Weary Pund O' Tow (The)

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WEARY PUND O'TOW, THE. Scottish, Slow Air (3/4 time). B Flat Major (Gow): G Major (Howe, Manson, Oswald). Standard tuning (fiddle). AAB (Gow): ABA (Howe): AABB (Manson, Oswald). The tune and song are printed in James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum (No. 350). The title has to do with the processing of flax, and tow is made up of the short fibers of flax. The process involves taking the retted stems of the plant and running them through hackles (akin to sharp tined combs). This splits the fibers of the stem of the flax plant and removes the short pieces from the long—it is these short bits that are the tow. References to human hair have derived from this process; tow-headed boys are boys with short blonde hair, while flaxen-haired girls are blondes with long hair (as in the long combed-out flax fibers). Spinning a pound of tow would be a lot of work, indeed. David Kilpatrick points out that the phrase ‘weary pund o’ tow’ has a double meaning: the literal sense of labor-intensive difficult work with flax plants in the process of making linnen, and the metaphorical sense of getting a very small quantity of reward from a large amount of effort. The lyric, either written or adapted from existing material by Robert Burns (1759–1796), first appeared in the Scots Musical Museum (1792, Song 350, p. 362), based on a melody first printed in James Oswald's Caledonian Pocket Companion, vol. IV (c. 1760). The song begins:

The weary pund, the weary pund,
The weary pund o' tow;
I think my wife will end her life,
Before she spin her tow.
I bought my wife a stane o' lint
As gude as e'er did grow;
And a' that she has made o' that
Is ae poor pund o' tow.

Chorus:
The weary pund, the weary pund,
The weary pund o' tow;
I think my wife will end her life,
Before she spin her tow.

Bruce Olson finds a related American song, “Wary Bachelors” (from Jean Thomas’s Devil’s Ditties, 1931) relevant to an explanation of the Weary Pund title; it goes in part:

I bought my wife ten pound of flax
As good as ever growed
And out of that she hackled me
One single pound of tow.

Beware of a pound of tow
Before it is begun
I am afraid my wife will end her life
Before the tow is spun.

Source for notated version:

Printed sources: Carlin (The Gow Collection), 1986; No. 563. Gow (Complete Repository, Part 3), 1806; p. 11. Howe (1000 Jigs and Reels), c. 1867; p. 120. Johnson (Scots Musical Museum, vol. 4), 1792; Song 350, p. 362. Manson (Hamilton's Universal Tune-Book, vol. 2), 1846; p. 50. Oswald (Caledonian Pocket Companion, vol. 8), 1760; p. 4.

Recorded sources:




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