I am getting ready for a seminar in Ridgecrest, California tomorrow, where I will do my musical program: "Erin Go Bragh: Songs and Stories of Irish Immigrants." I love this particular presentation: it hits all emotions - anger, sadness, humor, loneliness . . . the Irish immigrants experienced them all!
One of my favorite songs is one I have done since I first learned to play guitar: "The Minstrel Boy." I learned it off 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 "Minstrel Boy" was on it). Anyway, initially I didn't realize it had words (Dick never sang, just did instrumentals) 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 (not a good thing to my father, who despised Mom's attempts to sing and, whenever she did, he would moan, "Virginia, pppleeeeaazz!"). There were words! And, even more shocking, my mother knew the song! I was able to trace 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 in memory of fallen soldier friends during the Irish Rebellion in 1798.
Regardless of the reason for its composition, the song has resurfaced in other wars, especially when Irish are involved. It gained new fervor during the Civil War (the time frame in which I have placed it in my program, the songs of which are available on my own CD).
I have found a few versions of this song on YouTube: the first by Danny Quinn (the song encompasses the first couple of minutes on the recording); a second is by Charlie Zahm who performs it in military garb, accompanied only by Irish Bohran (it will cause one to be mesmerized; he has included a more modern, additional verse); a third is by Lady Emily of England who plays it, in mask, on violin - no lyrics on this one (a little fast for my taste); a fourth is by The Corrs, also done as an instrumental (primarily violin and guitar, the original tune "The Moreen") in a very stately fashion, which is probably a more familiar tempo for most of us; another version is found done by an entire drum and bagpipe band, Lewisville Keeping Tradition Alive (slight variations in the tune, which seem to be standard for those playing it on bagpipes, I've noticed); finally, the 97th Regimental String Band also has a spirited version, both words (with the extra verses) and instruments (primarily mandolin) - no real video on that recording, however, just a flag graphic.
Other places you may have heard the tune: Folkies will recognize it as being the "tag" on the John McCutcheon song "Christmas in the Trenches," recorded on his wonderful album Winter Solstice (a great addition to anyone's Christmas CD collection, regardless of the individual's genre preference). And it comes up in the movies quite frequently: Blackhawk Down includes it, and it is played in the incredible movie, The Man Who Would be King with Michael Caine and Sean Connery. It can also be heard in Star Trek at various times!
Curious about the words and, possibly, chords? Check the words out at the Wikipedia link, which includes one of the newer verses added, and, for chords, try Chordie.com (though the version I use includes an F# thrown in for added effect).
Now you probably have much more information on this song than you ever desired, but I hope that it shows that a piece of music, composed in the 1700s, with words added in the 1800s can not only survive the ages, but be applicable to circumstances in the 2000s!