Friday, October 10, 2008

CONCORA Presents an American Voice: Alice Parker and “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye”

CONCORA’s 2008-2009 season opener, “American Voices” will be offered on Sunday, October 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the First Church of Christ, New Britain, Connecticut. Discounted “early bird” tickets for this concert, and for the entire CONCORA season, are available until October 15, 2008.

For this program, CONCORA’s Artistic Director Richard Coffey has programmed a delightful mix of American choral music, ranging from new works by Gwyneth Walker and Nancy Galbraith (read more here) to superb settings of traditional folk songs and African-American spirituals.

One of the greatest of our American voices is Boston-born composer-conductor-teacher Alice Parker (b. 1925), whose fine arrangements (many with Robert Shaw) of folk songs, hymns, and spirituals form the core of many a choral library in this country and around the world. Robert Shaw said of Parker that “…she possesses a rare and creative musical intelligence.”

Parker’s creative instinct is evident in her 1969 arrangement of the traditional Irish folk song Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye. This tune may be most familiar to American audiences as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” first published in 1863 by Irish-American Union Army bandmaster Patrick S. Gilmore (1829-1892) and widely sung in this country during and after the Civil War.

The tune, and Johnny himself, had been around for decades, however, having emerged from the Irish folk tradition. It became one of the best-known war protest songs of the 19th century, first during the Crimean War of the 1850s and later during the Spanish-American War. The first line of the text may refer to the town of Athay or Athy in County Kildare (click here to see an old photo of Athy) whence many soldiers traveled to fight for British interests in the Crimea. The lyrics were included in an 1881 collection of Irish poetry and ballads with this note: “This is a modern street ballad, as will be seen from the use of the word ‘skedaddle,’ which was one of the inventions of the American war, and has a strong and graphic humor in spite, or perhaps for the reason, of its uncouth rudeness.”

In stark contrast to the joyous welcome that the Civil War “Johnny” receives, the Crimean War “Johnny” who returns to the streets of Athy is met by his sweetheart, who is shocked by the extent of the wounds which render her lover almost unrecognizable. Additional verses not included in Parker’s arrangement make it plain: “You haven’t an arm or a leg / You’re a hopeless shell of a man with a peg.” Here there is no “Hurrah!” — only a mournful “Hurroo.”

Parker’s arrangement presents this old song as a lament, as a dirge for a near-dead soldier. By adhering entirely to the notes of the natural minor scale (without using any sharps or flats), she evokes the old modes of ancient music and creates a bleak, rather colorless harmonic palette. The tune passes from part to part, amid the echoes of drums and bugle as imitated in the voices. Throughout, the words “your drums and your guns and your guns and your drums” are repeated like the tramp of soldiers in the distance.

Here are the words to this poignant song. How sad that it is as relevant today as it was so long ago.

Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye
While goin’ the road to sweet Athy,
A stick in me hand and a drop in me eye
A doleful damsel I heard cry,
Johnny, I hardly knew ye.

Refrain:
With your drums and guns and guns and drums
The enemy nearly slew ye
Oh my darling dear, Ye look so queer
Faith, Johnny I hardly knew ye.

Where are your eyes that looked so mild
When my heart you so beguil’d
Why did ye skedaddle from me and the child
Why, Johnny, I hardly knew ye.

Where are the legs with which you run
When you went for to carry a gun
Indeed your dancing days are done,
Why, Johnny, I hardly knew ye.

I’m happy for to see ye home
All from the island of Sulloon [Ceylon]
So low in flesh, so high in bone,
Faith, Johnny I hardly knew ye.

Additional verses not in this setting:

It grieved my heart to see you sail,
Though from my heart you ran away, —
Like a cod you’re doubled up head and tail.
Faith, Johnny, I hardly knew ye!

Ye haven’t an arm, ye haven’t a leg
Ye’re an armless, boneless, chickenless egg
[or, You’re a hopeless shell of a man with a peg.]
Ye’ll have to put with a bowl out to beg
Oh, Johnny, I hardly knew ye.

But sad as it is to see you so,
And to think of you now as an object of woe,
Your Peggy ‘ll still keep ye on as her beau ;
Oh, Johnny, I hardly knew ye!

They’re rolling out the guns again,
But they never will take our sons again,
No they never will take our sons again,
Johnny, I’m swearing to ye.

“American Voices” will be offered on Sunday, October 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the First Church of Christ, New Britain, Connecticut. (click here for directions) Discounted “early bird” tickets for this concert, and for the entire CONCORA season, are available until October 15, 2008. Season subscriptions and individual tickets are available now at http://www.concora.org/, or by calling (860) 224-7500.

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