Published between 1787 and 1803 in six volumes, the Scots Musical Museum was, and still is, one of the most important collections of traditional Scottish music ever compiled. The initial idea was conceived by an engraver and music seller James Johnson (c. 1750 – 1811), but caught the imagination of Scotland’s Bard when he first met Johnson in Edinburgh in 1787. By this time, the first volume of the collection was already in print, but Burns’s enthusiasm as a contributor and co-editor led to a further three volumes being published during his lifetime, with a fourth ready by the time of his death in 1796. Johnson published the sixth and last volume himself seven years later in 1803.
At around the time of their meeting, Burns undertook a series of tours around Scotland, writing and collecting songs and poetry. He was immediately enthusiastic about the project, and wrote of it to John Skinner, author of the song Tullochgorum: ‘An Engraver in this town has set about collecting and publishing all the Scotch Songs, with the Music, that can be found… I have been absolutely crazed about it, collecting old stanzas, and every information remaining, respecting their origin, authors…’ He also warmed quickly to Johnson himself, writing to him not long after they first made acquaintance: ‘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’.
Over the next few years, Burns took a key role in collecting for and editing subsequent volumes of the Museum, contributing over 150 of his own works, including ‘O my Luve’s Like a Red, Red Rose’ and ‘John Anderson, My Jo’. He also liked to set new words to traditional tunes, thus contributing to their longevity. Despite it being Johnson’s initial brainchild, it seems to have been Burns’s enthusiasm and commitment which drove the project forward, and he often sent letters of encouragement and reassurance to his friend and co-worker: ‘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’.
Less than two months before his death, despite being seriously ill, Burns continued to champion the project, writing to Johnson with considerable foresight: ‘I venture to prophesy, that to future ages your Publication will be the textbook and standard of Scottish song and music’ This was the last Johnson was to hear from the Bard, but the strength of their friendship can be seen in his £4 donation to the fund raised for Burns’s widow, Jean Armour, and her children, despite his own poverty. Although Burns’s prophecy that the Museum would be appreciated and remembered for generations to come was proved correct, unfortunately it was not to achieve widespread popularity during Johnson’s own lifetime. He died a pauper, and his own widow died in a workhouse in 1819. However, his legacy, and Burns’s, lives on.