James Johnson was an engraver, music-seller and copperplate printer. Sometime before 1787, this poorly educated man, whose spelling was atrocious, and whose engraving shop was in Bell's Wynd, conceived the idea of collecting the words and music of all the existing Scots songs and publishing them through his music shop in the Lawnmarket. By the time he met Burns , the first volume of his Scots Musical Museum containing the first hundred songs, was already in the press. Johnson invited Burns's collaboration, and the poet's enthusiasm eventually outdid even that of Johnson. Thereafter, until his death, Burns was virtually the real editor of the Museum contributing about 160 songs of his own, and mending and patching many others. Three further volumes of the Museum were published during Burns's lifetime, and a fifth was ready for the press at the time of his death, in 1796. It took Johnson, on his own again, until 1803 to produce the 6th and last volume. Throughout Burns life he corresponded with Johnson, the last letter to him only 7 weeks before the Poet's death urging Johnson to keep going:
'you may probably think that for some time past I have neglected you and your work; but, Alas, the hand of pain, and sorrow, and care has these many months lain heavy on me! Personal and domestic affliction have almost entirely banished that alacrity and life with which I used to woo the rural Muse of Scotia. In the meantime, let us finish what we have so well begun...
'Many a merry meeting this Publication has given us, and possibly it may give us more, though, alas! I fear it. This protracting, slow, consuming illness which hangs over me, will I doubt much , my ever dear friend, arrest my sun before he has well reached his middle career, and will turn over the Poet to far other and more important concerns than studying the brilliancy of Wit or the pathos of Sentiment. Your Work is a great one; and though, now that it is near finished, I see if we were to begin again, two or three things that might be mended, yet I will venture to prophesy, that to future ages your Publication will be the textbook and standard of Scottish Song and Music'.