When I got my first guitar, I also obtained a number of vinyl record albums (OK, that dates me, and I will admit that the year was about 1963) from which I learned various songs to add to my repertoire. I usually learned songs with words, but I initially picked up "The Minstrel Boy" as an instrumental from a Dick Rosmini record (he was an amazing guitarist and banjo player who frequently backed up "the big names," such as Bob Gibson and Tom Paxton; but he did make one album for Elektra and "The Minstrel Boy" was on it). Initially I didn't realize that there were words to the piece and one day, while on a trip, I was playing it in the motel room and my mother (who rarely listened to my noodling on the guitar, but in this situation was sort of a captive audience), started to sing it. There were words! And, even more shocking, my mother knew the song! I was able to track down the lyrics fairly easily, though they have been somewhat altered from the original as it was written by Thomas Moore at the turn of the 19th Century.
Originally composed following the Irish Rebellion of 1798, the song has resurfaced in other wars, especially when Irish are involved. It gained new fervor during the Civil War. That the Irish fought alongside Germans, Italians, English- and Welsh-men (many of whom were their enemies in civilian life [Moloney, pp. 14-15]) is no secret. The most famous of their units was the New York Irish Brigade, nearly completely destroyed in the Battle of Fredericksburg, where their main opponent was a Confederate unit made up of their own countrymen from old Erin. But others survived more effectively, and whole units were composed of the Irish from Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois, as well as the four Irish regiments from New York. To recognize the composition of the brigades, they flew their own Irish flag at essentially every battle in which they figured (Davis, pp. 91-92).
The most well-known song of the Irish, in the Civil War, is "Pat Murphy of the Irish Brigade" (Silber, p. 177). But other songs from the old sod made their way into America's Civil War. In an earlier article, I wrote about the adjustment to "Johnny, I Hardly Knew You," to become "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," another example of the influence of Celtic music on American compositions. The Irish were no strangers to war, so when the bugle blew, 200,000 joined the ranks, fighting on both sides (after all, many had moved to the Appalachian Mountains, right in the thick of the South) (Moloney, pp. 8 & 22). It is not surprising, then, that their songs joined the conflict right along with them - also sung on both sides.
"The Minstrel Boy" is not "side-specific." It is neither a Northern nor a Southern song. However, it is quite likely that the Irish identified most with the plight of the slaves, having recently broken their own bonds and acquired freedom by coming across the ocean (Silber, p. 177). Regardless, the song plays well both on the stringed instruments of the South and the brass bands of the North (a YouTube search will bring up many examples of the piece, played at different tempos by a variety of instruments and even sung à cappella; a versatile composition, to be sure). What is most ironic is that, of those reading this article, I would bet the majority of you are already very familiar with the tune. Folk music enthusiasts will recognize it as being the "tag" on the John McCutcheon song "Christmas in the Trenches," recorded on his holiday album Winter Solstice. And it comes up in the movies quite frequently: Blackhawk Down includes it, and it is played in the movie, The Man Who Would be King with Michael Caine and Sean Connery. It can also be heard in Star Trek at various times and in at least three Ken Burns PBS series (Wikipedia, "The Minstrel Boy").
The words of the song are simple and, originally, comprised only two short verses; the tune has what musicians call a "part A" and "part B," the two played together for each verse. Originally, the tune was an Irish air called "The Moreen," so the lyrics were fit into the already existing composition. Parts A and B are separated by a // below:
Verse 1) "The minstrel boy to the war is gone, / In the ranks of death you will find him;/ His father's sword he hath girded on, / And his wild harp slung behind him; // 'Land of Song!' said the warrior bard, / 'Tho' all the world betrays thee, / One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard, / One faithful harp shall praise thee!'" Verse 2) "The Minstrel fell! But the foeman's chain / Could not bring his proud soul under; / The harp he lov'd ne'er spoke again, / For he tore its chords asunder, // And said, 'No chains shall sully thee, / Thou soul of love and bravery! / Thy songs were made for the pure and free / They shall never sound in slavery!'" (Okun, pp. 155-156).
Those of us who love music and our beloved instruments likely feel a sense of identification with the lad who took his harp into battle with him. Perhaps it weighed him down and made him more vulnerable to the swords of his enemy; but more likely it gave him strength when not fighting and the sense of what he was fighting for while in battle. It is interesting to note that, not only was he taking his precious instrument, but also his father's sword - no doubt something that had been treasured and, quite possibly, saved his father's life and, therefore, the lineage. Truly a song for a genealogist!
During the War of the Rebellion in America, the song was augmented. The additional verse was written by that famous author "anonymous" and states as follows: Verse 3) "The Minstrel Boy will return we pray / When we hear the news we all will cheer it, / The minstrel boy will return one day, / Torn perhaps in body, not in spirit. // Then may he play on his harp in peace, / In a world such as heaven intended, / For all the bitterness of man must cease, / And ev'ry battle must be ended" (Wikipedia, "The Minstrel Boy"). This verse emphasizes, to me, that the song is truly an anti-war song (as many of the Civil War ballads are) and expresses hope for the same things so many pray for: peace.
The Thomas Moore who wrote the song should not be confused with the Catholic martyr of the same name. This Moore; born in Dublin and dying in Bromham, Wiltshire, England; was an Irish poet who lived from 1779-1852. Known probably best in this country for his song "Believe me, if all Those Endearing Young Charms," Moore was highly opposed to war and was of the opinion that the Irish Rebellion of 1798 was the fault of the Catholic Church (Wikipedia, "Thomas Moore"). His anti-war song about the balladeer taking sword and harp to battle was written to commemorate colleagues who lost their lives in that war (Wikipedia, "The Minstrel Boy"), expressing his faith in the virtues living beyond mortality.
The Irish took their sense of humor (Botkin, pp. 440-441), as well as their songs, into the fray. Perhaps they had gained a different perspective on war from their own battle-ridden country-sides. When they arrived in America in the earliest migrations, they were poor and unwanted (Moloney, pp. 14-15), but their service to their newly adopted country helped them gain more respect in America (no doubt this change of attitude was aided by the recently freed slaves creating a new group of second-class citizens to take the jobs no one wanted, that had been formerly conducted by Irishmen). The Irish-Americans eventually found themselves in all types of employment, including politics (pp. 23-24). Whether your ancestry includes Irish roots or not, one cannot help but admire a group of immigrants who, in spite of the poor treatment they received on arrival, went on to support their new home, many giving all they had. Their ". . . songs were made for the pure and free, they shall never sound in slavery."
Botkin, B. A. (Ed.). A Civil War Treasury of Tales, Legends and Folklore. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
Davis, Burke. The Civil War: Strange & Fascinating Facts. New York: The Fairfax Press, 1982.
Moloney, Mick. Far from the Shamrock Shore: The Story of Irish-American Immigration through Song. New York: Crown Publishers, 2002.
Okun, Milton (Ed.). Something to Sing About: The Personal Choices of America's Folk Singers. New York: The MacMillan Co., 1968.
Silber, Irwin (Ed.). Songs of the Civil War. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995.
Wikipedia, "The Minstrel Boy," on Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, updated 20 July 2011, retrieved on 20 July 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Minstrel_Boy.
Wikipedia, "Thomas Moore," on Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, updated 15 July 2011, retrieved on 20 July 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Moore.