In a previous post, I discussed one of AFC’s most influential field recordings, Carrie Grover’s “Arthur McBride,” and the popular tracks it inspired: versions by Paul Brady and by Bob Dylan. I was inspired to write about the song again by Rosanne Cash, a fan of both Dylan and Brady, who enthused about “Arthur McBride” in the New York Times. (I was also inspired by the approach of Christmas, since the song takes place “on Christmas morning.)
In this post, I’ll look further into the early history of the song, its transmission to Grover and Brady, and the way Brady adapted it. Let’s listen again to Carrie Grover, in the player below:
And to Paul Brady, at this link.
The evidence for the ballad we call “Arthur McBride” probably begins with Patrick Weston Joyce, who was born in 1827 and grew up in Limerick, Ireland. Joyce printed the earliest known set of words to the song, which he called “Arthur MacBride,” as #428 in his book Old Irish Folk Music and Songs. He observed:
The words have never been published: but I have a dim recollection of seeing them in early days printed on a ballad-sheet. There is a setting of the air (different from mine) in Stanford-Petrie, and marked there (by Petrie) as from Donegal. Coupling this record with the phraseology, I am inclined to think that the whole song belongs to Donegal, but how it made its way to Limerick is more than I can tell.
As Joyce pointed out, the earlier collector George Petrie printed an air called “Art MacBride,” but he noted neither the words nor the date he collected it. Petrie was active both before and after Joyce’s childhood, so there is no way to know which version is older, but Joyce’s remains the oldest known set of words.
Joyce was correct that broadsides of the song did exist as well, but they also can’t be dated with precision.
Some commentators, including the folksinger Martin Carthy, have expressed the opinion that the song is English. This isn’t that farfetched, since an early version was collected in Mary Tavy, Devon, England, by Sabine Baring Gould, in the 1890s. Baring Gould collected it from a mason named Samuel Fone, who also said he learned it in childhood. According to census records, Fone was 47 in 1881, so he was born in about 1834. Because of this, Fone’s version could possibly predate even Joyce’s.
Carthy learned his version from his friend Redd Sullivan, and it’s a reasonable guess that it stems from A.L. Lloyd’s version. (Carthy and Sullivan learned many songs from Lloyd, and “Arthur McBride” is reputed to have been one of Lloyd’s favorites.) Carthy’s song is certainly ultimately based on Fone’s version as printed by Baring-Gould; it has lines not found in any other traditional version. You can hear Carthy’s performance at this link.
Finally, the song did become quite popular in Scotland too—in fact, it seems to have been more popular there than either England or Ireland. The Greig-Duncan collection contains several transcribed versions, John Ord collected it in the 1920s, and Scottish broadside printers also printed the song.
The only field recording I know of the song being sung, other than the one of Mrs.Grover, was recorded from Alex Campbell by James Madison Carpenter in Aberdeenshire. That’s also in the AFC archive, and you can hear it in the player below:
Because Carpenter needed to be frugal with supplies, he tended to record only one or two verses on a cylinder, enough to get the melody, and then collect the rest of a song in writing. See his transcription of Arthur McBride, which he called “Erther Mac Bride,” at right. (Click to enlarge.)
Hamish Henderson also collected a verse of the song being recited, which you can hear at the School of Scottish Studies, at this link.
Although England and Scotland therefore may have a claim on the song’s dissemination, internal references (such as the Gaelic words shillelagh and spailpín), as well as other historical details, contribute to a scholarly consensus that the song is Irish. The Aberdeenshire collector Gavin Greig wrote in 1910, “we take this to be an Irish song originally,” and the Glasgow police superintendent John Ord wrote in 1930 that the song “was brought to this country by the Irish harvesters of a century ago,” no doubt referring to the aftermath of the Irish famine, when the Irish population of Scotland almost doubled. Essentially all collectors, then, agreed the song was Irish, while Petrie and Joyce’s expert opinions narrowed that down to Donegal.
Some commentators have advanced the idea that “Arthur McBride” dates to the early 17th century, arguing that the lyrics about Irish soldiers being sent to France are reminiscent of the “Flight of Earls” in 1607. This is fanciful at best, for several reasons. Most important is the simple fact that there’s no mention of any 17th century event in the song. Also, it’s clearly about recruitment rather than exile, so the “flight of earls” does not seem relevant. Finally, the British army continued to send Irishmen to France until World War I, so the song could refer to many wars of the 18th and 19th centuries. Based on the historical details in many versions of the song, the words as we have them are set in the early 19th century. Although this does not rule out an earlier origin, there’s no real evidence it’s any older than that.
Mrs. Carrie Grover, the Maine homemaker who sang the song for Alan Lomax in 1941, understood admirably well that trying to find a specific place and date of origin for “Arthur McBride” is probably futile. On the disc, when Lomax presses her on biographical details of her family to try to narrow down the origins of the song, you can hear her amusement as she says: “You know, they was having a war every other minute!”
The transmission of Arthur McBride to Paul Brady from Carrie Grover, and to Mrs, Grover from her family, challenges a few of the stereotypes about folk ballads. For one, people have tended to assume that transmission of folksongs went one way, from Britain and Ireland to North America, but history shows us that songs have traveled both ways for a long time. My own mentor, Kenny Goldstein, pointed this out in his study of the ballad “The Texas Rangers” in Aberdeenshire in the 1950s. Brady’s “Arthur McBride” made the trip both ways: before Brady learned it, it had traveled from Ireland to Canada and from Canada to the U.S., and after learning it, Brady brought it back across the Atlantic.
It’s geographically interesting that Brady should have learned this version of the song in America, since he comes from Strabane, Co. Tyrone, just across the river Foyle from Co. Donegal, where the song seems to originate. Donegal and Tyrone are both in the historical province of Ulster, and share much dialect and culture, despite being technically in different countries since the early 20th century. Whether Grover’s version of the song retains any features of its Donegal origins that would attract a fellow Ulsterman is hard to tell, but at the very least it’s ironic that Brady traveled thousands of miles to learn a song from just down the road.
It’s also interesting that “Arthur McBride,” which is after all a song about men beating each other up with sticks, reached Rosanne Cash through a tradition that included many women singers. Looking at all traditional versions by known singers, we find that about half of them were sung by women. Grover states in her book that her father was the only person she ever heard sing “Arthur McBride.” But she also tells Lomax on the recording that she believes her aunt sang it too—and from this, she conjectures that her grandmother might have sung it. This doesn’t prove the song was popular with women, but it shows that Grover saw no reason why it shouldn’t be.
In her letters, Carrie Grover makes it clear that she worried about her image within her community, and avoided singing “unladylike” songs. She had been visited, for example, by members of the local music club, including Nellie McCann, who took down Grover’s words, and another woman, who wrote out the music:
Both Miss McCann and the lady who wrote the music are maiden ladies, and I am worried to death about singing some of my songs for fear they would think me rough and unladylike. I have got to live here, and I would be sorry to have them think that, so there is many a little ditty, with catchy tunes, that I fear they will never hear.
“Arthur McBride” is so violent that published versions are sometimes bowdlerized to avoid mentioning that the soldiers are beaten nearly to death. (At this link, you can watch Tiernan McBride’s film, based on Paul Brady’s version of the song. McBride edited Brady’s own rendition to remove the most violent part of the song, in which Arthur and the narrator “left them for dead in the morning.”) Given this, at first glance “Arthur McBride” might be considered an “unladylike” song. Grover, however, included it in a list of songs she did sing for Miss McCann, so apparently this did not worry her as other songs did.
On the other hand, in the folk revival, we find that women are less apt to sing the song; most prominent recordings of the song are performed by men, including Bob Dylan, Paul Brady, Andy Irvine (with Planxty), John Kirkpatrick, Seamus McArdle (with The Blacksmiths), Tony Rose, and Martin Carthy, among many others. This suggests that attitudes toward violence have changed among women in some social contexts, an area which could certainly be studied much further.
Grover’s and Brady’s Versions: a Brief Comparison
Paul Brady made some interesting choices in adapting Carrie Grover’s song. On a basic level, he cleaned up the text, eliminating what appear to be mistakes. For example, “You dare not change them one night for your nose” is hard to understand, so Brady simply changed it to “one night for you know,” which works well in the context. (Broadside texts have “in spite of your nose” or “not for your nose,” and the meaning seems to be “whether you want to or not.” But it’s hard to tell what Grover means by the line.) Grover’s repetition of “while other poor fellows go dirty and mean” suggests a forgotten line, so Brady replaced it with “in the finest of clothing he’s constantly seen.” He also changed a few words that have fallen out of use in Irish speech, such as “burgoo,” which he changed to “thin gruel.” He seems not to have relied on other versions of the song for these changes, but to have written them himself.
Brady also made larger, more structural changes. As Rosanne Cash mentions in her summary, Brady’s version seems to be eight verses long. But is it? Close examination of the lyrics on Brady’s official website reveals that it’s seven verses long, with half of the first verse repeated at the end. But it seems to be eight full verses because of an anomaly: the verses are all eight lines long, except for the fourth verse, which is twelve lines long. This verse is right in the center of the song, and includes what you might consider to be the plot’s turning point: the moment when Arthur refuses to be recruited and insults the recruiting party. Lengthening this verse to twelve lines is a form of literary foregrounding, which highlights its importance to the plot. Brady also signals this verse’s importance by placing it right after the only guitar solo, making it, in storytelling terms, the opening of the song’s second act. All of this is a brilliant deployment of the song’s poetic and musical resources.
How did Brady decide to include one twelve-line verse? That probably came about because of his musical adaptations of Grover’s tune. Grover divided the song into fifteen four-line verses, each of which had the same melody. Musically, each of Grover’s verses ends on the tonic, or first scale degree, which in Western music produces a feeling of completion and resolution. This contributes to the very regular, rhythmic sound of her song.
Brady decided instead to divide the song mainly into eight-line verses. Line four of each verse ends on the supertonic, or second scale degree, supported by a dominant chord on the guitar. Instead of resolution, this produces a feeling of expectation that something is to follow. Line eight of the verse then resolves to the tonic. This musical schema makes the first half-verse feel incomplete so the second half-verse can provide closure, much like a question and answer. Brady may have borrowed this from other versions of the song, since older published versions work the same way (Joyce’s version ends each half-verse on the fifth scale degree, suggesting again the dominant chord), but it’s also such a common musical strategy he may have applied it spontaneously. The effect is that the song seems to ebb and flow quite naturally.
This musical adaptation left Brady with two problems: first, Mrs. Grover had fifteen four-line verses, which doesn’t translate to a whole number of eight-line verses. More than this, if he simply joined together the four-line verses successively, he would end up in the second half of the song with a feeling of expectation where naturally one should feel closure, including at the very end of the song. The solution he found was to place a twelve-line verse in the middle, which he structured as a question and two answers: supertonic, tonic, tonic. Needless to say, this was a deliberate artistic choice, since other solutions, including cutting out four lines, were possible.
Even THAT isn’t the whole story, though. Carrie Grover’s version, too, has one irregular verse: although all the other verses are four lines, the tenth of her fifteen verses has six lines:
Oh then says the sergeant, I’ll have no such chat
I neither will take it from spalpeen or brat
For if you insult me with one other word
It is that very moment I will draw my sword
And drive it through your body as strength does afford
And cut off your head in the morning
This irregularity might be traceable to broadside printings of the song, some of which had five-line and six-line verses. But it can still also be seen as deliberate and dramatic: like Brady’s innovation, it helps to highlight one moment and make it seem more important. In this case, it’s the moment the sergeant threatens Arthur.
(Interestingly, Brady eliminates this verse’s irregularity by simply dropping two lines. Grover could have done this too, but she chose not to.)
Grover’s version of “Arthur McBride” thus locates a turning point, or specially highlighted narrative moment, in the sergeant’s threat. Brady’s locates another in Arthur’s insult. These are both valid (but different) artistic choices, and suggest slightly different interpretations of the ensuing fight.
It’s variations like these that make traditional songs so personal. By making a surprising number of textual and musical decisions, masterful singers like Carrie Grover and Paul Brady fashion the great communal resource of the ballad tradition into individual art, and bring historical characters to the present, including the characters in the song and the characters who sang it.
For Paul Brady, who grew up in Northern Ireland, the song brought to the present Arthur and his cousin and their antagonists from the early 19th century, fighting over English imperialism in Ireland. For Mrs. Grover, it also brought to the present her father and aunt, her grandmother, and her great-grandfather Davis, who she speculated might have known the song.
It was this connection to her family’s past that motivated Grover the most. Her project, as she saw it, was to bring her ancestors’ songs to her children and grandchildren. She eloquently wrote to Lomax in 1941:
What I want to do is have “My Folks’ Songs” instead of just “folk songs,” some few of them going back to my great-grandparents, and first of all they are to be for my children and grandchildren. I want them to understand, as I can understand, how much the singing of songs helped to lighten the burden of lives that it seems must have been almost too hard to bear.
On another occasion, she wrote:
To me they are not only folk songs but the songs of my folks, and just the sound of an old tune will often bring to me a picture of my father or one of my brothers, just as they looked when they sang it.
In this, Mrs. Grover isn’t so different from Rosanne Cash, whose father Johnny Cash instilled in her a love of old ballads. Rosanne thought of “Arthur McBride” and other traditional ballads as models when she composed her own song, “When the Master Calls the Roll.” As Rosanne wrote in her own blog:
I still listen to “Master” every couple of weeks to remind me of the unpredictable sources of inspiration, of long-cherished goals finally achieved, of the importance of the ballad tradition, of time travel, family and, of course, the Unions: with our pasts, with people we once loved and those we love forever, between our singular attachment to home and our mutual devotion to realm, and the wrenching, magnificent union between who we were and who we are.