Thursday, January 27, 2011

"With You My Johnny Lad"

I can well remember fifty years ago being intrigued by an anomaly that I noted in many of the folk records that I was listening to regarding a Scots song (one that was often covered by Irish groups) called "My Johnny Lad." It's a fun little song about dancing and courtship and a whole bunch of other things. What was odd, though, was that there were two rather radically different versions of the song that I was hearing. By itself, perhaps, that was not such a big thing - after all, it's hard to imagine how a song like "The Raggle Taggle Gypsies/Black Jack Davy" morphed into a variant like "The Gypsy Rover" - but the different and associated "Johnny Lad" songs were at the same time very different in tone and pace while sharing many of the same words.

The first version that I heard was from the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem's first album on Columbia Records in 1961 (they had three full albums on their own Tradition Records prior to this release). Here is a live performance virtually identical to the album cut from a 1962 Chicago PBS broadcast:

This is one of the all-too-few CB&TM numbers that features eldest brother Paddy on lead vocal. I remember a comment made on this site when I wrote about "The Jug of Punch" two years ago that Paddy had a distinctly aggressive way of presenting a lyric, one that was refreshingly manly. The same could also be said for the Clancys' general approach to Celtic songs, one that generated for them the same kind of criticism in Ireland that the pop folk groups here in the U.S. were getting at the same time. This is not surprising, because as Liam Clancy related in his autobiographical The Mountain of the Women a few years back, the group patterned themselves after the Kingston Trio, even including the decision to wear nearly matching versions of those impossibly warm, cable-knit Aran Island sweaters (or "jumpers" as they called them). Many of the Clancys songs - their trademark opener "Brennan on the Moor," for example - were originally medium to slow reflective tunes that the group powered into high energy numbers, replete with shouts and barks and whistles. And that approach to the music, as we'll see below, became standard for Scots and Irish folk groups that followed them.

A couple of years before the Clancy release, the Kingston Trio had recorded a song called "With You My Johnny" on Sold Out, one of their musically most satisfying albums. This version has distinct lyrical similarities to the Clancy version but with a radically different melody:

This is vintage popularized folk music. The Guard-Reynolds-Shane lyric is simply an anglicized rendering of the traditional Scots dialect version done a couple of years before by the great Ewan MacColl and his lady Peggy Seeger, which you can see on HERE. The group's musical setting - somewhat slower and in a minor key compared to the Clancy rendition - is a clear attempt rhythmically to catch the feeling of the drone of bagpipes, with its heavy, punctuated emphasis on every fourth beat - listen to Bob Shane's guitar intro to hear it.

To muddy the waters further, the Kingstons two years later recorded a number with a Clancy-type melody and chorus and verses that evoke the same feeling as the traditional number - but that they called "Genny Glenn" (with a June 2013 thanks to Capitol/EMI as noted at right for permitting playback of KT videos on YouTube:

The reconciliation between the two versions, it turns out, was not at all that complex. Ewan MacColl, a folklorist as well as performer (and radical and actor and 20 other things as well) wrote that the "Johnny Lad" song was "originally a very beautiful pastoral song in the tempo of a slow (minor) strathspey. Johnny Lad moved to Glasgow during the late 19th century and was transformed into a children's street song. The lyrics became urbanized and the original air was abandoned in favor of a catchy but much plainer tune." A strathspey is a Scots dance that featured a moderate tempo, named after a region - as can be heard in the Kingstons' "Johnny" above. That's the original rural version, with its slyly naughty lyric. The Clancys are doing the second, later, urbanized version with the slightly more sophisticated and satiric lyrics. Note that the "with you my Johnny chorus" of the KT version fits with the lyric sung by a girl - but that the "urban" Clancy version is a man's song except for the chorus. As for "Genny Glenn" - a Kingston re-write, probably by John Stewart, to reap the copyright rewards, just as the group had done with other traditional songs like "A Worried Man."

Now for some other versions. First, the rural girl's number sung by a lady, from a house concert by the charming Sarah McQuaid, whom I previously featured as a lady doing a lady's song in my post about "The Wagoner's Lad":

McQuaid, who has an Irish mother and spent her formative years in Eire, is doing the KT modern English rendering of MacColl's Scots lyric. The jazz-based chords of the guitar setting make an interestingly original if not wholly successful presentation.

One of the great Folk Revival Scots groups was The Corries, here from 1976:

You can hear traces of the old strathspey here, I think.

Finally, from the Canadian-Irish trio Ryan's Fancy:

This was a great group, performing here on Tommy Makem's TV show and with, I think, a clear bow of the head to the pioneering musical style of the Clancys with Tommy.

I have to say that this has been one of the most enjoyable of these posts for me to write, not only because I've always loved both versions of the song but also because of the number of actual live performance videos here. I'd also add that however "popularized" these may be, they sound a hell of a lot more authentic that the punked out stuff of the Killigans or the Pogues on one extreme and the sugary and sentimental Celtic Thunder-type groups on the other end of the contemporary "Celtic" spectrum.

1 comment:

greenhawk46 said...

interesting note-
makes me wistfully miss the Corries [what a unique sound they had], and the CB & TM-

well, there's always the new High Kings, and the Tannahill Weavers and the Wicked Tinkers

Jim H.