At the end of December 2017, the family was traveling to Afton, NY to meet with a couple dozen of our Olin relatives for lunch – or was it dinner? (this WAS a source of conversation) – when I asked my wife if she were singing Flow Gently Sweet Afton in her head, since I was.
She had no idea what I was talking about, not entirely unusual. This surprised me nevertheless because I’d known it since fourth grade. It was included on a book of tunes that our music teacher, Mrs. Joseph, had us singing from. I must admit it was an old book even then. (I swear I bought a replica of this book in the last decade, but I simply cannot find it.)
There appears to be no question that Robert Burns wrote the poem Sweet Afton. “There is a small river, Afton, that falls into the Nith, near New Cumnock [in Scotland], which has some charming, wild, romantic scenery on its banks.”
The first verse:
FLOW gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes,
Flow gently, I ’ll sing thee a song in thy praise;
My Mary ’s asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.
And I’ve also heard it with a tune by William James Kirkpatrick from late in the 19th century. It is a hymn tune called Cradle Song, which is a variant tune to the Christmas hymn Away in the Manger.
Now I have no idea which version I originally learned because these three not dissimilar tunes are all blurring in my head. And there are other tunes which may predate Spilman.
I’m curious: are you familiar with the poem Flow gently sweet Afton? And how’s your Scottish brogue when you recite it? What tune do you associate with it?
Listen to Sweet Afton: