Folk, Jazz, Etc: Centenary year for radical songsmith whose work has long languished in shadow of Burns

WITH The Year of Homecoming and its ubiquitous celebration of the Ploughman Poet leaving us somewhat Burnsed out, might 2010's bicentenary of the death of Robert Tannahill, if perhaps not bolstered by government and tourist board hype, see a long overdue reassessment and appreciation of Paisley's weaver poet and songwriter?

• Robert Tannahill wrote songs about the abolition of slavery and for Irish immigrants

On 17 May, 1810, Tannahill's body was found in Paisley's Candren Burn. He had killed himself, it is thought, partly in despair at publishers' reluctance to print his songs and poems, exacerbated by emotional turmoil due to an unhappy love affair and the death of his father. Yet, while inevitably eclipsed by Burns, whom he greatly admired, and relatively neglected over the ensuing two centuries, Tannahill's songs are still sung today – perhaps most famously The Braes of Balquhidder, with its chorus of "Will ye go, lassie, go?" regarded as the basis of the widely popular Wild Mountain Thyme. Other enduring favourites include Are Ye Sleeping Maggie? and Gloomy Winter's Now Awa'.

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The centenary of Tannahill's death in 1910 saw some 15,000 people congregate at one of his favourite beauty spots, Gleniffer Braes. Now, with a Robert Tannahill Bicentenary Concert at Celtic Connections this Friday, an exhibition, lectures and other events planned for Paisley Museum and a notable project underway to record his songs, the ill-starred poet's legacy is now in the spotlight.

"It'll certainly be a time of reassessment," says Dr Fred Freeman, who produced the mammoth Complete Songs of Robert Burns series for Linn Records, and is now working on a five-CD project on Tannahill, the second of which is launched on Friday. This year will hardly be on the scale of the recent Burns celebrations, he agrees, "because Tannahill's never really come into his own, and critics over the past 200 years haven't helped".

While he had one volume of poems and songs published in his lifetime, with other material appearing in various broadsheets and chapbooks, Tannahill had many songs turned down by the publishers of the day, including George Thompson, who had printed some of Burn's songs, while more recent commentators have accused his lyrics of being insipid and over-sentimental.

"That's nonsense, from people who simply didn't know the tunes of the songs, who looked at the words but not at the songs in their entirety," protests Freeman.

"If they did they would have found some really interesting material, beyond Braes of Balquhidder."

Tannahill is also sometimes accused of being socially and politically unaware, bearing in mind he lived during a time of widespread radicalisation among Scottish weavers – yet Freeman, who has researched the songs in the National Library of Scotland and was also given access to the poet's unpublished letters by another researcher, Jim Ferguson, points to songs such as Why Unite to Banish Care? and his abolitionist song, The Negro Girl, to argue otherwise.

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And unlike many of his fellow weavers, the non-sectarian Tannahill also welcomed immigrant Irish weavers, and wrote catchy "Irish" songs such as One Night In My Youth.

Many such will be aired at Friday night's concert, at which Freeman will introduce such consummate exponents as Emily Smith, Jim Malcolm, Brian hEadhra, John Morran and others. Changed days, then, from when an embittered Tannahill was moved to declare: "Merit might pine in obscurity forever."

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Yet his passing didn't go unlamented. Writing in the 1840s, a fellow weaver poet, Alexander Thom, lamented "our ill-fated fellow craftsman, Tannahill … Poor weaver chiel! … Your Braes o' Balquhidder and Yon Burnside, and Glooming Winter … Oh, how they did ring above the rattling of a hundred shuttles."

• The Robert Tannahill Bicentenary Concert is at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall Strathclyde Suite on 15 January. Volume 2 of The Complete Songs of Robert Tannahill is due out this month on Brechin All Records,