Sunday, 11 November 2012

59: My Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier

Frank Kidson collected a verse ("I'll dye my petticoats, I'll dye them red") and the chorus of this song from Alfred Mooney, a railway clerk, who had heard it "walking in Scotland Road, behind a Liverpool basket-girl who with her companions was singing the verse to the tune". It was published in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society Vol. 2 No. 9, 1906. The song was published under the title of "Shule Agra", basically writing out in English syllables the Irish "Siúl a ghrá", which apparently means something like "Go, o love".

There are many Irish versions of this song; perhaps the most well known version today is the macaronic "Siúl a rúin", which has a full Irish chorus (the title is often rendered "Shule Aroon" in English). The nature of the war to which Johnny has gone is not always specified - for those looking to theorise sometimes it's said that he's gone to France. I'm not really prone to that kind of speculation, given that the song has a long history, with versions as early as the 17th century, so it's probably not wise to pin it to any particular war. It's not as though there there's a shortage of conflicts that have left people to weep for lost love. Whatever the songs origins, it has certainly travelled well, with a well-known American version "Buttermilk Hill". In the Journal of the Folk-Song Society Anne Gilchrist also notes the similarity to the American sea-shanty "Let the Bulgine Run"/"Eliza Lee".

The painting I've used above by Hugues Merle, "A girl with a basket of apples", and is from the Sudley House collection - I had a lot of trouble finding a suitable picture, so this one was chosen in tribute to the fact that this version song came from a basket-girl. Merle was French, so it might take a bit of imagination to mentally place this one singing an Irish song on Scotty Road, but do your best.

Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier/ Shule Agra/ Siúl a ghrá is #911 in the Roud folksong index.


  1. Replies
    1. The choice of song was on this occasion a coincidence - I'd lined it up without giving it too much thought, although when I realised that what I had chosen for the week was vaguely appropriate, I made an effort to include it on that particular day. Hope you're well!