The following is abridged from an article by Stephen Sedley in a recent edition of the London Review of Books …
In 1957 Vera Lynn, who died this summer aged 103, recorded a song called ‘Travellin’ Home’. It was an instant hit, selling thousands of copies. On hearing it, London publisher J. Curwen & Sons noticed a striking similarity to their song ‘Westering Home’ published in 1939 and by Sir Hugh Roberton (1874-1952), the founder and director of the celebrated Glasgow Orpheus Choir. The first verse reads:
Westering home, and a song in the air, light in the eye and it’s goodbye to care.
Laughter o’ love, and a welcoming there, isle of my heart, my own one.
The tune appears in Scots Guards Volume 1 where Curwen and Roberton are duly credited. Curwen sued Dame Vera and her record company, Decca, for breach of copyright, explaining that although Roberton hadn’t composed the entire song he had written an accompaniment to a traditional air and ‘done a certain amount of original composition’ sufficient to give him copyright in the melody.
The words were Roberton’s, and ‘Westering Home’ as a song was his work. But nor could it be disputed, the court heard, that what was more or less the same tune was used in other traditional songs such as ‘The Muckin’ o’ Geordie’s Byre’, ‘Bonnie Strathyre’ and ‘Eilean mo Chridhe’, all of which were played for the judge, Mr Justice Cross, by an articled clerk on a piano squeezed into the courtroom.
Since the war, ‘Westering Home’ had become well known as a concert piece. It was pretty obvious, said Curwen, that the authors of ‘Travellin’ Home’ had used most of the melody of Roberton’s song and set their own words to it. Their counsel: ‘The fact that part of ‘Westering Home’ closely resembled a traditional air was wholly beside the point.’
Mr Justice Cross, who did not read music, recounted that Mr Rowe, Decca’s A&R man (famous for signing the Rolling Stones and for turning down the Beatles), made a number of journeys to Scotland in the years following 1950 and became impressed with the financial advantages which might accrue from giving a modern treatment to old Scottish tunes – ‘bagpipes with a beat’ as one reviewer had put it.
He was very vague as to when and where he had first heard the tune which he called ‘Westering Home’ and, though a few changes were made to the tune for ‘Travellin’ Home’, it remained very close to the melody of ‘Westering Home’ as played by pipers and published by the Scots Guards in their collection Volume 1.
It was not disputed that the immediate source of the tune of ‘Travellin’ Home’ was the tune associated with ‘Westering Home’, wherever Rowe had picked it up. However, Roberton’s publisher Curwen needed to establish not only that it had been taken from Roberton’s adaptation, but that the tune of ‘Westering Home’ was itself an original composition. This they could not do.
The hearing and its press coverage came to the notice of a number of former regimental pipers who were brought in by the defendents as last minute witnesses.
Curwen’s counsel had proposed a linkage that went from Roberton through an HMV recording and the repertoire of the band of the Scots Guards to a Mr Fishman, Decca’s lyricist. ‘In my judgment,’ the judge said, ‘none of the links in this chain of causation will bear very much strain.’
By contrast, the defendants, the judge said, called no fewer than six pipers, who all gave evidence to the effect that the whole tune, not only the refrain but also the verse section, was well known to them as a piper’s tune before the publication of ‘Westering Home’.
They knew the tune as an old Highland air, or as a different arrangement of ‘Bonnie Strathyre’. One of these witnesses, Mr Mathieson, first heard the tune when he was a small boy. The others appear to have learned it when they were pipers in the Scots Guards in the years between the wars.
‘In 1954,’ the judge noted, a volume containing a number of standard settings of pipe music used by the Scots Guards was published and in it the tune appears … as a slow march entitled ‘Westering Home’, with the name ‘Eilean mo Chridhe’ in brackets after it.’
When the pipers were shown the music of this tune in the book they identified it as the old tune which they had played on the pipes years before the song was written. According to the Times law report, Pipe-Major Robertson [JB], then formerly of the Scots Guards, said he had played the tune ‘for many years on village greens and at debutante dances’.
Pipe-Major Marshall said he had first heard it ‘before he transferred from the Guards in 1924’ and knew it ‘as an old Highland air. It was his favourite, and when he felt depressed he used to go away on his own and play it.’
Pipe-Major Marshall gave an ‘unforgettable’ account of going alone into the hills in full regalia to play the tune as his regiment, which was stationed abroad, was preparing to leave for home. He had learned it long before ‘Westering Home’ was composed.
Pipe-Major Mathieson, who was ‘born in the Highlands and started to learn the pipes when he was seven’, said he had first heard it in 1910, played by his cousin, who told him it ‘had no name but was an old Highland air’.
The LRB article concludes: ‘The emotional impact of the older pipers’ evidence transformed the character of the case from an attempt to protect an original composition into an attempt to appropriate the Highlands’ musical heritage. This clinched the case for Vera Lynn’s side. Yet who now sings ‘Travellin’ Home’? It is ‘Westering Home’ that has lived on, its lyric Roberton’s, its melody common property.’
- Listen to Vera Lynn’s song here.