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LIANE HANSEN, host:

It doesn't happen very often, but once in a while a song comes along that remains popular for decades, even centuries. What is it that gives these songs their long life? Is it an infectious tune or a simple, timeless story that touches generation after generation? This week on What's In A Song, our occasional series from the Western Folklife Center about one song and its story, we heard an old standby. Its sweet lyrics also hide a dark story, one that's been interpreted in a variety of ways through the centuries.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LESLIE HOWARD: Good morning. This is Leslie Howard speaking to you about a Scottish song called "Loch Lomond."

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Oh, you take the high road, and I'll take the low road. But I'll be in Scotland before you for me and my true love may never meet again on the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.

Mr. HOWARD: It's a beautiful tune. The words are nice.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) ...bonnie, bonnie bank...

Mr. HOWARD: And everybody thinks somehow that it's just a sweet little Scottish song about boys and girls making love beside a lake.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) ...where me and my true love...

Mr. HOWARD: But then when you ask them what the dickens the words mean, I don't think they're able to tell you.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) ...the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. Now you take...

Mr. HOWARD: It doesn't mean anything unless you know that it's connected with the Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland and their earnest desire to return bonnie Prince Charlie as Scottish king.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) ...Loch Lomond.

Mr. HOWARD: And the last serious battle of the war between Scotland and England was fought on the field of Culloden.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HOWARD: And after the Battle of Culloden, a great number of what the English, no doubt, referred to as the ringleaders of the Scottish rebellions and what the Scots, no doubt, referred to as the young, brave laddie heroes, were taken to London for a series of show trials. Whilst they were waiting for their trials, many members of their families came from Scotland down to London. And it is quite certain that all of the people who came to the trials walked that distance. And so the wives were all there and the girlfriends and the family members and the mates and everything else. And they were all found guilty, and they were all executed in the vilest means possible.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes, where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond, where me and my true love were ever wont to gae, on the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.

Mr. HOWARD: Once the acts of execution were complete, in order to be an example to anyone likely to step out of line, the bodies and the bits and most particularly the heads on the tops of spikes were exhibited in all of the towns between London and Glasgow in a monstrous procession. Meanwhile, all of the families had to return to Scotland by exactly the same method in which they had arrived.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Oh, you take the high road, and I'll take the low road.

Mr. HOWARD: And so when we're talking about `you'll take the high road, and I'll take the low road,' the high road, meaning the bodies of the men that were going to be exhibited, were being taken by coach on the most important road in the country. And the ordinary poor people of Scotland, who'd seen their menfolk burn to death, all had to shuttle back by the ordinary roads that ordinary working people had to use. So that's how it was.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Oh, you take the high road, and I'll take the low road. And I'll be in Scotland before you for me and my true love may never meet again on the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.

HANSEN: What's In A Song? is produced by Hal Cannon and Taki Telonidis of the Western Folklife Center. You can see the lyrics to "Loch Lomond" as well as hear pianist Leslie Howard performing it by visiting our Web site, npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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