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Gowans are daisies, and this is a delightful setting of an infectiously cheerful Scottish song from the collection Cantus, Songs and Fancies, published by John Forbes in Aberdeen, 1682, though the song is certainly older than that. Set in a garden on the first morning of May, the song tells of a man’s encounter with a young maid who spurns his attention.
The refrain “The gowans are gay” is also found in a number of very old Scottish ballads about Lady Isabel and the rather sinister Elf Knight. In these ballads, too, the lady outwits the efforts of the man to seduce her.
The song uses a strumming bass line ostinato and simple harmonies in the upper part which comment on the story as it is told by two soloists. A jazzy tutti refrain makes its appearance several times, and there is a a lot of scope for acting up during performance.
The recording is by the Magpie Consort of Columbus, OH, directed by Sheena Phillips.
The gowans are gay
The gowans are gay my jo, [gowans – daisies; gay – bright, cheerful; jo – dear] The gowans are gay, They make me wake when I should sleep The first morning of May.
About the fields as I did pass, The gowans are gay, I chanced to meet a proper lass, [lass – young woman] The first morning of May.
Right busy was that bonny maid, [bonny – good-looking] And I thereafter to her said:
O lady fair, what do you here? Gath’ring the dew. What needs you speir? [speir – ask]
The dew, quoth I, what can that mean? [quoth – said] She said: to wash my lady clean.
I askèd farther at her fyne, [I asked another thing of her, who was so fine] To my will if she would incline.
She said her errand was not there, Her maidenhead on me to ware. [ware – spend]
Thus I her left, and passed my way Into a garden me to play.
Where there were birds singing full sweet, Unto my comfort was full meet. [which was very agreeable]
And thereabout I passed my time, While that it was the hour of prime. [prime was the period 6 am – 9 am]
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