A Tiny History of Soldier's Joy

By Tim Stephenson

Soldier's Joy

Soldier's Joy is one of the first tunes I learned when I got my fiddle. At the time I assumed it was a Civil War tune, because I have The Fiddler's Fake Book which lists it as an Old-Time, Bluegrass tune. I assumed that meant it was American, and I thought it was from the time of the Civil War. I learned it so I could play it in a Bluegrass session, and never gave it another thought. Several years later, I was surprised to see that it was a popular tune in Scotland, and much older than I thought. 

At a mini session with friends on Halloween, Christy, a fiddler friend of mine, suggested we play it. Even though it is one of the first tunes I learned, I could only remember the A part and had to muddle my way through the B part. Christy renewed my interest in the tune, and as long as I was taking the time to relearn it, I thought it would be nice to learn a little history too. 

According to the Library of Congress, it is one of the oldest and most popular tunes. Soldier's Joy could have been heard on both sides of the Atlantic in the late eighteenth-century. Folk music collector, Sidney Robertson Cowell, was commissioned under a New Deal project to make field recordings of various artists. Be sure to check out this cool recording  she did of Myrtle B. Wilkinson and Mrs. Ben Scott playing the tune on fiddle and banjo, in Turlock, CA. I have no idea who they are, but it's worth the time to give it a listen. Kind of cool that the artists she recorded were all Californians. I expected folks form Virginia or North Carolina. Too bad we don't get to know Mrs. Ben Scott's own identity. Just sayin' – I guess that's a topic for an entirely different blog.

It is very popular in the American fiddle tradition but actually has roots in the Scottish music tradition as well as that of Irish music. I can certainly attest to it being popular, even today. Here's proof: a recording that appeared in a Super Bowl commercial a few years back.

How could I not love a fiddlin' beaver?

Ok, so we know it's old and popular, but that's not terribly specific. On Educate Scotland, they reference Robert Burns using it as the tune for the first song in his  cantata 'The Jolly Beggars.' Burns wrote the cantata in 1785. That's quite a bit more specific. Robert Burns, also known as the Bard of Ayrshire, was a Scottish poet and lyricist. His poetry is very popular today, and many people think of him as the national poet of Scotland.

Here's the song by Robert Burns. The image is from a manuscript published in Portland, Maine in 1912. You can check out the whole manuscript on Google Books.

Robert Burns The Jolly BeggarsSoldier's Joy

I am a son of Mars who have been in many wars,
And show my cuts and scars wherever I come;
This here was for a wench, and that other in a trench,
When welcoming the French at the sound of the drum.
Lal de daudle, etc.

My 'prenticeship I past where my leader breath'd his last,
When the bloody die was cast on the heights of Abram:
and I served out my trade when the gallant game was play'd,
And the Morro low was laid at the sound of the drum.

I lastly was with Curtis among the floating batt'ries,
And there I left for witness an arm and a limb;
Yet let my country need me, with Elliot to head me,
I'd clatter on my stumps at the sound of a drum.

And now tho' I must beg, with a wooden arm and leg,
And many a tatter'd rag hanging over my bum,
I'm as happy with my wallet, my bottle, and my callet,
As when I used in scarlet to follow a drum.

What tho' with hoary locks, I must stand the winter shocks,
Beneath the woods and rocks oftentimes for a home,
When the t'other bag I sell, and the t'other bottle tell,
I could meet a troop of hell, at the sound of a drum.

The tune itself existed for some time before the Burns cantata. I found a reference on the CSU Fresno site to "a single sheet song with music" from about 1760 called "When the shrill trumpet sounds on high." I guess that would be the 1760's equivalent to a hit single. The golden 60's, right? It also references a book called the Songster's Companion from around 1778. I was very excited to find that The National Library of Scotland web site digitized the Songster's Companion so we can see it. 

Look at that symbol for sharps. Isn't that cool? Like a game of Space Invaders, it is the alien ship that's going to suddenly dart to the right and crash into the unsuspecting notes. But seriously, the tune itself is likely even older than Space Invaders. Erm, I mean, older than this song book, but I guess I'll never know exactly. The theme of the song is certainly in line with all of the other versions.

When shrill trumpets sound on high

But Wait, There's More

For absolutely no additional fee, you can have all this and we'll throw in these American versions for free. 

I've always heard it had a reputation for being a song about substance abuse from the time of the Civil War. And sure enough, doing a search for lyrics turns up several references. The Soldier's Joy Wiki refers to a civil war era version of the song. 

Gimme some of that Soldier’s Joy, you know what I mean'
I don’t want to hurt no more my leg is turnin’ green

Twenty-five cents for whiskey, twenty-five cents for beer
Twenty-five cents for morphine, get me out of here

I'm my momma's pride and joy (3×)
Sing you a song called the soldier's joy 

And finally here's a version recorded in the 21st century by Guy Clark.