Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, June 2007)

This is, in a way, a column on sociology, and fear I'm going to do it wrong. There is a story I must misquote, because I don't recall where I read it (I think it was in the history by Allan Nevins, but that's ten volumes, so that's no help). A rider was looking out of a train when it stopped at a small country platform. There was at the station a young woman, with a small boy playing beside her. No passengers left the train, but the crew took out a wooden box and left it on the platform. The woman stood up and embraced it, sobbing. The boy went on playing.

I thought of that recently when I heard about Walter Reed hospital and the problems there. And then I heard a news report on a bunch of anti-war protesters. They were singing Tom Paxton's song Peace Will Come -- not that great a song even when sung right, and they didn't know the tune! Why were they doing it, then? Because, I think, they wanted to sing -- but had no anti-war songs that everyone knew. The idea of the anti-war song is, I think, relatively recent.

Oh, there are plenty of songs about war -- and plenty of songs about bereavement; British tradition has dozens just about Waterloo, and the Irish have some from all their tragic history. But they aren't songs about trying to stop war; they're just songs about its horrid cost. Until the nineteenth century, few really believed that you could stop wars, so casualties were part of the business of life. That seems to be pretty true again now.

The nineteenth century was an exception. There were colonial wars, but Europe had only three real wars after Waterloo. The United States twice had thirty-year pauses with nothing but genocides against Indians. So maybe peace was possible after all. And maybe stories like this made people want it more.

No one has managed to find the original of By the Hush (an Irish song that seems to be known only in Canada!), but there is a broadside from around 1870. This is sort of a transition song: The old war songs were often told by the women who had lost their loves. Here, the soldier lives, but loses all. The way was open for songs like Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye and Ain't Gonna Study War No More. General Meagher (pronounced "Mahar") is Thomas Francis Meagher, an Irish patriot turned exile; he joined the Union army because he thought, wrongly, that England would back the Confederacy. He recruited an "Irish Brigade" in 1861, and was made its commanding general -- and resigned in disgust in 1863 because the brigade had taken 90% casualties and not gotten help or reinforcements. This is a song about one of those casualties.


Complete Lyrics:
It's by the hush, me boys,
I'm sure that's to hold your noise,
And listen now to Paddy's lamentation.
For I was by hunger pressed,
And in poverty distressed,
And I took a mind to leave the Irish nation.

So, here's you boys, and do take my advice;
To America I'd have you not be goin'.
For there's nothing here but war,
Where the murd'ring cannons roar,
And I wish I were at home in dear old Erin.

I sold me horse and plough,
Me little pigs and cow,
Me little farm of land and I parted.
And me sweetheart, Biddy McGhee,
I'm sure I'll never see,
For I left her there that morning, broken hearted.

It was me and a hundred more,
To America sailed o 'er,
Our fortune to be making, we were thinking;
 But when we landed in Yankee land,
They shoved a gun into my hand,
Saying, "Paddy, you must go and fight for Lincoln."

General Meagher to us said,
"If you get shot or lose your head,
Every murdered soul of you will have a pension."
As for me, I lost me leg
All I've now is a wooden peg;
And boys, it is the truth to you I mention.

Now I'd thought meself in luck
To be fed upon Indian buck
In old Ireland, the country I delight in;
And with the devil I do say,
"You can curse Americay,"
For I'm sure I've had enough of their hard fighting.

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