Saturday, March 6, 2010

Music: Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye


To cause to be different, to transform.

Change has come to America” President Obama said when elected.

“If I can change,” Rocky tells the Russian crowd at the end of the fight with Drago in Rocky IV, “and you can change, everybody can change.”

“The more things change, the more they remain the same” said Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Kerr in 1849. In contrast nearly 3,400 years ago Heraclitus declared that “The only constant is change.”

Everything changes, constantly, from the tiniest atomic particle, the smallest ant to the entire universe. “All is flux, nothing stands still.” So said Heraclitus. “Change is the law of life.” So said President John F Kennedy.

Language changes, new words come in, old words are discarded. Words change their meanings.

And in music, what starts off as a tremendously powerful anti-war song changes to become a marching song for young men to go to war.

The song was originally called Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye but is today more widely known as When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again.

The former is an Irish anti-war and anti-recruiting song dating from the 18th century. Joan Baez made it a part of many of her concerts protesting against the war in Viet Nam and her version can be heard at:
The song starts at the 3.13 mark if you want to avoid the somewhat tedious monologue. She’s a great singer but was a bit tiresome when she was on her 1960’s antiwar soapbox.

Mary Black’s simple but beautiful version can be heard at:

The Dropkick Murphy’s rendition, not my favourite but known to my 16 year old through being part of their repertoire, is at:

Jacinta O’Donal's version is worth a listen:

A very early Bob Dylan can be heard at:

Steeleye Span sing an adaptation named Fighting For Strangers at
Although substantially different, there is a similarity in the refrains “Johnny, What’ve they done to you?”, and“”Johnny, What’ll happen to you?”, and also in the final verse:
You haven't an arm, you haven't a leg
The enemy nearly slew you
You'll have to go out on the streets to beg
Oh, poor Johnny, what've they done to you?

In 1863 American bandleader Patrick Gilmore took the song and changed the lyrics from those of Johnny, now blind, crippled and maimed, coming home to the woman and child he abandoned to take part in the war in Ceylon. Gilmore’s sister, Annie, was engaged to a captain in the Union Army, John O’Rourke. She pined for his safe return so Gilmore wrote the song When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again for her to the tune of Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye, doing a 180 degree turn on the lyrics and the import of the song.

Thereafter it was often used as a marching song for young lads going to war and as a band instrumental for troops leaving for war.

A stirring instrumental version was used in the film Die Hard 3: Die Hard With a Vengeance, including for the end credits. It can be heard at:

Ironically, When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again has itself been transformed into a children’s song The Ants Go Marching One By One. It was used as the Ant Army’s marching song in the movie Antz. Hear it as:

I mentioned at the beginning of this post the element of change.

It is interesting to note in the present context that the Steeleye Span Fighting For Strangers clip has a comment by a poster, paraguard 60, as follows:
I went abroad fighting for strangers, young, stupid and full of testosterone. I came back in one piece, others didn't... This song put me in a trance, the song depicts days that should be long gone, but nothing has changed, the story is still the same.

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