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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Johnson, James (c. 1750 — 1811)

Johnson, who is believed to have been a native of Ettrick, after apprenticeship to James Reed became an engraver and music seller in Edinburgh. When Burns arrived in the Capital, Johnson had devised or had introduced to Scotland, a process 'to strike music upon pewter', which enabled a considerable saving to be achieved in music printing, though he himself gained little enough from his enterprise.

Sometime before 1787, this poorly educated man, whose spelling was atrocious, and whose engraving shop was in Bell's Wynd, conceived the idea of collecting the words and music of all the existing Scots songs and publishing them through his music shop in the LawnMarket. By the time he met Burns , the first volume of his Scots Musical Museum containing the first hundred songs, was already in the press. Johnson invited Burns's collaboration, and the poet's enthusiasm eventually outdid even that of Johnson. Thereafter, until his death, Burns was virtually the real editor of the Museum contributing about 160 songs of his own, and mending and patching many others — his system of signature letters still disguises so many! Three further volumes of the Museum were published during Burns's lifetime, and a fifth was ready for the press at the time of his death, in 1796. It took Johnson, on his own again, until 1803 to produce the 6th and last volume. The musical editorship was held, first by Stephen Clarke, and later by his son, William.

Throughout their association Johnson — unlike George thomson, with whom Burns also worked — always accepted Burns's superior taste, and never questioned his advice. On Burns's death, poor though he was, Johnson contributed £4 to the fund raised for the poet's widow and children.

Johnson's work, however, was largely neglected, and sneered at by many of Burns's editors and biographers. He himself died in poverty. His widow, left destitute, died in a workhouse in 1819. Yet the Scots Musical Museum was in its day, and has remained, by far the most important collection of Scots songs ever made.

The first letter from Burns to Johnson was written on 4th May 1787, by which time Burns, about to set out on his 'vacation tours', was as yet uncommitted: 'Farewell, my dear Sir! I wished to have seen you, but I have been dreadfully throng as I march tomorrow. Had my acquaintance with you been a little older, I would have asked thed favor of your correspondence; as I have met with few people whose company and conversation gave me so much pleasure, because I have met with few whose sentiments are so congenial to my own.'

A month later, Burns was sending Johnson his first 'song cargoes'. On 20th October, Burns told the Duke of gordon's librarian James Hoy, of his personal interest in the project: 'An engraver, James Johnson, in Edinburgh has, not from mercenary views but from an honest Scotch enthusiasm, set about collecting all our native Songs and setting them to music; particularly those that have never been set before. Clarke, the well known Musician, presides over the musical arrangement; and Drs Beattie and Blacklock, Mr Tytler, Woodhouselee, and your humble servant to the utmost of his small power, assist in collecting the old poetry, or sometimes to a fine air to make a stanza, when it has no words.'

Writing to James Candlish in February 1788, Burns reiterated his enthusiasm; 'At present I have time for nothing. Dissipation and business engross every moment. I am engaged in aassisting an honest Scots Enthusiast, a friend of mine, who is an Engraver, and has taken it into his head to publish a collection of all our songs set to music, of which the words and music are done by Scotsmen. This, you will easily guess, is an undertaking exactly to my taste.'

The growing intimacy of the friendship between Johnson and Burns was reflected in a letter from Mauchline of 25th May 1788, announcing the poet's marriage: 'I am so enamoured with a certain girl's prolific twin-bearing merit, that I have given her a legal title to the best blood in my body; and so farewell Rakery!'

Now and again, Burns had to encourage the engraver. In a letter dated 15th November 1788, Burns consoled him: 'Perhaps you may not find your account, lucratively, in this business; but you are a Patriot for the Music of your Country; and I am certain, Posterity will look on themselves as highly indebted to your Publick spirit. Be not in a hurry; let us go on correctly; and your name shall be immortal.' Again the letter of 19th June 1789, sent from Ellisland: 'What are you doing, and what is the reason that you have sent me no proof sheet to correct? Though I have been rather remiss in writing you, as I have been hurried, puzzled, plagued and confounded with some disagreeable matters, yet believe me, it is not owing to the smallest neglect or forget of you, my good Sir, or your patriotic work. Mr Clarke and I have frequent meetings and consultations on your work.'

Even as late as June 1796, within 7 weeks of his death, Burns was still urging Johnson to keep going: 'you may probably think that for some time past I have neglected you and your work; but, Alas, the hand of pain, and sorrow, and care has these many months lain heavy on me! Personal and domestic affliction have almost entirely banished that alacrity and life with which I used to woo the rural Muse of Scotia. In the meantime, let us finish what we have so well begun...

'Many a merry meeting this Publication has given us, and possibly it may give us more, though, alas! I fear it. This protracting, slow, consuming illness which hangs over me, will I doubt much , my ever dear friend, arrest my sun before he has well reached his middle career, and will turn over the Poet to far other and more important concerns than studying the brilliancy of Wit or the pathos of Sentiment. Your Work is a great one; and though, now that it is near finished, I see if we were to begin again, two or three things that might be mended, yet I will venture to prophesy, that to future ages your Publication will be the textbook and standard of Scottish Song and Music' — a prophecy which has come true.

The letter ends with the pathetic request for a 'spare copy.... By the very first Fly' which Burns wanted to give to Jessy Lewars.

Johnson heard no more from the man who made him immortal. Yet, as Snyder has pointed out, the debt was not all on one side: 'Without the spur of Johnson's initial enthusiasm, and the opportunity for publication afforded by the Museum, Burns's lyric accomplishment could not have been as astonishing as it was.

'Hence any estimate of Burns as a writer of songs must take into accoutn the fact that it was Johnson who opened the gates through which Burns poured the lyric flood at which the world still wonders.'

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