Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Johnny Comes Marching Home" -- Irish or American?

Was the tune from “Johnny Comes Marching Home” lifted from the gruesome Irish war protest song, “Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye”? The proof, apparently, is in the publishing.

Patrick Gilmore published “Johnny Comes Marching Home,” in 1863, listing himself as both composer and lyricist and using the pseudonym Louis Lambert. He occasionally claimed that he lifted the song’s melody from an unidentified African-American singer. One critic joked that the name of the black singer was Pat Reilly: in other words, the tune clearly seemed Irish.

But does the song’s Irish sound automatically prove that “Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye” predated Gilmore’s “Johnny,” as some vehemently claim? Here is the rub: there is no tangible evidence – no publication date or sheet music – that places the Irish song before the American one. The words to “Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye” made a printed appearance in something called the “Irish Comic Songster” in New York, 1870. They also appeared in an undated periodical called “New Comic and Sentimental Singer’s Journal,” a publication which didn’t commence until 1868.

If there is no solid proof that the Irish tune predated the American one, how does one explain the definite Irish feel of “Johnny Comes Marching Home”? One obvious explanation is that Gilmore was Irish, born in Galway County in 1829. Displaying musicality at a young age, he came to the U.S. during the 1840’s and became Bandmaster for the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Those who claim he didn’t write the tune for “Johnny Comes Marching Home” cite the following as partial evidence: despite intense musical involvements before and after the war, Gilmore never wrote another tune so melodic as “Johnny Comes Marching Home.” If he were the only one-hit composer in the history of popular song, that argument may have some weight, but of course he wasn’t. And one can’t rule out the possibility that some Irish folk tune found its way into Gilmore’s youthful head, and, in the new country, merged with the tune of an uncredited black folk singer.

After “Johnny Comes Marching Home” became popular with Union troops, its tune was utilized in various ways. First, the song was spoofed by Union soldiers in several irreverent, self-deprecating parodies, including “Johnny Fill up the Bowl.” Confederates borrowed the tune to mock an unsuccessful Union attempt to capture bales of cotton in a song called “For Bales” and a tribute to the slain president called “Abe Lincoln Went to Washington” used the same melody.

Reunited with its original lyrics, the song became intensely popular 30+ years after the Civil War during the Spanish-American war. It was also revived during the U.S.’s involvement in the First World War. In “Chariots of Fire,” a film renown for its historic authenticity, a band is playing the tune when the American team arrives in Paris for the 1924 Olympics, six years after the end of the “Great War."

When Johnny comes marching home again,
Hurrah! Hurrah!
We'll give him a hearty welcome then
Hurrah! Hurrah!
The men will cheer and the boys will shout
The ladies they will all turn out
And we'll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home.

The old church bell will peal with joy
Hurrah! Hurrah!
To welcome home our darling boy,
Hurrah! Hurrah!
The village lads and lassies say
With roses they will strew the way,
And we'll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home.

Get ready for the Jubilee,
Hurrah! Hurrah!
We'll give the hero three times three,
Hurrah! Hurrah!
The laurel wreath is ready now
To place upon his loyal brow
And we'll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home.

Let love and friendship on that day,
Hurrah, hurrah!
Their choicest pleasures then display,
Hurrah, hurrah!
And let each one perform some part,
To fill with joy the warrior's heart,
And we'll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home

Gilmore admits to lifting the song from an unidentified African-American. “Songs of the Civil War” by Irwin Silber, page 174.

Black singer/Pat Reilly joke, Silber, page 174.

Publication data regarding “Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye” taken from “The Book of World Famous Music” by James J. Fuld, 1966.


“All the Years of American Popular Music” by David Ewen, 1977.

“The Book of World-Famous Music: Classical, Popular and Folk” by James J. Fuld, Crown, 1966.

“Songs of the Civil War” by Irwin Silber, 1960.

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