Q From Neill D Hicks: A newspaper account in 1877 of the murder of my great-great-grandfather (the first police officer to be killed in the line of duty in my Texas home town), contains an odd phrase that puzzles me and may be of interest to your detective work: “Perry Davis, the burden of his song, was indicted by the Grand Jury.” What can you tell me about the peculiar expression, burden of his song?
A The literal meaning of the burden of a song is its refrain or chorus. Its most famous appearance is probably this:
There was a jolly miller once
Liv’d on the river Dee;
He worked and sung from morn till night,
No lark more blithe than he;
And this the burden of his song
For ever us’d to be,
I care for nobody, not I,
If no one cares for me.
The Miller of the Dee, from Love in a Village, a comic opera by Isaac Bickerstaffe (1762), now a popular folk song in several extended versions. You might get extra points in a pub quiz for knowing that the character in the play who sang it was Master Hawthorn, a farmer.
Burden in this sense is first recorded in the seventeenth century. It’s the result of a mistake. The original is the French bourdon, among other things the drone of bagpipes and the bass string of a violin. In late medieval times it was brought into English for a singer’s bass accompaniment to a song. By Shakespeare’s day, it had become permanently confused with burden, perhaps because the bass part was figuratively thought to be “heavier” than the melody. As the bass often contributed to the refrain, the part that may be repeated many times and which often sums up the sense of the piece, the idea grew up that the burden “carried” the meaning of the song.
Burden later extended to mean the chief theme or main idea of any written work or utterance. It forms part of several phrases — the most common is yours, but variants are known such as the burden of his confession and the burden of his story. (Burden of proof is unconnected, as burden here refers to an obligation, which is figuratively perceived as a heavy weight.)
The idiom burden of his song is now extremely rare but was better known a century or more ago, as these two examples show:
The meal was of the most substantial kind, and while both the showman and his wife did ample justice, they were unceasing in their attentions to me, the burden of their song being, “Make yourself at home, sir,” an entreaty with which their evident sincerity made it easy to comply.
The Great Army of London Poor, by Thomas Wright, 1882.
“ ‘Was ever a woman so pampered? And that young man — he might have been my own son. He had the run of my house. And yet see how they have treated me! Oh, Dr. Watson, it is a dreadful, dreadful world!’ That was the burden of his song for an hour or more.”
The Adventure of the Retired Colourman, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, 1926.
In the newspaper item that you quote the phrase is used intriguingly differently. You supplied a number of verbatim extracts from the Waco Daily Examiner, which make clear that Perry Davis murdered your great-great-grandfather. The sentence you quote, “Perry Davis, the burden of his song ...” is the beginning of a news report on 28 August 1877; his here can only be Perry Davis himself. I read this to mean that Davis was the author of his own misfortunes, perhaps through a misunderstanding of burden by the writer.
It’s rare to find the expression referring to a person, rather than an idea, but it’s not utterly unknown. On rare occasions it was used for the focus of an individual’s attention or his primary concern, as here:
He seemed to have intense affection for that boy: for him Danny was the burden of his song; he was very affectionate towards his children, but particularly towards Danny.
The New York Herald, 13 Apr. 1870.