of postmodern culture is the use of pastiche through sampling which, arguably and to the dismay of many a songwriter, draws even authored works onto the playground of folklore if the public largely forgets the source. This is not a completely new phenomenon. “This Land Is Your Land” was written by Woody Guthrie but has become so ingrained in American culture that the average person does not know who authored it. It’s somewhat ironic, for songwriters anyway, that when a song becomes so popular that it becomes a part of the culture, knowledge of its authorship recedes into the background.

Works Cited:

Ferguson, Jim. A Weaver in Wartime: A Biographical Study and the Letters of Paisley Weaver-Poet Robert Tannahill (1774-1810). Doctoral Thesis. University of Glasgow, November 2010. http://theses.gla.ac.uk/2395/1/2011fergusonphd.pdf. Accessed March 16, 2019.

— The Braes o’ Balquhidder/Wild Mountain Thyme (Will You Go Lassie, Go?)https://mainlynorfolk.info/nic.jones/songs/wildmountainthyme.html. Accessed March 16, 2019.

2 thoughts on “The Folk in Folk-Rock’s “Wild Mountain Thyme”

  1. Hi Pam. This is a great article. I am from Skye and currently trying to work out if this song was popular in Northern Scotland, or just the lowlands, during the initial boom of its popularity in the 1800s. Do you happen to know anything about that? Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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