Wednesday, November 15, 2017

"The Blue Bell of Scotland": Popular Song, National Air & "Volkslied" - Pt. 1: Mrs. Jordan's New Hit (1800)

1. Mrs. Jordan's New Hit (1800) 

What is a "national song", what is a "folk song", what is "popular song"? These are of course artificial genres. A song can start its life in one field and then end up in another. A brand new popular song can be passed off as an "old ballad" and after some time it may be regarded as such. Any connection to the original author is lost then. An interesting example is "The Blue Bell of Scotland", one of the most popular English songs during the 19th century. It was immensely successful not only in Britain but also in the USA and even in Germany. 

"The Blue Bell of Scotland" was written and introduced by British actress Dorothea Jordan in 1800. That year it appeared first as sheet music: 
  • The Blue Bell of Scotland. A Favorite Ballad. As Composed and Sung by Mrs. Jordan at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, John Longman, Clementi & Co., London, n. d. [1800], at the Internet Archive & Hathi Trust 

O where and o where is your Highland Laddie gone?
O where and o where is your Highland Laddie gone?
He's gone to fight the French for King George upon the Throne,
And it's O in my heart I wish him safe at home,
And it's O in my heart I wish him safe at home.

O where and O where did your Highland Laddie dwell?
O where and O where did your Highland Laddie dwell?
He dwelt in merry Scotland at the sign of the Blue Bell,
And it's O in my heart I love my Laddie well,
And it's O in my heart I love my Laddie well.

In what cloaths in what cloaths is your Highland Laddie clad?
In what cloaths in what cloaths is your Highland Laddie clad?
His bonnet of the Saxon green and his Waistcoat of the plaid.
And it's O in my heart I love my Highland Lad,
And it's O in my heart I love my Highland Lad

Suppose and suppose that your Highland Lad should die -
Suppose and suppose that your Highland Lad should die -
The bagpipes should play over him and I'd sit me down and cry!
And its O in my heart I wish he may not die,
And its O in my heart I wish he may not die. 
Dorothea Bland (1761-1816; see Wikipedia; BDA 8, pp. 245-265; Tomalin 1995; Boaden 1831; Public and Private Life, 1886) was born in Ireland. In 1777 she first appeared on stage in Dublin but then quickly moved to England and there she called herself Mrs. Jordan. Her debut in London at Drury Lane was in 1785 and she performed there and in other theatres until 1809. Since 1791 she lived with the Duke of Clarence, later William IV, with whom she had 10 children. In 1815, after some serious trouble with the Duke and heavily in debt, Mrs. Jordan moved to France where she died the following year. 

She was a good singer with a "voice of compelling sweetness" (BDA 8, p. 252) and accompanied herself on the lute (see the image at UofIllinois). Songs by all important composers were performed by her on stage. A songster with many of these pieces already appeared in 1789: 
  • Jordan's Elixir of Life, And Cure for the Spleen; Or, A Collection of All the Songs Sung by Mrs. Jordan, Since her first Appearance in London. With many other Favourite Songs, Sung by her in The Theatres in Dublin, York Edinburgh and Cheltenham, and a number of Duetts, Trios, Glees, &c. that she has a part in. To Which Is Prefixed, Authentic Memoirs of Mrs. Jordan, Now First Published, Holland, London, 1789 [ESTC T69914], at Google Books 
A great number of songs were published with her name on the sheet music (see Copac) and some of them she had written herself. It seems to me that her musical achievements - as a singer, songwriter and instrumentalist - are rarely discussed. In Tomalin's biography only two pages are dedicated to this topic (pp. 178-9) and others have shown even less interest. But female songwriters were quite uncommon at that time and in this respect she was treated - as will be seen - rather unfairly by contemporary critics and scholars. "The Blue Bell of Scotland" happened to be her greatest success. But in the course of only a few years she was more or less dispossessed of this song.


At first it is necessary to reconstruct the early history of the song. When and where did she introduce it? Why did it become such a big hit? Are there early reviews about her performances? The best and most useful sources are of course contemporary advertisements and reports in newspapers and magazines. The theaters announced every new show and often also the new songs performed there. Thankfully today a lot of this publications are available now in digital databases and that makes it much easier to use them. Particularly valuable are the 17th & 18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers (BBCN) and the 19th Century British Library Newspapers (BNCN). 

Mrs. Jordan introduced her new song on May 12, 1800 at Drury Lane. This show was first announced on May 2 (Oracle and Daily Advertiser, No. 22276, at BBCN): 

 A series of ads followed in different newspapers until the day of the performance (see f. ex.: Oracle and Daily Advertiser No. 22 279, 6.5.1800; Morning Post and Gazetteer No. 9878, 8.5.1800; Morning Herald No. 12.5.1800, at BBCN; see also London Stage 5.3, p. 2272). 
"Mrs. Jordan's Night Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Mrs. Jordan respectfully informs the Public, that on her Night, Monday the 12th of May, will be performed the Comedy of The Inconstant; Or The Way To Win Him. [...] With A Favourite Farce. In the course of which will be introduced an old Scotch Ballad, called 'The Blue Bell of Scotland,' to be sung by Mrs. Jordan, and accompanied by her on the lute". 
The Inconstant was a comedy by George Farquhar, a hundred years old but still popular. Interestingly the song was described here only as an "old Scotch ballad". Of course it was neither old nor Scotch nor a ballad. An ad in Bell's Weekly Messenger (No. 211, 11 May 1800) sounded a little bit different but particularly emphasized that she played the lute. 
"Mrs. Jordan’s night, to-morrow, at Drury-Lane, will prove the night of Dramatic attraction; when, in addition to her comic excellence in the ‘Inconstant’, she means to treat her fashionable friends with the sprightly Blue-bells, rapturously accompanied by her sweet-toned lute". 
The day after the first performance the song was entered at Stationers' Hall (Kassler, p. 429) to secure the copyright and the publisher first announced the sheet music (Morning Chronicle, No. 9664, 13.5.1800). The same ad would reappear regularly during the next weeks (see f. ex.: Star, No. 3646, 14.5.1800; Oracle and Daily Advertiser, No. 22 286, 14.5.1800; Morning Herald, No. 6132, Evening Mail, 14.-16.5 and more, at BBCN). It seems that someone at the publishing house felt it necessary to add a note that this was a song with a new melody by Mrs. Jordan herself: 
"Mrs. Jordan's favourite Song, 'The Blue Bell of Scotland,' was this day published, by John Longman, Clementi, and Co. No. 26, Cheapside. Price 1s. N.B. The Melody of the above song composed by Mrs. Jordan." 
She performed the song again in the course of the next weeks, first on May 23 at a benefit for the actress Miss de Camp where she played Roxalana in Bickerstaffe's The Sultan, or, A Peep into the Seraglio. We can see that authenticity wasn't particularly important at that time. An actress could sing an "old Scotch Ballad" during a play staged in a completely different exotic scenery: 
"In the course of which will be introduced an old scotch Ballad, called 'The Blue Bell of Scotland,' to be sung by Mrs. Jordan, and accompanied by her on the Lute" (Morning Chronicle, No. 9668, 17.5.1800, at BBCN). 
"[Mrs. Jordan] will introduce the favourite Air of 'The Blue Bell of Scotland', accompanied by her on the Lute" (True Briton, No. 2312, 21.5.1800, at BBCN; see also LS 5.3, p. 2277). 
The next occasion was on May 30, in The Country Girl, Garrick's edited version of an old piece by Wycherley. Mrs. Jordan played the title role "in which character she will, by particular Desire, introduce the favourite Ballad of 'The Blue Bell of Scotland'" (see Morning Chronicle, No. 9669, 19.5.1800 & No. 9672, 22.5.1800, at BBCN; LS 5.3, p. 2280). Then she sang it once again on June 13 in The Sultan, this time not at Drury Lane but at Covent Garden in a benefit for the General Lying In Hospital (see Morning Herald, No. 6157, 12.6.1800; True Briton, No. 2331, 13.6.1800, at BBCN; LS 5.3, p. 2285):

 In several reviews of Mrs. Jordan's performances that appeared in May and June we can also find remarks about her new song, for example in The Monthly Mirror (IX, June 1800, p. 364): 
"This unimitable actress [...] introduced a new song, called The Blue Bells of Scotland. It is a simple little ballad, of which, as a composition, or a tune, nothing extraordinary can be said; but it pleased, and will continue to please whenever it is sung by Mrs. Jordan - such is the exquisite sweetness of her voice, and, what is scarcely less fascinating, the accompanying naivité of her manner."
On May 17 Thomas Dutton's Dramatic Censor offered a short report about the show on the 12th (p. 172, at BP): 
"[...] the popularity of Mrs. Jordan, who took her benefit this evening, attracted a crowded and a literally overflowing house [...] Mrs. Jordan introduced in the course of the Entertainment, the admired ballad, entitled, 'The Blue Bell of Scotland.' She was received with the warmest applause."
But it seems that Mr. Dutton didn't like this song. A review of the performance of The Country Girl on May 30 included some very unkind words about "The Blue Bell of Scotland" (Dramatic Censor, No. XXIII, 7.6.1800, pp. 231-2, at BP): 
"Mrs. Jordan performed the part of Peggy, with her accustomed naivette; and in the course of the play introduced The Blue Bell of Scotland. The popularity of this ballad, which, bye the bye, takes its title from the most trifling circumstance in the whole song, affords convincing proof of the frivolity and depraved taste of the age. Possessing no other recommendation, but Namby Pamby insipidity, this self-same Blue Bell (if we may be pardoned the use of a pun) literally 'bears away the bell' from a number of songs, which combine sentiment with simplicity and neatness of diction. It must, however, be confessed, that Mrs. Jordan's singing is a sufficient source of attraction to ensure success to insignificance itself." 
He preferred songs like "Crazy Jane" (see sheet music at the Internet Archive) and "The Fisherman and the River Queen" (text in The Whim of the Day, 1801, p. 12), both with words by M. G. Lewis, the author of the celebrated novel The Monk and performed at this show by actress and singer Theresa Bland. Perhaps they were more suitable for intellectual listeners like this particular writer. But these songs were never as popular as Mrs. Jordan's "Blue Bell", no matter what the critics said.

Two weeks later, in a report about the benefit at Covent Garden on June 13, he referred to the "flimsy, but undeservedly popular song, 'The Blue Bell of Scotland'" (Dramatic Censor, No. XXV, 21.6.1800, p. 281, at BP). Of course already at that time critics like Mr. Dutton were often living on a different planet than the audiences. It seems he still did not understand why the people loved this song. Mrs. Jordan's abilities as a singer surely played an important role. But she was busy introducing new songs all the time and no other piece from her repertoire had become such a big success. 

At around the same time she used to sing another song, "I Rise With The Morn". This one was not written by herself but by "a Lady of Fashion", whoever that was. The publisher promoted the sheet music with as much ads as he did with "The Blue Bell of Scotland". But that didn't help much. This song was never as successful as her big hit and then quickly forgotten (see LS 5.3, p. 2271; sheet music at the Internet Archive; see Copac; see f. ex. Oracle and Daily Advertiser, No. No. 22292, 21.5.1800, at BBCN).

But why did the people then like Mrs. Jordan's "The Blue Bell of Scotland"? It was not only a simple song with a catchy tune. This was a time of constant warfare. Many men left as soldiers and a line like "its O in my heart I wish he may not die" surely reflected the feelings of countless women who didn't know if they will ever see their husbands or boy-friends again. This was not run-of-the-mill patriotism. With these simple but touching words she spoke directly to the many people who could easily identify with what was expressed here. 


Mrs. Jordan's new song was quickly adopted by other performers. Actress and singer Fanny Kemble sang it "by particular Desire" in Edinburgh already in July to "universal applause". This must have been the first time that this "much admired Scotch Ballad" crossed the Scottish border (see Caledonian Mercury, No. 12298, 19.7.1800, at BNCN). 

A "new Scotch Ballet Dance, by Mrs. Byrne, named The Blue Bell of Scotland, in which Mr. and Mrs. Byrne dance in a a style thoroughly unequalled" was performed first on July 28 at the New Royal Circus in London during a spectacle with the title The Magic Flute that also included trampoline performances, "astonishing feats on the slack-rope", horses and more music (see f. ex. Morning Chronicle, No. 9725, 28.7.1800 & 9731, 30.7.1800, at BBCN). In some previous shows they had already performed "a favourite Scotch Pastoral Dance, called Jocky and Jenny" (see f. ex. Sun, No. 2418, 21.6.1800, at BBCN). I wonder if they only changed the title. 

Parodies were also a sure sign for a song's success. One was introduced already in August in an "entirely new grand Spectacle [...], called The Inquisition; Or, The Maid of Portugal". Here the audience heard "an entirely NEW PARODY (written by Mr. Upton), on the celebrated Song of The Blue Bell of Scotland, to be sung in Character of Poor Nan, by Mr. Johannet"(Albion and Evening Advertiser, No. 282, 2.8.1800, at BBCN). The text of "The Bell of Tothill Fields" was later also printed in The New Whim of the Night, or the Town and Country Songster for 1801 (pp. 74-5): 
Oh! where, and oh! where does your own true lover stray?
He's sent upon his travels, for he's gone to Botany Bay:
And it's, oh! my poor heart, they have torn my love away.


Oh! what cloaths, and what cloaths did your own true lover wear?
He's cloath'd in woollen yarn, and they've shav'd off all his hair:
And it's, oh! in my heart, that I'd love him to despair. 
Of course other publishers also jumped on the band-wagon to try to get a slice of this new cake. It didn't matter that Longman, Clementi & Co. had entered it at Stationer's Hall to protect their investment. Soon new versions appeared. The first one to offer his own edition was guitar-maker and music seller Joseph Buckinger who noted that "the above Song was originally set for the Lute, and accompanied" by himself: "no copies are genuine but those signed by him" (Morning Chronicle, No. 6157, 12.6.1800, at BBCN; see Copac). This was only a month after the song's first performance. Riley in London also announced his sheet music at the end of June (Portsmouth Telegraph, No. 38, 30.6.1800, p. 1, at BNCN; see Copac).

In July Goulding & Co. published "The Blue Bell of Scotland arranged as a Sonata for the Piano Forte" by composer Joseph Mazzinghi (see Sun, No. 2445, 23.7.1800, BBCN; at Levy Sheet Music). Later Domenico Corri recycled the tune as a rondo (see Copac). A reprint of the original edition also appeared in Dublin (at Hathi Trust) and publisher James Peck offered an arrangement "for Two or Three Voices with a Piano-Forte Accompaniment" (at the Internet Archive). Here the melody was simplified a little bit and printed in half and quarter notes. It is not clear who had first introduced it that way. The following year the tune was also for the first time included in a book, in one of William Campbell's dance collections: Vol. 16 of his Strathspey Reels, Waltzes & Irish Jiggs for the Harp, Piano Forte & Violin. With their Proper Figures as Danced at Court, Bath, Willis's, Hanover Square Rooms, &c. &c (p. 12; see Cooper 2017). He only forgot to mention Mrs. Jordan's name. 

These are only some examples. Many more would follow. In the meantime the song had also crossed the ocean and had become available in North America. The sheet music was published there first in December in Carr's Music Journal (No. 25 , Dec. 1, pp. 2-4, at Hathi Trust; at Levy Sheet Music): "The very popular and beautiful Scotch Ballad Sung by Mrs. Oldmixon called The Blue Bell of Scotland. As lately revived in England by Mrs. Jordan and sung by her with the most unbounded applause". It seems the publisher really believed that this was an old song and Mrs. Jordan had only "revived" it. 

Mrs. Oldmixon was a popular American actress and singer. By all accounts she was the first one to perform the song there. In Philadelphia she sang it on December 7 in St. David's Day (see James 1957, p. 45), a new play by Thomas Dibdin that had been debuted in London in March that year (see London Stage 5.3, p. 2259). Perhaps a copy of "The Blue Bell of Scotland" came to America with this particular play and it first remained connected to it as well as to Mrs. Oldmixon. Another edition of sheet music must have been published at around the same time: 
  • The Blue Bell of Scotland. A favorite Scotch ballad sung by Mrs. Oldmixon in St. David's Day, Willig, Philadelphia, n. d. [c. 1800/1801], at Levy Sheet Music [pdf]; at LoC 
Interestingly it was not the original version´of the tune that at first reached the USA but a simplified one in half and quarter notes. There was also a small but notable change of the text. In Carr's version the Highland Laddie is "gone across the ocean in search of wealth to roam" and on Willig's sheet music he goes to war "to redress its countrys wrong" [sic]. In North America it wouldn't have made much sense to sing about going to war "for King George upon his Throne". 

But there were also sheet music editions that offered both the tune and the text in its authentic shape, for example by Gilfert in New York (n. d., at Levy Sheet Music). Here Mrs. Jordan was also named as the song's composer. In 1806 the above mentioned publisher Riley emigrated to the USA (Humphries, p. 380) and he published his edition there again, only with his new address in New York on the cover (at Levy Sheet Music). We can see here that the song came to North America several times. Both the original version and modified variants were available. 

At this time "The Blue Bell of Scotland" had become popular both in Britain and in North America. But unlike many other successful songs it did not fall out of favor after some time. It was published again numerous times on sheet music, in songbooks and in songsters. There were new vocal arrangements as well as instrumental versions (see f. ex. Copac, Roud Index #13849; LoC). A complete bibliography would be a very challenging undertaking. But - as will be seen - the song quickly lost all connections to Mrs. Jordan. Soon it would be regarded as an anonymous "old Scottish ballad". 

  • BBCN = 17th & 18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers (Gale - via
  • BNCN = 19th Century British Library Newspapers (Gale - via 
  • BDA = Philip H. Highfill et al., (ed.), A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers, and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800, Vol. 1 - 16, Carbondale 1973 - 1993 
  • BP = British Periodicals (ProQuest - via 
  • LS = The London Stage 1660-1800. A Calendar Of Plays, Entertainments & Afterpieces Together With Casts, Box-Receipts And Contemporary Comment compiled from Playbills, Newspapers and Theatrical Diaries of the Period, 5 Parts in 11 Vols., Carbondale 1960-1968, at Hathi Trust 
  • James Boaden, The Life of Mrs. Jordan. Including Original Private Correspondence and Numerouis Anecdotes of her Contemporaries. In Two Volumes, Bull, London, 1831, at the Internet Archive (Vol. 1 & Vol. 2
  • Paul Cooper, The Dance Collections of William Campbell (2017), at: Your learning resource for the dances of the 18th and 19th centuries 
  • Charles Humphries & William C.Smith, Music Publishing in the British Isles from the Beginning Until the Middle of the Nineteenth Century, 2nd Ed., Oxford 1970 
  • Reese Davis James, Cradle of Culture 1800 - 1810. The Philadelphia Stage, Philadelphia, 1957, at the Internet Archive 
  • Michael Kassler, Music Entries at Stationers' Hall 1710-1818. From Lists prepared for William Hawes, D. W. Krummel, and Alan Tyson and from Other Sources, Burlington, 2004 (Online Edition, 2013, partly at Google Books)  
  • The Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music (John Hopkins University) 
  • The Public and Private Life of that Celebrated Actress, Miss Bland, Otherwise Mrs. Ford, Or, Mrs. Jordan. Accompanied by Numerous Remarks and anecdotes of Illustrious and Fashionable Characters. By a Confidential Friend of the Departed, Duncombe, London, n. d. [1886?], at the Internet Archive 
  • Claire Tomalin, Mrs. Jordan's Profession. The story of a great Actress and a future King, London & New York, 2012 (1995) 

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